The Michigan Wolverines and Notre Dame Fighting Irish first met on the football field all the way back in 1887. The Big House in Ann Arbor would not be built for another 40 years and the very first night game in it would not be played for another 124 (from 1887).
That 2011 game under the lights? The Wolverines hosted the Irish in a contest that featured three touchdowns in the final 72 seconds before Michigan managed to eke out a thrilling 35-31 victory.
With College GameDay slated to be in attendance this Saturday, along with 115,000 rabid fans, we will be looking for some big-time efforts and hopefully some more theatrics in the chase for a victory.
We here at Gamedayr will be watching these five factors, in no particular order. We believe that they will play the biggest parts in Saturday’s showdown. Read them over, digest, and launch into some debate, criticisms, or both in the comments below.
1. All eyes on one guy who had been benched and another that used to play wide receiver
During the historic, first game under the lights in 2011, Tommy Rees played lights-out (forgive our play on words). The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Rees finished 27-of-39 for 315 yards with three touchdowns. Sitting on the bench to begin 2012′s game in South Bend, Rees was told to strap on his helmet in the middle of the third quarter to replace an ineffective Everett Golson. He then proceeded to complete 8-of-11 passes for 115 yards in the 13-6 win.
Despite the performance, Rees found himself back on the bench in favor of Golson for most of the remainder of the 2012 season.
His counterpart at Michigan, Devin Gardner, led all Michigan receivers with three catches for 40 yards in the 2012 contest between these two squads. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, he’s athletically gifted.
We’ll be watching which one stars under the lights now that both are the unquestioned starters for their respective teams.
2. Will a freshman step up on national television?
Fitzgerald Toussaint is the senior starting running back for Michigan. After suffering a devastatingly severe broken leg a year ago, he embraced his injury rehabilitation like a man possessed – it was the only way he would be able to return for the 2013 campaign.
While his injury return was a blessing, coach Brady Hoke lost another running back during Week 1′s blowout of Central Michigan. Drake Johnson tore his ACL, which means elite freshman and former five-star recruit Derrick Green moves into the No. 2 spot behind Toussaint.
Because the team was beating Central Michigan so badly last Saturday, Green received his first college football action, rushing for 58 yards on 11 carries. He also scored his first touchdown.
He will be asked to do the same or more against the Irish, but it won’t be easy.
3. How will Taylor Lewan perform against Notre Dame’s defensive line?
They’re called the “big uglies” for a reason, but on Saturday one of the prettiest – if you’re a bit more of a student of the game – matchups we will be seeing all night is the one taking place in the trenches.
Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan most likely would have been a top five draft pick had he chosen to go pro following his junior season. However, he chose to stick around Ann Arbor, and it is games like this that make his decision look like a good one. Not only will millions of people be watching him around the country, but he will have the opportunity to really compete. Notre Dame’s defensive line is loaded with pro-caliber talent.
Stephon Tuitt is a 6-foot-6, 312-pound monster of a young man originally from Georgia. He collected 11 sacks a year ago en route to the team’s national title game berth. Lewan’s going to have his hands full with Tuitt.
Then there’s Louis Nix III, aka Irish Chocolate. At 6-foot-3 and 326 pounds, what running back is going to be able to burst through the middle of the line with this Jacksonville native in the way?
We’re not sure, but we’ll definitely be watching.
4. Can Notre Dame’s skill position players continue to emerge?
Last season, Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert was pretty much the only receiving threat teams game-planned for on a weekly basis – someone on the opposing defense had to know where Eifert was at at absolutely all times. Running back duo Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick combined for 1,659 yards and nine rushing touchdowns between them in 2012.
All three of those weapons are now gone for the Irish. In their stead, a few upperclassmen stepped up in Week 1 against Temple. Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson III, all juniors, each looked very good rushing the ball at times. Wide receiver T.J. Jones showed off some of that senior leadership coach Chip Kelly must have been thrilled to see in hauling in six passes for 138 yards. DaVaris Daniels, a junior, only caught three passes, but they went for 69 yards and two touchdowns.
This group of players has patiently waited for its time to shine, and now all of them will get the chance. We’re curious to see if they will harness the opportunity to do so.
5. Let’s see this crowd just get rowdy
The first matchup between these two historically dominant teams took place two years before the Eiffel Tower first opened. In between, there have been big games, big names and big wins for both sides. There have been All-Americans, Hall of Fame coaches and national championships.
But there has only been one game under the lights of The Big House. Saturday will serve as the second.
If fans watching at home aren’t simply awed by the intensity of the crowd, we’ll all be a bit disappointed.