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Matchup of the Week: Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara vs Michigan’s Jalen Mayfield

The first year starter for Michigan will have his hands full on Saturday

Michigan v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines are desperate for a big win with all the backlash that has come around the program in the past week. The loss to Penn State last Saturday sent the national media into a frenzy with several people criticizing the Michigan program and their fans.

Then rumors began spreading, like they do every year, that Harbaugh was looking for a way out at Michigan, and he quickly disputed those rumors with a letter to people within the program.

Needless to say, the best way to shut up all the doubters is by winning this game on Saturday. Yes, the hopes for the College Football Playoff are long gone, and for a Big Ten Championship are minuscule at best, but rivalry season is when Michigan fans really get riled up. A win against Notre Dame would put some great light on the program in a very dark time.

It’s going to boil down to Michigan winning at the line of scrimmage, and there is one specific matchup that is intriguing there. Notre Dame’s senior EDGE rusher Julian Okwara has had some big moments in big games and he is going to be the guy that Michigan will need to stop. Lined up across from him will likely be Jalen Mayfield, Michigan’s sophomore starting right tackle, who has had his struggles in his first full season as a starter.

Okwara has had a decent season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but he is probably the most explosive player on the defensive side of the ball. He has four sacks on the season, two forced fumbles, and 12 total tackles this season. Three of those sacks came at home on September 28 against Virginia where he nearly single-handedly changed the outcome of the game.

To be fair, it doesn’t seem like Virginia’s right tackle had the greatest skill set based on this video, but Okwara has a rare combination of size and speed that makes him very difficult to guard. Despite poor offensive line play, Okwara made the plays that change the tone of that football game and it shows the kind of player that he can be if he is allowed to get to the quarterback.

Okwara is used similarly to Kwity Paye by Notre Dame. Most often, he lines up at the defensive end position, but there are times that he will be sent in a blitz from other points on the field.

In 2018, Okwara brought his name to the attention of some NFL scouts after tallying 8 sacks and is projected by some to be a first-round pick in the 2019 draft. A good game against Michigan in primetime is only going to help the chances of him being rated highly heading into the draft.

The Wolverines will have to find a way to slow him down so that he doesn’t have an impact like he did against Virginia. According to Football Outsiders, the Michigan offensive line has a 5.7% sack rate, the 62nd in the nation (barely above average).

So Jalen Mayfield will likely line up across from Okwara the most on Saturday, and he is going to have his toughest assignment of the season to this point. Mayfield has been slowly progressing into a quality starting right tackle throughout the season, but he still has moments where he looks like the youngest player on the Wolverines veteran-heavy line.

The sophomore tackle is 6’5”, 320 pounds and is athletic and a good pass blocker. He will likely be the only returning starter on the line next year for Michigan, so his development at the end of the season will be crucial to the Wolverines making a run in 2020.

What he needs is some solid performances against Michigan’s toughest opponents down the stretch to build some confidence. Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State have some of the best defensive lines in the country, and we are going to see if Mayfield can be the guy that the Wolverines need going forward based on how he plays here down the stretch.