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OFD Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. Michigan

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The series ends this Saturday.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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Michigan (+4) at Notre Dame

Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana

Kickoff: 7:30 PM ET

Television: NBC

Series: 24-16-1 Michigan

Here is the One Foot Down preview for this Saturday night's game against Michigan.

5 Factoids

Let's allow Cadillac to break it down for us:

That's a really small footprint. Hey, at least they are saving on travel costs. Notre Dame will travel 1,875 miles just for the game at Arizona State this season.

  • 8.6

There were some quarterbacks who put up huge yards per attempt numbers last year but Devin Gardner did lead the Big Ten with 8.6 YPA last year. He fought through some injuries in 2013 and had some ups and downs but when Garder was on (like he was against the Irish in Ann Arbor) he had big play ability with his arm.

  • 3

This will be only the third time in history that Michigan comes into a game inside Notre Dame Stadium without being ranked in the AP Poll. The other two games were both during the Rich Rodriguez era in 2008 and 2010. The rivals split those contests.

  • 350

The Wolverines rushed for 350 yards last Saturday against Appalachian State, their most since totaling 353 yards against Illinois on October 13, 2012. The 9.72 yards per carry was also the most by a Michigan team in three and a half years.

  • Taking a Break

There have been several 'breaks' in the Notre Dame-Michigan series, some short and some quite long. Since the first meeting in 1887 there were no games in 1903-07, then 1910-41, as well as 1944-77, 1983-84, 1995-96, and 2000-2001. Think about that...the first World War, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War all came and went with Notre Dame playing Michigan only twice.

4 Players to Watch

  • WR Devin Funchess

The rising junior and former tight end has officially moved to wide receiver where he'll anchor UM's entire corps. Always unable to assert himself as a blocker at 235 pounds, Michigan dropped any pretense and is allowing Funchess to focus more on catching the ball. It appears to have paid off as he caught 7 of the team's 16 completions in the opener and gained nearly half the offensive receiving yards. For a team that is still searching for reliable targets you can bet Funchess will see the ball early and often on Saturday.

  • QB Devin Gardner

The Irish should be facing sophomore Shane Morris at quarterback this weekend but thanks to a very liberal ruling on an injury from 2010 by the NCAA it'll be Devin Gardner back for a fifth season and a second straight game against Notre Dame. He was lights out last year against the Irish as he breathed life into the Wolverine running game (82 yards, 1 touchdown) and threw for 294 yards and 4 touchdowns. Gardner is incredibly talented and when given time in the pocket or not injured has proven himself to be a very dangerous passer in addition to a productive runner. Last week against Appalachian State he had just about the most efficient game possible with 13 completions on 14 attempts and 3 passing touchdowns.

  • RB De'Veon Smith

Fellow sophomore and former 5-star tailback Derrick Green gets a lot of press, had a big game last weekend (15 carries, 170 yards, 1 TD), and is slimmed down from his bloated 2013 weight. However, De'Veon Smith came on strong late last year and many believe he's as good or better than Green. Last week, Smith gained 115 yards on just 8 carries and scored twice. Green was the featured back against Appalachian State but you can expect to see plenty of Smith on Saturday night, as well.

  • LB Jake Ryan

At one time Ryan was a budding All-American candidate but a knee injury prior to the 2013 season has slowed him down a little bit. He was able to play in 8 games last year after a quick recovery and now transitions from an edge-rushing linebacker to the Mike linebacker spot in Michigan's defense. If he's back to his old self you can expect a lot of tackles from Ryan, although he might not produce as many negative plays due to this new position. However, through 35 career games he has 32.5 tackles for loss and notched one last week against App State.

3 Concerns

  • Exploited Down the Seams

If you remember our summer preview of Michigan we talked about them having to replace a lot at wideout following the loss of 4 seniors, most importantly Jeremy Gallon who dominated the Irish last year with 184 yards and 3 touchdowns. It's too early to tell if Michigan has found any answers on the outside of their offense, although redshirt sophomores Amarah Darboh and Jehu Chesson offer great size and are expected to blossom eventually.

However, it's unlikely that Darboh or Chesson are reliable and consistent targets on Saturday. The danger is likely to come from the middle of the field where Funchess flexes out (still a tight end term, but you know what I mean) and the speedy Dennis Norfleet patrols the slot. Notre Dame can probably survive some cross routes that find decent success but they'll have to watch out for poor communication with Funchess or Norfleet streaking for big gains and touchdowns.

  • Getting Pressure on Gardner

Last year the Irish did a very good job getting pressure on Gardner but the athletic Michigan quarterback overcame it and had the game of his life anyway. The Wolverines' ineptness at offensive line in 2013 was well documented as they allowed 113 tackles for loss, the most in the entire country. This season there is hope that UM's line is better and that new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier's offensive philosophy is going to help matters tremendously.

On the flip side, the Irish have a lot to prove up front and don't necessarily have the horses on the edge to overwhelm Michigan. A key in this game will be Notre Dame's ability to get in Gardner's face, blitzing or otherwise, and force the Michigan offense into a lot of third and long situations.

  • Consistent Production from Irish Running Backs

Considering the struggles each program had running the ball last year (and lumping the Irish in with Michigan here is being kind to the Wolverines) it's surprising how optimistic everyone is about rushing in this matchup. Even more so given Michigan's offensive line issues, both clubs losing high draft picks to the NFL, and neither team having a career 1,000-yard rusher. Of course, each team has young and talented backs but they are far from proven on the collegiate level.

For the Irish, a consistent productive running game could really be the difference in taking home a win or putting too much on Golson's shoulders. Perhaps Everett is ready to score 5 touchdowns again but it's more likely he'll need a lot more help to secure a win over Michigan this weekend.

2 Sides of the Line

Michigan may be changing their starting lineup on the offensive line this weekend but a few positions are likely to remain untouched. True freshman Mason Cole (6-5, 292) got the nod at left tackle in the opener and should stay put. Redshirt sophomore Erik Magnuson (6-6, 294) started several games last year at both guard spots and has settled into the left guard position this season. Also, redshirt sophomore Ben Braden (6-6, 322) looks to be holding down the right tackle spot and will be making his second career start this weekend.

Redshirt junior Jack Miller (6-4, 299) has some experience and started the opener at center although he may give way to redshirt junior Graham Glasgow (6-6, 311) who was suspended for App State but started more games in the middle last season. The right guard position is also unsettled as 5th-year senior Joey Burzynski (6-1, 290) got the nod last week and is competing with the more highly touted redshirt sophomores Kyle Bosch (6-5, 303)* and Kyle Kalis (6-5, 298) both of whom have starting experience but haven't shown enough to the coaching staff.

*News broke late Wednesday night that Bosch is taking a personal leave of absence.

Michigan's defensive line may lack a perennial All-American or major impact player but they do have some nice talent and a good deal of depth. The defensive end positions will be manned by seniors Frank Clark (6-2, 277) and Brennan Beyer (6-3, 256) both of whom made double-digit starts last year. Clark has been more disruptive over his career (23 TFL) while Beyer transitions from a rush linebacker to a down lineman. They will be backed up by true sophomore Taco Charlton (6-6. 275) and junior Mario Ojemudia (6-3, 251), two young but largely unproven talents.

On the interior there was a late fall camp surprise as preferred walk-on Ryan Glasgow (6-4, 296) got the start at nose tackle. However, several others will be in the rotation at that spot including junior Ondre Pipkins (6-3, 306) and promising freshman Bryan Mone (6-4, 312). Filling in the rest of the tackle spots the Wolverines have a plethora of options including starter redshirt sophomore Willie Henry (6-2, 293), redshirt sophomore Matthew Godin (6-6, 286), redshirt sophomore Chris Wormley (6-4, 295), and redshirt freshman Henry Poggi (6-4, 270).

Not a crazy amount of experience on the defensive line but nice depth that brings back 154 tackles and 26 tackles for loss from last year.

1 Prediction

There's no doubt that there is a lot of hatred between Notre Dame and Michigan. The Wolverines stumbled last year to a 7-6 record and at times looked like a bad football team. A lot of talk this off-season has been centered around those bad moments continuing, Hoke being on the hot seat, and Michigan in general just being a mediocre football team. This may not be the consensus from national reports per se but that line of thinking has been more than prevalent among Irish fans.

I flat disagree with that assertion, and need I remind everyone we lost the head-to-head matchup last year?

Look, Michigan is a talented team. It's possible that Brady Hoke isn't that great of a coach and they'll slowly crumble or that they continue to have massive problems with their offensive line and it prevents them from contending within the Big Ten and on the national stage. It might happen, but I bet they'll rebound this year and have a pretty good season.

What scares me about this game is that Michigan should have the better defense. I'd make the case that Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day could be the two most talented defenders on either team but out of the other dozen top players in this matchup it's the Wolverines who'll have 8 or 9 better and more experienced defenders. Plus, they have better depth on that side of the ball.

An edge on defense plus the talented Devin Gardner at quarterback does not leave me feeling warm and fuzzy about a win. The line on the game has tumbled since it opened earlier this week so there's been a lot of money on Michigan. That's a smart move, the underdog has historically fared very well in this series.

However, there are three reasons why I think Notre Dame can win this game.

1) Better O-line Play

Michigan fans feel better after giving up just 1 sack and rushing for 350 yards against Appalachian State. However, they did allow 6 tackles for loss to a Sun Belt team (with FCS talent) and their run game was fairly hot and cold. For example, 121 of Derrick Green's 170 yards last weekend came on 2 carries. That's impressive to rip off long runs but he also had 7 runs go for 1-yard or fewer. Producing 170 yards tells me Michigan was more talented than App State but with that many pedestrian runs they didn't flat out dominate.

There should be concern about Notre Dame being able to take advantage of Michigan's suspect offensive line in the passing game. Yet, I think the Irish can bottle up the Wolverine running game and that could go a long way in what should  be a close game.

2) Home Field Advantage

Michigan's struggles away from the Big House have been well documented under Brady Hoke. In true road games, the Wolverines are just 6-8 since the beginning of 2011 and with neutral site games added in Michigan is an even worse 7-11. Under Hoke, they are 0-5 against ranked teams on the road.

I believe this is the sole reason why the spread is currently at 4 points as of this writing instead of a couple points lower. Vegas does not respect Michigan in this situation. Therefore, Notre Dame must be able to bring it with an intimidating crowd and atmosphere. The Stadium has to be a factor in favor of the Irish this weekend.

3) Desperation

I was reading a Q&A on this matchup from another site earlier in the week and an intriguing point was brought up on the fact that Brian Kelly, despite not being on much of a warm seat unlike Hoke, really needs to win this game. Hoke could lose this game and really have major cat-calls for his job while that's unlikely to happen to such a degree for Kelly.

Of course, that does speak to the difference in where the two programs are perceived. Notre Dame has won 21 games over the past 2 years and has shown it's capable of winning big road games. Michigan has only won 15 games and has been handled in most of their big games. Still, Michigan's 3-1 record against Brian Kelly looms large on the future of this season and the history of the head coach at Notre Dame.

This is a must-win game for the Irish. Desperation can be a formidable boost in games like this.

~~~

Everyone is expecting a shootout in this game and I'm going the other way. I don't think we'll see the stalemate or sloppiness that ensued during the 2012 game but something tells me we're going to see a slow tease of a game before a few fireworks go off in the 4th quarter. Think of it like a dramatic duel from an old Western movie.

They say Golson's got the fastest finger in the Midwest.

Notre Dame 27

Michigan 25