To the Field or to the Foe?
Turn on ESPN Classic this week and you're likely to see a Notre Dame/Michigan contest featuring greatness on the perimeter. From Anthony Carter or Desmond Howard in the Maize and Blue, to Tim Brown and Rocket Ismail in the Blue and Gold, the Wolverines and the Irish can boast four of the most dynamic all-purpose weapons in the history of college football.
Saturday's contest brings a different sort of battle, one that actually includes helmets and pads crashing competitively to determine each yard lost and gained: in the trenches.
And the heavyweight battle of note on Saturday's fronts is between a pair of pre-season All-Americans, Wolverines LT Taylor Lewan and Irish DE Stephon Tuitt.
"Taylor Lewan is a great player, he's one of the best tackles in the country," said Tuitt. "The key is to play within our defense. He's going to bring his A-game and I definitely have to play mine, but as far as going head-to-head, we all have to play within our defense (schematically)."
Lewan will spend the evening as he does every contest, at left tackle, protecting his quarterback's blind side. Tuitt, conversely, aligns to the wide side of the field. In other words, when Michigan snaps from the left hash mark, Tuitt and Lewan won't square off, and Tuitt will instead lock arms with right tackle Michael Scofield. But when the Wolverines snap from the right hash, the pair will knock heads, with Tuitt tasked to keep any Michigan run to the wide side from getting outside his grasp.
When it's not Tuitt vs. Lewan it'll be sophomore Sheldon Day, or more likely, as the Irish often shift their front to four down linemen, 6'2" 258-pounder Prince Shembo.
"Michigan's left tackle was the best guy I faced," said Shembo last December when asked to reminisce about a 12-0 regular season. "He was tough, I'd like to face him again."
Shembo, Day, and Tuitt will, as a by-product of the Irish system, each get their shots, but Saturday night might warrant a bit of scheming on the part of Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to ensure Tuitt contends with Lewan in key moments.
"Obviously where we line up, Stephon plays a particular position," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. "They'll be matched up quite a bit on Saturday, but it really just depends on what our front calls are, as to how much time he gets over him.
"We have to do a great job of keeping the ball inside our defense. So whoever is there has got to do a great job of making sure that they can control the edge of the defense.
"Sometimes you have to scheme it to make sure that we do that. He's that kind of player."
Tuitt relishes the challenge of facing one of the nation's best. "Considering he's 6'8" and can move really good, that's a nice start," Tuitt said. "We watch his film, he's a great tackle, great strength, but it's an opportunity for both of us to showcase what we worked on this summer. I love it, you want to go out there with the best of the best."
Their head coach is former defensive lineman, one whose roots and majority of his coaching resume run deep at the same position. Their defensive coordinator and line coach -- Notre Dame's ex-defensive coordinator and line coach, Greg Mattison -- is among the most accomplished defensive line coaches and coordinators of college football's last 20 years.
Together, Michigan's Hoke and Mattison have directed Wolverines defenses that finished ninth, and 20th, respectively, over the last two seasons in scoring defense (the Irish were 24th and of course 2nd last year).
Michigan's defensive line will be ready Saturday night, of that, the Irish offensive linemen are certain.
"The biggest thing we've been saying all week is they have Brady Hoke. Coach Hoke, he's a D-Line guy," said 5th-year senior Irish guard Chris Watt. "Their D-Coordinator (Greg Mattison) is a D-Line guy. That's (a lot of) instruction primarily with the defensive linemen. We know they're going to be getting on them to come off the ball hard and get on us quickly. Just from seeing the film, they're a lot better than last year getting off the ball."
Last year, Michigan's defensive front limited the Irish rushing attack to 94 yards on 31 carries. Notre Dame did not rush for a first down on third down over the duration of the contest, though it just once faced anything less than 3rd and 4.
"Watching film, they are very well-coached," said new Irish center Nick Martin. "They're going to come off the ball hard and we have to come off the ball harder."
Veteran defensive tackles Jabreel Black and Quinton Washington hold down the Michigan interior while expected 2013 breakout end Frank Clark looks to bring the pass rush. Hybrid OLB/DE Brennen Beyer didn't start last week but at 250 pounds, brings additional heat off the edge (two tackles for loss in the opener).
(One of the nation's top hybrid OLB/DE, Jake Ryan, will not play vs. Notre Dame, still recovering from off-season ACL surgery.)
In a game likely to be decided by inches inside rather than big plays on the perimeter, the performance of Notre Dame's offensive line will play the lead role.
"Defensively, they do a lot of things," said Kelly. "They'll bring pressures, they give you multiple looks. They're difficult to (block). And they just play hard. They're very active…and like I said, they create a lot of different looks for you defensively."
Those looks helped limit Notre Dame to its season-low yardage (just 239) and point total (13) in 2012.
To win Saturday night in Ann Arbor, the Irish offensive front -- rock solid on the left and a work-in-progress on the right -- will have to rise to the occasion under the lights.