September 3, 2013 at 2:10 am

John Niyo

Notre Dame game is Michigan's golden opportunity at redemption

Michigan's offensive line will be counted on provide enough support for quarterback Devin Gardner to run against Notre Dame when needed. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

Ann Arbor — Taylor Lewan has no interest in playing a game of chicken, even if it was his own coach that hatched this latest quarrel with one of Michigan’s traditional rivals.

The Wolverines’ All-America left tackle and offensive captain has little time for bulletin-board material, either. Or the fact that ESPN’s College GameDay crew is headed to Michigan’s campus this week, adding to the considerable hype for Saturday night’s showdown with No. 14 Notre Dame.

“It’s a huge deal, all these things going on, all this exciting stuff,” Lewan said Monday, swigging a bottle of water while smartly avoiding any false-start penalties at Michigan’s weekly news conference. “But it’s not for us. It’s for y’all. It’s for the students. For us, we’re playing a game on Saturday.”

More specifically, Lewan and his fellow offensive linemen are playing a game against one of the nation’s best defensive fronts, a group that generally made a mess of things for Michigan in last year’s 13-6 loss to the Fighting Irish.

Denard Robinson and offensive coordinator Al Borges shouldered the blame for much of went wrong in South Bend a year ago, and deservedly so. But shaky pass protection conspired with some questionable play-calling and Robinson’s throwing limitations in that game, and the end result was about as ugly as it gets. Robinson tossed four interceptions on four second-quarter throws, as Michigan essentially threw the game away.

“We didn’t play well,” Lewan said. “None of us did. So that’s unfortunate.”

Fortunately, Michigan gets a shot at redemption — the rivalry’s not going away for a couple more years yet. And for junior quarterback Devin Gardner, there was no hiding his excitement Monday as he talked about getting his turn in the September spotlight.

“It’s what every quarterback dreams of, being on the big stage and being able to perform like this,” said Gardner, who actually led the Wolverines in receiving last year at Notre Dame.

The line forms here

But it’s also time to see just what Borges’ new-and-alumni-approved offense really looks like, assuming what we saw Saturday in the 59-9 rout of Central Michigan was a dress rehearsal in full disguise, save for a punt block and a pistol formation or two.

And it’s in the middle of that offense, right in front of the often-gallivanting Gardner, that the mystery still lies, perhaps, with three new starters in the trenches sandwiched between fifth-year seniors Lewan and Michael Schofield.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke wasn’t thrilled with the offensive tempo Saturday, or some of the penalties. But he came away encouraged about the play of his young offensive line.

“For the most part, and not entirely obviously, they did a pretty good job,” he said. “They’re a pretty stout group, especially the two guards. So, for their first time out there with live bullets, I think they did a good job.”

Right guard Kyle Kalis was solid in his debut Saturday against the Chippewas, but that was expected, given the coaching staff wanted to play the highly touted recruit as true freshman last fall. Walk-on Graham Glasgow, a third-year sophomore, appeared to hold his own at left guard, too. But center Jack Miller struggled at times — a blown snap count here, a goal-line gaffe there — and could be in for a long night Saturday if he doesn’t get some help.

At various times Monday, Lewan referred to Notre Dame’s front seven as “good” and “pretty good” and “great.” No matter where you place them on that X-and-O axis, though, it’s several adjectives better than last week’s opponent.

Fearsome front

Lewan spends hours poring over game tape each week. And while he insists he treats everyone the same — “I don’t care who I’m playing against, I have a job to do, whether it’s Stephon Tuitt for Notre Dame or … Central Michigan,” he said Monday — it’s obvious he’s a bit better acquainted with this week’s matchup than he was with what’s-his-name in the opener.

Tuitt, a defensive end who earned preseason All-America honors, and nose tackle Louis Nix combined for 14 sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season, freeing up the linebackers — Manti Te’o is gone, but Prince Shembo is back this fall — to make plays in Notre Dame’s 3-4 scheme. Both Tuitt and Nix are likely NFL first-round draft picks, “guys that we had some trouble with a year ago,” Hoke admits, and a big reason why Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly proudly touts his defense as “suffocating.”

Tuitt has added 15 pounds since last year, while Nix remains a mammoth obstacle in the middle at nearly 350 pounds with a healthy appetite. When Hoke’s booster-club comments about Notre Dame “chickening out” of the rivalry made headlines back in May, Nix responded via Twitter that MeatChicken — it sounds like “Meechigan,” I believe — “will taste delicious” on Sept. 7.

That dinner date is fast approaching. And after feasting on Chips and Owls for an appetizer, everyone sounds hungry for the main course Saturday night.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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