The Michigan Wolverines are considered to be underdogs in tonight’s matchup with Notre Dame, but that doesn’t mean the Irish are sweeping advantages across the board. Michigan showed last week in its season opener that this team is becoming a more well rounded unit, capable of competing at every phase of the game, which wasn’t the case last season. Some questions still remain to be answered, specifically with an offensive line that recently lost backup guard Kyle Bosch for an undisclosed period of time, but it’s becoming easier to envision a breakthrough on the horizon.
Last week, I called out the offensive line and said it had a test to pass against Appalachian State, mostly because the Mountaineers weren’t going to be able to compete anywhere else on the field. This week, however, I’m moving away from the line and putting the pressure on Notre Dame’s secondary. Devin Gardner struggles on the road traditionally, but he torched the Irish last season and now has arguably one of the best receiving options in the country with the 6-foot-5 Devin Funchess. The Irish secondary, which struggled last week, will be challenged immensely tonight by the arm of Gardner.
Matchup of the game: Notre Dame secondary vs. Devin Gardner
Last season, Gardner played an incredible game against Notre Dame in his first game with the No. 98 jersey. With 294 yard and four touchdowns, as well as 82 yards on the ground—which led all rushers for the game—Gardner hit a high note in what would turn out to be an uncomfortable up-and-down season. The only key factor missing from that performance that won’t be here this time around is standout wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, who hauled in eight catches for 184 yards and three scores. That void looks to be filled, though, with Funchess. Tonight will be a true test of where Michigan is in its passing game.
Against Rice last week, Notre Dame’s secondary looked atrocious at times. Communication would sometimes go absent, resulting in five big plays from the Rice offense. And although the secondary cleared things up well enough as the game progressed, it certainly offered reason for concern against a Michigan offense that will obviously be better equipped than Rice.
Part of the blame can be placed on an MCL injury to senior safety Austin Collinsworth, who was the undoubted glue that held the backend together. Couple that with the suspensions of safety Eilar Hardy and cornerback KeiVarae Russell and you can see why the secondary looked so shaky last week. But finding the cause doesn’t mean finding the cure.
In recent past, this game has come down to the play of the quarterback, and Michigan has won that competition repeatedly. The Wolverines will try to build off the ground success they found last week with Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, but there’s no telling how well (or consistently) that will work against the Irish. In case of struggles up front, it’ll come down to Gardner’s ability to make things happen through the air, which he hasn’t been able to do very well on the road. Having a big, athletic target like Funchess is going to be huge, and an Irish secondary that could very well struggle again tonight means the pressure is on Notre Dame to put the clamps on Gardner’s arm.