Irish Look To Buck Recent Big House HistoryBy Joanne Norell
It’s true that, since a squad from Michigan traveled to South Bend to teach a team from Notre Dame the basic tenets of this new game called football in 1887, the Fighting Irish and Wolverines have not played more often than they have. In the 131 intervening years, the teams have met just 43 times.
It’s also true that — despite protestations to the contrary — these two teams are right near the top of each other’s rival list anyway.
That rivalry will be renewed for the final time Saturday evening, at least for the foreseeable future, with the eighth-ranked Irish (5-1) set to clash with the 19th-ranked Wolverines (5-2) at Michigan Stadium.
“I think it’s a game that our players are keenly aware of the great history and tradition over the years,” Dick Corbett Head Football Coach Brian Kelly said. “A lot of these guys are recruited to Notre Dame as well. You know, you’re only a couple hours away. … The proximity is certainly one that we’re quite aware of as well. So, clearly the guys know Michigan. They know the history and tradition of it. They know it’s a really good football team.
“Look, what gets their attention more than anything else, it’s a really good football team. If it wasn’t, we would be talking about other things.”
What’s on the line? For the Irish, it’s maintaining an outside shot at a return to the College Football Playoff. For Michigan, it’s getting a desperately needed resume win to make the case for a New Year’s Six bowl berth.
But, of course, it’s more than that.
Notre Dame hasn’t won in Ann Arbor in four tries — not since 2005 when the No. 20 Irish upset the third-ranked Wolverines. After a blowout loss in 2007 (when the Irish went 3-9), Notre Dame lost in its next three visits by four, four and 11 points, respectively.
After the series went on hiatus following the 2014 season, it resumed for the current home-and-home agreement in 2018. Last season, the Irish opened the year with a 24-17 victory over the Wolverines — a win more convincing than the final score would indicate — en route to an undefeated regular season. Time will tell if the break, paired with an Irish resurgence in recent years, will spell a reversal of fortunes in the Big House.
Keys To The Game
- The Wolverines are coming off, perhaps, their best game of the season, albeit in a 28-21 loss at No. 6 Penn State last Saturday. After flailing through the first half, Michigan finished with 417 total yards, 26 first downs and a sizable time of possession advantage.
- Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson presents a dual threat as an accurate passer and a scrambling weapon, so the Irish will look to keep him contained to mitigate his ability to create.
- Also look for the Irish to staunch the Wolverine running game led by Zach Charbonnet. The freshman is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and leads the team with seven touchdowns on the ground.
- The Irish offense ranks 13th nationally in scoring with 39.2 points per game and 30th in total offense, averaging 451.0 yards per contest.
- Notre Dame also ranks first nationally in turnover margin at +1.67 per game.
- Senior Tony Jones Jr. has been the heart of the Irish offense in recent weeks, having rattled off three straight 100+ rushing performances, including a career high 176 against USC. He will have help against the Wolverines, with junior Jafar Armstrong expected to play a larger role after returning from injury and recording one carry against the Trojans.
- After sustaining a barrage of questions early in the season, the Irish offensive line has been one of the best in the nation. According to Pro Football Focus, the unit has led the nation in pass-blocking efficiency with a 94.4 rating. And, this week, the line was added to the Joe Moore Award Midseason Honor Roll for the third straight year.
Weathering the Conditions
Saturday night’s contest will be the second marquee road game for the Irish this season, having already played in front of a record 93,426 at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium. Notre Dame and its fanbase are no strangers to the 107,601-seat Big House, but Saturday will be a new experience for this Irish roster, the program having not played at Michigan Stadium since 2013.
The good news? While the Irish certainly felt the effects of the noise-and-light show put on in Athens, they still came within a possession or two of victory over the Bulldogs. Michigan Stadium lacks the same kind of technological capabilities, but the Irish can certainly count on the crowd playing a factor. With a similar game under their belts and an extra week to prepare for the decibel level, the Irish will hope to quiet the Wolverine faithful early.
“We started (practicing) our nonverbal cadence, last week,” Kelly said at his weekly press conference Monday. “I learned that that’s something that requires much more repetition, so that was learned. We’re not going to make that same mistake twice.
“I think our guys are really tuned into understanding that the atmosphere will be loud and that you cannot be distracted if you are interested in executing at a high level. If you’re distracted, then you’re not in the right place emotionally, and our guys are pretty locked in on that.”
Then there’s the weather to consider.
As of Friday morning, the Saturday evening forecast is looking especially soggy with temperatures in the upper 40s, according to AccuWeather: “Cloudy and mild; evening rain, heavy at times followed by a couple of showers late.”
Now, neither Notre Dame nor Michigan are strangers to playing in those quintessentially October conditions — and don’t forget the literal hurricanes the Irish have weathered in recent seasons. Just something to keep in mind if this one comes down to the wire.