When the 2018 Notre Dame football schedule begins in South Bend on September 1, the Irish will be facing Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines. Harbaugh’s third season with the Wolverines in 2017 saw a bit of a downturn with an 8-5 record that concluded with a three-game losing streak.
Part of the trouble for Harbaugh related to the influx of newcomers that struggled to translate their raw talent into a positive result. Another factor stemmed from mixed messages coming from the collective braintrust of Wolverine offensive coaches, an issue that was addressed in the offseason with some staff changes.
Michigan Offense: A Work in Progress
Ineffective play behind center last year led Harbaugh to import transfer Shea Patterson to start at quarterback. In just seven games last year at Ole Miss, Patterson tossed 17 touchdowns and threw for over 2,200 yards. The touchdown total nearly doubled the output of the Michigan trio that also threw for less yardage over 13 games.
Early on, Patterson may have to rely on the twin tandem of Karan Higdon and Chris Evans in the backfield after the duo combined for close to 1,700 yards on the ground. Higdon narrowly missed the 1,000-yard milestone, with Harbaugh hoping that this pair also becomes a passing option after only combining for 17 catches last season.
That consideration is necessary because of the uncertainty surrounding the receiving corps. Tarik Black is looking to bounce back from injury, while Donovan Peoples-Jones looks to increase his total of 29 catches. At tight end, Zach Gentry and Nick Eubanks are likely to battle for a starting role, with Gentry having the upper hand.
Another sketchy area is the offensive line, though starting tackles Jon Runyan, Jr., and Juwann Bushell-Beatty will man the tackle slots after strong spring performances. That effort needs to be transplanted into actual game action, especially when it comes to protecting the quarterback after allowing nearly three sacks per game in 2017.
Michigan Defense: High Expectations on the Horizon
Given the results of last year, the Wolverine defense should rank among the very best in the nation. This unit managed to finish at the top among pass defenses and their run-stopping capability was equally impressive. That’s noteworthy since virtually the entire contingent will be back in 2018.
On the ends, the duo of Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich know how to find the quarterback after solid seasons. At the nose tackle slot, the bar’s been raised for Michael Dwumfour following a standout spring session. One of the most notable factors in this segment of the Wolverines’ defense is that their depth here may rival plenty of their opponents starters.
The news is just as notable among the linebackers, led by All-American Devin Bush in the middle. One of the outside backers, Khaleke Hudson, could join Bush when it comes to post-season accolades this year.
The secondary is strong on the corners with Lavert Hill and David Long. Hill’s springtime injury may be an asset as it relates to the Notre Dame football schedule, though the expectation is that he’ll be ready to play in the opener. The safeties aren’t quite as impressive, which is one reason why Utah graduate transfer Casey Hughes was added.
Michigan Special Teams: A Solid Foundation
Sophomore Quinn Nordin started off strong last year with 11 field goals in the first three contests, and showed a pretty strong leg. In the area of punting, some question marks remain. Peoples-Jones may not have impressed on the receiving end, but he’s in the elite category among return men.
The Last Time Notre Dame Played Michigan
It’s been four years since these two teams met, with the Irish hoping that history repeats itself. That’s because Notre Dame coasted to a 31-0 victory in the House the Rockne Built, part of that season’s 6-0 start for the Irish. Unfortunately, a 2-5 finish by Brian Kelly’s squad obscured the impressive nature of this blowout – Notre Dame’s first ever over Michigan.
The win was accomplished in methodical fashion, with Notre Dame scoring in each quarter. The Wolverines actually outgained the Irish in yardage for the night, but they fell victim to four turnovers that included a trio of interceptions.