Notre Dame travels to Ann Arbor on Saturday night to renew its rivalry with Michigan. Revenge will be on the mind for the Wolverines after losing 24-17 to the Fighting Irish in South Bend last year. On the other sideline, Notre Dame doesn’t have much margin for error if it wants to earn a trip to the CFB Playoff. With a loss at Georgia earlier this year, the Fighting Irish are in a must-win scenario every week until late November.
Michigan was picked by some as the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten this year, but the Wolverines haven’t quite lived up to the hype. After a 2-0 start, Michigan was dominated in a 35-14 loss at Wisconsin. Coach Jim Harbaugh’s team rebounded to win its next three games but lost 28-21 at Penn State last Saturday. While last week’s loss in Happy Valley essentially knocked this team out of the Big Ten title race, the Wolverines showed signs in the second half and can build on that performance versus Notre Dame.
Notre Dame was off last Saturday, which marked the halfway point of the season for coach Brian Kelly’s team. The Fighting Irish are 5-1 and have won three straight since losing to Georgia 23-17 on Sept. 21. Following Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor, Notre Dame will play three of its next four matchups at home, including a Nov. 2 game versus Virginia Tech. The loss to Georgia will hamper hopes of a repeat trip to the CFB Playoff. But an 11-1 or 10-2 Fighting Irish squad will be in the mix for a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl.
Michigan holds a 24-18-1 series edge over Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have won three out of the last four meetings against the Wolverines.
Notre Dame at Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -1
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Quarterback Ian Book is the catalyst for Notre Dame’s offense. The junior enters Saturday’s game completing 63.2 percent of his throws for 1,419 yards and 14 touchdowns to just two interceptions. Book also ranks second on the team with 188 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He’s on pace to exceed last year’s totals through the air but just four of his 14 passing scores have come against Power 5 teams.
Keeping Book in check will be the top priority for coordinator Don Brown, and as expected, generating pressure with the defensive front is at the top of the gameplan. Michigan has generated 23 sacks through seven games, with Josh Uche (5.5), Kwity Paye (4.5) and Jordan Glasgow (4.0) the main contributors. The Wolverines are holding teams to just 4.3 yards a play and 19 points a game and have benefitted from the development of lineman Aidan Hutchinson, linebacker Cameron McGrone and cornerback Ambry Thomas.
Book’s supporting cast should get a boost from running back Jafar Armstrong, who played sparingly in the win over USC on Oct. 12. He was projected as a breakout candidate in the preseason but has only three carries due to injury. With Armstrong returning, the Fighting Irish backfield has a solid one-two punch in place with Tony Jones (557) coming off his best performance of the season (176 against USC). Book’s favorite target has been Chase Claypool (27 catches), but tight end Cole Kmet has 21 grabs in his four appearances this year.
Notre Dame’s offense has only seven plays of 40 yards or more this season, but Michigan’s secondary gave up a few big plays in last week’s loss at Penn State. Can Book connect with Claypool or Finke to generate a couple of big plays on Saturday night? As mentioned previously, the Wolverines want to generate pressure and put Notre Dame behind the sticks all night. If Jones and Armstrong chip away on early downs, with Book continuing his efficiency (and using his legs when needed), the Fighting Irish should leave Ann Arbor with a win.
When Michigan Has the Ball
Michigan came up short in Happy Valley last week, but the offense showed some signs of life. The Wolverines had scoring opportunities on five of their last seven drives and finished with 417 overall yards. Was last week’s performance a sign of things to come or a one-week mirage?
For Michigan to match last week’s offensive output, quarterback Shea Patterson has to pick up where he left off. The senior connected on 24 throws for 276 yards and added 34 more yards and a score on the ground. Patterson has a deep group of playmakers at his disposal, which will test a Notre Dame secondary that ranks 21st nationally in pass efficiency defense. Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black have each caught at least 17 passes this season and are capable of hitting the big plays downfield or connecting with Patterson on some of the underneath throws.
Harbaugh and Gattis don’t want to overwork freshman running back Zach Charbonnet, but the freshman is the team’s best option on the ground. After recording 33 carries in a win over Army, Charbonnet had only 20 carries in Michigan’s next three games. He’s had double-digit attempts in each of the last three (13, 18 and 15) and should see a healthy dose once again on Saturday night. Hassan Hawkins and Christian Turner will also see snaps at running back, with backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey lurking as a potential x-factor on the ground. Notre Dame is giving up 151 yards a game and could be vulnerable to inside runs by Charbonnet and Hawkins.
Michigan’s offensive line had an uneven start to the year but has allowed only three sacks over the last three games. The Wolverines held up well in the trip to Happy Valley against a standout Penn State front, and this unit will be challenged again on Saturday. Notre Dame’s line is anchored by standout ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara (8.5 combined sacks), while linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is in the mist of a breakout year. The safety trio of Kyle Hamilton, Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott is a strength, but depth in the secondary is a concern. The Fighting Irish haven’t allowed an opponent to reach 30 points this season and are holding offenses to 4.95 yards a play. Can Notre Dame’s defensive line disrupt the line of scrimmage and get the Wolverines into third-and-long situations? Michigan only converts 37.8 of its third-down attempts, so long-yardage downs play into the hands of Okwara and Kareem.
This must-see matchup on Saturday night is a tough one to predict. Notre Dame is coming off a bye week, while Michigan is trying to recalibrate after a tough loss in Happy Valley. Both teams bring standout defenses to this matchup, so a couple of plays or turnovers from the offenses might decide this matchup. The guess here is Book plays mistake-free ball, and the defense delivers a key stop or two in the fourth quarter that swings this game in favor of the Golden Domers.