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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, September 01, 2018 6:10 pm

Pregame: No. 12 Notre Dame (0-0) vs. No. 14 Michigan (0-0)

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Exactly eight months after Notre Dame beat LSU in the Citrus Bowl, the Irish take to the field again tonight, trying to start their season with a win over No. 14 Michigan. 

The two rivals will clash for the 42nd time in the history of a series that dates back to 1887, one that has been on hiatus for the last four years. Although this is an important, season-opening game for both teams, fans should do their best to enjoy the matchup regardless of the outcome, because this re-starting of the series might not last. 

"(Jim Harbaugh and I) were both of the same opinion that we wanted to try to get this game back if we could," coach Brian Kelly said. "There are so many other things as you know that make this difficult. I know we play next year (in Ann Arbor), but after that who knows how this may work again, given both of our limitations relative to scheduling."

With that backdrop hanging over tonight's game, the Irish and Wolverines will meet for the first time since 2014, when Notre Dame cruised to a 31-0 win. It's not a must-win game for either team, but both squads have College Football Playoff aspirations and a loss this early in the season essentially eliminates any margin for error. The loser of tonight's game will probably need to win out in order to be among the four Playoff teams.

On the field, Notre Dame will have to stop Michigan's star-studded defensive line and give Brandon Wimbush some time to throw. That won't be easy with Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich wreaking havoc from the defensive end position. Irish starting tackles Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey have some experience, but neither is proven as an every-down player and they'll have a spotlight on them tonight.

I expect this to be a low-scoring game, with at least a couple turnovers on each side. The offenses are breaking in new players at key spots, including Michigan at quarterback and Notre Dame at running back and on the line. The defenses are loaded with proven talent and will have plenty of opportunities to make plays. 

Much of the game could come down to which quarterback better handles pressure. Jerry Tillery and Julian Okwara don't have as much hype surrounding them as Gary and Winovich, but they're nearly as destructive at rushing the passer and Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson will have defenders in his face just like Wimbush will. Patterson is known for his scrambling ability, so he can extend plays when he's flushed from the pocket, but he tried to do too much at times with Ole Miss, often throwing into coverage.

Wimbush had similar problems last season and his inaccuracy was an issue in general as he completed less than 50 percent of his throws. The Irish quarterback has worked hard on his footwork in the offseason to make him more accurate from the pocket, but it remains to be seen if those improvements will hold when he has to scramble. His decision-making will be a key in this matchup.

In Sunday's Journal Gazette, I picked Notre Dame to win 16-9 and I stand by that selecyion. I expect a lot of field goals in this game, but I'll go out on a limb and predict that the Notre Dame defense generates at least one turnover deep in Michigan territory, leading to an Irish touchdown and an opening-week win.

dsinn@jg.net