Head to Head: Michigan vs. Notre Dame
Observer Sports Staff | Thursday, September 4, 2014
Wolverines graduate student quarterback Devin Gardner teams up with junior receiver Devin Funchess to form what Irish head coach Brian Kelly calls a “dynamic” duo. Funchess tallied seven receptions for 95 yards and three touchdowns in Michigan’s season-opening 52-14 dismantling of Appalachian State.
The competition wasn’t impressive, but Funchess’ ability is. The 6-foot-5 former tight end is a matchup problem for the Irish. Cornerbacks Cole Luke (5-foot-11) and Cody Riggs (5-foot-9) don’t stack up size-wise.
Beyond Funchess, the Wolverines don’t have too many proven pass-catchers. But that didn’t matter much for Rice, who exploited breakdowns in Notre Dame’s secondary for passing plays of 53, 30, 26 and 26 yards, respectively.
The Irish safeties will have to shore things up quickly to ensure there isn’t a repeat of the 2013 game, when Gardner shredded Notre Dame for 294 yards and four touchdowns through the air. Former Wolverines receiver Jeremy Gallon racked up 184 receiving yards and three scores in last year’s matchup.
Michigan running backs Derrick Green (170 yards against Appalachian State) and De’Veon Smith (115) ran wild in the season opener, but, again, that was not against Irish-esque competition. Michigan head coach Brady Hoke slowed things down, somewhat, saying, “we just played one football game.”
Michigan’s offensive line is inexperienced. Its tackles, Mason Cole and Ben Braden, made their first career starts Saturday, and the other three projected starters enter the weekend with just a combined 15 career starts.
Kelly was pleased with how Notre Dame’s front four held the line and played physically, but will that young group duplicate its performance against better backs?
How will undersized linebackers like Joe Schmidt and James Onwualu hold up when the 220-pound Green is barreling toward them?
WOLVERINES OFFENSIVE COACHING
Once again, it’s a matchup of new coordinators on both sides of the ball, with Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier opposing Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
These two met in 2012, when Nussmeier’s Alabama squad rolled to a 49-0 victory over VanGorder’s Auburn defense. This week, Kelly praised Nussmeier’s offenses, lauding their strong concepts, and this year’s group on the offensive line.
Nussmeier’s track record likely speaks louder than that of VanGorder, but anything can happen Saturday.
WOLVERINES SPECIAL TEAMS
Kelly specifically made note of Wolverines punter Will Hagerup this week, praising the redshirt senior, who averaged 45.03 yards per punt in 2012, the best single-season average in Michigan history.
Senior kicker Matt Wile is relatively inexperienced, having only attempted 10 field goals (with six makes).
Junior return man Dennis Norfleet is already slotted second in Michigan history with 1,801 kick return yards, including the 36 he picked up on one jaunt Saturday against Appalachian State.
Until Notre Dame proves — on a consistent basis — it has shored up its special-teams play, the Wolverines possess the advantage.
Everett Golson only completed 14 passes in Saturday’s season opener against Rice, but Golson and the Irish provided enough fireworks to stay more than efficient.
If Golson performs anywhere close to the level at which he played against the Owls, the Irish passing attack should be potent. Notre Dame benefits from a variety of options in the receiving game, even though there isn’t one proven, bona fide pass-catcher.
On the other side, the Wolverines boast experienced cornerbacks in senior Raymon Taylor and redshirt junior Blake Countess. Countess nabbed a pair of interceptions last year against the Irish, spurring his six-interception campaign that culminated with a first-team All-Big Ten selection. Taylor snagged four interceptions of his own in 2013.
Highly touted freshman cornerback Jabrill Peppers, who is slated as the starting nickel back, missed the second half Saturday with an ankle injury. Hoke, however, said Monday he doesn’t think Peppers will be a question mark. “I think he will be ready to play,” Hoke said to reporters in Ann Arbor, Mich.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
For the first time since November 1996, Notre Dame had five different players — Golson, sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire, sophomore running backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston and senior running back Cam McDaniel — amass at least 40 rushing yards Saturday.
Notre Dame sliced up the Rice defense to the tune of 281 rushing yards and effectively made Owls standout defensive tackle Christian Covington a non-factor.
Expect the Irish to turn to the running game again against the Wolverines, especially with some self-professed issues along the interior of the Michigan defensive front, according to Hoke. Wolverines defensive tackles Willie Henry (seven) and Ryan Glasgow (one) have a combined eight career starts, and neither interior lineman cracks 300 pounds.
Between McDaniel, Bryant and Folston, the Irish should find success on the ground.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
Notre Dame’s offense looked explosive Saturday, but how will defenses begin to adjust as they see more film of Golson and the Irish? Then, in turn, how will Notre Dame adapt?
Here, Notre Dame’s depth and variety works in its favor, as the Irish have a wealth of ways to move the chains. It’s up to Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and Kelly to push the right buttons against Michigan’s veteran defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.
Kelly said Notre Dame will need to do an especially good job of protecting Golson, as Mattison and the Wolverines prefer to attack and bring pressure defensively.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
Well, Notre Dame fans certainly saw a different Irish squad when it came to special teams Saturday. The return game was finally just that — a return game.
But Kelly said Tuesday the Irish are probably “getting a little too much credit for it and probably took a little too much in defending it in years past.” The head coach did praise his team’s effort, something he naturally hopes continues throughout the season. Riggs and Bryant will continue to handle punt-return duties.
The early returns looked positive. But more data points are needed before we dub this area a strength of the Irish.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME