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2013 Notre Dame Opponents: Michigan

Michigan (8-5)
Sept. 7 at Ann Arbor
Notre Dame’s first football game ever was when the men of Michigan demonstrated the 18-year-old sport to them in 1887. The Wolverines won eight consecutive games in the series before it was finally defeated 11-3 in 1909, thereby creating a cancellation between the two programs.

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner made the adjustment from receiver last season and passed for 1,219 yards in place of the injured Denard Robinson.

There was a temporary renewal in 1942-43 that saw a split decision, but since 1978 the top two programs in all-time winning percentage — the Irish are closing in on re-claiming the top spot after losing it a decade ago — have met every season except 1983-84, 1995-96 and 2000-01.

Since 1978, the series is dead even at 14-14-1, thanks to Notre Dame’s 13-6 victory at home last year. The programs were supposed to meet well through the next decade … but less than a week after joining the ACC in all sports but football last September 12, Notre Dame cancelled the games scheduled with the Wolverines from 2015-17 while trying to re-configure a schedule in which it must meet five ACC teams per season.

The two teams will meet in 2013 and 2014, but beyond that…

“The ball is in their court because they've triggered the three-game notice," said Michigan athletics director David Brandon shortly after the cancellation notice. "We'll play them next year at Michigan Stadium for the last time in a while — it appears — and we'll make our last scheduled trip to South Bend in 2014. There will likely be nothing on the board for five years after that. Beyond that, I don't know what will happen."

Top Offseason Notes
The return of offensive left tackle Taylor Lewan, a projected top-15 NFL pick, was a huge boost with both starting guards and the center graduating.

Under third-year head coach Brady Hoke, the Wolverines also signed one of their best blockbuster classes in recent memory, ranking No. 5 in 247Sports and as high as No. 2 by another recruiting outlet. A particularly significant addition was five-star running back Derrick Green, who at 6-feet, 220 pounds fits the prototype of the classic Michigan pound-it attack with past runners such as Tyrone Wheatley, Anthony Thomas, Chris Perry or Mike Hart, among others.

Prime Assets
Notre Dame is only 1-6 in its last seven trips to Ann Arbor, dating back to 1997, or the end of the Lou Holtz era. The Irish snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in both 2009 (38-34) and 2011 (35-31) while their defense collapsed in the closing seconds. Michigan Stadium has become nearly as bad for Notre Dame as the Los Angeles Coliseum was from 1962-82.

Under Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison (who was at Notre Dame from 1997-2004), Michigan has regained some of its mojo on defense after it had been a train wreck during the Rich Rodriguez era (2008-10).

Last year the Wolverines finished 13th in total defense (320 yards per game) and 20th in scoring defense (19.85). It returns six starters on that side of the ball — but does lose a strong leader in safety and MVP Jordan Kovacs — highlighted by quality young talent such as end Mario Ojemudia and linebacker James Ross. The return of top corner Blake Countess, who tore his ACL in the Alabama opener, is also expected to provide a boost.

Prime Concerns
There is a lot of restructuring going on offensively, mainly along the interior line and adapting to the post-Denard Robinson era. The electrifying quarterback was one of the best ad-lib players in recent NCAA history, but Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges hope to employ their preferred pro-style attack with former receiver Devin Gardner, who started the last five games at QB in 2012 because of an injury that limited Robinson.

Gardner completed 75-of-126 passes for 1,219 yards, 11 TDs and five interception last season, but he won’t give Michigan the 126 yards rushing per game that Robinson did.

“We're not completely changing our offense,” Borges told the Detroit Free Press. "You saw a closer version of it toward the end of the season. But to say we're going to be an 80-percent spread team like we were early last year, a lot of that's going to go by the wayside.”

Gardner, who threw three TDs in the 33-28 bowl loss to South Carolina, returns a quality target in Jeremy Gallon (16.9 yards per his 49 catches last year), but more important will be establishing a ground game. Fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint needs to return to his 2011 form (1,041 yards) after a disappointing 2012 (514 yards, 4.0 yards per carry) in which he came off a suspension and then suffered a leg injury late in the year.

On paper, Arizona State, Oklahoma and USC all might prove to be better than Michigan on the 2013 Irish schedule. However, the timing of this night game in the second week of the season on the road, and Notre Dame’s poor recent history in Ann Arbor, might provide a little edge in the Wolverines’ favor for now.

Yesterday we noted how Oklahoma might be lurking in the bushes this year the way the Irish were last year. This Michigan team reminds us even a little more of where Notre Dame was last year:

• Coming off a disappointing 8-5 season.
• Losing numerous heartbreakers, including blowing a fourth-quarter lead in a bowl loss (33-28 to South Carolina).
• A huge problem with turnovers (99th last year with a minus-.69 figure, and six turnovers at Notre Dame).
• Adjusting to a new era at quarterback.
• Relatively under the radar with a third-year coach (Brady Hoke).

Even their loss to national champion Alabama (41-14) was similar.

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