Ann Arbor is abuzz with tailgates set and thousands migrating towards the Big House. In a game and grudge match that feels mighty personal, let’s run through some final thoughts before kickoff.
At this point, we’ve beaten some of the match-ups to death, so here are ten key players that need to step up for Notre Dame to win.
Tommy Rees: Nobody has more on their shoulders than Rees tonight. He’ll be challenged mentally and physically, with Michigan likely needed to make Rees uncomfortable to force him into some bad decisions.
If Michigan can do that, they’ll likely win the game. If they can’t, expect the Irish to be victorious.
TJ Jones: Big time players play big in big games. (Say that five times fast.) Brian Kelly has talked so much about the improvement of Jones in the last year, we’ll see if that’s Kelly trying to ease the pain of losing first round talents in consecutive years or if Jones has finally come into his own.
Last week, it was DaVaris Daniels as the designated deep threat while Jones made plays from the slot in the short passing game. Some of those stretch the field plays could come TJ’s way this week, especially if Daniels’ groin pull nags.
Nick Martin/Ronnie Stanley: Both players are making their first road start in a hostile environment. If they’re capable of playing up to the moment, the Irish offensive line will have the chance to overpower Michigan’s front. Brian Cook of MGoBlog hinted this morning on Twitter that defensive tackle Quinton Washington might be limited tonight. That’s got to be considered good news for the Irish.
One of the Running Backs: I was leaning towards putting Amir Carlisle’s name here, but it’s too tough to tell which back will run with his opportunities tonight. I expect someone to, and it could be any of the guys.
The Irish need to run the ball effectively tonight.
Dan Fox: While he filled the stat sheet, I didn’t think Dan Fox played his best game last week. With Devin Gardner elusive both inside the pocket and out, Fox is going to need to play disciplined, but aggressive football, making the tackles in space when he has to do it.
Stephon Tuitt: I personally think the one-on-one battle between Tuitt and Taylor Lewan is probably overhyped, with Tuitt likely playing all over the defensive line, not just exclusively lineup up across from Michigan’s All-American. But Tuitt needs to be dominant at the line of scrimmage, both in the run game and pass.
Getting sacks is great, and Tuitt should probably get at least one every Saturday he plays, but keep Gardner confined to the pocket while dominating up front will be key.
Ishaq Williams: Playing a mix of positions last week, Williams had his shot at getting a sack, but ran through it out of control. That can’t happen tonight, where the quarterback will be more elusive. I’m predicting Williams (finally) picks up his first sack tonight.
Elijah Shumate: He didn’t play his best football last week. But Shumate needs to rebound, providing nickel coverage in the slot against guys like Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon, two diminutive but elusive wide receivers.
Kyle Brindza: Brian Kelly might just put Brindza in charge of all three kick units. And if that’s the case, the junior needs to be up for the challenge. A Michigan native, Brindza needs to do a better job of directional punting and if he’s called upon, make the field goal attempts in a game where three points usually determines the winner.
Louis Nix: Big Lou was frustrated last week by double-teams. Expect more of the same tonight against an inexperienced interior offensive line. But Nix needs to impact the game both on and off the stat sheet, detonating Michigan’s line of scrimmage and being a destructive force as the tip of the spear for the Irish defense.