Notre Dame returns to action on Saturday night after a bye last weekend fully rested and ready to take on their nemesis to the north – Michigan. The Irish come in with their playoff hopes still somewhat intact while the Wolverines limp in after their second loss of the season last weekend at the hands of Penn State. Fresh off the bye, and with no classes this week, everything should be pointing towards the Irish, right? Then why am I worried about this game more than most? Let’s find out.
What Worries Me This Week
Notre Dame playing in the Big House with Big Ten Officials. Notre Dame has not had luck in the Big House in a long time. Between 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2013 the last four trips there have been disasters on different levels. Whether it was the blowout of 2007 or the excruciating defeat in 2011 when it looked like Notre Dame had it won in the final minute, Notre Dame has not had luck playing here for a long time – especially under the lights.
Add in Big Ten officiating crews that have never been kind to Notre Dame in Ann Arbor, and the setting is not one that has been conducive for victory for Notre Dame. The Irish have a chance to change all of that obviously, but as a Notre Dame fan still in my 30’s, most of my memories of Notre Dame playing in Ann Arbor are pretty awful save the Rocket Ismail game in ’89 and the “upset” in 2005.
Notre Dame didn’t instill a ton of confidence in their ability to handle crowd noise in their trip to Georiga earlier this year, either. The Irish committed about a half dozen procedure penalties because of problems with the silent count they installed specifically for that environment. Brian Kelly took the blame for that and said earlier this week that the team spent the last two weeks working on it in preparation for Saturday night. We’ll see if it worked.
Ian Book pushing the ball downfield. We just haven’t seen Book be able to really push the ball vertically since he took over for Brandon Wimbush last year save for a few throws here and there. Michigan is well aware of that, and Don Brown is probably going to challenge Book to beat them deep because he’s stubborn, and even though the deep ball has burned his defense, Notre Dame’s offense hasn’t given him any reason to worry about it.
If there was ever a game for Book to show he can get the ball vertical, this is the game. The Wolverine secondary is ripe for hitting a few deep passes if Book can get the ball downfield. Until we see it happen though, it’s going to worry me. Hopefully, this is the game where it all comes together for him, and we see him hit a few deep passes like his game-winner to Miles Boykin against Pitt or his long touchdown to Michael Young against Northwestern a year ago.
The game time weather. The current weather forecast is calling for rain on Saturday night in Ann Arbor. Brian Kelly 1.0 was very stubborn at times with throwing the ball in the rain – see NC State 2016. Now, Brian Kelly 2.0 hasn’t had another game since then where the weather has really impacted the flow of the game. If it does rain a lot in Ann Arbor on Saturday night, it could impact Notre Dame’s offense significantly since the Irish like to pass to set up the run. And with Michigan keying on the Irish ground game, they are going to force Notre Dame to beat them in the air.
The point spread moving so much. I wrote about this in detail last night, but I just don’t like that the point spread has moved so much in Notre Dame’s favor since it opened with Notre Dame as a four-point underdog. Vegas knows something we don’t.
Michigan coming off of a loss. This is a game that could save Michigan’s season. They entered the year thinking they had a chance at the playoffs. No one with a brain outside of Ann Arbor though they had an opportunity for the playoffs, but they did. So now that they are sitting at 5-2 with all three of their rivals ahead of them, this season could spiral out of control pretty easily. At the same time, a win against Notre Dame could save their season. That makes Michigan very dangerous.
Michigan also battled back last week after falling behind by a lot on the road. Shea Patterson specifically carried that team in the second half. If Michigan was able to build on that over the week, they could be a very dangerous opponent.
What Doesn’t Worry Me This Week
Notre Dame’s defensive line getting pressure on Shea Patterson. Michigan’s offensive line is not very good, and the Irish defensive line has been playing great. Even two weeks ago, when Clark Lea deployed a three-man front because he was worried about USC’s speed at receiver, the Irish were able to generate pressure at times. We won’t see a three-man front this weekend, and we will see the Notre Dame defensive line generating a lot of pressure.
Michigan is one of the worst teams in the country at fumbling the football, and Shea Patterson is one of their biggest culprits. Notre Dame will have an opportunity to force some turnovers this week. In fact, for Notre Dame to win tomorrow, I think they will have to be at least +2 in the turnover margin. Between the defensive line and Notre Dame’s ball-hawking safeties, they will have chances for turnovers. They will need to capitalize on them.
Notre Dame’s silent cadence. Going out on a limb here and saying that the extra week to prepare and the extra hours of practice this week have the silent cadence issues we saw in Georgia that I reference above a thing of the past. As I mentioned, they haven’t instilled a lot of faith that it won’t be an issue yet, but Brian Kelly was extremely confident on Thursday that it would not be a problem this weekend.
Michigan stopping Notre Dame in the red zone. Statistically speaking, Notre Dame is one of the best teams in the country, and converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns and Michigan is one of the worst defenses at stopping its opponents from scoring touchdowns in the red-zone this season. That is an area that Notre Dame should be able to exploit, and it will be necessary to do so to win this game.
Notre Dame getting its full offense going. While Jafar Armstrong returned from injury against USC, he barely played in his first game in over a month. That should change this weekend. In fact, it would be shocking if Armstrong was not a significant part of Notre Dame’s offensive game plan tomorrow night. In the very brief time we saw Armstrong in the opener against Louisville, Chip Long had Armstrong all over the field in the first few plays of the season. That is the kind of role that Armstrong will likely play against Michigan – especially with Tony Jones Jr proving to be a capable, albeit plodding, lead back.
With Armstrong fully integrated into the offense, Saturday night will be the first time we see the full vision of the offense that Chip Long had for 2019 since, even on that first drive against Louisville, the Irish did not have Cole Kmet or Michael Young. That should give all Notre Dame fans hope that the offense we’ve seen through the first six games of the year still has the potential to be much better.
Players to Watch This Week
- Jafar Armstrong – Notre Dame needs him touching the ball a lot in a variety of ways to pull this off. He had two touchdowns against the Wolverines in 2018, and Notre Dame needs him to find the endzone again this weekend.
- Shaun Crawford – Brian Kelly said he would play against Michigan, but we don’t know how much. This could be an Armstrong/USC kind of situation where Crawford’s back, but only plays a few snaps. Given all of his obstacles, though, it would be amazing to see him make a big play against the team he was committed to initially.
- Braden Lenzy – We saw just how much pure speed he has against USC. Even if Book can’t take advantage of it on deep bombs, Long needs to find a way to use that speed in some creative ways.
- Cole Kmet – This kind of feels like the kind of game where Kmet could have a monster game.
- Khalid Kareem – He terrorized Michigan last year. He should be able to do the same again this year.
I have been dreading this all week because while a lot of Notre Dame fans seem to think it’s not only a foregone conclusion that Notre Dame will win, but that they will win easily, I just don’t feel good about this one. Just like I didn’t feel good about the USC game, everyone thought would be a blowout. I get that Michigan got embarrassed by Wisconsin and that the Badgers just lost to Illinois, but they will be playing to salvage their season on Saturday, and they’ll be doing it at home – not on the road.
Notre Dame has been good this year, but Georgia’s recent struggles make one question just how quality of a loss that was in September. The Irish offense meanwhile hasn’t been very good at moving the ball against non-cupcake opponents so far this year. Add it all up, and it just doesn’t make me feel good.
The way Notre Dame can win this game is if it’s a defensive struggle. Shea Patterson started to find his way in the 2nd half against Penn State, but if Notre Dame can rattle him early, that resurgence could be short-lived. Notre Dame needs its defense to lead the way by producing some turnovers and setting up the offense similar to what they did against UVA a month ago.
I think there is a real chance that Michigan wins this game, but I just can’t bring myself to pick them to do it.
Notre Dame 24, Michigan 20