Notre Dame finished the first half of its season 5-1 and ranked in the top 10 of the AP Poll. The Irish are still alive for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but they have a second-half schedule filled with games that will test them. The only team among Notre Dame's six remaining games that is not a Power Five opponent is Navy, which is 5-1 this season.
Maybe the most difficult obstacle the Irish have to overcome down the stretch this year is the one facing them this week: the No. 19 Michigan Wolverines. Notre Dame had a bye after its matchup against USC, giving it two weeks to prepare for a second straight rivalry game. Michigan, meanwhile, will be coming off a difficult 28-21 loss to No. 6 Penn State on the road, a game in which the Wolverines fell behind by 21 before rallying and coming up short on fourth-and-goal late in the fourth quarter.
This will be the second straight year the Irish have faced the Maize and Blue after a brief hiatus in the rivalry that was played annually from 2002 to 2014. Notre Dame won the 2018 matchup, also between two ranked teams, 24-17 in South Bend and this year the Irish must make the return trip to Ann Arbor.
"I think it's a game that our players are keenly aware of its great history and tradition over the years," coach Brian Kelly said at his press conference today. "A lot of (Michigan's) guys are recruited to Notre Dame as well. You know, you're only a couple hours away. It's one of our only two bus trips, maybe three, with Purdue that we take in our time here.
"So the proximity is certainly one that we're quite aware of as well. So clearly the guys know Michigan. They know the history and tradition of it. They know it's a really good football team. Look, what gets their attention more than anything else, it's a really good football team. If it wasn't, we would be talking about other things."
Here are some more highlights from Kelly's weekly press conference.
On the defensive adjustments the Irish will make for Michigan:
"People talk about 50/50 balls. You can't give up 50/50 balls, so how do you turn that factor into your favor? You have to play some zone coverage. You've got to take away the high percentage 50/50 balls because of their size. So you're double zoning, playing some bail, doing some things where you're keeping the corners over the top with some help underneath. You can't just line up in one coverage there because they're going to win some of those matchups.
"So giving the corners some help, varying some man and zone looks outside is very, very important, and certainly not giving (Michigan quarterback Shea) Patterson the same looks every time. He's a smart quarterback. He can run if he doesn't like what he sees. What we did really well last year was put some pressure on the quarterback. I think we need to do that again."
On the lessons the Irish learned playing in a hostile environment at Georgia that will help at Michigan Stadium:
"Well, we started our (snap) cadence, nonverbal cadence, last week. I learned that that's something that requires much more repetition, so that was learned. We're not going to make that same mistake twice.
"I think our guys are really tuned into understanding that the atmosphere will be loud and that you cannot be distracted if you are interested in executing at a high level. If you're distracted, then you're not in the right place emotionally, and our guys are pretty locked in on that. So we'll continue to talk about it during the week, but I think that they got a pretty good understanding of that."
On Notre Dame's biggest strength at the midway point of the season:
"I think our ability to prepare on a consistent basis. Our guys really stick to our process, which tends to show a consistency to your football team. It takes out a lot of guesswork in a sense as coaches we know what we're going to expect. It allows us to play to our strengths and know where our weaknesses are. That's important, because you can't be somebody that plays up and down each and every week. I think that's our strength. We're a pretty consistent team from week to week.
"And within that, you can certainly know yourself better, and because of that, you're better able to handle where you may be short in some areas."
On Notre Dame's confidence in running the football against a stout Michigan run defense:
"There (are) going to be times we're going to have to run the football. There are other ways to win games as well. We're committed to finding ways to win first, but we also know that we have been most effective in winning games over the last few years finding a running game at some part of the game.
"Maybe it's not the first quarter. Maybe it's the second or the fourth, but we're going to have to carve out a run game at some time during the game. That's just being persistent. That's being patient. It's probably a little bit of those both. I think we have been able to allow a run came to find itself at some time during a game."
On whether playing on the road for the first time in five weeks is a challenge:
"No. I think our guys are pretty mature to handle the situation, whether we're home or away. I like the way they go to work every day in terms of their preparation.
"So some teams you may be concerned with not being on the road for a little bit. This is a pretty mature group. We had one guy come in late because his plane was delayed. Just seems like everything that they do is very, very mature, and you don't worry about things like going on the road after being off for five weeks. They'll handle themselves very well."
- Jafar Armstrong: The redshirt sophomore running back missed four games with a torn abdominal muscle and then had just one carry for negative-4 yards against USC. Kelly said Armstrong still isn't "full go" but he'll be a significant part of the game plan this week and should make an impact on the matchup.
- Shaun Crawford: The cornerback dislocated his elbow against Virginia and has missed the last two games. Kelly said the Irish expect him to play, but a lot of practice this week will be testing his comfort level. The coach said he wouldn't count Crawford out of being a contributor Saturday.
- Donte Vaughn: Vaughn, another cornerback, isn't hurt, but he only has one season of eligibility remaining and the Irish are considering redshirting him. He's played in three games already this season and Kelly said to expect him to play against the Wolverines' big, strong receiving corps. That would put him at the game limit for this season.