September's Greatest Rivalry

The Notre Dame/Michigan rivalry ends as we know it Saturday night in South Bend. The final chapter is set to be one fans won't soon forget.

The series dates prior to Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, with nine of 41 all-time meetings between the Irish and the Wolverines played before 1910. Michigan won (the first) eight of those, hence its commanding 24-16-1 series advantage.

After a 32-year break, the programs met again during the second World War. Fittingly, they split those home-and-home contests. What followed 35 years thereafter began college football's greatest September rivalry.

That's the rivalry as living fans know it. Nip and tuck, with 21 of the 30 played since the series resumed in 1978 being decided by eight points or less -- 15-14-1 in favor of Michigan, including wins in four of the last five, and a 3-to-1 advantage over the Brian Kelly-era Irish.

Notre Dame never won more than four in a row since the series resumed; Michigan's best run was three straight, snapped in 2012 -- under the lights -- by Kelly's best Irish team to date.

Saturday night offers a final chapter. Bragging rights for-almost-ever.

That's a quick summation of a rivalry that heretofore helped define Notre Dame's and Michigan's modern eras. Below is a look at what matters between the lines Saturday night in South Bend.

ND Passing Game vs. UM Pass Defense

The Wolverines boast depth along the defensive front and enviable front-line talent in the secondary including national freshman of the year candidate Jabril Peppers as the nickel. Expect myriad looks from Michigan's master defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, including the use of former pass-rushing standout Jake Ryan -- now a middle linebacker -- from various alignments.

Senior defensive end Frank Clark was lauded by all-time Irish standout and first-round NFL Draft pick Zack Martin as the toughest player he faced in 2013. Clark is a big-game, if not consistent performer.

The key though will be Notre Dame's youth-filled receiving corps and their collective ability to shake All-Big 10 cornerback (and 2013 Irish killer) Blake Countess, plus veteran Raymon Taylor, and the aforementioned Peppers. Peppers will face disparate body types of Amir Carlisle (5'10") and C.J. Prosise (220 pounds) in the slot. Prosise vs. Peppers downfield is an under-the-radar matchup to monitor.

Can Countess and Taylor stay with Irish speedsters Will Fuller and Chris Brown if they don't win consistently at the line of scrimmage? Look for Michigan's corners to win more often than not against a young collection of Irish receivers, but for Notre Dame to make plays downfield that offset that advantage.

-- Edge: Notre Dame. I'd grant Michigan an edge if Notre Dame still employed a stationary target at quarterback. They definitely do not. Everett Golson sways this matchup in Notre Dame's favor with his ability to escape pressure and create explosive plays (far) downfield.

ND Running Game vs. UM Front Seven

"Since (offensive line) coach (Harry) Hiestand has been here, we've able to run the ball in obvious situations and that's not going to change," said 5th-year senior offensive tackle Christian Lombard prior to the season opener. "We're expected to be able to run it when we have to and to throw it and protect in obvious passing situations."

Lombard's comments encapsulate how a college offensive line is judged: Can you run when the defense knows its coming, and can you protect the passer on 3rd-and-long?

Notre Dame will be able to run when it has to…can they protect Golson with a reshuffled offensive front?

-- Edge: Even. The Wolverines have too much defensive line depth to make this a +1 for the Irish, and Notre Dame has too much talent among its trio of runners to give Michigan the edge.

ND Front Seven vs. UM Running Game

Michigan's offensive line ranked among the worst in the nation last season -- then it lost it's top two players to the NFL. The front lacks depth as well as developed talent. (Young talent is there.)

The Irish counter with Sheldon Day, a breakout player for 2014 and perhaps the program's best linemen (when healthy, which he often was not) last fall. Joining Day is a gang of waiting-to-be-developed youngsters -- a heavy rotation is guaranteed.

The Irish won't win this matchup on paper often this fall, but they could Saturday, and it might be enough to turn Michigan's sophomore 220-pound tandem of Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith into East-West rather than North-South runners.

Still, Michigan's leaky front found a way to block both Notre Dame and Ohio State -- two of the three best teams it faced -- last fall. Beware the isolated, inspired effort in rivalry contests.

-- Edge: Even. Neither front has proven its wares against peer foes.

ND Back Seven vs. UM Skill Positions

I like the Irish at cornerback with or without Keivarae Russell, but Notre Dame's safeties have struggled mightily since the squad entered into Ann Arbor last September and was subsequently beaten like a rented mule along the back line.

Irish 'backers Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith will win often Saturday night, but the strong side 'backer (James Onwualu) or nickel (Matthias Farley) could have his hands full with this set of Wolverines receivers. Both in coverage and tackling in space.

-- Edge: Michigan. Massive target Devin Funchess isn't the only Wolverines weapon that could give the Irish trouble Saturday night.

Containment Issues?

The Irish bring a much faster defense to the field than that featured in last year's loss, one that showcased the talents of Michigan triggerman Devin Gardner on the perimeter. It's unlikely the Irish will "win" the battle vs. Gardner The Creator this fall, either. (It just won't be ugly as it was in 2013.) His ability to beat Notre Dame from the pocket remains a major question.

As for Michigan containing Golson? I think it's possible, he's far more quick than he is fast, and Michigan has enough athletes to bother him when the senior escapes right or left. But unlike Gardner, I'm certain Golson can win from the pocket, and he's comfortable operating as such. Look for Gardner to frustrate Notre Dame on third down with his feet but for Golson to excel in early down situations and hit it deep downfield as a result.

-- Edge: Even. I considered a slight edge for Golson but Gardner has proved himself in this series. Conversely, Golson's worst game to date came against the Wolverines in 2012. Both quarterbacks should play well Saturday night.

Kicking Game and Special Teams

Michigan's three-year starting placekicker Brendan Gibbons (45 of 60 career) is gone. In his stead steps senior Matt Wile (1-2 last week; 6-10 career), whose next big kick will be his first.

Notre Dame counters with senior Kyle Brindza -- a staggering 15 for 15 in terms of career field goals that matter. (Brindza has never missed a fourth quarter or overtime kick with the game in doubt; he missed once vs. Temple with the Irish leading by 22 points in last year's opener.)

It's a huge edge for Notre Dame in what should be a contest played to the final minutes.

Both squads have electric athletes as punt returners, with recent revelations Cody Riggs and Greg Bryant handling the duties for the Irish and star freshman Jabril Peppers deep for the Wolverines. Peppers though is battling an ankle injury and his status as a return man is less certain than as the defense's nickel.

Senior Dennis Norfleet is an experienced, solid kick returner for the Wolverines while Irish senior Amir Carlisle has shown flashes in his two-game career (end 2013/beginning 2014) at the position for Notre Dame. It's notable that Carlisle won the USC KR job as a true freshman in 2011 -- he's going to break one this fall.

Both squads utilize starters on their coverage units, a recent development at Notre Dame brought about by kick coverage breakdowns last fall.

-- Edge: Notre Dame. Consider it a wash in terms of coverage and returns, but Brindza cannot be shaken, even if he misses early. Wile's first moment of reckoning awaits.

Coaching Matchup

An edge to Michigan in terms of coordinators with Doug Nussmeier on board fresh off a successful stint at Alabama, and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison firmly entrenched for the Wolverines. (Relevant to point out that Nussmeier's O-Line was light years better in Tuscaloosa.)

Irish head coach Brian Kelly is a proven big game winner while Michigan's Brady Hoke has lost his last eight road/neutral games against teams that finished with a winning record.

Conversely, Kelly's Irish have won eight of their last nine home games (that covers 2012-2013) against teams that finished as such.

Edge: Notre Dame. Coordinators often matter more than the head coach -- especially one that doesn't wear a head set a la Hoke. But Kelly again calls the plays in South Bend, and he excels in that role when his quarterback presents as a running threat.

Intangibles/The Moment

The Wolverines kept their heads about them while the Irish lost theirs in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013. Well, maybe not 2013, but Michigan was better than Notre Dame for the bulk of the game's 60 minutes.

Can Saturday's hosts turn the tide in this regard?

There's more pressure on the Irish -- they have to win considering the myriad tests that await. Should Michigan lose, all realistic goals remain intact. Add to that Michigan's recent victories and subsequent confidence and it's fair to wonder about Notre Dame's state of mind should they experience adversity, early.

Notre Dame Stadium fans often need a reason to cheer. They certainly have one Saturday, and this should be the best home atmosphere since Super Power USC entered the House that Rockne Built in 2005.

A healthy hatred is in the air. (An on field pre-game scuffle wouldn't surprise.)

Both teams are capable of scoring in the mid 30s -- but I don't think either team will. Look for inspired defensive efforts and red zone heroics to keep this game a touch below the stated O/U total of 55.

Saturday night is a game the 2014 Irish can't afford to lose. I don't think they will -- but they'll need all 60 minutes to close it out.

Par for the course in what was a great rivalry. It will be missed.

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