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September 21, 2012

Game Preview: Michigan vs. Notre Dame

The venue has changed, but the atmosphere should be just as electric as Notre Dame hosts Michigan for its own under-the-lights affair. U-M is looking for its first four-game winning streak over ND since the dawn of the 20th century (eight straight from 1887-1908).

Top Storyline

In both Ann Arbor and South Bend this week, Michigan's 3-0 record in this rivalry the past three years received considerable play, but it's more how the Wolverines won then the fact they proved victorious, earning last-minute triumphs each time for a 38-34 win in 2009, a 28-24 victory in 2010 and last year's 35-31 celebration.

U-M hasn't earned three straight wins over any foe by seven points or less since vanquishing Penn State four straight games by scores of 27-24 in 2002, 27-25 in 2005, 17-10 in 2006 and 14-9 in 2007, but at least then the heartbreak was spread out over six campaigns.

"Our senior class is 0-3 [against Michigan], so it's a big deal," senior running back Theo Riddick said. "Especially with that devastating loss last year, we're excited to have another chance at them."

Third-year head coach Brian Kelly tried to dismiss the talk this week that his team would be thinking about retribution, though he did acknowledge that his own experience with the Wolverines has left a sour taste in his mouth.

"It's great college football, but for me, we haven't beaten Michigan and that's what I remember [about my first two matchups],"he said.

Still, Kelly's message this week has been less about the Maize and Blue and more about staying grounded following a 3-0 start that represents Notre Dame's best opening-month effort since an 8-0 start in 2002.

"We have a sign that is visible for our guys to see and it starts with: 'Don't believe or fuel the hype, No. 1. No. 2, manage expectations. No. 3, avoid the nose. And No. 4, speak for yourself.'

"They see that everyday," Kelly said. "We're dealing with it right now and they know if they want to continue to be successful they need to do the things they're doing."

The Fighting Irish fan base, however, has been re-energized, believing that this year is different and that Michigan is simply a minor impediment to a 4-0 start.

"Going into the season, there were three games where most fans thought Notre Dame would lose - Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC - and then there was a thought they would lose a game they shouldn't lose because that's what's happened around here with South Florida last year, Tulsa and Navy in 2010, Connecticut in 2009, Syracuse in 2008, and you just had this beaten-down mentality," Blue and Gold Illustrated editor Lou Somogyi said.

"But you have some early success, win on the road at No. 10 Michigan State and all of a sudden everyone believes Notre Dame is BCS bound. The mood around here fluctuates quickly and dramatically, and everyone is patting these guys on the back right now.

"That's the danger for Brian Kelly - how will his team handle success? He's been harping on that all week because these guys can't just think they're due and that the universe owes them one. Southern Cal was due against Stanford, that's why Matt Barkley came back, but Stanford still won its fourth straight, and Michigan could do the same thing Saturday."

Game Particulars
Kickoff: 7:39 p.m.
Radio-TV: NBC will carry the broadcast live. The game can be heard on the Michigan Sports Network (950 AM in the Detroit area, SiriusXM channel 203) with long-time partners Frank Beckmann and Jim Brandstatter, and sideline reporter Doug Karsch.
Coaches: Michigan: Brady Hoke (13-3, second season). Notre Dame: Brian Kelly (19-10, third season).

By The Numbers

.7355 - Michigan's all-time winning percentage, which ranks first in NCAA history, ahead of No. 2 Notre Dame (.7320).

1 - U-M head coaches, among six that played Notre Dame at least twice (Fritz Crisler, Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller, Lloyd Carr and Rich Rodriguez the others), to go 2-0 against the Irish in his first two meetings - Fielding H. Yost. Brady Hoke is looking to become the second.

4 - Weeks until Michigan's next home game this year (Sept. 15 to Oct. 13), matching four-week lulls in 2011, 2005, 2003 and 2001. U-M last went five weeks between games at The Big House in 1945.

39 - Career receptions for senior tailback Vincent Smith, moving him up to 10th place on the all-time list for Michigan running backs; he also ranks eighth in yardage with 391.

43.8 - Percentage of U-M offensive plays of 20 yards or more that have resulted in touchdowns this season (seven of 16) after Michigan scored on 26- and 42-yard receptions, and a 36-yard run against UMass. Last year only 16.9 percent of Michigan's 20-plus-yarders went for scores.

969 - Yards of total offense produced by Denard Robinson in three games against Notre Dame, the largest tally in Michigan history by 208 yards (Elvis Grbac, 761 yards).

TheWolverine.com Game Week Poll Results

Which receiving target will lead Michigan in receptions this year?

TE Devin Funchess - 18 percent
WR Roy Roundtree - 2 percent
WR Devin Gardner - 48 percent
WR Jeremy Gallon - 29 percent
WR Drew Dileo - 2 percent

346 votes.

When Notre Dame has the Ball

Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson may still be getting his feet wet three games into his starting career, but he's already impressed over his predecessor, Tommy Rees, in one major respect - he has just one interception thus far this season in 81 attempts while Rees had five in the first three games of 2011 and threw one for every 29 pass attempts over the course of the campaign.

Notre Dame doesn't have a Michael Floyd (though senior tight end Tyler Eifert creates just as many mismatches) but does have some nice pieces in the passing game, with senior receiver Robby Toma and junior receiver T.J. Jones, and Riddick being used heavily out of the backfield. Sophomore DaVaris Daniels could be a game-breaker at the receiver position but has been too inconsistent.

Though Eifert, at 6-6, 251 pounds, is a go-to target, the Fighting Irish like the matchup along the line of scrimmage and with their running backs, and will likely focus most of their efforts on the ground game, hoping to take advantage of a suspect Michigan front seven that is susceptible to edge attacks.

Don't be surprised to see ND go to that well early and often until the Maize and Blue can prove they can stop runs outside the tackle box, and if they can't, don't expect the Blue and Gold to abandon that line of play-calling.

This type of game plan plays perfectly with the backfield personnel Notre Dame features as sophomore George Atkinson III and junor Cierre Wood both possess the speed (Atkinson even more so) to turn a corner and pick up big chunks while Riddick will be used as a receiver in the flat.

The Wolverines were gashed on outside runs by Air Force, but Notre Dame won't employ similar tactics of cut blocking 10 yards down field to neutralize U-M's linebackers and safeties. Instead, the Irish will use their tight ends and tackles to overpower Michigan's defenders to create free reign to the outside.

This will be an important game for senior strongside end Craig Roh, who must prove his added size and muscle can be an asset at the point of attack as he looks to funnel the ball back inside; for redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan, who will be tasked with a similar responsibility; for U-M's corners, who must maintain their leverage, get off blocks and make tackles near the line of scrimmage; and for Michigan's middle linebackers as they have to come up and make stops before two-yard gains become double-digit plays.

Essentially, this one will take an entire team effort on the defensive side of the ball, with every one of U-M's defenders playing his best game of the season.

When Michigan has the Ball

Michigan fans weren't too keen on the Wolverines' game plan against Alabama in week one, but most are in concert that a similar philosophy could work, and should be employed, against Notre Dame - essentially use the pass to set up the run.

How that will play out if weather forecasts of unseasonably cool temps (low 50s) and rain prove true remains to be seen but it's not impossible to throw the football in those conditions, and both teams have to play in them.

This much is certain, Notre Dame's strength is its front seven, with defensive linemen Kapron-Lewis Moore, Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt playing as well as any group in the country, manhandling Michigan State's offensive line last week. In linebacker Manti Te'o, the Irish have a true difference-maker that can snuff out any rushing attack.

However, Robinson had some success against the Irish a year ago, picking up gains of 13, 13, 18 and 39 yards. ND hangs its hat on the fact that in his other 12 carries he had 24 yards, but the Notre Dame defenders haven't proven they can stop him for an entire game yet. That is their determination, however, this weekend, and they will do everything in their power to force Michigan to move the football through the air.

That's not a bad plan of attack for a few reasons: Robinson has improved his accuracy, especially his deep ball and crossing patterns. He still makes a bad throw or two, and should probably throw one away instead of forcing a pass into coverage, but he can be an asset through the air.

Secondly, U-M has some big-time playmakers at receiver with the emergence of junior Devin Garder and freshman Devin Funchess, and with juniors Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo taking advantage of mismatches on a fifth defensive back.

And finally, Notre Dame's weakness defensively is in its secondary where junior corner Bennett Jackson, freshman corner KeiVarae Russell and sophomore safety Matthias Farley are all first-year starters, Farley taking over for injured senior Jamoris Slaughter this week.

Everything Michigan wants to do (and Notre Dame too) is dependent on that matchup up front. The Blue and Gold feel with the physicality of their front seven that they can win the battle against a suspect U-M offensive line that has thus far played without the toughness coach Brady Hoke demands. If those five don't bring it with everything they have, and play with an edge to their games this weekend, the Wolverines' offense might look as feeble as Michigan State's did a week ago.

Three Fighting Irish Players to Watch

Senior tailback Theo Riddick: The 5-11, 200-pounder has played running back and receiver for Notre Dame, and was a wideout each of the past two seasons, catching 78 balls, including two touchdowns against Michigan in 2011. However, he moved to tailback this fall to shore up a hole, and has earned the majority of ND's carries, toting the football 46 times for 190 yards (4.1-yard average) and two touchdowns. He also factors into the passing game significantly, with nine grabs for 85 yards so far.

Player To Watch - Senior linebacker Manti Te'o: Considered one of the best linebackers to ever wear the famed gold helmet, the 2011 All-American endured a difficult week prior to the game against Michigan State, losing his girlfriend to leukemia and his grandmother within a span of 24-48 hours. Still, he played and starred against the Spartans, recording 12 tackles, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups. The 6-2, 255-pounder is a do-it-all type that punishes ball carriers and is equally adept at dropping into coverage.

Player To Watch - Sophomore defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt: A former five-star recruit ranked the No. 22 overall player in the Class of 2011 by Rivals.com, Tuitt is emerging this season into the player predicted to be. The 6-6, 303-pounder, playing defensive end in Notre Dame's 3-4 alignment, ranks second nationally with five sacks among his 12 total stops. He also forced a fumble, recovered it and ran it back 77 yards for a score against Navy, showing off his athleticism. Tuitt gives ND the threat off the edge it has lacked in recent seasons, and he's powerful enough to hold up against the run also.


Had it not been for Denard Robinson and some inexplicable blunders by Notre Dame's defensive backs, Michigan would have lost last year because ND was the better team. This season, that again appears to be the case but just because the Irish may be the better team, that doesn't mean they will win. Robinson needs to have another spectacular effort, the offensive line has to play its best game and the U-M front seven has to be significantly better than it has been in three contests. That's asking a lot. A little too much this time.

Score: Notre Dame 31, Michigan 27.
Against the Spread (+5): U-M will cover.
Over/Under (49): Over.

Michael Spath's record this year: Result: 2-1; Against the Spread 1-2; Over/Under 2-1.

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