In 24 hours, a rivalry is renewed.?Michigan is heading to South Bend for the first time in four years.
This isn’t just any rivalry. This is Michigan vs. Notre Dame. The winged helmet and the golden domes. The two most historically successful programs in college football.
Michigan vs. Notre Dame is?college football.
And it’s almost here.
Every week I’ll break down Saturday’s game on Friday. Think of it as a game preview with a deep dive and researched breakdown.
This is our tale of the tape.
- Defensive pursuit: When you think of Michigan football, against any team, its best chance to win stems from its defense. Inside the top three in total defense in back-to-back seasons, Don Brown’s mad scientist “chaos” scheme has wreaked havoc on college football since his days at Boston College. Now, with more coveted prospects and a few blue chip pawns to play with, Brown’s unit is back again for dominance in 2018. The unit has a total mismatch in the trenches as Michigan has two draft picks in Rashan Gary and Chase Winvoich and a former 5-star in Aubrey Solomon returning to its line. All while Notre Dame’s o-line is tasked with replacing three starters, including two top-10 draft picks in Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. Oh, and, don’t forget about that preseason All-American, Devin Bush, who’s been called the best linebacker in the country by some pundits.
- Running backs: Michigan has a strong 1-2 punch out of the backfield in senior Karan Higdon and junior Chris Evans. Higdon nearly went pro following a season including 994 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, while splitting carries with two backs. Evans, as a true sophomore, rushed for 685 yards on 135 carries. That was good enough for a solid 5.1 yards per carry for Evans. Higdon averaged a gaudy 6.1 yards per carry on 164 total. Notre Dame’s front seven won’t let this duo run wild, but they’ll certainly break some off.
- Pass defense: Michigan’s corners are regarded as one of the nation’s best units. There’s no doubt it’s a top-five pass defense unit nationally. David Long and LaVert Hill built that reputation as sophomores. They each come back juniors with ceiling-high expectations to follow up their monstrous 2017. Long accounted for the country’s best passer rating when targeted last season at just over 11.0. Hill is considered a future early round draft pick. That won’t fare well for Notre Dame’s receiving corps that loses its top guy. Though, 6-foot-4 senior Miles Boykin presents a new challenge, even for a unit like Michigan’s.
- Linebackers: Te’Von Coney is really,?really good. In 2017, he totaled 116 total tackles, including a frightening 12.5 tackles for loss. The Irish’s defense isn’t quite as fast as Michigan’s, but it’s one of the fastest the Wolverines will see all season. And it all starts and ends with Coney’s senior leadership and ability to make plays all over the field.
- Wimbush’s legs: Notre Dame’s rushing attack last year was beyond lethal. Its starting quarterback and running back combined for 2,234 yards in 2017. For reference, Michigan’s three running backs, one of the best rushing attacks in a conference that had Saquon Barkley and Johnathan Taylor, combined for 2,227. Of course, the Irish lose a big part of that attack in Josh Adams, now an NFL back. Along with two NFL o-linemen that were drafted in the top-10. Even so, they return the dual-threat QB Brandon Wimbush. Where he is nowhere near an accurate QB (49.5 completion-percentage), he makes up for it with his legs, that have proven successful against tough defenses, including a 207-yard rushing performance against Boston College last season.
- Home field advantage: Sure, this is an easy “strength” to use for any team at home. But when Michigan’s the away team, home field advantage becomes a lot more vital. The Wolverines haven’t beat a ranked team on the road since 2006. Yikes.
- Offensive line: Michigan’s offensive line is infamous for its inability to protect the quarterback. U-M quarterbacks were sacked 9.19% of the time in 2017. That ranked 16th-worst among the FBS, and 6th-worst among Power Five schools. Jim Harbaugh addressed the issue in the offseason by moving on from former OC/OL coach Tim Drevno, and hiring former Ohio State and Minnesota assistant Ed Warinner, best known for his work with the Buckeyes o-line. With four returning starters, the experience is a lot better than it was going into last season. The question remains: Can the offensive tackles protect Shea Patterson?
- Safeties in coverage: You can’t knock Michigan’s defense much, if at all. But if you had to, one consistent issue it had last season was its safeties playing man in the slot. Josh Metellus, a junior that plays strong safety, had issues all season, especially on third down, in pass coverage. Rumor has it, that issue should be resolved using more nickel looks and using the safeties less in coverage.
- The quarterback and his pocket: Shea Patterson’s debut won’t be that easy. Not saying he won’t play good – I think he does. Nonetheless, Notre Dame’s pass coverage is legit, including a possible first-round pick corner in Julian Love. Not to mention, that pass protection is still a big weakness, until we see something different, and it’s facing one of Brian Kelly’s deepest defensive lines at ND.
- Passing offense:?As previously mentioned, Brandon Wimbush is far from an accurate quarterback. He makes things happen with his legs. Whether it’s designed runs, scrambling, or extending a play with his elusiveness. But he’s facing the fastest defense in the country that’s sure to be coming with a game plan to shut down his one-dimensional play on the ground. He’s not prone to turnovers, having only six interceptions last season, but that 49.5 completion percentage has Michigan passing defense (12 completions allowed per game) chomping at the bit.
- Offensive line:?The Irish’s strongest unit last season is its biggest question mark in 2018. Losing its offensive line coach to the Bears and the aforementioned linemen in the NFL, Notre Dame’s young line will get its biggest test in the first week, facing a defensive line that can only be matched in production by Clemson. The best 3rd down defense in the country last season, Michigan’s front seven vs. Notre Dame’s o-line is this game’s most lopsided matchup.
- Time of possession:?Notre Dame averaged just over 27 minutes with the ball in 2017. That ranked 114th in FBS. Michigan averaged just under 32 minutes, which ranked 21st overall. An underrated statistic that’s heavily in Michigan’s favor, it won’t be a game-decider, but it could be game-changer.
Shea Patterson: Surprise, surprise. Michigan’s 2018 season will have a lot of ingredients to blend for a successful season: A nationally recognized defense, two big-time backs, an All-American linebacker, and a pretty good coach, despite the critics. Consider all of that, the season rests on one thing: Quarterback play. With Patterson’s abundance hype, there’s a lot to live up to, but he doesn’t have to be perfect. He’s just got to be a little bit more than serviceable. And if he’s anything like they say he is, he will be that and much more.
Offensive line:?The easy answer here is Wimbush, but who knows how short his leash is? Ian Book could be a factor in this game. The backup quarterback was the hero of the bowl game last season, defeating LSU. So, voiding those two, it has to come down to the Irish’s o-line vs. Michigan’s d-line. On paper, as I said before, Michigan should dominate this positional matchup. But what if it doesn’t? If the Irish o-line, which we know next-to-nothing about, contains the defensive line, the Irish’s path to victory gets a lot easier.
The final verdict
Michigan’s defense is the fastest in the country. It’s more than fast enough to contain Wimbush enough to force him to pass the ball, which he’s shown that he cannot do at a consistent rate.
Against one of the country’s best pass defenses, his room to struggle is small. If he’s forced to pass and he starts forcing throws, it might result in multiple turnovers. If the Irish turn to Book, then they have to rely on a cold quarterback to come in mid-game against a defense that he won’t be able to run from in the pocket. Most importantly, the inexperienced o-line has to deal with the strongest d-line on the schedule.
Defensively, Notre Dame’s struggles will come from of its lack of knowledge. Michigan’s playbook has changed, and it hasn’t had a spring game nor a (real) open practice to reveal anything. They can look at all of Patterson’s Ole Miss tape, but that’s not going to reflect accurately what Harbaugh has drawn up for Saturday.
For Michigan, the o-line, like Notre Dame, is a huge question mark. It won’t be able to contain a deep Irish d-line for an entire game. Sacks will be made and pressure will come, but, if they can contain it enough to let Patterson extend plays and make throws (63.8% passer) that should be enough to produce enough points to give its defense the opportunity to win the game.
If the Michigan defense can seal the edges and continue its dominance while playing man, then the only hope the Irish have is causing some turnovers that turn to touchdowns.
Ultimately, Michigan’s defense and Patterson give the Wolverines enough to waltz into South Bend and walk out winners of their first night game on the road since 2006.
A pivotal moment in the Jim Harbaugh era.
Prediction:?Michigan 24, Notre Dame 13
TWL staff predictions
Brandon Justice:?Michigan 24, Notre Dame 13
Theo Mackie:?Michigan 24, Notre Dame 14
Eric Coughlin:?Michigan 20, Notre Dame 21
Tanner Wooten:?Michigan 20, Notre Dame 10
LGHail:?Michigan 20, Notre Dame 23
Ant Wright:?Michigan 21, Notre Dame 24
Due:?Michigan 14, Notre Dame 20
Landon Dillion: Michigan 24, Notre Dame 10