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Last updated: Fri. Sep. 05, 2014 - 06:57 pm EDT

Five things to watch: Notre Dame vs. Michigan

Michigan wideout, pass protection among focus areas Saturday

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MICHIGAN VS. NOTRE DAME SERIES HISTORY

Series record: Michigan leads 24-16-1

First meeting: Michigan 8, Notre Dame 0, Nov. 23, 1887

Longest Michigan win streak: Eight, 1887-1908.

Longest Notre Dame win streak: Four, 1987-1990.

Games decided by 10 points or less: 25

Most lopsided Michigan win: 38 points. Two victories of 38-0 in 2003 and 2007.

Most lopsided Notre Dame win: 23 points, 35-12 victory in 1943.

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It may be early September, but the importance of Saturday night's game at Notre Dame Stadium is paramount for Notre Dame.

Michigan can lose to the Fighting Irish yet still enter the Big 10 season with a good chance at the College Football Playoff or at the very least one of the primary bowl games thanks to a manageable conference schedule.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame's schedule, ranked No. 1 by Phil Steele in the preseason, is full of potential road blocks going forward. Beating Michigan at home is a victory the Fighting Irish desperately need with showdowns against Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State, Louisville and USC still looming.

Both teams looked impressive in week 1 wins, but the competition ramps up this week.

Here are five things to keep an eye on in primetime Saturday.


1. How Notre Dame defends Devin Funchess

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound wide receiver is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Long and strong with good speed, Funchess is quarterback Devin Gardner's primary weapon in the passing game, as evidenced by his three first-half touchdown receptions against Appalachian State last week.

Slot receiver Jeremy Gallon was the Notre Dame killer last year in the passing game for the Wolverines, going for 184 yards and three scores on eight receptions as opportunities opened up with the outside receivers bracketed.

Gallon is gone, but the junior Funchess is back. Coverage was shaky at times for Notre Dame last week against Rice, with improvement needed on Saturday night.

Whether the Fighting Irish elect to double-team Funchess, go man or give help over the top, they cannot allow receivers underneath to go crazy.

Notre Dame will surely mix up packages and stunts on the defensive side, but one thing must remain constant, they cannot allow Funchess to go nuts.


2. Notre Dame pass protection

While Rice was able to earn just one sack of Golson last week, it did put considerable pressure in the offensive backfield at times.

Golson's elusiveness helped him evade trouble when needed, but the talent level elevates with Michigan, who won't allow Golson to escape as much as he did against the Owls.

The pass blocking overall was not bad for Notre Dame last week, just spotty. Sophomore Steve Elmer looked to get beat a few times at right tackle on pure rushes from defenders last week, with the task only to get tougher against Michigan, who sacked Appalachian State quarterbacks four times.

Given time in the pocket, Golson could pick apart the Michigan defense after showing impressive arm strength and accuracy against Rice.


3. The Notre Dame pass rush

The Fighting Irish are not going to get constant pressure on the quarterback by consistently winning one-on-one battles in the trenches, its just not in the cards this year. The depth chart at defensive end is full of converted players from other positions and youngsters that are just not going to be a Stephon Tuitt or Justin Tuck and pile up double-digit sack numbers in 2014.

Instead, Notre Dame has to rely on bringing pressure schematically from all angles on the field. Last week saw defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder dial up the pressure from everywhere, from linebackers to defensive backs bringing it.

Last year, Gardner was unstoppable both inside and outside of the pocket, throwing for four touchdowns and running for another in Michigan's victory. Gardner was the best player on the field in last year's game in Ann Arbor. For Notre Dame to win, it cannot let that be the case again.


4. Golson's read option decision making

If there is one aspect of Golson's game that did not appear exceptional against Rice, it was his decisions in the read option. With the athletes Notre Dame is able to put on the field, getting the ball in the hands of the right person at the right time will be a tremendous advantage for the Fighting Irish.

Golson just needs to work more at it.

There were a few instances against Rice where he made the wrong decision to either pull the ball back from the handoff or give it to the running back. But other times, Golson was exceptional in his read, including throwing for a few completions out of the option.

When run well, the read option is almost impossible to slow down, as the offense always seems to be one step ahead of the defense. Making the right decisions this Saturday against Michigan will be important as holes close quicker and backside pursuit is faster.


5. How Drue Tranquill is utilized

The Carroll product surprised many by being such an integral part of the Notre Dame defense in the first game of his college career last week. From playing safety to lining up at linebacker to being a mainstay on special teams units, Tranquill displayed his versatility despite being a true freshman.

With the stakes raised against Michigan this week, it will be interesting to watch if Tranquill is given as many responsibilities as he was against Rice. Coach Brian Kelly has praised Tranquill and how he not only doesn't have the physical frame of a freshman, but does not carry himself as one either.

With defensive backs Keivarae Russell, Eilar Hardy and Austin Collinsworth still sidelined, the depth chart is rather thin in the secondary. Tranquill will surely see action again, how much remains to be seen.

jkenny@news-sentinel.com


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