The long national nightmare known as summer is over and football season is finally here. We finally get to see our Fighting Irish in action in just over 24 hours in the marquee game of the week. The Irish start the year with perhaps the most pivotal game on their schedule so let’s just jump right into this weekend’s preview.
What Worries Me This Week
Notre Dame running the ball. Michigan has one of, if not the best, defense in the country – particularly upfront. I’ll argue all day long that the Wolverines are getting all of the headlines and that people are vastly overlooking the Notre Dame defense, but you won’t hear me make any argument that the attention Michigan is getting is unwarranted. Their defense is really that good. And that is who Notre Dame faces in their first game trying to replace Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson.
Notre Dame wants to run the ball this year, but I worry about how successful they will be early this weekend. Without Dexter Williams most likely Notre Dame is missing its most explosive running back. The key to running the ball will be Brandon Wimbush’s improvement in the zone read. He is an absolute weapon when he gets some space. Problem last year was he struggled in making the right reads in the zone read.
Wimbush’s Accuracy. Ok, so this one goes without saying. Brandon Wimbush completed less than 50% of his passes last year and is facing one of the best secondaries in college football week one. He has reportedly improved in this area, but that one practice video of him airmailing swing passes against no defense is stuck in my head. Until proven otherwise, this will be a concern for the Irish.
Turnovers. Notre Dame’s defense is good enough that they don’t need to score a ton of points to win this game. Just like the Georgia game last year, I expect this to be a slugfest where yards are tough to come by and points are in short supply. That said, the one thing Notre Dame cannot do at all tomorrow is turn the ball over. A punt won’t be a bad play this week. Any turnover could be deadly.
The Rover/Nickel. This wasn’t a concern until Shaun Crawford tore his ACL in practice this week. Notre Dame’s got the talent to replace him, but the timing is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination. Notre Dame will likely have a patchwork fix here this weekend and then figure this thing out longterm next week.
I don’t buy Kelly’s answer to the media yesterday so much either. I think he and Lea know exactly what they will do but didn’t give Michigan too much information. Kelly had two days to prepare for that answer and knew the question was coming. Unlike other college coaches in the Midwest, Kelly was prepared for the questions he got.
What Doesn’t Worry Me This Week
Notre Dame’s secondary vs. Shea Patterson – Michigan fans have pushed all of their chips onto the table on Shea Patterson to the point that me suggesting that Patterson wasn’t Andrew Luck was met with much consternation from a bunch of Michigan trolls yesterday. I know, I know, aren’t all Michigan fans trolls? Let’s be clear though. Patterson may well be a good quarterback for Michigan, but this ordination of him before he’s thrown a single pass for them after he wasn’t all that good Ole Miss, is a bit premature. Even with the loss of Shaun Crawford, I am not concerned with the Irish secondary’s ability to keep Patterson largely in check throughout the game.
Notre Dame’s pass rush. Part of the reason that I think the secondary can keep Patterson in check is because of the Notre Dame pass rush. Michigan’s defense is getting all of the headlines while no one is talking about the Notre Dame defense. That could change on Saturday night – especially if this defense can pick up a timely sack or two. Notre Dame might not have a double digit sack guy on their line, but they do have a number of pass rushers who can get to the quarterback. Michigan’s offensive line is one of its biggest weaknesses this year and the Irish defensive line will be able to take advantage of that on Saturday night.
The LEAgion of Doom picking up three sacks on Saturday night should not surprise anyone.
Notre Dame’s special teams. I have the utmost faith in Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome this year. Furthermore, one of the more overlooked storylines this summer was year two of Brian Polian’s special teams. Last year was all about fixing the mess that became of Notre Dame’s special teams. This year I think we see even more improvement and the return units start to become factors for the Irish again. Notre Dame might not return two kicks for touchdowns ala Rocket Ismail in 1989 in Ann Arbor, but I think they make a big play in the return game this weekend.
Just for fun, here are both Ismail kick returns.
Players to Watch
- Brandon Wimbush. You know why by now.
- Liam Eichenberg – First career start and he’s got to block Rashan Gary. Yikes. Eichenberg is a future NFL lineman but for this weekend he is a first time starter blocking a guy who could be playing on Sundays now. Look for Notre Dame to give him help and don’t freak out when Gray inevitably makes some plays. They will happen. What will be key is for Eichenberg to have a short memory and to just keep fighting.
- Jafar Armstrong – First game as a running back and Armstrong could end up being a featured player. If Tony Jones Jr isn’t able to get much going, Armstrong will get his chance. With Notre Dame needing some chunk plays here, Armstrong will be a factor one way or another.
- Houston Griffith / Nick Coleman. The loss of Crawford thrusts both players into more playing time and potentially a postition they haven’t been playing much.
- Alohi Gilman. First start for Notre Dame, but it’s been a long time coming after he sat out last season. Gilman is supposed to help solidify the safety position for the Irish. We’ll find out tomorrow if the hype is legit.
- Jonnathan Bonner. Don’t forget that Bonner is playing his first game at nose tackle. Luckily for Notre Dame and Bonner it’s against a team with a weak offensive line. It will be interesting watching how he holds up at his new position.
- Miles Boykin. Is he really ready to be the star wide receiver we’ve heard about all off-season? Notre Dame needs Boykin to make some contested catches tomorrow to help build Wimbush’s confidence.
- Cole Kmet. Is he really the top tight end for Notre Dame already? He might be. Notre Dame needs the tight end position to make plays this weekend to help open up that defense just a bit.
- Asmar Bilal. The loss of Crawford indirectly impacts Bilal in that the nickel was going to give some extra coverage to the ROVER position. Given Bilal’s struggles to this point in coverage, expect Michigan to target him early and often.
First game of the year and Michigan comes in ranked with GameDay in town. What a way to start the season. Michigan fans are supremely confident in this one and I love it. Everyone is picking Michigan here including Stewie Mandel who picked the Wolverines by 16. Guess what? Michigan was confident coming into Notre Dame Stadium in 2012 and 2014 too. Shea Patterson upgrades their QB position, but the ordination of him as the next great college quarterback after a medicore start to his career at Ole Miss is really getting old. He’ll make some plays tomorrow, but he’s going to make his fair share of mistakes too.
Brian Kelly is going to be able to play up the underdog angle a lot this week and in his pre-game comments and this team is eager to prove that 2017 was not a fluke and that this program is back for real this time.
I’m expecting an old fashion slugfest and the Irish to come out on top. On Thursday in my season prediction I had Notre Dame 17, Michigan 10 before the news of the Crawford injury. With that news, Michigan might get a few more points, but since tht post just went live yesterday, I’ll stick with that score.
Notre Dame 17, Michigan 10