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Wolverines might take aim at Irish secondary

Massachusetts v Michigan

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 15: Tight End Devin Funchess #19 of the University of Michigan Wolverines catches the ball in front of Safety Darren Thellen #27 and runs for a touchdown in the first quarter during a Big Ten College football game against the University of Massachusetts Minutemen at Michigan Stadium on September 15, 2012 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

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You could fill up a few notebooks contemplating the ways quarterback Denard Robinson can beat the Irish. We’ve seen it first hand with his virtuoso running performance in 2010 and his fourth quarter passing display last season, where Robinson threw touchdown passes of 14, 21, and 16 yards in the games final eleven minutes to beat the Irish. (No matter how they looked, it worked.)

Still, as we break down the countless match-ups worth watching in this game, the electric speed that makes Robinson so dangerous might not be the most logical way for the Wolverines to attack the Irish. With big bodies Devin Gardner, the 6-foot-4 converted quarterback now leading the Wolverines in receiving, teamed with 6-foot-5 freshman tight end Devin Funchess, Michigan has to feel like they have some match-up problems for the Irish in the passing game.

If there is an X factor on Saturday night, it’ll be the Michigan aerial attack. The Wolverines are averaging an impressive 17 yards a catch, with their top four receivers, Gardner, Jeremy Gallon, Funchess, and Drew Dilleo averaging 21.2 yards a catch.

While there were plenty of question marks about the receiving corps heading into the season, it appears that the Wolverines staff doesn’t have any.

“I think it’s probably one of the better positions on our team from a depth standpoint,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Monday.

Offensive coordinator Al Broges echoed the sentiments, explaining the evolution of the passing offense, anchored by two guys you wouldn’t have expected last season.

“I think about going into camp the perception was we lost some key players,” Borges said of his wide receivers. “But we knew we were working Devin Gardner at that position because we had done so much of it in the spring And Devin Funchess kind of manifested himself. We knew he was a good player, but we didn’t know to what degree, and he didn’t play much in the first game. It became increasingly evident he needed to be part of our passing game.”

The same could be said for the Notre Dame secondary. Heading into spring practice without starters Gary Gray, Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton, the Irish felt confident about Bennett Jackson at one corner and the trio of safeties Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter and Austin Collinsworth. Lo Wood would spent the offseason battling with Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown at field cornerback. If you told most Irish fans that Notre Dame would be without Slaughter, Collinsworth, and Wood after three games -- and the Irish would be undefeated -- you’d have some incredulous listeners.

With true freshman KeiVarae Russell manning the field corner and Jackson playing on the short side of the field, the pass defense hasn’t missed a beat. With Mathias Farley now taking over for Slaughter and Elijah Shumate excelling in nickel coverage, the young secondary is gaining major experience, all while learning on the fly.

With a front seven that’s protected the back-end of the defense and allowed the Irish to routinely drop five and six men in coverage, that’s a convenience the Irish didn’t have last year at this time. And if Notre Dame can get to Robinson without having to send the house, they’ll likely be able to dictate terms, helping a young secondary against Michigan’s raw but promising group of receivers.