Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg
The Notre Dame-Michigan game means something again. Both traditional powers started the 2009 season with impressive victories, blowing out two solid non-BCS foes in Nevada and Western Michigan. The 18th-ranked Fighting Irish travel Saturday to Ann Arbor to face Michigan (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), which could be on its way back under Rich Rodriguez.
Before the teams enter the Big House, we took a look at several of the key factors in the game.
Brian Bennett: Adam, Notre Dame vs. Michigan feels important again for the first time in a couple of years. Both teams are 1-0 and looking for bounce-back years.
My first question for you is, which team and which coach needs this more? I say it's Notre Dame and Charlie Weis. While I think Michigan fans would accept another rebuilding-type of year with the Wolverines' young quarterbacks, the Irish are built to win now. Weis has to get to eight or nine wins to feel safe, and this is a huge swing game for Notre Dame. Losing to Michigan would bring back more doubt and questions that Weis and his players don't need.
Adam Rittenberg: I totally agree, Brian. Michigan had its sky-is-falling game last week, especially after all the allegations of NCAA violations and the talk about Rodriguez. The Wolverines remain young and not very deep at several places. On the flip side, this has to be Notre Dame's year. Weis has recruited too well not to get at least nine wins out of this team. Anything less is unacceptable, especially with this schedule. Rodriguez and Michigan can't afford another 3-9 season, but they proved last week that this will be a much better Wolverines team and one that should make it back to a bowl game.
Notre Dame's offense looked awfully impressive last week, especially the line. I've been skeptical of that group because older players don't necessarily mean better ones. Has the Irish line turned a corner and what does that mean for Jimmy Clausen and those dynamic wide receivers. How do you think they'll match up against a younger but faster Michigan defensive front?
BB: The Irish offensive line neutralized Nevada's defensive ends, Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch, who combined for more than 20 sacks last year. Clausen had time to write his thesis in the pocket. Weis said they threw everything at the ends -- cutting, double-teaming, screens and running right at them -- to slow them down. Michigan has better athletes up front and should be ready for those ploys. Notre Dame's offensive line still has a lot to prove, as they didn't exactly run the ball down Nevada's throat. Unless inexperience bites them, I think this could be an advantage for the Wolverines.
That being said, when Clausen does get time, who is going to stop Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and Kyle Rudolph from going off? It's been a while since the Wolverines have seen such talented pass-catchers.
AR: Each of those guys is awfully tough to stop, especially in man coverage. Michigan's defensive backs tackled extremely well last week against Western Michigan, even when they were left alone in space. Still, the secondary is an inexperienced group, particularly at safety, and to expect it to contain Floyd, Tate and Rudolph is unrealistic. Junior corner Donovan Warren is a potential shutdown guy, and I'd imagine he'll be on Tate. The other corner, Boubacar Cissoko, had an interception last week and did a lot of nice things against Western Michigan. For Michigan, the key to stopping those three is not giving Clausen enough time to get them the ball down the field. The Wolverines will try to generate a pass rush solely with their down linemen to give the secondary some help from the linebackers.
Obviously, Michigan's offense looked dramatically different with Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson at quarterback. How do you think Notre Dame will defend the spread? How big of a factor will freshman Manti Te'o be for the Irish?
BB: It's interesting, because Notre Dame got some practice against a spread-type offense and a running quarterback versus Nevada. I think that will help their preparation for this game. The Wolf Pack didn't score but did get quite a few big running plays before turning the ball over or failing to convert key third downs. The Irish didn't really have to worry about the passing game much, either. Te'o didn't play a whole lot in that game, partly because they were afraid to throw a true freshman in against a confusing offense, but mostly because linebackers Brian Smith and Toryan Smith played so well. Weis said this week that Te'o would be involved more, and he showed in his limited time that he can really run and deliver a big hit when he gets there. They may need that this week.
What other offensive concerns do the Wolverines pose, and how much of a role do you think the inexperience factor will play for them at quarterback in this game?
AR: Forcier said after last week's game that he never gets nervous, and I believe him. He didn't look anything like a freshman in leading the offense. Denard Robinson still has a ways to go as a passer, but he's too fast and too athletic to be left off the field. I'm sure you saw his electrifying scoring run on his first career carry in college. Michigan had called a reverse on that play, Robinson fumbled the snap and he still found a way to make a huge play. Forcier will get most of the snaps, but Robinson will definitely be a factor. I'd also watch out for wide receiver Junior Hemingway, who had a huge game in the opener after missing most of last season with mono. He looks like Forcier's top target. Michigan also is extremely deep at running back and should get Brandon Minor back on the field Saturday.
This game got a lot more interesting last weekend, and I could see it go either way. I can't see Forcier and Robinson playing as cleanly as they did last week, and it'll be tough for Michigan to contain Notre Dame's deep threats for 60 minutes. I'm giving the Irish a slight edge in this one, 30-27.
What's your take?
BB: I'm real close to your score. I've got Notre Dame by a 34-29 count. I just think the Irish are more experienced and have a few too many weapons on offense. But this game could be a lot of fun. And it isn't it great to have Notre Dame-Michigan mean something again?
AR: Absolutely. Enjoy the Big House, my friend. Should be a good one.