Notre Dame Football: 4 Things Irish Need to Know About Michigan
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A visit by Michigan to Notre Dame Stadium, especially for a night game, always carries an impact. When it's the final scheduled meeting in a historic rivalry, there's an even greater jolt of energy surging through campus.
The Wolverines are certainly an opponent familiar to the Irish, with the programs having played in all but six years since 1978. Since that renewal of the rivalry back in 1978, Michigan holds a slight edge (15-14-1).
Many stats and trends are thrown out the window for rivalry games. However, heading into Saturday’s showdown, what do Notre Dame fans need to know about the Wolverines?
Glad you asked.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Funchess Is a Problem
A former tight end now patrolling the perimeter, Wolverines junior receiver Devin Funchess checks in at 6’5” and 230 pounds.
“He will be a matchup problem for everybody he plays this year,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “We will have to find ways obviously to slow him down, and he's going to be difficult.”
Funchess excelled in the season opener against Appalachian State, tallying seven receptions for 95 yards and three touchdowns. Granted, the Farmington Hills, Michigan, native will be going against a stronger defense Saturday, but to whom will Notre Dame turn to lock him down?
Devin Funchess with 3 TD in 1st game wearing #1. Last time Michigan WR wore #1 was Braylon Edwards on Jan. 1, 2005 (also had 3 TD in game)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 30, 2014
Devin Gardner says Funchess "can probably be the best receiver to ever play here." ... That's a pretty big statement? "Yeah, it is."— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) September 1, 2014
Neither of Notre Dame's starting cornerbacks, Cody Riggs and Cole Luke, reach 6'0", and can the Irish really afford to put a safety on Funchess given the breakdowns they had Saturday against Rice?
The Irish will have to consistently monitor Funchess on Saturday or risk being picked apart by quarterback Devin Gardner.
Two-Headed Running Back Tandem
Much like Notre Dame’s own three-pronged attack in the backfield, the Wolverines featured sophomores Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith against Appalachian State.
Green, the former No. 27 overall recruit in the class of 2013, carried the rock 15 times for 170 yards and a score. Smith needed just eight carries to rack up 115 yards and two touchdowns.
It was Michigan head coach Brady Hoke, though, who pumped the brakes on his two backs.
“We just started the season, so I think they are good backs but we have a long way to go,” Hoke said to reporters Monday in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Notre Dame must play physically and hold up along the defensive line—as it did against the Owls on Saturday—while also receiving strong play from the linebackers at the second level.
Though undersized, senior Joe Schmidt and sophomore James Onwualu must be able to limit the big plays from Green and Smith, who each had a run of at least 60 yards against the Mountaineers.
Nussmeier Calling the Shots
New Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier arrived in Ann Arbor in January following two seasons as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Alabama.
Nussmeier compiled an impressive track record while with the Crimson Tide, something not lost on Kelly.
“I have a great respect for him, did a great job when he was at Alabama, Michigan State,” Kelly said. “Great teams; their concepts are outstanding, and they do a lot on offense. They cause a lot of problems. They handle a lot of the things that defenses like to do very well.”
It’s worth remembering the novelty of both Nussmeier and Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Both coordinators are in their first seasons at their respective schools and in working with new units have likely left many of their tendencies intentionally vague at this point.
There will certainly be new wrinkles come Saturday, and the team—and coordinator—that adjusts quicker and better could gain the upper hand.
Year after year, when Notre Dame battles Michigan, the game always seems to be close.
In fact, 18 of the last 29 meetings have been decided by seven points or fewer.
“I think two programs that have such great pride that they're going to battle and fight to the very end,” Kelly said. “There is an immense amount of pride, both teams want to win this football game and that's why regardless of what the teams' records are and what the personnel looks like, there is just great pride in both programs.”
It could very well come down to the little things Saturday night. As that relates to Notre Dame, the Irish did well in their opener, limiting penalties and turnovers and playing well on special teams.
It’s unheralded aspects like those that can win a rivalry game.
All recruiting stats and information courtesy of 247Sports.com. Star ratings reflect 247Sports' composite rankings.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.