And in that corner…The Michigan Wolverines

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Whatever we’re calling the Michigan-Notre Dame game, it’s immensely important. Not just for the fans, but for the trajectory of each team’s season. For the Irish, Saturday night’s battle in the Big House kicks off a tough five game stretch that has the Irish facing three straight Big Ten teams to go along with Oklahoma and Arizona State. For Michigan, it’s an early season victory that likely vaults them into the top ten, and is a springboard (along with assumed wins over Akron and UConn) into Big Ten action.

Gathering much from Michigan’s 50-point trouncing of Central Michigan is difficult. The bullet points are certainly there: Devin Gardner, some receiving weapons, and young and aggressive defense.

But to help us dig a little deeper is the Detroit News’ Angelique Chengelis. Covering the Wolverines beat since 1992, she’s seen quite a bit of the boys in maize and blue, and was kind enough to answer a few questions to get us up to speed on the big game.

I asked, she answered:

Winning by 50 points is an impressive way to open the season. Did the dominant victory over Central Michigan answer any of your offseason questions?

Only this question — would Michigan really play a lot of young players, including true freshmen? — and Brady Hoke did that, and I think in the end, that will be a big plus for this team. I think the interior of the offensive line is still a question mark and that depth chart, as offensive coordinator Al Borges said this week, is written in pencil. It was good to see Fitz Toussaint running the ball after his offseason of rehab from a broken left leg. It was also good to get an early look at freshman back Derrick Green, who has quickly climbed the depth chart from fifth to second (in part because of the season-ending injury to Drake Johnson), and as expected, freshman quarterback Shane Morris got in the game and got his feet wet.

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For better or worse, this offense is in Devin Gardner’s hands. Watching last weekend’s game, he put together quite a highlight reel, but also threw two interceptions, including one inside his own 10 yard line. After having their struggles with Denard Robinson (until last year), what type of quarterback are the Irish facing in Gardner? 

While Gardner doesn’t have the electricity of Denard (or the untied shoelaces), he has great athleticism, and I like what he did when he scrambled. The ONLY positive to take from the picks is that he didn’t drown in those — he rebounded quickly and recovered well. Clearly, as we’ve seen these last few Michigan-Notre Dame games, avoiding turnovers is absolutely key. I do not expect to see Gardner, who, by the way, is a better passer than Denard, making a habit of such bad throws like the two against CMU that resulted in picks.

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After a few good recruiting classes, there is some talented youth in Greg Mattison’s front seven. How will that group do against Notre Dame’s offensive line without Jake Ryan?

Michigan played a LOT of defensive linemen and rotated a lot at those spots — Quinton Washington this week said he was more refreshed than he’s ever been during and after a game because the rotation worked and kept everyone fresh. The linebackers were solid in the opener. Desmond Morgan played well, as did Cam Gordon and Brennen Beyer, the key guys replacing Ryan, and James Ross and Joe Bolden also got high marks.

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Another big match-up is the battle up front between the Wolverine’s offensive line and the Irish’s tough front seven. How does the rebuilt interior of Michigan’s line look?

Well, it looks like it’s still a work in progress. Graham Glasgow, who started at left guard, and Jack Miller, who started at center, are still engaged in competition at center. While I wouldn’t expect any great lineup changes, Borges suggested that could be a possibility, that jobs are up in the air. Across the board, though, the staff seemed to like the performance of redshirt freshman right guard Kyle Kalis. Again, while they got valuable game experience in the opener against CMU, Notre Dame presents a much more complete package that more than likely will give the Michigan offensive line some fits.

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Brian Kelly ruffled a few feathers when he said he didn’t consider Michigan to be one of Notre Dame’s historic rivals. Does anybody believe that? How do you characterize this rivalry from Michigan’s perspective? Considering the drama of the last few games, the rancor of the scheduling break, and the general disdain between the two schools’ fans, how big of a rivalry is this for Michigan?

I don’t think most people from either camp really believe that, but it has made for some fun conversations this week! I’ve always looked at it this way — Michigan State and Ohio State are Michigan’s most important rivalry games because they are vital in the Big Ten championship race. But Michigan considers Notre Dame its important non-conference rival. Because they are so similar in how their fan bases and programs value their traditions, and because they often recruit the same players and because they are the winningest programs, it carries that historic value. Michigan looks at the Notre Dame game as a battle against what often is a mirror image, and that games gives the Wolverines a better sense of who they are as a team and where they need to improve.

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I believe you are on the record picking the Wolverines in this one already. What kind of game do you think we are in for on Saturday night?

I am taking Michigan, in part because of the cliche-but-true — homefield advantage. Not that that helped Michigan two years ago under the lights against Notre Dame those first three quarters, but in that fourth-quarter flourish, the players definitely fed off the crowd. I think we’ll see a few critical turnovers, because, well, we usually do. I think we’ll see an aggressive Michigan defense doing its best to rattle Tommy Rees, get him to hang onto the ball and overthink situations. There’s no doubt Devin Gardner is aware of how huge this stage will be, and he likes that stage. I think he will be steady and play well and will find tight end Devin Funchess on some critical throws. But overall, I think it’s the Michigan defense that will dictate this one.

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A special thanks to Angelique for fitting this into her schedule this week. For more good stuff from her and the Detroit News, check out her Michigan coverage here, or follow her @Chengelis.