Michigan vs. Notre Dame: View from the other side

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Brandon Wimbush


Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

TV/radio: NBC/950 AM

Line: Notre Dame by 1

View from the other side

Eric Hansen, who covers Notre Dame for the South Bend Tribune and co-hosts Budweiser’s Weekday SportsBeat (wsbtradio.com), breaks down the Irish for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan-Notre Dame season opener. You can follow him on Twitter at @EHansenNDI

1. Much has been made of this being a pivotal game for the Wolverines coming off an 8-5 season and Jim Harbaugh making offensive staff changes. The Michigan players have said this will be a strong indication of where this team will go in 2018. How are the Notre Dame players looking at this opener? Hanging that much weight on it?

The Notre Dame players learned a lot from the Georgia game last season, a 20-19 home loss in Week 2. The Irish were able to pick themselves up and get back in the playoff mix until a November fade. So to them, the season doesn’t hinge on a singular game.

However, I think this is a litmus test for the ND defense. Many, including me, think this is the best unit the Irish have had since its 2012 team that played for the national title. If Shea Patterson and company amass big points and yards against it, I think this team will struggle with confidence in big games, moving forward.

More: Wojo's Pigskin Picks: Michigan hatching a new plan to beat Notre Dame

More: Michigan savors rekindling of Notre Dame rivalry

More: Angelique S. Chengelis launches podcast: 'View from the Press Box'

2. This will be the 43rd meeting of the two teams, natural rivals. A lot of Michigan fans want to see this as an every-year game. What is the take of Notre Dame fans? What is your opinion?

I think the Irish fans love the bright spotlight, the competition level and, yes, the acrimony this series brings. Every year? I think they’d like to see it at least semi-regularly, and me too. Logistically, I’m not sure how realistic it is when you look at Notre Dame’s future schedules.

In addition to playing USC and Stanford and the five-game ACC commitment every year, in 2020 and 2021, the Irish have Wisconsin. Clemson is one of the ACC games in 2020, road games at Florida State and Virginia Tech are part of that in 2021. In 2022 and 2023, Notre Dame has Ohio State and Clemson. In 2024 and 2025, Texas A&M rotates on, and in 2028 and 2029, Alabama is the opponent.

So unless the Irish want to schedule themselves into the Camping World Bowl or worse, there are very few windows in the next decade that make sense for a Michigan series.

3. OK, onto the game. How has quarterback Brandon Wimbush improved? How do you think he will handle this Michigan defense? And will Ian Book play?

The biggest thing with Wimbush is his confidence. Brian Kelly said it very well in his press conference on Tuesday: “We can’t have a fear of failure at that position. We’re going to make mistakes. We have to understand the difference between letting our guys make plays and be who they are versus being paralyzed with fear of failure, and Brandon falls under that category.

“At times he got himself in a place where he didn’t want to fail. The quarterback position can’t be that. You have to be a guy that is out there making plays within the scope of the offense — we’re not drawing it up in the sand.”

I do think Wimbush is a more confident player heading into 2018, and that will show in his mechanics, his field vision in the passing game, and his reads in the read-option game over the balance of the season. A better relationship with the play-caller, offensive coordinator Chip Long, was an important dynamic in his improvement.

Against Michigan’s defense, especially, I think he still will labor when pressure is in his face. If that happens enough, Kelly will go to Ian Book. If it doesn’t, I think Book stays on the bench. Don’t overlook, though, Wimbush’s impact on the ND running game.

4. So much has been made of Michigan’s defense, but how would you evaluate the Irish defense under first-year coordinator Clark Lea?

They made big strides under Lea’s predecessor and mentor, Mike Elko, in 2017, and I think you’ll continue to see more evolution this season, because ND’s players are better, more experienced and they don’t have to deal with safeties that are extremely limited.

How that plays out on the field, will be more press coverage from the corners, a better pass rush and more aggressive play-calling from Lea than Elko could get by with in 2017.

5. What do you think will be the key for Notre Dame to beat Michigan?

Turnovers and winning the rushing battle are always big keys. In Brian Kelly’s case, he’s 36-4 when winning the turnover battle, 20-24 when he loses it. He’s 51-8 when his teams win the rushing battle, 16-26 when they do not.

The offensive lines for both teams are front and center, particularly for the Irish first-time starter at left tackle, Liam Eichenberg. Defensively, ND must adjust on the fly to an unfamiliarity with both Shea Patterson and perhaps an evolved offensive philosophy built around his skill set.

Chase Claypool

Players to watch

Brandon Wimbush, QB: Wimbush, a dual-threat senior, took over for the Irish last season and helped lead the team to a 10-3 record. He threw for 1,870 yards and 16 touchdowns to only six interceptions in 12 starts last season, which included three 200-yard games. He’s dangerous as a runner and gained 803 yards on 141 attempts (5.7 yards per rush) with a team-high 14 rushing touchdowns.

Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin, WR: The Irish have two towering receivers the Michigan defensive players have mentioned several times this past week. Claypool is just under 6-foot-5, 227 pounds, and junior Miles Boykin is 6-4, 228. Claypool leads all returning Notre Dame receivers – he had 29 catches for 402 yards (13.9 yards per catch) and two touchdowns over 12 games last season, which included eight starts. Against Wake Forest last November, he had nine catches for 180 yards and a touchdown. Boykin caught 12 passes for 253 yards (team-high 21.1 yards per catch) and two touchdowns over his 12 games played in 2017. He made his first start in the 2018 Citrus Bowl and accounted for three receptions for 102 yards, and a 55-yard touchdown catch with 1:28 left that lifted Notre Dame to victory over LSU. He was named Citrus Bowl MVP.

Tony Jones Jr., RB: Jones is the leading returning rusher from a group that gained just more than 269 yards per game to rank seventh nationally.  He played in 12 games last season and got his first career start against Stanford, and gained 232 yards on 44 carries (5.3 yards per rush) with three touchdowns. Jones had a career-best performance in the win over Wake Forest, carrying 10 times for 59 yards and a touchdown to help lead the Irish to the win.

Facts and figures

Fourth time: Michigan and Notre Dame are meeting in a season-opening night game for the fourth time in series history, dating back to the inaugural night game held at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 18, 1982. This is the third time in four seasons the Irish will open the regular season in primetime. The Irish are 12-4 in prior season-opening night games, which includes a 4-0 record at Notre Dame Stadium. This will be the eighth time the programs have met in primetime and Notre Dame has the series lead, 5-2.  Michigan is 113-22-3 in season openers.

Tough, tough, tough: The Wolverines’ opponents this season were a combined 96-57 last season (.627), the third-highest percentage of all FBS programs. Six of Michigan’s 12 opponents won 10 or more games and seven played in bowl games.

Ending the skid: Michigan and Notre Dame haven’t played since the Irish routed the Wolverines, 31-0, at South Bend in 2014. The Irish have won the last two against Michigan, but UM leads the series, 24-17-1. There’s another losing streak the Wolverines want to end. Michigan has lost the last four games from which ESPN’s GameDay broadcast. GameDay will be in South Bend even though the game will be carried on NBC.