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Notre Dame, Michigan resume rivalry

Published September 01. 2018 01:33AM

Brian Kelly is in his ninth season as head football coach at Notre Dame and the faithful, more importantly the contributing alumni, are getting a little tired of promises of a program moving to the next level — the elite of college football — only to fall short again and again.

Two years ago, Kelly and his team had a dismal 4-8 record. Last year, the Irish rebounded to 10-3. But again, ND did not make the College Football Playoffs. Winning seasons are great, and a lot of schools would love to have the kind of winning seasons ND has, but for a storied program that hasn’t won a national title since 1988 and only came close once since then, you can see why the faithful are tired of the same routine.

Beat writers for the South Bend Tribune who cover ND, have said as much in several articles leading up to tonight’s opener against No. 14 ranked Michigan. This is a “big one” early in the season. It’s big not only for Kelly and the Irish, but it’s also big for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, as the Wolverine fans expect this to be their season to win the Big 10 title and make a run at the national title.

Today, I begin another year of my weekly columns on ND football.

Here is a very quick look at the 2018 Fighting Irish.

The Irish enter with a defense projected to be one of the best in the country. However, the offense has many questions and the biggest one is at the quarterback position. Brandon Wimbush has the pressure on him as he enters his senior season. Last year, Wimbush started strong but faded quickly, especially throwing the football. He has spent extra time since the end of the 2017 season trying to improve his overall game and especially his passing.

He is backed by junior Ian Book, who came on and led the Irish to a win in their bowl game at season’s end and appears ready to take over if Wimbush falters again. Behind Book in sophomore Avery Davis, who was used extensively as a running back in spring drills and summer practices. Then there is freshman Phil Jurkovec. Jurkovec, a Pennsylvania boy, comes in with a lot of pluses. He is 6-5 and 228 pounds and led Pine-Richland to the PIAA Class 6A championship last year. There are a lot of high hopes for him at ND.

The running attack will be led by veteran Tony Jones Jr. along with Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis. Look for freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister to figure into the attack. Senior Dexter Williams, who coming into the season was projected to join Jones as ND’s premier backs, is not expected to play because of a rumored suspension. But Kelly has not confirmed that and said Williams will be on the sideline for tonight’s game.

Wide receiver is a key position this year for the Irish due to graduation losses and team members being dismissed. Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool and Chris Finke are projected to be the starters with Michael Young and freshman Kevin Austin the top reserves. Alize Mack and Cole Kmet give the Irish two quality tight ends.

Up front the offensive line has Liam Eichenberg at left tackle; Alex Bars at left guard; veteran Sam Mustipher at center; Tommy Kraemer at right guard; and either Robert Hainsey at right tackle.

Defensively, the Irish have a new coordinator in Clark Lea. He takes over for Mike Elko, who left for LSU. Lea was Elko’s top assistant a year ago.

Here is a look at the defense.

At one defensive end spot will be Khalid Kareem and Adetokunbo Ogundeji; and at the other will be Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara, All four defensive ends are juniors. Jerry Tillery with play defensive tackle with M. Tagovailoa-Amosa as his back up. The nose guard is Jonathan Bonner with Kurt Hinish the backup.

Te’von Coney (middle) and Drue Tranquill (weakside) lead the linebacker corp with Asmar Bilal starting at rover. The free safety will be Alohi Gilman or Houston Griffith; and the strong safety either Nick Coleman or Jalen Elliott. The starting cornerbacks are Juilian Love and Troy Pride Jr. Senior cornerback Shaun Crawford, a very important member of the defense, suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in practice this week. He will undergo surgery and his season is over, This is the third time in four years Crawford has suffered a season-ending injury.

As for special teams. Justin Yoon, returns for his senior year as placekicker and word has it he has beefed himself up and is kicking 50-plus field goals regularly in practice. Kickoffs will be handled by Jonathan Doerer. Tyler Newsome returns as the punter.

That is just a quick look of the Irish lineup now, but things can change quickly.

The Irish face old Big 10 rival Michigan tonight, It is the 43 third meeting between the two schools. As I mentioned earlier, the Wolverines are expected to challenge not only for the Big 10 title, but make a national run as well. Transfer quarterback Shea Patterson, from Ole Miss, is said to be the final piece coach Jim Harbaugh needed for a big season. Defensively defensive end Rashan Gary leads a unit that was among the top in the country last year and returns nine starters.

The Wolverines lead the series 24-17-1. The gap between the wins/losses is due in part to the 22 games ND had to forfeit for a NCAA rule infraction a few years ago. The last time the two played was in 2014 with the Irish winning, 31-0.

The game will be televised nationally by ND’s broadcast partner, NBC-TV, with a 7:40 p.m. scheduled kickoff.

IRISH NOTES ... ND and Michigan use to met every year but when the Irish joined with the ACC they had to drop some of their regular series with old rivals to fit in the ACC requirement of at least five games a year against member schools. This resumption of the series with Michigan is for only two games. Next year the teams will play at Michigan. There will then be a lengthy gap before the schools meet again .... Wimbush scored 14 rushing touchdowns in 2017 to establish a Notre Dame record for most scores on the ground by a quarterback in a single season .... Notre Dame has not had an empty seat for a home game since 1973. The 262-game sellout streak is the second-longest in NCAA history .... Three Irish players were named to the AP preseason All American second team. Julian Love, Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars. Mustipher is in his third season as ND’s starting center. Bars is also a third-year starter but will be featured at his third different position in three years. Bars started at right tackle in 2016 and right guard in 2017. He moves into departed All-American Quenton Nelson’s left guard spot this season. Love is also a third-year starter, and finished second nationally last season in passes defended per game (1.8) and second in overall pass breakups (20). Love was fifth in the FBS in interception return yards last season, with 153 .... A big piece of the Michigan offense will miss tonight’s game. Sophomore wide receiver Tarik Black, purported to be Michigan’s best receiver, suffered a right foot injury in practice and won’t play .... Tonight marks the 17th time in which Notre Dame opens a regular season under the lights. The Irish are 12-4 (.750) in prior season-opening night games, which includes a 4-0 record at Notre Dame Stadium .... Michigan has won 11 straight games in September after dropping coach Harbaugh’s first game as the Wolverines’ head coach, 24-17 at Utah in 2015 .... Now my annual prediction for the season ahead. ND opens with a tough loss to Michigan, 0-1; Irish regroup and whip Ball State, 1-1; Irish continue winning ways over Vanderbilt, 2-1; a close win over Wake Forest, 3-1; ND drops another to Stanford, 3-2; rebounds with win over Virginia Tech, 4-2; ND returns home to beat Pittsburgh, 5-2; ND beats Navy in San Diego, 6-2; Seventh win comes at Northwestern, 7-2; Irish take down Florida State, 8-2; a Shamrock Series win over Syracuse, 9-2; a tough regular season end loss to USC, 9-3 .... As I just predicted, Michigan will prove to be too much for ND tonight. One reason I picked the Wolverines is that I have little or no confidence in Kelly winning such “big games.” But one thing about losing early in the season, a team has a lot of football ahead to make its way back in the rankings.

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