5 keys to victory: Michigan needs cure for road woes (with prediction)
ANN ARBOR -- Fitz Toussaint has a vivid memory of his last trip to Notre Dame Stadium, just like so many Michigan players.
But the tailback's vantage point was a little different.
He just remembers the back of Denard Robinson's jersey.
"See the back of his jersey, then you know he's doing something right," Toussaint said of that 2010 matchup. "He has tremendous speed, so if you can get him in the open field, you know he can do something special."
As Michigan prepares to make its return to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday to face the No. 11 Fighting Irish (7:30 p.m., NBC), memories of that 28-24 victory have come flooding back.
Robinson was spectacular, as he finished with a school-record 502 yards of total offense. He also engineered a game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes, and silenced the road crowd for good with a 2-yard game-winning touchdown run.
That's antithetical to his road performances under coach Brady Hoke.
Robinson is just 69-of-154 passing (44.8 percent) for eight touchdowns and nine interceptions away from Ann Arbor the past two years. He averages 47.3 rushing yards in those games, but 124.3 at home.
That has contributed to the Wolverines' meager 23.3 points per game and 3-3 record under Hoke away from Michigan Stadium. They average 40.1 points and are 10-0 at home.
The Wolverines will have a tough chore doing any better this weekend, as Notre Dame -- off to its best start in a decade -- is allowing only 10.0 points per game. That's eighth in the country.
And although Michigan won its last game at Notre Dame Stadium, it is just 3-6-1 in its past 10 games there.
"It's pretty loud," offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said. "But that shouldn't play a factor. I've played at Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State, and a bunch of other guys have too, so the noise shouldn't affect us. We've played on big stages before."
Michigan has lost its past seven true road games against ranked opponents. The last win, though, came in 2006 -- at Notre Dame.
The Wolverines need Robinson to solve his road woes, and regain the form he flashed last time he was in South Bend, for his team to break that streak.
Other key factors in Saturday's game:
Win turnover battle
Michigan has forced only two turnovers this year, which has become one of coach Brady Hoke's biggest laments. It had forced 10 turnovers by this time last year, and finished with a Big Ten-best 29.
"We have to play tighter coverage, whether it be man coverage or zone coverage," Hoke said. "You have to get pressure on the quarterback, and you have to get 11 bodies to the football. Those three things.”
Notre Dame, meantime, is trending the other way with a plus-five turnover margin. It was minus-eight at this point last year.
It's cliche, but true: The turnover battle often nudges a rivalry game one way or the other. The Wolverines need to take care of what's in their control -- protect the football on offense -- and hope the ball bounces their way on defense.
Or, force it to.
Part of what made Michigan's defense so good last year was its ability to get off the field, as it got third-down stops at a 63.6-percent clip (36th nationally).
This year, though, the Wolverines are holding on only 54.2 percent of third downs, 97th nationally. Even the 2010 defense -- the worst in school history -- had a better rate than that (56.7 percent).
Getting off the field against Notre Dame, and thereby giving the offense more shots and better field position against that improved Irish defense, is a significant key to this game.
Win Denard vs. front seven matchup
The key matchup to watch will be Robinson against Notre Dame's front seven, which has played fabulously this season. Linebacker Manti Te'o is playing like an All-American, and defensive end Stephon Tuitt is second nationally with five sacks.
The Irish held Michigan State tailback Le'Veon Bell to 77 yards last week. He had been averaging 140.
Michigan's offensive line has struggled this year, which means it could be tough sledding against that Irish front. Bad news for a run-first team.
Establish passing game
The best way to beat Notre Dame's front seven might be by passing over the top of it. The secondary already was the unit's weakness, and now it has lost safety Jamoris Slaughter (ruptured Achilles tendon) for the season. He was ND's most experienced defensive back.
Michigan has struggled significantly the past two years against teams with imposing fronts, as they load the box and force Robinson to beat them through the air. He needs to establish the passing game, which would draw attention away from the box.
Michigan has broken Notre Dame's heart three times in a row, the past two of which were delivered via Denard Robinson-led comebacks. But the Irish showed for three quarters last year that they have some answers for slowing Robinson, and return even better defensive personnel this year.
The Wolverines have some nice offensive weapons coming along, but Robinson remains the team's most important player -- and he continues to struggle away from Ann Arbor, and against teams that can pressure the box. It's hard to like this matchup for Michigan. Notre Dame 31, Michigan 27