Although Michigan and Notre Dame have squared off only 41 times in 127 years, it has been a rivalry that just feels like it belongs in college football. But on Saturday night, when the two face off in South Bend in a nationally televised prime-time game, it’s coming to an end. And that’s a shame.
The two programs share so much in common and so much history. Michigan taught the game to Notre Dame in 1887 and won the first eight games of the series before ND finally got the best of their counterparts in 1909. It was that game that inspired one version of the story of how Notre Dame got its “Fighting Irish” nickname, when the Detroit Free Press labeled them the “Fighting Irishmen.”
Michigan canceled the scheduled 1910 rematch when it felt Notre Dame was using ineligible players, and it took 32 years and a feud between Fielding Yost and Knute Rockne, for Yost — who was then Michigan’s athletic director — to reschedule the Irish. The teams split a pair of games in 1942 and ’43, but then-Michigan coach Fritz Crisler carried on the disdain for Notre Dame, refusing to continue the series.
|Notre Dame Stadium – 7:30 p.m. EST – NBC
|Notre Dame Head Coach:
||Brian Kelly (5th season)
||209-72-2 overall (38-15 at ND)
||Mike Denbrock (1st season)
||Brian VanGorder (1st season)
||9 (5 offense, 4 defense)
||UM 41 – ND 30 (2013)
||Michigan leads 24-16-1
|Record in South Bend:
||Series tied 9-9-1
|Last Michigan Road Win:
||2010 (0-1 since)
|Last 10 Meetings:
||Michigan leads 6-4
|Last 5 Meetings:
||Michigan leads 4-1
Don Canham took over as athletic director when Crisler retired in 1968 and worked to resume the series. It finally did 10 years later and has been played in 30 of the last 35 years, producing great game after great game. Tomorrow will be the 31st, and while Michigan dominated the first part of the all-time series, the Wolverines hold just a 15-14-1 edge since 1978.
The two schools have similar stadiums — some say Notre Dame Stadium was copied off of Michigan Stadium, which was built three years earlier — similar academics, battle for the same recruits, iconic uniforms and fight songs, and stand first and second in all-time winning percentage. Close enough, in fact, that if Michigan wins tomorrow it will re-take the number one spot that Notre Dame recaptured at the end of last season.
Like Michigan, Notre Dame opened this season with a comfortable win last Saturday over a lesser opponent. Notre Dame’s opponent, Rice, wasn’t quite as bad as Michigan’s (Rice was ranked 62nd in USA Today’s preseason college football countdown, while Appalachian State was 119th), but the Owls did put up a fight for almost 30 minutes.
Rice pulled within 14-10 midway through the second quarter, but Notre Dame struck twice in the final three minutes of the half to break open a 28-10 halftime lead. The Irish then outscored Rice 20-7 in the second half to capture a 48-17 win. It was certainly a more impressive season opener than last season’s offensive dud against Temple.
Let’s take a look at how Michigan and Notre Dame match up.
Michigan defense vs Notre Dame offense: When Notre Dame has the ball
Last week, Notre Dame racked up 576 yards of offense against a Rice defense that ranked a very respectable 30th nationally in 2013. The Irish did it in a balanced fashion with 295 yards passing and 281 yards rushing.
Everett Golson is much improved since Michigan last saw him in 2012 (Joe Raymond, AP)
Quarterback Everett Golson completed 14-of-22 passes for 295 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 41 yards and three more touchdowns. When Michigan faced Golson in South Bend two years ago he was a first-year starter running a simplified offense designed to essentially prevent mistakes because the Irish defense was so good. Now, after a year away from the program spent working with quarterback guru George Whitfield, Golson is much better and more comfortable, and Brian Kelly is able to open up the playbook. And after a slow start last week it looked good. He’s a pass-first quarterback to be sure, but Kelly is able to use him on designed quarterback draws, which is how Notre Dame scored its first touchdown, and he’s a capable runner when the play breaks down, while keeping his eyes downfield.
One of the big questions the ND offense faced heading into the season was who would step up at receiver. Sophomore William Fuller and junior C.J. Prosise answered the bell in Week 1, both contributing big plays. Fuller led the Irish with four receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown. He raced past the Rice secondary for a 75-yard touchdown grab late in the first quarter. Prosise also showed big play potential, catching a 53-yard touchdown pass at the end of the first half. The duo had just 13 catches for 232 yards and a touchdown combined last season in spot duty. Prosise did have some catching concerns in the offseason and dropped what should have been a 55-yard touchdown on Saturday.
Converted running back Amir Carlisle caught two passes for 54 yards and shares the slot duties with Prosise, while sophomore Corey Robinson, the son of NBA great David Robinson, is a tall and rangy receiver at 6’5″ and caught one pass for 25 yards. Tight end Ben Koyack looks to be the next in a long line of great Notre Dame tight ends. The 6’5″, 254-pound senior caught three passes for 51 yards on Saturday. Aside from not having a go-to receiver like Devin Funchess, this receiving corps is much like Michigan’s: inexperienced, but plenty of talent.
The running game was somewhat of a committee last weekend as Kelly is still searching for the main ball carrier. Senior Cam McDaniel got the start and rushed eight times for 40 yards, but isn’t going to wow anybody. Sophomores Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston will likely earn the most playing time as the season goes on. They both rushed for 71 yards on Saturday, but Bryant did it on eight carries, while Folston carried it 12 times. Bryant also scored a touchdown. They are Michigan’s version of Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith.
The offensive line had to replace its left side due to the departures of Zack Martin and Chris Watt and the two replacing them, Ronnie Stanley and Conor Hanratty, only had 17 combined starts entering the season. Center Nick Martin and right guard Christian Lombard are battle tested, but sophomore right tackle Steve Elmer has started just five games, including last Saturday. Despite the shuffling, these are still talented linemen and they paved the way for 6.7 yards per carry on Saturday and allowed just one sack.
Michigan offense vs Notre Dame defense: When Michigan has the ball
In Week 1, Notre Dame’s defense held Rice to 17 points, but there are some reasons for concern for those in South Bend. Rice passed for 226 yards and had a lot of open space that new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will need to clean up before tomorrow.
Sophomore LB Jaylon Smith is an absolute star (Robin Alam, Icon SMI)
The defensive line lost a very good duo in Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, who are now playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans. The leader of the line is now junior Sheldon Day, who started eight games last season and recorded six tackles, including one for loss, on Saturday. Nix’s replacement is 6’5″, 315-pound junior Jarron Jones, who started one game last season and recorded seven tackles and a field goal block against BYU a year ago. Sophomore Isaac Rochell is the other tackle, while junior Romeo Okwara and true freshman Andrew Trumbetti, an Under Armour All-American, will share the other end spot.
Under former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the Irish played a 3-4 defense, but VanGorder has moved to a 4-3. The star of the linebacking corps is sophomore Jaylon Smith, the top linebacker in the country coming out of high school in 2013. He started all 13 games last season and finished third on the team with 67 tackles and second with 6.5 tackles for loss and began this season on pretty much every defensive award watch list there is. He recored three tackles, one for loss, on Saturday. Middle linebacker Joe Schmidt is a former walk-on who has waited his turn and he led the team with eight tackles on Saturday. The third linebacker is sophomore James Onwualu, who converted from wide receiver where he started against Michigan a year ago. True freshman Nyles Morgan is another guy they are excited about and recorded a pair of tackles in reserve duty in the opener.
The secondary is where the concerns lie, especially without junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who started 26 games the past two years, but was involved in the academic scandal. Add to that the loss of fifth-year senior safety Austin Collinsworth, who sprained his MCL, and there’s not a lot of experience on the back end. Sophomore Cole Luke and fifth-year senior Cody Riggs, a transfer from Florida, started at cornerback in the opener, while junior Elijah Schumate and sophomore Max Redfield started at safety. Riggs is the most experienced with 26 starts under his belt while at Florida, but the other had just five combined starts prior to last weekend. Matthias Farley, who started eight games at safety last season and 11 in 2012, switched to corner and will have to lead the group. They will have their hands full with Michigan’s receivers, especially Funchess, who is a matchup nightmare.
Kelly attributed some of the secondary mistakes in Week 1 to miscommunications, something he said wouldn’t have happened had Collinsworth been in. Even so, Rice ranked 103rd nationally in passing a year ago, was missing its top receiver on Saturday, and still had guys running free most of the day. Michigan will present a much tougher matchup and unless VanGorder is able to keep Devin Gardner off balance with pressure, he could have a big night.
The other third: Special teams
Senior kicker Kyle Brindza has been around forever and ranks near the top of the Notre Dame record books in nearly every kicking category. He has made 45-of-60 career field goals, including 2-of-3 last week, and is an impressive 4-of-5 from more than 50 yards. He will also be handling the punting duties for the second straight year. Last season, he averaged 41.1 yards per punt, and last week he punted three times for an average of 48 yards.
The return game was underwhelming last season, but showed some flashes last Saturday. Carlisle handles the kick returns and averaged 24.5 yards per return, while Riggs and Bryant split the punt return duties and combined to average 16 yards per return.
I was impressed with Notre Dame’s offense against Rice, but not as impressed with their defense. What I saw leads me to believe we will be in for an offensive battle tomorrow. VanGorder will try to put pressure on Gardner and keep him from having time to pick apart the secondary, so a lot will rest on the shoulders of Michigan’s line, which surrendered a million sacks last season but held up well in Week 1. Notre Dame will be a big upgrade in competition compared to App State, but the return of Graham Glasgow should help the interior. I see a big passing day in store for Gardner, much like a year ago. Either he recreates last year’s performance with Funchess playing the part of Gallon or Notre Dame doubles Funchess making for a big day for Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, and Dennis Norfleet. They can’t stop them all.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan has a more talented and experienced defense than the Irish do, and that could make the difference tomorrow. Notre Dame’s receivers routinely beat Rice’s secondary and Golson didn’t have any trouble finding them. Michigan’s corners are going to play more press coverage and keep them from creating that much separation. I do think Kelly can take advantage of the aggressiveness of Michigan’s defense, especially if the linebacker issues we saw last Saturday aren’t resolved. Michigan’s defensive line will test the left side of the Irish line, so it will be up to the linebackers to contain Golson and keep him from making big plays with his feet.
When it comes down to it, I think the offenses are pretty equal and Michigan’s defense is better. This will be a back-and-forth game that stays tight throughout and will come down to whichever defense can make the big play. Gardner leads Michigan to a late lead, the defense holds down the stretch, the Wolverines take back the all-time winning percentage, and carry bragging rights into the series hiatus.
Michigan 38 – Notre Dame 33