Done with the watch lists. Done with the preseason hot takes. Done with the most damaging offseason in conference history.
You need to know these four words, and only these four: Michigan at Notre Dame. The Wolverines travel to South Bend tomorrow night for the first time since 2014, determined to top the Irish in a top 15 battle.
After a marathon of preseason appetizers, from clips from the spring to this week’s open practice, the main course has arrived.
MOTO (Master of the Obvious)
No. 14 Michigan at No. 11 Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. EST)
Radio: Michigan IMG Sports Network (TuneIn)
Line: Michigan by 1 (Bovada)
Last decade: The Wolverines are 4-3 since 2008, though Notre Dame beat Brady Hoke’s final team 31-0 in 2014.
The most recent Accuweather forecast predicts a 55 percent chance of showers or thunderstorms Saturday night. Also, from Kyle Rowland of the Toledo Blade:
Weather forecast for Saturday in South Bend: pic.twitter.com/xzeqZfXuTc— Kyle Rowland (@KyleRowland) August 29, 2018
Michigan’s two home night games last year saw heavy rain. A coin flip’s chance determines whether its night opener is similarly effected.
Michigan offense vs. Notre Dame defense
The passing game
Even with Tarik Black, Michigan possesses too many unproven commodities in its passing game to take advantage of a superb Notre Dame secondary.
First-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea inherited all of last year’s starters from 2017’s No. 7 S&P pass defense, as well as a promising transfer in former Navy Midshipman Alohi Gilman.
The cornerback duo are only a small notch below Lavert Hill and David Long, who allowed the two lowest quarterback ratings when targeted last season per Pro Football Focus.
The star is Julian Love, a rising junior who made the preseason AP All-American second team. He broke up 23 passes, second-most in the country, made 68 tackles and picked off three throws — two returned for touchdowns.
1:38 for one versus North Carolina State. The other was against Michigan State, but can only be seen in a 360-degree video.
His partner in crime is former Michigan commit Shaun Crawford, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior who batted five passes of his own (UPDATE: He tore his ACL during practice week. He is likely lost for the season). The backup and occasional nickel is Tony Pride Jr., a taller option who also recorded five pass deflections.
Three safeties rotate between senior Nick Coleman and juniors Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott. They fall into the “better safe than sorry” category of safety, as they rank near the bottom in S&P’s Havoc rate, but No. 5 nationally in preventing big plays.
In terms of pressure, the hope for the Irish is that defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem (combined 10 TFL’s and 5.5 sacks in 2017) create more chaos than their predecessors. Jerry Tillery and Ann Arbor Skyline’s Daelin Hayes have the athleticism to stunt, but a middle-of-the-road sack rate for the whole defense suggests a read-and-react approach.
The linebackers rarely got home to the quarterback, only chipping in 4.5 sacks between Tevon Coney and Drue Tranquill.
For Michigan, the last nine months have been defined by transition. Shea Patterson transferred from Ole Miss. Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and others evolved into sophomores. Ed Warinner instilled simpler stunt and blitz pickups for the offensive line.
Despite plenty of positive buzz this summer, there are far too many questions about line cohesion, player development and quarterback fit to truly trust the passing game at this point. It was No. 86 on S&P last year for a reason.
Also, can 6-foot-4 (in spikes) Jon Runyan Jr. cope at left tackle?
Watch for Shea Patterson to take what Notre Dame gives him, dumping it off to the likes of Sean McKeon, Zach Gentry and Chris Evans on short passes to limit mistakes and keep the chains moving.
Advantage: Notre Dame
The rushing attack
This is where Michigan needs to butter their bread.
Overall, Notre Dame ranked No. 27 overall in S&P defense last year, one spot behind Indiana. Karan Higdon seized the starting job against the Hoosiers last year with a 200-yard performance.
As pointed out in July’s Tale of the Tape, Notre Dame holds three cards to win games in the interior: Tillery and Jonathan Bonner at the tackles, and Coney at middle linebacker. Against Stanford, they contained Bryce Love by refusing to let the Stanford guards push them off their marks.
Tillery and Coney have proven to be productive. At tackle, the former tallied 56 tackles, nine TFLs and 4.5 sacks. The latter cleared the century mark with 116 tackles, 11 TFLs and three sacks.
Cracks in the run defense started to show late in the year. Teams like Miami (Fla.) and Wake Forest found running lanes, and too much focus to stuff Stanford led to linebackers and safeties out of position to stop play-action.
From Ben Bredeson at left guard to Juwann Bushell-Beatty at right tackle, Ed Warinner boasts four linemen with a ton of bulk to push around the Irish front. With all the problems offensively a year ago, the rushing attack ranked No. 14 in S&P.
While the passing game may not be stellar, an improvement towards mere competence creates enough honesty from opposing defenses to pave the way for a smashing year on the ground.
Michigan defense vs. Notre Dame offense
The passing game
Brian Kelly confirmed this week Brandon Wimbush will start. The insider scoop from Notre Dame circles is he is the epitome of “can’t hit the broadside of a barn.”
His season stats tell two stories. One, he completed less than half of his throws, and since he struggles with simple swing passes, this trend should persist. Two, he threw 16 touchdowns to only six interceptions, showing that Brian Kelly plays it safe with his rising senior.
His legs do most of the talking, as he racked up 804 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. Against Don Brown, though, you have to be multi-dimensional. Mighty Ohio State and J.T. Barrett managed only 17 offensive points — removing one 13-yard drive in 2016 — in seven regulation quarters the last two meetings.
Ask how Minnesota’s Demry Croft fared in a run-heavy scheme.
Wimbush has weapons in the 6-foot-4 tandem of Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool, but if he’s hitting Mishawaka when he’s aiming for South Bend, they won’t be factors. If he clears the obstacle of throwing straight, he then has to deal with Hill and Long.
Without a consistent passing game, Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson will tee off to stuff the run. As long as the interior of Mike Dwumfour, Aubrey Solomon and Bryan Mone holds up, the disruptors will disrupt.
Backup quarterback Ian Book will also play, according to Kelly.
Brian Kelly asked if Brandon Wimbush is still the guy or if Ian Book has closed the gap. Said game plan set to Wimbush’s strengths and “we’ll play them both if we need to.” Wimbush will start.— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) August 23, 2018
Book trades more arm talent with more mistakes, as he gave away four interceptions in limited action in 2017. For what it’s worth, he led a comeback win over LSU in the 2018 Capital One Bowl.
The fact he was not able to unseat the wildly inaccurate Wimbush is telling. For all of Kelly’s idiosyncrasies, he knows how to manage quarterbacks, from Everett Golson in the 2012 BCS finalist year to DeShone Kizer/Malik Zaire in 2015. He knows something about Book that gives him pause.
The rushing attack
Offensive coordinator Chip Long lost two All-Americans on the offensive line, but inherited two on the preseason list in left guard Alex Bars — brother of Blake — and center Sam Mustipher — not to be confused with Darth Vader’s lava hideout Mustafar.
Three sophomores look poised to start at the other three spots: Robert Hainsey and Liam Eichenberg at the tackles, and Tommy Kraemer at right guard.
The Irish produced the No. 5 rush offense per S&P in 2017, but after an ankle injury to Bars in a pile-driving 49-14 victory over rival USC, the run game scuffled against Miami (Fla.), Navy, Stanford and LSU.
Also, Brian Kelly is without the services of his top two running backs from last year in Josh Adams (drafted) and Dexter Williams (suspended). This likely leaves the running load up to Wimbush and rising junior back Tony Jones.
Jones ran for 232 yards and three scores in spot duty last year. At 5-foot-11, 225 pounds, he received praise for losing baby fat to add some extra juice to his step.
The lack of a threatening passing game exacerbates the issues of three underclassmen linemen and a new starting back. As mentioned before, Don Brown will attack the Notre Dame offense with impunity.
Unless they keep Michigan honest, perhaps by beating a safety over the top with a slot fade, they’ll be hard pressed to find much room.
Isn’t that special?
Quinn Nordin and Justin Yoon are among the nation’s best kickers, but both teams ranked near the bottom in most special teams categories in 2017. Who even knows who Michigan’s punter is?
In a game potentially hampered by inclement conditions, punting looms large. Both teams will look to manufacture points with field position.
Advantage: Notre Dame by a punter
Patterson is more proven as a passer than Wimbush. This opens up more possibilities for Michigan to win.
Patterson has a bit of a history with turnovers, which doesn’t bode well with the potential weather issues. However, Notre Dame has yet to piece together consecutive double-digit win seasons under Brian Kelly. After several departures from last year’s 10-3 outfit, this group may be destined for slight regression.
Michigan has the pieces and opportunity to grab their first road win over a ranked opponent since besting the No. 2 ranked Irish in 2006.
Michigan 20, Notre Dame 14