When two college football juggernauts like Notre Dame and Michigan do battle, one or two plays can decide the outcome. The seeming parity between the Wolverines and Fighting Irish this year has made for an exciting final thriller at The Big House in the long rivalry between the two storied programs.
The Wolverines are four-point home favorites as they prepare to host the Irish under the lights on Saturday night, but that hasn’t been a precursor for success in the tough-to-predict series. In fact, favorites have covered the spread just four times in their last 24 meetings, according to NBC Sports’ Keith Arnold.
This early matchup is a pivotal game each season for both teams. And in big games, a lot is riding on quarterback play. Tommy Rees and Devin Gardner must minimize mistakes and find a way to get their biggest playmakers involved. Here’s a look at some of those dynamic players who have the best chance to decide the outcome of this prime-time clash.
RB Amir Carlisle, Notre Dame
The Irish deployed a platoon in their backfield against Temple in Week 1 featuring George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel. They started with Carlisle, a smaller but speedy junior, on their first play from scrimmage.
Tommy Rees took that first snap from shotgun, handed it off to the back and he took it 45 yards. That run set the tone for the entire game for the Irish, albeit against a lesser opponent in Temple.
The junior running back transferred from USC during the offseason after missing all of 2012 with an ankle injury. He’s found himself in a crowded backfield that has no shortage of talent from top to bottom. But if he can make a play or two like that opening burst against Temple, Carlisle could help the Irish secure a victory and also carve a significant role for himself in the Irish offense.
WR Dennis Norfleet, Michigan
The Wolverines appeared to dominate the Central Michigan Chippewas' defense on the ground last week thanks to a big game from their new-look offensive line. At a closer look, though, a reverse by speedy freshman Dennis Norfleet and a 22-yard touchdown scramble by Gardner inflated their numbers.
Without those big plays, the Wolverines averaged just 3.9 yards per carry against a Chippewas rush defense that ranked 91st in the country in 2012. But there was a consistent bright spot for the team on the ground. True freshman Derrick Green assumed a larger role in the run game after No. 2 back Drake Johnson was lost for the season.
Like the rest of the team, though, Green broke one long run and then struggled with a 2.9 yards-per-carry average in all of his other runs.
The Wolverines must replicate those big plays against the Irish. Norfleet is the kind of guy that can make that happen, changing the outcome of a game with just one touch. Brady Hoke has to find a way to get his speedy youngster the ball in space in order to penetrate the stout Irish D. He'll also have his chances for a game-changing play on special teams as the primary kick and punt returner.
WRs DaVaris Daniels/TJ Jones, Notre Dame
Senior wide receiver T.J. Jones looked like Rees’ favorite target against Temple, catching six of his eight targets for 138 yards. But it was redshirt sophomore DaVaris Daniels whom the quarterback found for two 32-yard scores. Rees was 3-of-5 passing when looking in Daniels’ direction.
While Jones got more looks and is a vital piece of the Irish passing game, 6’2” Daniels is the guy he’ll have to rely on if Michigan attempts to take away his primary receiver. And he proved he’s up to the task last week. Daniels was also the lone bright spot for the Irish while getting blown out by Alabama last year, grabbing six balls for 115 yards in that laugher.
Many people wondered where the Irish would get production from after Tyler Eifert entered the NFL draft during the offseason. Both Jones and Daniels appear to be ready for big seasons, and both are capable of making big plays that will help lead their team to a victory.