Plenty at stake for ND's showdown with Michigan

Plenty at stake for ND's showdown with Michigan

September 6, 2013, 12:15 pm
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — With a good game against Michigan on Saturday, Tommy Rees can make 2011 completely irrelevant.

Throwing for 346 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against Temple was a start, but doing it under the lights at Michigan Stadium is a different story.

While Rees threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns two years ago, he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, aiding Michigan's miraculous come-from-behind win. Still, if not for Denard Robinson throwing for 80 yards — including the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left — in two plays, the storyline from is that, facing a load of adversity, Rees emerged as the hero.

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Wide receiver T.J. Jones hasn't forgot Rees' demeanor in front of the largest crowd in Michigan Stadium history, and views it as a huge asset for Notre Dame.

"He's able to keep his composure in these kind of environments, especially this one having been there before," Jones said. "He's going to be able to kind of calm the offense down to really settle in, and run our offense the way it needs to be ran and not allow the environment to affect us."

Rees, too, has the respect of his opponent. After nearly being the hero in 2011, Rees tagged in for a struggling Everett Golson last year and completed eight of 11 passes without a turnover, and rushed for the only touchdown in Notre Dame's 13-6 win over Michigan.

"He's given us fits the last two years that we've played against him," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "I think he's a tremendous quarterback."

On the flip side, Notre Dame has to make sure Michigan's quarterback doesn't give its defense fits.

Facing an up-tempo spread offense in Temple, Notre Dame at times struggled to contain quarterback Connor Reilly, who rushed 12 times for 65 yards. Michigan runs a more pro-style offense, and Devin Gardner isn't Reilly (or Denard Robinson).

But he can make plays with his legs, leading Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to cast a lofty comparison.

"He reminds me of Randall Cunningham back there," Kelly said. "He can throw it, he's tall, he's athletic, runs the ball very well."

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Michigan didn't unleash Gardner against Week 1 opponent Central Michigan, as he completed 10 of 15 passes for 162 yards and rushed seven times for 52 yards. But while he accounted for three touchdowns (one passing, two rushing), he threw two interceptions.

If there's any concern about that last stat, it can be countered with Notre Dame's defensive line playing below expectations against Temple. Kelly liked the effort put forth by the defensive line, but said the unit has to play with more discipline and better technique.

Deficiency in those areas allowed Reilly to pick up yards on the ground a little easier than the Irish would've preferred.

Outside of Gardner, Michigan has a talented backfield and arguably the best left tackle in the nation in Taylor Lewan, although the interior of its offensive line is inexperienced.

Not turning the ball over and containing Gardner are paramount for the Irish on Saturday. Players recognize the significance of the game, beyond that it's the last scheduled meeting between Notre Dame and Michigan in Ann Arbor.

In the last two seasons, the winner of Notre Dame-Michigan has gone to a BCS bowl, while the loser has gone 8-5. For such an early-season matchup, there will be plenty at stake Saturday night.

"I don't know if you find out where you stand, but I think you find out where your head is," Jones said, "and where your team has the potential to be later in the season, because it's only week two."