NOTRE DAME — The “historic” and “traditional” aspects of this rivalry can be — and have been — debated for weeks, but there’s no doubt that there are a lot of strong feelings between Notre Dame and Michigan.
USC, Purdue and Navy may have more history with the Irish. USC in particular is undeniably the bigger rival. But there’s something about playing in front of 100,000 roaring fans under the lights at the Big House that stands out to Notre Dame veterans.
“There’s no other place I’ve played at since I’ve been here that compares to two years ago when we were up there,” offensive tackle Zack Martin told ESPN. “Just the atmosphere, the fans and all that together really was something to see.”
How do the Irish (1-0) and the Wolverines (1-0) match up in Notre Dame’s final scheduled trip to Ann Arbor, Mich., on Saturday, Sept. 7?
Devin Gardner is another dual-threat quarterback, but he isn’t Denard Robinson II. For one, he’s fast, but not as fast. He’s six inches taller than the 5-foot-10 Robinson, which makes him a greater threat throwing over defenders. He’s also more accurate and has the ability to extend plays longer than Robinson did.
On the other hand, Gardner threw two interceptions and one touchdown against a languid Central Michigan defense last week. He has an established target in Jeremy Gallon (who wears Michigan’s legendary jersey No. 21) and will connect with him as often as possible. Beyond Gallon, Michigan doesn’t have many established receiving threats.
Running back Fitz Toussaint was a crucial piece in the Wolverine offense in 2011 before slipping in 2012 after an injury. Toussaint should see plenty of touches alongside five-star freshman Derrick Green. Notre Dame inside linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox can’t afford to have another mediocre week against the ground attack.
Michigan’s interior offensive line is talented but untested, which is something Louis Nix will try to exploit. Expect to see Nix double-teamed, which Temple did to the nose guard’s great frustration last week.
If Notre Dame can push past the O-line, it will have to finish against Gardner. The Irish let Temple quarterback Connor Reilly scramble away far too often last week, something that could be much more damaging if Notre Dame lets Gardner get those same looks.
One of the most compelling matchups of the game will be Stephon Tuitt against Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan, a battle NFL.com called a “must-watch” for pro scouts.
“I know he is going to bring his A-game,” Tuitt said of Lewan after practice on Wednesday. “I definitely have to bring mine.”
Michigan’s secondary was stamped with a big question mark until senior free safety (and one of four team captains) Courtney Avery returned to the lineup on Tuesday after arthroscopic knee surgery two years ago.
Michigan played 10 defensive linemen in the season opener against Central Michigan, as the Wolverines get a feel for what they have in the young group. It’s another matchup that favors Notre Dame, who will need to give Tommy Rees all the help he can get in this hostile atmosphere.
Speaking of Rees, the senior quarterback is poised to have a solid night on Saturday. Despite his shaky sophomore season, Rees played well at the Big House in 2011 and is projected to do even better this time around.
Rees will need to hook up with 6-foot-7 tight end Troy Niklas, who proved against Temple that he was as lethal as a pass-catcher as he is as a run-blocker. Niklas will create a mismatch with Michigan’s undersized linebackers all night that Rees will need to exploit.
The still-undetermined quintet of running backs will also be valuable assets. Jonas Gray was able to successfully run up the middle against Michigan in 2011, but it’s not clear if Notre Dame has that same type of talent in George Atkinson or Amir Carlisle, or if Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston can do it as true freshmen.
Between Tuitt vs. Lewan, Rees vs. Gardner, Under the Lights II and Notre Dame’s final scheduled trip to Ann Arbor, this game has all the potential to be a classic.
If recent history has any say, this game will close and will come down to the fourth quarter. From 2009-2011, the winner was decided by four points. In 2012, Notre Dame won by seven.
Last year, Notre Dame forced six turnovers but only managed 13 points. That can’t happen again this year if the Irish want to leave Ann Arbor victorious.
If Notre Dame wins both line battles and forces mistakes from Gardner, the Irish will pull off the slight upset.
NOTRE DAME 24, MICHIGAN 21
Notre Dame-Michigan Preview Capsule
No. 14 Notre Dame at No. 17 Michigan, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
Line: Michigan by 3 1/2
Series record: Michigan 23-16-1.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
The scheduled matchup between the rivals in Ann Arbor, Mich. After next season’s game in South Bend, Ind., the storied programs will probably not play again for at least a decade because Notre Dame chose last year to cancel the last three games of the series to help it adjust to playing five games against Atlantic Coast Conference teams.
Michigan’s offensive line against Notre Dame’s defensive line. The Wolverines broke in three new starters in the middle of their line in last week’s tuneup against Central Michigan, but the trio is in for a big test. Wolverines offensive coordinator Al Borges said the Fighting Irish have the best defense he’ll see all year, and the unit is led by defensive end Stephon Tuitt and 6-foot-3, 342-pound nose guard Louis Nix.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Notre Dame: Tuitt. The 6-6, 312-pound junior is projected as one of the top picks in the 2014 NFL draft if he skips his senior season.
Michigan: OT Taylor Lewan. The 6-8, 315-pound senior turned down a chance to be a first-round pick to play another year of college.
FACTS & FIGURES
The Big House hosted its first night game two years ago against Notre Dame, and it lived up to the hype. Former Michigan QB Denard Robinson threw 2 TD passes in last 1:12, including one with 2 seconds left in a 35-31 win in front of an NCAA-record crowd of 114,804. Current Notre Dame QB Tommy Reese threw a 29-yard TD with 30 seconds left in the instant classic in 2011. ... Notre Dame picked off five of Robinson’s passes last year and forced a sixth turnover in last year’s 13-6 win. ... Michigan leads major college football with 904 victories and a .7341 winning percentage and Notre Dame’s .7339 winning percentage trails only Michigan and its 866 wins rank third.