Well folks, as you might have heard, the 2018 college football season has officially begun. And so, with Labor Day weekend knocking on our door, it’s time once again for that beautiful, hopeful, anxiety-inducing, oftentimes soul-crushing time known as Notre Dame Fighting Irish football season.
Tomorrow evening, your 12th-ranked Domers will play host to the #14 Michigan Wolverines — two top-15 squads with a ton of history renewing their series after a 3-season hiatus.
Below is a quick reminder of how the series’ last matchup went in 2014...please disregard the incorrect score at the end of the video, though — the correct final score was, in fact, 37-0.
Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines enter the renewal of this long, tenuous rivalry with a brutally strong defense and with a much-heralded new transfer manning their offense — which was a very weak unit in 2017, mostly because of inconsistent QB play.
Meanwhile, Brian Kelly’s Irish also return almost every key player on the defensive side of the ball (although it should be interesting to see if new defensive coordinator Clark Lea can continue what Mike Elko started before scampering off to Texas A&M), but have a number of questions and holes to fill on offense, especially at QB and RB and on the left side of the offensive line.
So fill your cooler with Hamm’s Premium, put in your chicken tender platter orders at Meijer, pick out your best green gear to wear tomorrow, and crank up the Cathy Richardson...it’s time to preview this opener of all openers and see how these two teams will perform on Saturday.
Michigan Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The Irish defense comes in returning a lot of the same guys from its 2017 unit that was #44 in the country in total defense (#51 in pass defense, #49 in rush defense) and #32 in scoring defense. However, they did lose LBs Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini to graduation and CB Nick Watkins and DE Jay Hayes to transfers, accounting for roughly 25% of the team’s tackles last season.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines come into this game with an offense that can only really get better after last season’s putrid showing. With no reliable option at quarterback, Michigan’s offense was #105 in the country in total offense (#111 passing offense, #49 rushing offense) and #91 in scoring.
Luckily for them, the decent running game should still be there in 2018, as UM returns starting RB Karan Higdon (994 yds, 6.1 ypc, 11 TD in 2017) and heavily-used backup Chris Evans (685 yds, 5.1 ypc, 6 TD). Although Ty Isaac graduated and is taking 24% of the rushing production from last season with him, look for the Wolverines to ride Higdon and Evans early and often.
Unluckily for Michigan, the Wolverines offensive line is a bit of a question mark, and the Notre Dame front seven, although maybe not replete with All-Americans like Rashan Gary or Devin Bush, has a number of dangerous, veteran guys who could take over if the UM front doesn’t come ready to play.
Senior DT Jerry Tillery leads one of the deepest defensive lines Brian Kelly has had in his time at Notre Dame. The 6’7”, 305-pound behemoth from Louisiana was a force in the middle in 2017, notching 56 tackles (9 TFL), 4.5 sacks, 11 QB hurries, and a forced fumble.
He’s joined on the defensive line by experienced and talented players such as defensive tackles Jonathan Bonner (30 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 4 QBH) and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and defensive ends Khalid Kareem (5.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 6 QBH), Daelin Hayes (6.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 4 QBH), and Julian Okwara (4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 7 QBH).
Add in young, unproven talent like NG Kurt Hinish, DT Jayson Ademilola, and DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji, and there’s a whole lot of bodies that defensive coordinator Clark Lea can throw at the Wolverines at the point of attack.
And, if/when the Michigan runners get to the second level, they’ll be greeted by the heart and soul of the Irish defense, LBs Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill. Coney started 2017 as a reserve before playing his way into a starting spot and proving to be the best linebacker on the team by the end of the year, finishing with 116 tackles (12.5 for loss), 3 sacks, and a forced fumble.
Tranquill, meanwhile, has moved inside after playing the “Rover” position last year. The Rover is a hybrid safety-linebacker type of role in the ND defense (which will be manned by senior Asmar Bilal and freshman Shayne Simon in 2018), and Tranquill flourished there as an athletic guy who’s incredibly strong in run support. He racked up the stats in that position (85 tackles, 10 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FF, 1 INT), and now will slide inside and play what could be an even more suitable role for him, considering his strength against the run and his athleticism.
Establishing the run early won’t be an easy task for Michigan, but if it’s accomplished, it will certainly allow Ole Miss Rebels transfer QB Shea Patterson a better opportunity to settle in and not have to carry too much of the offensive load on his shoulders. Patterson came to Ann Arbor and was granted immediate eligibility after leaving the dumpster fire that is Ole Miss and its NCAA probation/investigation.
He threw for 2,259 yards last season for the Rebels, completing 63.8% of his passes while racking up 17 touchdowns and throwing 9 interceptions. A former blue-chip QB recruit, Patterson is a great athlete with a strong arm, and will certainly be an upgrade in every way at the most important position on the offense.
Unfortunately for Patterson, he’s already lost one of his starting receivers, as sophomore WR Tarik Black has been ruled out for the game with an injured right foot. Black has had terrible luck with injuries so far in his young collegiate career, as he missed 10 games last year due to a foot injury. In the couple games he did play, Black was a force to be reckoned with, hauling in 11 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown.
With Black out, other WRs like Donovan Peoples-Jones (22 rec, 277 yds) and Grant Perry (25 rec, 307 yds, 1 TD) will be called upon to produce more as starting receivers, and reserves like Nico Collins, Oliver Martin, and Nate Schoenle (7 rec, 68 yds total between the three of them) will need to step up. The losses of Eddie McDoom and Kekoa Crawford especially hurt now, as the two combined for 24 catches, 324 yards, and a TD in 2017.
One positive for Patterson, though, is that he has a couple very good tight ends to throw to in Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon. The pair combined for 48 catches, 604 yards, and 5 TDs in 2017, and at 6’8” and 6’5”, respectively, the two huge targets will be tough matchups for the ND linebackers and defensive backs all evening long. Furthermore, the Michigan running backs are both talented receivers out of the backfield, combining for 24 catches, 288 yards, and a touchdown last year.
The amount of separation the Wolverine receivers can get against DBs will certainly be interesting to see, though, as Notre Dame has built up some strong depth in the secondary as well.
The group is headlined by junior CB Julian Love, who’s coming off an incredible, breakout sophomore season. Love broke up TWENTY passes last year, accumulated 68 tackles, and picked off three passes, returning two of them for touchdowns (and the third came within a few yards of a TD as well).
Joining Love in attempting to make Shea Patterson’s night horrible from the cornerback position are guys like junior speedster Troy Pride Jr. (22 tackles, 2 PBU, 1 INT) and promising junior Donte Vaughn. Senior nickelback Shaun Crawford (32 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 5 PBU, 1 FF, 2 INT) would have been a huge contributor all evening at CB as well, but it was announced on Thursday that he tore his ACL in practice on Tuesday, making this the third time in four seasons he has had essentially an entire season taken away due to a major leg injury (ACL tear in 2015, Achilles tear in 2016). Poor dude CANNOT catch a break.
Additionally, after having lots of questions at the position, the safety spots are beginning to look a little stronger in 2018 as well, with transfer Alohi Gilman slotted alongside senior Nick Coleman (44 tackles, 3 PBU) in the starting roles, and with junior Jalen Elliott (43 tackles, 2 PBU) and highly-rated freshman Houston Griffith waiting in the wings. Gilman’s 2016 stats, as a freshman at Navy, were pretty impressive, as he notched 76 tackles (5 TFL), 5 PBU, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble return for a TD.
Coleman will slide into Crawford’s nickelback slot in those special packages now (and will be spelled in that role by Griffith), meaning Elliott and Griffith will probably get a little more run at safety now as well.
Notre Dame’s defense MUST come to play and do a good job of shutting down UM’s rushing attack while also getting some pressure on Shea Patterson. The ND offense is not necessarily good enough to win a shootout (plus they’ll be playing an elite Michigan defense), so it will be very important for the Irish defense to really bring it tomorrow night.
Offensive Wolverine to Watch
This was an easy choice. Michigan’s biggest offensive issue in 2017 was having no good option at QB. Now, Patterson gives Harbaugh’s offense a ton of talent and some good experience with which to work. If Patterson can throw all over Julian Love, Troy Pride Jr., and the rest of the Irish secondary, the Wolverines will likely cruise to a victory. That’s a big IF, though.
Defensive Irish to Watch
In order to keep Shea Patterson from getting comfortable, the Irish need to shut down the running game and force Patterson to do more than he wants to in his first game with the Wolverines. Coney’s speed and strength will be crucial in running down Higdon and Evans and containing Patterson, who can be a decent running threat if he gets some daylight.
Halftime Fun Facts!!!!!
- Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister
- Michigan DL Luiji Vilain
- Michigan LS Camaron Cheeseman
- Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble
- Michigan DL Kwity Paye
- Michigan RB Tru Wilson
- Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo
- Notre Dame S Alohi Gilman
- Michigan DB German Green
- Michigan RB Chris Evans
Here are Some Funny Pics of Jim Harbaugh
Let’s Quickly Review This Michigan-Sponsored Music Video, And Then Get Back to the Preview
This was bad.
Here’s a hype video that doesn’t suck as much, though, sent to me by my new best friend Josh LaFond over at Maize N Brew (video made by Luke D’Mello):
Notre Dame Offense vs. Michigan Defense
On the other side of the ball is where the game may truly be won or lost. The Michigan defense, although potentially a tad overhyped at this point, is still easily one of the best defenses in the country. The Notre Dame offense, meanwhile, lost the following from what was the #7 rushing offense in the country in 2017:
- Two All-American, 1st Round NFL Draft pick linemen
- A RB who ran for over 1,400 yards and 9 TDs last year
- Another RB who ran for 368 yards and 5 TDs last year
- A WR who caught 91 balls for 1,476 yards and 13 TDs over the last two seasons
- And also the starting tight end (another 15 rec, 244 yds, 1 TD)
Throw in that senior starting QB Brandon Wimbush had some major meltdowns near the end of last season, and that senior RB Dexter Williams may or may not play, and Notre Dame fans can’t help but wonder how the Irish offense could possibly score enough points on UM defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defense to win this one.
Michigan fans would not be completely wrong to scoff at ND fans reading all that and saying “I still think we can move the ball on these guys.” The Wolverines have multiple guys who will likely be All-Americans on their defense, including DE Rashan Gary and LB Devin Bush, and return the majority of what was the #3 unit in the country in terms of total defense (#1 in pass defense, #21 in rush defense) and #14 in scoring defense.
Gary and his defensive line comrades are a big, athletic, menacing bunch, but Gary is by far the scariest. At 6’5” and 282 lbs., Gary is a dominant force on the edge. His stats from last year are good (66 tackles, 12 TFL, 6 sacks, 7 QBH, 1 FF), but probably don’t even begin to explain how good he already is and how much better he can probably be. Dude is a MONSTER, and new starting left tackle Liam Eichenberg is going to have his work cut out for him all evening long.
Those defensive line comrades of Gary’s that I mentioned earlier are no slouches either, as guys like DE Chase Winovich (79 tackles, 18.5 TFL, 8 sacks, 6 QBH, 2 FF) are veteran, experienced playmakers, while young buck DTs Aubrey Solomon and Michael Dwumfour look to be the next big thing along the Wolverine defensive front.
With that said, ND fans can take some solace in knowing those younger DTs will have to face preseason All-Americans C Sam Mustipher and LG Alex Bars, who both have only gotten better and better with every year they’ve spent in South Bend. Look for offensive coordinator Chip Long to lean on them to create holes for guys like RB Tony Jones Jr. (232 yds, 5.3 ypc, 3 TD) and RB Jafar Armstrong (converted WR) to scamper through.
The right side of the ND offensive line is rounded out by Tommy Kraemer at RG and Robert Hainsey at RT — two young guns who got major experience last year playing alongside the Quenton Nelsons and Mike McGlincheys and Sam Mustiphers and Alex Barses of the world — so Notre Dame has to feel pretty good about the returning experience and talent, overall, on the offensive line (considering what was lost).
With all that said, whenever Jones Jr., Armstrong, or Wimbush (803 yds, 5.7 ypc, and a school-record-for-a-QB 14 TD in 2017) get into the second level, they will be met by a gaggle of very good, very aggressive, very athletic linebackers.
Devin Bush leads the way there. Considered one of the best linebackers in the country and a potential 1st Round NFL Draft pick, Bush amassed 102 tackles (9.5 TFL), 5 sacks, 8 PBU, 1 QBH, and an INT in 2017. He’s very good against the run and athletic enough to run sideline to sideline and excel in coverage.
How he and the rest of the Michigan linebacking corps deal with the Irish’s tight ends and running backs in passing situations will be very interesting — especially considering all the talent ND has at tight end with Alizé Mack (19 rec, 166 yds, 1 TD), Cole Kmet, and Nic Weishar (9 rec, 52 yds, 2 TD). Other linebackers who will be key in Michigan’s defensive scheme include Khaleke Hudson at the “Viper” position (82 tackles, 18 TFL, 8 sacks, 9 PBU, 2 FF, 2 INT) and Noah Furbush (30 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT).
A wildcard in all of this is the status of senior ND RB Dexter Williams. The electric runner who never has been able to get enough carries did the most with what he got in 2017, picking up 360 yards and 4 touchdowns while running at an incredible 9.2 yards-per-carry clip. Williams is the kind of game-breaker who can find a sliver of daylight, make one cut, and out-sprint the defense 80 yards to the end zone, but there are tons of rumors that he has a 4-game suspension from coach Brian Kelly to start the year. However, Kelly has never confirmed this, and was only able to offer up this week that Williams will be dressed and available, but we will see if he plays.
Adding Williams to an Irish rushing attack that already has Wimbush, Jones Jr., and Armstrong would be HUGE for ND. Subtracting him from it could be HUGE in Michigan’s favor. We won’t know until game time what momentous decision Kelly has made in regards to Williams and whatever he did to once again be in Kelly’s doghouse.
Considering Wimbush and Jones Jr.’s running abilities and the ND offensive line’s ability to pave the way for runners pretty well, that half of the offense is the least of every Irish fan’s worries. Instead, Wimbush’s shaky, inconsistent, and at times disastrous play in 2017 is a major cause for concern going into tomorrow night’s game.
Wimbush wasn’t all bad last year, as he showed the ability to connect with receivers on some GORGEOUS throws. But for every one of those, we all saw him sail a swing pass over a running back’s head or panic under pressure against Miami and throw another pick. He completed just 49.5% of his passes last year and failed to eclipse 2,000 yards through the air. Now, this year, Chip Long has been said to have built more of the play-calling strategy around Wimbush’s abilities and limitations, but we’ll see if that’ll make enough of a difference against the likes of Gary and Bush getting in Wimbush’s face early and often.
If Wimbush is able to get into a rhythm and make some throws, he has a number of weapons he can target through the air. We mentioned the big, athletic tight ends Mack and Kmet above, but he also has huge, rangy wide receivers to throw jump balls to as well.
Junior WR Chase Claypool is probably the best of the bunch (29 rec, 402 yds, 2 TD), and at 6’4” he is fantastic at going up to snare passes over smaller defensive backs.
Opposite him is senior WR Miles Boykin (12 rec, 253 yds, 2 TD), who is also 6’4”, and who you all may remember from a nice little catch he had on New Year’s Day...
Doesn’t seem familiar? What about with a different audio track?
Reliable slot receivers like Chris “Slippery Fox” Finke (6 rec, 102 yds) and Michael Young (1 TD in 2017) will be involved a bit in the passing game as well, and don’t be surprised if a highly-rated freshman like Kevin Austin or a speedster freshman like Braden Lenzy get a few reps as well, as both are remarkable athletes who could really help against such an aggressive, fast Michigan defense.
The Wolverines secondary is much less talked-about than their front seven, but still contains some talented DBs who will not make it easy on all of Brandon Wimbush’s receivers. Safety Tyree Kinnel is the standout of the group statistically, having piled up 69 tackles (nice), 7 PBUs, 2 INT (1 for a TD), and a sack last season. Joining him at the back of the Wolverine defense is Josh Metellus (49 tackles, 5 PBU, 1 FF).
The corners responsible for denying Claypool and Boykin the ball will be David Long and Lavert Hill, two capable corners who combined for 47 tackles, 13 PBUs, and 4 INT last year. If Wimbush isn’t accurate, this secondary will absolutely take advantage — we can be sure of that.
Overall, this will be a critical matchup to watch. If the Michigan defense is as dominant as everyone says they are, and if the ND offense doesn’t answer some of the big questions that have been hanging over them all offseason, this could get ugly. The ND defense can probably keep the team in it, but if the offense can’t move the ball at all, it’s unlikely the Irish will win this one (barring some type of 2002 ND defense-esque performance from Te’von Coney and co.).
Defensive Wolverine to Watch
There were some rumors about a possible injury, so the first order of business will just be to watch and see if he looks to be at 100%. But after that, more importantly, we will all be watching to see how new LT Liam Eichenberg handles such a harrowing first task, and how Brandon Wimbush handles a LOT of pressure from the Wolverine defense, led by this man.
Offensive Irish to Watch
This offense will go as he goes. The running game needs him to have his usual strong performance in the run-pass option and in extending passing plays with his feet, and the passing game needs him to play a clean game turnover-wise and to make smart, accurate throws to the bevy of big targets he has at his disposal. If Brandon Wimbush plays a good-to-very-good game, Notre Dame has an excellent shot at winning this thing.
Not too much to say here considering we haven’t seen either team’s special teams units yet.
Michigan’s key special teamer is probably kicker Quinn Nordin, as he or senior ND kicker Justin Yoon could end up being the difference makers in this one if it comes down to the wire (if both defenses live up to the preseason praise).
On Notre Dame’s side, besides Yoon, punter Tyler Newsome could be another guy whose strong performance is desperately needed. In a defensive-minded matchup that could be won with field position, Newsome, a senior and captain, will need to really pin Michigan deep to give the Irish a better chance at having a short field on offense and racking up some points on Don Brown’s defense.
Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One
Notre Dame 28, Michigan 24
Why: Mostly because I’m a homer and will never pick Michigan to beat Notre Dame, but also because I think Michigan’s defense, although elite, isn’t as much of an “Immovable Object” as people are making it out to be, and because I strangely still believe that Brandon Wimbush can be really good at quarterback (and that Shea Patterson, although good, isn’t as fantastic as people think).
Furthermore, I think the Notre Dame defense has guys out there with a penchant for making plays and forcing turnovers, and that will end up being the difference in this close game between two pretty evenly matched teams.
But enough about what I think — what are your predictions for this one??? Sound off in the comments, folks, and PLEASE wear your green on Saturday and help the team kick the ever-loving shit out of that team from Ann Arbor.
It doesn’t have to be close, you guys.