Michigan (2-1) at Notre Dame (3-0) Sept. 22 , 7:30, NBC
Here’s The Deal: Is there any chance that this can be anywhere near as good as last year’s 35-31 classic? The Wolverines won last season in, arguably, the best game of the 2011 season, and have won five of the last six games, but this year the pressure is on to not just kickstart the campaign, but to potentially give the struggling Big Ten a little bit of a boost.
Michigan got blown out by Alabama, but that’s nothing to get too upset about. However, it took too much of a fight to get past Air Force and the offense was still too reliant on Denard Robinson in a 50-point blasting of UMass. All that really matters at this point is the Big Ten race and the opener at Purdue in two weeks, but a win over the red-hot Irish would be a shot of confidence to both the team’s season and Robinson’s chances in a weak Heisman field.
There’s far more at stake for Notre Dame – obviously without a conference race to focus on – because now it’s on. Now, after dominating a great Michigan State team there’s reason to think really, really big, like BCS big. USC looked average and soft against Stanford and Oklahoma has a mediocre offensive line, meaning the two biggest games left on the Irish schedule might not be as daunting as they appeared to be this offseason. There are still tough battles ahead against Stanford, BYU, and possibly Miami and Pitt if the Irish aren’t focused, but if the team is good enough to think about playing in the BCS, then it needs to come out of this week with a win and a big step forward. Beating Michigan State was great, but also beating the Wolverines on the way to a 4-0 start would get the hype machine rocking and rolling.
Why Michigan Might Win: It’s time for Denard to be Denard. The Wolverines aren’t getting enough from the supporting cast quite yet and the defense isn’t doing its job, but they have the one true game-changer on the field. Robinson has destroyed the Irish over the last two seasons running for 258 yards and two scores and throwing for 244 yards and a touchdown on the way to 502 yards of total offense in the 2010 win, and last year he ran for 108 yards and a score and threw for 338 yards and four scores – with three picks – in the scintillating victory. He’s the one guy who can take this game over by himself, and he might have to. Notre Dame has the front seven to keep him in check running, but he’s improving just enough in the short-to-midrange passing game to make the Irish pay for cheating up. Navy tried it, but Michigan might actually be able to do it.
How did Purdue almost pull off the win over the Irish? It stuffed the run and got stellar play from its defensive tackles. Michigan doesn’t have Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston, and the run defense hasn’t been a positive so far, but the stats are a bit skewed going against Alabama and Air Force. The Irish weren’t able to pound away against Purdue and Michigan State, and while they’ll have more luck than they did against those two, if the Wolverines can sell out a bit and turn Everett Golson into a passer, that should play into the strength of the D. However …
Why Notre Dame Might Win: Notre Dame just might be able to pound away. Air Force his the Wolverine defensive front with Cody Getz, who didn’t break off anything big but was able to punch his way to five yards per carry, while quarterback Connor Dietz handled things more on the outside. Alabama simply lined up and blasted the Michigan defensive front off the ball. Notre Dame’s offensive line isn’t special, and it’s not doing a great job in pass protection, but it could be just good enough to establish the ground game early on and take the pressure off of Golson.
But for Notre Dame to win, the defense has to be better than Robinson. The Irish were able to contain the Navy running game and quarterback Trey Miller, but it helped that he got hurt early on and couldn’t run. The pass rush has been fantastic with a steady stream of hits in the backfield with four sacks last week against Notre Dame and enough tackles for loss over the first three games helped by the linebacking corps that’s playing at a high level. Manti Te’o has been every bit the All-America expected with 30 tackles on the year, while Dan Fox has been a solid running mate with 16 stops. The defensive front should hold its own, but it will be up to the Irish linebacking corps to clean things up. It should be able to do it.
What To Watch Out For: The Wolverines need Fitzgerald Toussaint to have a breakout performance. The junior running back didn’t face the Irish last season and he was suspended for the Alabama game. After getting his feet wet against Air Force with seven yards on eight carries, he went on a tear last week against UMass with 85 yards and a score on 15 carries. He needs to do more. Denard Robinson will never be Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball, and the receiving corps isn’t anything special, but the offense can roll if No. 16 gets room to rumble and if Toussaint can get hot. That would require the offensive line to have its best game of the year, and that would mean he has to run harder than he did over the first three games.
The Irish offense needs Golson to continue to be steady. He doesn’t have to be Robinson and he doesn’t have to be special, but he has to keep the mistakes to a bare minimum and he has to get the ball to his playmakers in places where they can do something with it. He completed 14-of-32 passes against Michigan State, but he didn’t throw a pick and has just one interception on the season and two rushing touchdowns. Can he get into a shootout if this gets rolling? Probably not, but as long as he keeps the chains moving, the offense will be fine.
What Will Happen: The Notre Dame defense will continue to be terrific. The front seven won’t stop Robinson cold, but it will contain him enough to make him more of a passer than he needs to be to give the Wolverines a shot at winning. The big plays will be kept to a minimum, and while this isn’t going to be pretty, it’ll look just fine to the Irish.
CFN Prediction: Notre Dame 23 … Michigan 20