Michigan Wolverines vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish Complete Game Preview
Michigan spanked Appalachian State 52-14 in its season opener but faces a more difficult test on the road this week versus historic rival Notre Dame. This is the last scheduled meeting for these programs, and each wants to go out with a win. Because of a scheduling quirk, Michigan plays all three of its rivalry games on the road this season—and this game looks to be the most manageable. A loss to the Fighting Irish, and Brady Hoke and his Michigan Men might be looking at a long season.
Date: Saturday, September 6, 2014
Time: 7:30 p.m. EDT
Place: Notre Dame Stadium (80,795), South Bend, Ind.
Series vs. Notre Dame: Michigan leads 24-16-1
Radio: Michigan Sports Network
Spread: Michigan (+5), via TheSpread.com
Live Stats: MGoBlue.com GameTracker
Last Meeting vs. Notre Dame: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30.
*Information according to University of Michigan Wolverines game notes.
Last Year's Meeting
Highlights from last year's game.
Michigan Keys to Victory
Stay on Target
Michigan put on an offensive clinic last week versus an overmatched Appalachian State. Things will be more difficult this week against Notre Dame, but the goal needs to remain the same—run the football.
Michigan gained 350 yards on the ground with Derrick Green (15 carries for 170 yards, one touchdown) and De'Veon Smith (eight carries for 115 yards, two touchdowns) leading the way last week. The offensive line may struggle early versus Notre Dame, but Hoke needs to stay committed to the new offense until he finds the right the combination of blockers and ball-carriers to break through.
Shake the Road Jitters
Michigan has struggled on the road under Hoke. The Wolverines are 20-2 at home during his tenure but only 6-8 (7-11 if you include neutral site matches) when the team plays away from Michigan Stadium.
Michigan's home success has been bolstered by a soft nonconference slate, but the team's struggles on the road are puzzling. The Wolverines have beaten Michigan State at home once only and have been dominated twice in East Lansing. Michigan has owned Notre Dame at home only to suffer a defeat in South Bend, 13-6, in 2012. Last season, the team barely eked out 24-21 victory over UConn on the road.
Michigan needs to play better on the road to compete for the Big Ten championship. In past seasons, Hoke has blamed the youth of his players for the discrepancy between their home and road performances, but as Hoke enters his fourth season as coach, that excuse is wearing thin.
Give the Irish Something to Remember
Notre Dame chose to end to this series, and over the years, the school has rejected numerous entreaties to join the Big Ten. Michigan needs to hammer Notre Dame to uphold school and conference pride. Notre Dame and Big Ten schools will be competing for slots in the new College Football Playoff, and it's crucial for Michigan to knock Notre Dame down a few pegs while it has the opportunity.
Notre Dame Keys to Victory
Stop the Run
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was brought in to make the running game a priority. But last week's gaudy run totals are suspect; Appalachian State isn't a top team, and Michigan's offensive line is still rebuilding. Notre Dame needs to pack the box and force quarterback Devin Gardner to pass the ball. Gardner's propensity to run has been hemmed in under the new system, but he tends to make questionable decisions when throwing the football. By shutting down the run, Notre Dame will have good opportunities for interceptions and big returns.
Shut down the Devin-to-Devin Connection
Gardner and wide receiver Devin Funchess (wearing his new No. 1 jersey) put on a show last week. Funchess (seven receptions for 95 yards, three touchdowns) looked unstoppable albeit against a minor opponent. Notre Dame has the talent to put double coverage on him and force Gardner to find other receivers. Gardner isn't a highly accurate passer—the tall, freakishly talented Funchess helped him out a lot last week. Despite completing 13 of 14 passes, Hoke said that Gardner needs to work on his accuracy. By forcing Gardner to look for other receivers, the advantage tilts to Notre Dame.
Establish the Run and then Go Deep
Michigan was susceptible to the run last season (ranked No. 51 in the nation) because of a lack of depth on the defensive line.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has more depth and has taken over personal control of the linebackers. The move should help Michigan contain the run and put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. But against Appalachian State, Michigan still gave up 153 yards rushing. Notre Dame needs to spread the Michigan defense and take advantage of gaps in the defensive line to run up the middle. After the running game is established, the Irish can then look to burn Michigan's close coverage by going deep for the big play.
Michigan Players to Watch
Quarterback Devin Gardner
Last year, Gardner played practically a perfect game, leading Michigan to a 41-30 victory under the lights at Michigan Stadium. This year, his role in the offense is drastically different. Under Nussmeier's offensive scheme, Gardner is the distributor of the football, relying on his teammates to gain yards and score. Gardner needs to trust the new system and not be tempted to revert to last year's offense. Notre Dame will be a test of his dedication to Nussmeier's new direction.
The last time Gardner played at Notre Dame Stadium, he was team's leading receiver (three receptions for 40 yards) in a baffling 13-6 loss in 2012. Gardner understands the importance of this rivalry and wants to lead Michigan to a victory as the series goes on hiatus.
Defensive End Frank Clark
Clark needs to find a way to pressure quarterback Everett Golson. Notre Dame's offensive line is stout, and if Golson has time to throw, Michigan will be vulnerable to deep passes downfield. Pressure begins up front, and Clark needs to have a monster game to help contain Golson.
Running Backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith
The tandem of Green and Smith combined for 285 yards rushing in the season opener. The top running back battle is still wide open between these two talented backs. It's unlikely that both will gash the Notre Dame defense as they did to Appalachian State, but one player will need to lead the running attack and grind the clock versus Notre Dame.
Wide Receiver Devin Funchess
Funchess will be the target of dual coverage versus Notre Dame, but it might not be enough to stop him. This is Funchess' opportunity to have a monster game and prove he's worthy of the No. 1 jersey. He's the key to Michigan pulling the upset.
Notre Dame Players to Watch
Quarterback Everett Golson
Golson missed last season, but he showed no rust (14-of-22 for 295 yards and two touchdowns) in the season opener versus Rice. Michigan needs to pressure Golson and force him to hurry his throws. Michigan's defensive secondary is strong, but if he has enough time, he will burn the Wolverines deep.
Running Backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston
Bryant and Folston each gained 71 yards last week. That didn't quite match Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith's gaudy numbers, but Notre Dame's overall rushing totals (288 yards) were impressive. This game might hinge on which set of running backs can get the job done with Bryant and Folston battling for the top of the Irish depth chart.
Nose Tackle Jarron Jones
The Michigan offensive line is rebuilding after a difficult season. Hoke was reluctant to discuss possible changes but alluded to "a plan" to evaluate the offensive line. Jack Miller played center last week but may be replaced by Graham Glasgow. Jones will have a good opportunity to disrupt the Michigan offense. This might be the key battle of the game.
What They're Saying
"We have unbelievable rivalry games at Michigan. The Notre Dame, that rivalry, which they're chickening out of...they're still going to play Michigan State, they'll play Purdue; they don't want to play Michigan." Michigan head coach Brady Hoke via ESPN (2013).
"It's a slap in the face when you end one of those great rivalries for whatever reason you choose to. This is something for the people, something for the fans, one of those games everyone expects to watch every year." Michigan defensive end Frank Clark via Angelique S. Chengelis of The Detroit News.
It's always been a great football game. Bo (Schembechler) would say, it kind of lets you know where your team was early in the season because of the similarities of the athletes on the field. ... For college football, it's a great rivalry. The significance of being the last one down there, yeah, there's significance to it.
Hoke via press conference.
It's a huge game, it's a night game, it's a rivalry game, the last one, and, obviously, that's something very important to us and it's going to be a big stepping stone for our team. It's a rivalry game that dates back a long time, something that's been very important to both programs, in my opinion, and something we love being a part of.
Michigan linebacker Desmond Morgan, per Chengelis.
We've got to prepare for Michigan just like we did for Rice. I don't think I get into all of the hype of the game and things like that. But at the same time, you have to take care of business and you have to prepare. Michigan's got a great football team. It's going to be a tough one, but I'm ready for it.
Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson via press conference.
Michigan 38, Notre Dame 35
The last scheduled game between these historic foes who are virtually tied as the winningest programs (Notre Dame .7330 and Michigan .7324) in NCAA history will be a barnburner. Notre Dame feels a little overranked at No. 17 while Michigan is cruising under the radar and is currently unranked.
Expect the Irish to score often with Golson at the controls, but Notre Dame has no answer for Funchess. In 2010, Denard Robinson had a historic performance in South Bend to lead the Wolverines to victory—now, it's Funchess' turn.
Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained in person.
All season statistics from MGoBlue.com, official University of Michigan athletic department website.