Notre Dame has a chance to make a statement tonight when it takes on Michigan.
The Fighting Irish have won two straight against the Wolverines, but both victories came at home. Notre Dame has lost four straight in Michigan Stadium and seven of the last eight. Two of those losses were 38-0, and the last trip to Ann Arbor ended with a 41-30 Irish loss.
Notre Dame is also just 4-11 in true road games against ranked opponents under head coach Brian Kelly.
From a rivalry standpoint there is certainly a lot at stake, but there is even more at stake when it comes to Notre Dame’s standing in the upcoming College Football Playoff ranking. This matchup is also an opportunity for Notre Dame to show it truly is a different program than it was the previous two decades.
Notre Dame is the better team on paper, but games aren’t played on paper. We should have an idea early on if the Irish are playing in a way that will allow them to have the impressive win they are capable of earning, or if we are going to see what we usually see in these moments.
Here’s what I’m looking for early in the game to know if the Irish are locked in:
1. Ian Book is making good reads, throwing decisively and attacking Michigan — Notre Dame is going to have a hard time winning this game if Book doesn’t play well. Rain or not, Book needs to make smart reads, throw with confidence and be willing to attack the Wolverine defense.
2. The line is picking up the Michigan pressures and getting movement — Michigan is going to throw a lot at Notre Dame early, so the Irish blockers will need to be on top of their game. If they can pick it up early and get movement it will be a great sign of things to come.
3. Chip Long’s game plan is getting the skill players in space — In games like this we’ve seen Long have a tendency to come out with an aggressive game plan, and that’s what he needs to do against Michigan as well. I want to see if Long can figure out ways to get his playmakers (Chase Claypool, Cole Kmet, Jafar Armstrong, Braden Lenzy) isolated in favorable matchups and get them opportunities for big plays.
1. The front six seven spending a lot of time in the backfield — If Notre Dame is going to win this game its defense needs to be on top of its game; this is especially true of the front seven. If they can dominate this game the Wolverines won’t be able to score enough to win. We should know early if the group is ready to attack, make plays and shut down the Michigan offense.
2. Notre Dame is limiting big plays in the pass game — Winning at the line of scrimmage won’t mean as much if the secondary is giving up big plays down the field.
3. Clark Lea’s unit is not making mistakes and is tackling well — Michigan has not shown itself to be good enough to consistently move the ball up and down the field against good defense. If the Irish defense is aggressive, disciplined and plays clean football it should be able to keep Michigan’s points down. We should know early if the defense is ready to play that kind of ball or if it is going to get gashed.
1. No mistakes — The last thing Notre Dame can afford to do is make early mistakes on special teams. A short Irish punt set up Michigan’s first points last season, and after going up 21-3 the Irish coverage units allowed Michigan to take the next kick back for a score. The Irish can’t afford similar mistakes.
2. Win the field position battle — Making Michigan go long distances series after series is important, as is giving the Irish offense as many short fields as possible.