Facing the Michigan Wolverines is always a challenge, but the presence of the Irish home crowd should be an asset. Those fans and everyone watching this nationally-televised meeting will likely be zeroing in on some individual matchups during the course of the contest. Some of the most important to watch will include:
Notre Dame Running Game vs. LB Devin Bush Jr.
The original plan when play was kicking off on Saturday night was to have Dexter Williams try and fill the gaping hole left by Josh Adams’ move to the NFL. However, the status of Williams remains in question. That may end up having ramifications at quarterback when it comes to the use of the more run-friendly talents of Brandon Wimbush or going with the passing skills offered by Ian Book.
Even if Book takes over, he’ll be up against last year’s best pass defense, which could mean being overly dependent on the run. That will largely require dealing with Bush, who’s considered to be among the elite among college football linebackers. His quickness not only makes him a threat to quarterbacks, but he has the ability to trap running backs before they ever reach the line of scrimmage.
Notre Dame Offensive Tackles vs. Michigan Defensive Ends
Both starting tackles for Notre Dame, Robert Hainsey on the right and Liam Eichenberg on the left will have their hands full all night, especially the newly-installed starter Eichenberg. That’s because they’ll have to deal with the likes of Rashan Gary and Chris Winovich, who very well might be the top end tandem in the country.
Gary, who tends to play on the strong side, manages to combine impressive size with amazing quickness. Meanwhile, Winovich has found his niche after bouncing around on both sides of the ball. His statistical numbers often look better than Gary’s, largely because the latter gets double-teamed often.
MLB Te’von Coney vs RB’s Karan Higdon and Chris Evans
On the field, Coney emerged as one of the centerpieces of the Note Dame defense as the 2017 season went along. Staying on the straight and narrow has sometimes been difficult for this talented player, yet his skills were good enough to ponder a move into the NFL draft. Among those abilities is a strong and sustained effort against the run.
The Wolverine duo of Higdon and Evans will keep Coney busy, with both players having the speed to quickly break into the secondary. For good measure, Evans is a receiving threat, making him even more of a threat. Beyond this pair are younger players seeking to make their own impact.
DT Jerry Tillery vs. G Ben Brederson
Tillery had a breakout year in 2017 after seemingly being better recognized for his off-the-field pursuits prior to that accomplishment. At 6-foot-7 and 305 pounds, he knows how to clog things up at the line, yet managed to collect nine tackles-for-loss last year, which included 4.5 sacks.
The Wolverine line is a work in progress, while Tillery’s position has changed slightly from the nose to the 3-technique spot. That’s a jargon-based way to describe a tackle who will be focused a good deal of his attention on the run. Brederson has the more extensive background, which means he’s likely to line up more often against Tillery. His teammate at the other guard slot, Michael Onwenu, brings massive size but less experience.
CB’s Julian Love/Troy Pride, Jr. vs. QB Shea Patterson
Patterson came to Ann Arbor as a transfer from Ole Miss who’s looking to make a big splash behind center in his Michigan debut. He has some cockiness to him and the mobility to get out of the pocket. While that may mean the Irish defensive line gets a workout, the team’s cornerbacks will also get challenged.
The good news is that the Irish has Julian Love returning at one corner slot after an outstanding season last year. That may mean that Patterson focuses on going underneath or challenging Troy Pride, Jr. on the other side. Pride continues to take steps forward, including an improvement of his field vision, though Love’s consistency could make Patterson focus more on attacking Pride.
The Bottom Line
The renewal of this rivalry is especially relevant this season, with both teams starting off the year as members of the Top 25. There’s no real favorite to this contest, which means that the winners of the above battles will most likely determine who ends up with more points on the scoreboard.