Roy Roundtree’s game-winning catch stunned Notre Dame in 2011.
There was little to be learned from either Notre Dame’s or Michigan’s opening-weekend wins. The Irish stomped an overmatched Temple team, while Michigan ran roughshod over Central Michigan. Those games were little more than prologues for Sept. 7.
The last Notre Dame-Michigan showdown at the Big House: an instant classic. Denard Robinson hit Roy Roundtree for a touchdown with less than 10 seconds to go, following a long catch-and-run by Jeremy Gallon. Notre Dame’s previous trip to the Big House before that? Tate Forcier hit Greg Mathews with 11 seconds on the clock for a win.
The stakes are high again, with both teams in the top 20 and meeting in Ann Arbor for what will be the final teams for at least several years. How will it all play out on Saturday night?
Michigan’s Key to Victory: Establish the run.
Easier said than done. Notre Dame features one of college football’s more feared defensive lines, anchored by future draft picks Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix. Michigan’s young interior line will have its hands full keeping that duo from getting into the backfield, both on run plays and when Devin Gardner drops back.
Gardner’s task will be even tougher if Notre Dame can force the Wolverines in second- and third-and-long situations by stuffing Fitzgerald Toussaint, Derrick Green and the rest of Michigan’s running backs. Michigan needs to be a dual-threat team in this one — and Gardner is not near the dangerous weapon on the ground that Denard Robinson (and Tate Forcier) proved to be in recent matchups with the Irish.
Notre Dame’s Key to Victory: Get Tommy Rees in the zone.
In the inaugural Under the Lights game, Rees threw for 315 yards and three TDs, including one in the closing seconds that looked like it might give the Irish a win. But his mistakes proved costly — Rees fired a pair of interceptions and fumbled deep in Michigan territory in the fourth quarter. Last season, he came off the bench in Notre Dame’s win over Michigan to hit on 8-of-11 passes.
Rees, now a senior, came out cooking last week against Temple, finishing 16-of-23 for 346 yards and three touchdowns. If he has that level of success against Michigan on Saturday night, Gardner’s offense will have a real hard time keeping up.
Michigan’s Player to Watch: Blake Countess.
The Wolverines were without Countess in that sloppy South Bend loss last season. He returned to game action last week, and he’ll be part of that Michigan secondary which will be tested by Rees early and often Saturday. The emergence of freshman Channing Stribling, to go along with Countess’ return to action and the presence of Raymon Taylor, means that the Wolverines are in as solid a shape at CB as they have been in some time.
Countess, though, is a potential game-changer, with the ability to step up and make some plays. Given Rees’ tendency to commit inopportune turnovers, Countess might get a shot or two to turn momentum.
Notre Dame’s Player to Watch: George Atkinson III.
As important as it is for Michigan to get its ground game churning on Saturday, the Irish also need that run-pass balance to avoid putting Rees in those questionable situations. Notre Dame, like Michigan, has a host of capable backs — Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel led the way last week with 68 and 65 yards rushing, respectively.
Atkinson, though, figures to be first up at RB for Notre Dame. He has to find his footing in the first quarter, so Rees can go to work from there out.
Prediction: Anyone figuring on a blowout one way or the other hasn’t been paying attention to this series for the past several seasons. These games rarely go as expected — Forcier’s heroics, Roy Roundtree’s catch, five straight passes picked off by Notre Dame — but they usually get into the waning moments with the outcome undecided.
There’s no reason to expect anything different on Saturday night. Both the 14th-ranked Irish and 17th-ranked Wolverines have loads of talent, and both would love to use this game as a springboard toward a big season.
Notre Dame, though, cannot count on Michigan to self-destruct in the manner it did last season. This is a more complete Michigan squad than the one that fell in South Bend last September, and it’s probably not as elite an Irish group on the other sideline.
Michigan 34, Notre Dame 27