Trouble Spot #3: Michigan

Breaking the Wolverines three-game winning streak is paramount for Notre Dame near the outset of a trying six-game stretch that begins in East Lansing and ends in Norman.

As noted previously, "Trouble Spots" doesn't rank only the overall strength of each foe, but also takes into account the slotting of each on the Irish schedule.

Click here for the introduction and an explanation of the series, as well as Trouble Spot #12 for 2012, the Naval Academy.

Click here for Trouble Spot #11 (Wake Forest) and here for Notre Dame's 10th toughest game situation, Boston College and for the contest that finished 9th, a neutral site battle vs. Miami in Chicago.

?This week's rankings examine Purdue, and the matchup vs. the Boilers following a potentially taxing schedule that includes two cross-Atlantic flight in five days, plus the season's ultimate "trap," a home date vs. Pittsburgh to open November.

Thursday we looked at the dreaded "Sandwich Game" and a home tilt with Brigham Young. Yesterday we examined Stanford, a potential Top 15 foe, but one that falls at an opportune time on the 2012 slate.

Saturday's installment focused on Michigan State, the season's first true road game for Brian Kelly's Irish.

Michigan Game Slotting/Situation

Michigan will receive the nation's stiffest opening month test with an opening game trip to Arlington to take on defending national champion and consensus Top 3 foe, Alabama. In what could be a taxing second contest, Michigan plays host to Air Force and their potentially dangerous triple-option attack, though quarterback Tim Jefferson has graduated from the Academy as has the bulk of the team's starting defense. The Wolverines host Michigan and former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar in Week Three before traveling to South Bend.

Notre Dame hosts the Wolverines one week prior to its Bye week and a week after a road trip to East Lansing to take on the rival Spartans. This season's Irish/Wolverines matchup is slated for prime time, 7:30 ET in South Bend.

Inside the Wolverines

All-World runner Denard Robinson returns as the offense's trigger. Though held in check for three quarters vs. the Irish last season, Robinson led a dramatic comeback from 17 down en route to an improbable 35-31 final thanks to a two-play, full-field march in under 30 seconds. His two-year stats vs. Notre Dame include 948 all-purpose yards, 8 touchdowns, and three turnovers.

Robinson has a pair of quality runners with him with Fitzgerald Toussaint and Vincent Smith, while Roy Roundtree (game-winning touchdown reception vs. Notre Dame last fall) and Jeremy Gallon (added a fourth quarter score as well) both return on the perimeter. Longtime center standout David Molke has graduated.

The defense is led by three returning defensive backs including all-conference performer Jordan Kovacs. The senior safety has shined vs. Notre Dame in previous meetings, racking up 18 tackles and two interceptions over the last two Michigan victories. The team's trio of linebackers returns as well, with senior middle 'backer Kenny Demens back after a 12-tackle effort in last year's comeback win in Ann Arbor. Star nose guard Mike Martin is gone, as is defensive end Ryan Van Bergen who twice rose to the occasion in matchups vs. the Irish.

Most of the front four will be first time starters with only Craig Roh returning, though Jibreel Black and Will Campbell have ample experience. Campbell takes over for Martin inside.

Outside Looking In: Both Lindy's Sports and Athlon Sports have the Wolverines ranked 7th nationally and first in the Big 10 Legends division. Phil Steele placed Michigan at No. 22 overall, far lower than all national outlets and publications. Steele notes four road games vs. Alabama (neutral), Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State will likely impact the Wolverines final record.

Final Thoughts

Nine seconds, 27 seconds, and two seconds…that's the time remaining when Michigan scored the game-winning touchdown, each time down three points, in three straight comeback wins vs. Notre Dame. The Irish scored plenty in each (34, 24, and 31), but were letdown by their defense which failed to contain -- at least for 60 minutes -- dual threat quarterbacks Tate Forcier (2009) and Denard Robinson (2010-11).

Speed/quickness under center, comparative toughness under pressure, bad coaching decisions by the Irish, unfortunate bounces of the football (near the goal line, I might add), ill-timed penalties, turnovers, and of course, luck, all played a role in Michigan's three straight, the most for the school over Notre Dame in this series since Woodrow Wilson was in office.

That's what it takes to win three straight over a peer team in a rivalry setting. Notre Dame enjoyed the same when it won four straight over the Wolverines from 1987-1990. The Irish won back-to-back games in '88 and '89 over favored Michigan teams (ranked #3 and #2 respectively, I might add) despite scoring one offensive touchdown. Total.

Notre Dame came back when the Wolverines dominated for three quarters and had the Irish on the ropes in 1990 as well, and Michigan fans cried foul yet again: the better team lost!

But Irish fans knew then what Wolverines fans know now: the scoreboard is the determining factor, not fan bias or excuses.

Michigan currently owns Notre Dame, and the last three Irish teams could have completely changed that truth with late-game toughness found only on the opposite sideline.

Until Notre Dame proves it can beat Michigan, all comments to the contrary regarding the nature of the Wolverines recent wins are irrelevant.

September 22, 7:30 ET, under the lights in South Bend…it should be quite a show. And it'll take a full 60 minutes to decide.

Next in the Series: Trouble Spot #2 will be published Monday.


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