In the final bout between the two historic programs before their contract expires, Michigan will host No. 8 Notre Dame on Saturday night.
For the 19th-ranked Wolverines (5-2 overall, 3-2 Big Ten), the age-old rivalry represents a chance to save this season from itself. With a third loss before November and two more rivalry games on the docket, things could spiral into four- or five-loss territory rather quickly with a loss.
Given U-M’s 130-year-old rivalry with the independent Fighting Irish (5-1) — particularly the recent back-and-forth history — the timing of this game may come as a blessing in disguise. Playing a non-conference opponent within the thick of the Big Ten slate is a rare occurrence for Michigan, but it comes at an advantageous time. Getting up for the likes of Indiana or Maryland would’ve been far more difficult coming off a deflating road loss at Penn State.
Notre Dame’s lone loss came in a one-possession road game against then-No. 3 Georgia. The Fighting Irish were written off as a double-digit underdog in that game, but managed to take a lead into halftime. They ultimately lost, 23-17, but held Bulldogs’ star quarterback Jake Fromm victim to less than 200 passing yards and only one touchdown.
With a top-10 Notre Dame team coming to town, what must the Wolverines do to rebound?
Can’t afford to give up the home run plays or start slow
The Fighting Irish boast the nation’s 12th-best scoring offense so far this season, averaging a hair over 39 points per game. It’s an impressive figure at a glance, but the splits are telling — they average 45.8 points at home and 26 on the road. Michigan was able to hold them to 24 in South Bend a season ago, but the stars that comprised that defense are long gone.
U-M’s defense was vulnerable to the big play against the Nittany Lions last week, and it proved costly. The Wolverines were burned by speedy wideout KJ Hamler for a pair of 25-plus yard touchdowns over the top, gave up a 17-yard touchdown on a fade route to tight end Pat Freiermuth and surrendered a 37-yard completion to wideout Jahan Dotson down the sideline.
The dagger, though, was Hamler’s 53-yard touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter. It pumped the brakes on U-M’s comeback bid, making it all the more difficult to eventually claw back into the game.
If the Wolverines play sound defense, it’s plausible to think Notre Dame’s offense will likely finish with somewhere around its season average of 26 points per road game. But if Michigan gives up long plays because of defensive breakdowns, it could be a big night for the Fighting Irish, who present a strong receiving corps headlined by wide receivers Chase Claypool (27 catches, 394 yards, four TDs) and Chris Finke (15 catches, 182 yards, one TD) and tight end Cole Kmet (21 catches, 265 yards, three TDs).
Michigan has fallen victim to a bad habit of slow starts in recent years, as evidenced by 28-0 (at Wisconsin) and 21-0 (at Penn State) first-half deficits against ranked teams this season. With the atmosphere of a home night game at its back, now is the time to flip the script.
Win the battle up front, especially if the forecast holds
Simply put, expect a clash of two fundamentally sound football programs. Notre Dame’s offensive line is traditionally among the best in the country, and this year is no different.
The Fighting Irish are averaging over five years per carry as a team and quarterback Ian Book has been sacked just nine times through six games. Even U-M defensive line coach Shaun Nua, who used to face Notre Dame regularly while coaching at Navy, lauded the Fighting Irish’s strong offensive line on Wednesday.
On the defensive line, Notre Dame has four players with multiple sacks. The Fighting Irish are paced by 6-foot-5, 248-pound senior Julian Okwara’s four sacks, but Detroit native Khalid Kareem leads the defensive line with 10 solo tackles on the year. Kareem is one of five players set to return to their home state wearing a gold helmet on Saturday night.
Considering how well U-M’s veteran offensive line protected quarterback Shea Patterson and cleared holes in the run game last week, the battle in the trenches may very well determine the game’s outcome. The Wolverines will need a strong performance up front to move the ball the way they did in the second half against Penn State.
If you thought last week’s game came down to the wire, this week has the potential to be an even better encore. Michigan and Notre Dame match up well on paper, and the rainy forecast could put a significant emphasis on physical, old-school football if it holds.
Like last week, a handful of game-breaking plays have the potential to determine the outcome. For now, the Fighting Irish look better-equipped to make such plays on offense and defend against them on defense, but expect a tight contest all the way through.
Final score prediction: Notre Dame: 27, Michigan: 24