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Pregame Six Pack: Waving goodbye to the Wolverines

Rice v Notre Dame

Rice v Notre Dame

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With an online vigil of Irish fans still holding out hope for the university to decide the fate of DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams, the crazy week leading up to the final scheduled meeting between Notre Dame and Michigan continues to take its share of twists and turns.

With fans clinging to every 140 characters Tweeted, and every emoticon blasted, the university process is still a mystery to all that are curious: Players, families, fans, and benefactors alike.

With some late-night tweets from DaVaris Daniels sparking hope, Brian Kelly has moved forward, all while keeping the door open for the marooned five.

“If I got them back tomorrow, they’d play on Saturday,” Kelly said Thursday after practice. “I can get them ready. They’re physically conditioned... If we were hypothetically to get that call, they’d been running out of that tunnel on Saturday.”

That call hasn’t come. Or at least not yet. And after talking to more than a few people in and around the program, it’s not expected, either. So with a primetime broadcast on NBC set to begin at 7:30 ET, the Irish will move on and do battle with the players they have, a modest favorite in a game that’s rarely gone according to plan.

With Michigan head coach Brady Hoke playing coy about his shaky offensive line rotation and the health of some key contributors, it’s clear that just from the level of interest, there are early season football games, and then there is Notre Dame vs. Michigan.

With a primetime kickoff and plotlines befitting an Emmy-winning drama, let’s get to the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings to get you ready for one last battle between college football’s two winningest programs.

When the guy with his name on the building doesn’t know what’s going on, it’s pretty clear that the university process is remarkably buttoned up.

When tech mogul Tom Mendoza, whose name graces the No. 1 undergraduate business school in the country, doesn’t know any more about the academic proceedings than the thousands of other Irish fans burning up messageboards and chat rooms for even third-hand rumors of good news, it’s a pretty good sign that the process is going to play out in the manner that the university administration sees fit.

So while that’s incredibly frustrating for those who can’t think of anything more important going on this week under the Golden Dome than the football game in Notre Dame Stadium, it speaks to an academic process that’s been in place for a long time, and a system that Kelly seems comfortable with.

“I had put it behind me really, whether it was two weeks, three weeks or a month,” Kelly said. “I have not had expectations really one way or the other.

“I have dealt with this situation, when I first heard of it, with maybe blinders on. In that I’ve focused on the guys that I have. I miss the guys, I care about them, but I really have a responsibility to the guys on my team.”

That’s as good of a look into the coach’s psyche. And also a sign that maybe the Irish head coach understands this university far better than many give him credit for.

So while many fret about some alleged injustice being put on the in-limbo players, it’s also a reminder that the blame for this delay isn’t on any academic bureaucracy, but rather the five students who put themselves in the situation to begin with.

With three new coordinators, both coaching staffs are grinding the film room a little bit harder.

We talked with former quarterback Tommy Rees about the preparation that goes into getting ready to play Greg Mattison. But Mattison is the only holdover of the coordinators involved in this game, forcing both Michigan and Notre Dame’s staff to dig for clues with Doug Nussmeier, Mike Denbrock and Brian VanGorder now in charge of their respective units.

When asked about what to expect on Saturday night, Brady Hoke made it clear that things on the defensive side of the ball are going to be quite different for Notre Dame.

“I don’t know if there’s a whole lot, especially on the defensive side of the ball, that you would think will be the same,” Hoke said. “Offensively, Brian’s going to run his offense. I guess we’ve got the other new coordinator, so he’ll do his thing.”

Hoke talked about the challenges that come with trying to gain insight on VanGorder’s schemes, especially with only a spring game and the season opener as clues.

“You look at (the Rice game), Coach VanGorder’s different stops at different places,” Hoke said. “Believe me, we’ve broken just about everything down that you can break down. I’m sure they’ve watched out spring. We’ve watched their spring. So, are there things that I’m sure they haven’t shown yet? No question about it.”

Kelly echoed those thoughts on Thursday evening, when talking about preparing for Doug Nussmeier.

“We’re watching a lot of Alabama film,” Kelly said. “But they’ve got a lot to defend with us as well and with Brian. So they’re watching some NFL film. It works both ways.”

As Friday’s announced Ohio State game showed, don’t expect the Irish to waste much time worrying about the loss of Michigan from their schedule.

Notre Dame’s well-timed announcement that they’ve added Ohio State to the schedule in 2022 and 2023 didn’t go unnoticed. In addition to filling Irish fans with glee, it caught the attention of Wolverines fans as well. And maybe even the ghost of former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler.

“Let me tell you, Bo would really be ticked off,” former Michigan running back Harlan Huckleby told the Detroit News. “He would be like, ‘Let’s put a foot up their butts and twist it.’ He’d be like, ‘We need to put a good (expletive)-whipping on them and take that to your new rivalry. Let’s give them a good-old fashion Michigan butt-whipping in their home and in their backyard.’ That is what people are always going to remember.”

Of course, Bo wasn’t around to see the way Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon took the news when Irish AD Jack Swarbrick delivered Brandon the letter officially stopping the automatic rollover renewal of their series while the Irish figured out their ACC commitments. Brandon’s “interpretation” of how this all went down hasn’t sat very well with anyone inside the athletic department.

With rumors of expanded conference play in the Big Ten creating whispers that maybe nobody from Jim Delany’s conference would be able to fit the Irish into their schedule, the fact that Urban Meyer and Ohio State AD Gene Smith added a home-and-home with Notre Dame had to feel good for Swarbrick. It might even explain why Notre Dame played a little flexible with their usual rule of not acknowledging scheduling moves until a full season is completed.

With another big game under the lights, Notre Dame is all in on this recruiting weekend.

For as important as the game on the field is, the Irish staff will have one of their biggest recruiting weekends of the year taking place. Seven official visits are set for this weekend, with commitments Jalen Guyton, Tristen Hoge, Prentice McKinney and CJ Sanders joined by these elite targets: middle linebacker Tevon Coney, defensive end Porter Gustin and running back Soso Jamabo. All three recruits are significant needs on Notre Dame’s board.

There’ll be plenty more unofficial visitors with commits Miles Boykin, Nick Coleman, Micah Dew-Treadway, Nicco Fertitta, Elijah Taylor, Brandon Tiassum, Jerry Tillery, Trevor Ruhland and Justin Yoon in town to mingle with current players and recruits.

The Irish staff won’t just be entertaining recruits from this cycle, a large group of 2016 and 2017 targets will also be making unofficial visits. At the top of that list is quarterback Malik Henry, one of Notre Dame’s priority targets and a recruit trending towards the Irish of late.

Other elite underclassmen include Top 100-type players like Wisconsin lineman Ben Bredeson, Illinois defensive end Josh King, tackle Tommy Kraemer, tight end Jake Hausmann, wide receiver Austin Mack and quarterback Shea Patterson. All told over 30 prospects from the ’16 and ’17 classes will be taking in the big game, putting a big priority on making sure Saturday night is a good show.

It might be over simplifying things, but shut down Devin Gardner and Notre Dame should win the game.

For Notre Dame to beat Michigan, they’ll need to reverse some mind-boggling trends that have taken over the series versus the Wolverines. First, they’ll need to hold onto the football. It’s not a surprise that the Irish are 1-3 under Brian Kelly when you consider they’ve turned the ball over 12 times in that span, throwing nine interceptions and losing three fumbles.

But taking care of their own business is a given. Figuring out how to slow down Devin Gardner is the key to the Irish defensive attack.

Gardner’s played impressive football of late, throwing 17 touchdowns and only three interceptions in his last nine games. That doesn’t include his impressive performance last season against the Irish, where he threw for 294 yards and four touchdowns, all while leading Michigan in rushing.

But a look at his 2013 splits shows a significant statistical difference when Gardner plays on the road. Gardner completed 66.8 percent of his passes at home. That number dropped to just 51.7 on the road. Gardner threw for 2,089 yards with 15 touchdowns and six interceptions at home. He threw for just 871 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions on the road.

In an environment that should be as rowdy as Notre Dame Stadium comes, it’ll be up to Gardner to find a way to play composed football. He’s done it against Notre Dame, but not necessarily on the road, where the Wolverines finished 2-4 last season.

Don’t look now, but Brian Kelly’s home field advantage is starting to take shape.

You may not have noticed, but the Irish have been playing some very good football inside Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish have won 14 of their last 15 home games, falling only to Oklahoma over the past two seasons. And with the FieldTurf installation dramatically improving team speed, the Irish have already seemingly practiced more inside their home stadium in the past few weeks than they did in past seasons.

That’s put Kelly and his team into a sound headspace heading into a game that doesn’t necessarily bring back the best of memories (more so for Irish fans than players). After imploring his team to play fast, physical and with great energy last week, Kelly raised the stakes, hoping his team adds great mental focus to their agenda Saturday night.

“We’re going to have to blend both the mental and the physical on Saturday against Michigan,” Kelly said. “For us to beat Michigan, we’ve gotta be on our assignments and makes sure we’re doing the little things the right way.”

That means trusting an even younger roster with a group of players who aren’t expected to still be held from competition. (Note: Notre Dame’s never called the suspended. Sure it’s semantics, but it’s worth noting.) But Kelly believes that the way his young team is developing, they’ll be ready to play their best football when the lights go on and kickoff at 7:42 p.m. rolls around.

“There’s a good deal of guys on this team that have played in big games. At home, I think gives me confidence,” Kelly said. “I think we’ve won 14 out of 15 games at home. I think there’s a confidence factor. We’ve got some offensive weapons that can make plays. Then defensively, we showed that we can do some things effectively against the run. In big games like this, you’ve got to be able to hold your own against the run and you’ve got to put some points on the board.”

The last time Michigan came to Notre Dame Stadium, it took defensive heroics from Manti Te’o and company to turn a chilly September evening into Denard Robinson’s nightmare. The Irish formula will certainly be different on Saturday, with Golson asked to carry the weight. If you look closely at Kelly, you get the feeling that he feels both his team and his quarterback are ready.