On Saturday, the final (scheduled) clash between Michigan and Notre Dame in the Big House is set to kick off shortly after 8 p.m. (ESPN/WatchESPN). It’s sure to be an electric atmosphere and if past be present, the game should be one to remember. Here are a few story lines to look for as the 14th-ranked Irish take the field against the 17th-ranked Wolverines.
1. Louis Nix III vs. Michigan’s interior linemen.
The Wolverines’ offensive line looked good against Central Michigan. But let’s be serious, they should’ve looked good. A much bigger test comes this weekend for the three interior guys -- Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller and Kyle Kalis -- who all picked up their first starts seven days ago. Nix is a 342-pound anchor who easily outweighs each of Michigan’s interior O-linemen (and still would even if the Michigan O-linemen put sand bags on their backs). Nix is on nearly every watch list a defensive lineman can be on and he’s considered the top defensive tackle in this season’s NFL draft. He’ll be a tough task for Michigan’s young front. It’s not out of the question that the Wolverines can hold up against Nix, but the advantage here definitely leans toward Notre Dame.
2. Battle of the quarterbacks.
Over the last few seasons this has been a game that has given quarterbacks the opportunity to shine … or tank. Tommy Rees had an impressive showing against Temple. He finished the day 16-of-23 for 346 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions. Devin Gardner on the other hand, threw two picks against Central Michigan, but finished 10-of-15 for 162 yards and touchdown, while also adding 52 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. Much of Gardner’s productivity could be dependent on how his three interior linemen do against Nix, because if they can’t contain the pocket, he’ll be forced to make decisions on the move. And while he has shown that he’s an effective scrambler, Notre Dame’s front seven is stout and they could draw him into costly mistakes. Michigan’s defensive line is still somewhat of an unknown commodity since it’s unsure whether they’ll still look as good against a sizeable offensive line. But I don’t think we scratched the surface of Greg Mattison’s blitzes. Expect him to throw a few early ones at Rees, just to get the senior on his heels.
3. Can both teams avoid turnovers?
No matter what Michigan says, the memory of last season remains. There’s no way to completely erase a six-turnover game or the chip that kind of a night leaves on your shoulders. It’s still early enough in the season that neither coach is completely happy with his defense (and they’ll say they never really are), but it’s likely that whichever teams forces the most turnovers will also be the one victorious at the end of the day. Whether it’s the secondary picking off passes or the front seven forcing fumbles, both defenses are going to be on the prowl for creating turnovers so they can win that battle.
Can we get a camera set up just on these two the entire game? This is going to be a matchup to watch. NFL scouts will be in the press box just to see these two go after it (as well as a few other guys). But really, it’s two top-10 NFL picks going head-to-head on a huge stage with a lot on the line. Lewan passed up the NFL so he could play in matchups like this one while wearing maize and blue.
5. Which Michigan running back will get the most snaps?
Fitzgerald Toussaint is the starter. We get it. But in a week, true freshman Derrick Green jumped from fifth-string RB to primary backup. Not too shabby. Notre Dame’s front seven is talented, even without Manti Te’o, and the Wolverines will have to find a way to run against it. Last season, Toussaint rushed for 58 yards on 13 carries against Notre Dame. But take out his 31-yard jaunt and Toussaint averaged just over two yards per carry. That’s not going to cut it. On Saturday Michigan could use both Toussaint and Green just to put different paces on the field, but it will be very interesting -- and very telling -- to see which running back ultimately takes the most snaps by the end of the game. Al Borges has been very adamant about having a featured back at Michigan but he has recently said that he wouldn’t count anything out. Perhaps a two-back system (or something like it) could be utilized against the Irish.