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Michigan football looks to continue home dominance against Notre Dame

Wolverines have won four straight against Fighting Irish at home

Denard Robinson and Taylor Lewan celebrate Michigan's game-winning touchdown to beat Notre Dame in the first night game at Michigan Stadium. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It's been a rough decade for Michigan football fans in rivalry games. In the last 10 years, the Wolverines are 3-7 against Michigan State and 1-9 against Ohio State. But when it comes to Notre Dame, Michigan has always dominated at home.

The all-time Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry is deadlocked at 15-15-1 since the teams started playing regularly in 1978. But in Ann Arbor, Michigan is 10-5 over that span, including three straight wins since 2009.

Notre Dame has certainly jumped on every scheduling advantage it could get in this series, not only abruptly ending the last contract just in time to finish with a home game, but also getting the first of this latest head-on-head in South Bend.

As a result, the Fighting Irish are on a two-game winning streak in the series. But Michigan is a different team at the Big House.

Michigan's home dominance

The last two Michigan-Notre Dame games in Ann Arbor have been instant classics. In 2011, Michigan pulled off one of its greatest comebacks to beat Notre Dame in the first night game at the Big House.

Under the Lights II was another Michigan win in 2013, though with slightly less drama.

Even the 2009 Michigan team that didn't qualify for a bowl game under Rich Rodriguez beat Notre Dame at home. Lloyd Carr's final matchup against the Golden Domers ended with a 38-0 Michigan win.

Notre Dame is 4-2 at home against Michigan since 2006, but Ann Arbor has been a house of horrors.

Junior Hemingway celebrates a touchdown catch against Notre Dame in 2011. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

This year, the Fighting Irish catch Michigan at a strange point in the season. Not only are the Wolverines in the heart of Big Ten play, they're also coming off perhaps their most impressive half of football this season -- and it resulted in a loss.

Michigan was largely eliminated from playoff and Big Ten title contention in Happy Valley, despite battling within three yards of tying what was once a 21-point deficit.

Despite coming up short, Michigan had to feel good about the progress it made offensively, finally showing glimpses of what Josh Gattis promised to bring to Ann Arbor.

Rushing attack

The Wolverines still struggle to move the ball on the ground, but Notre Dame hasn't been great in that regard, allowing nearly 4 yards per rush and more than 150 rushing yards per game this year.

Freshman running back Zach Charbonnet is coming off a quietly strong performance at Penn State, where he rushed for 81 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. He's gained 197 yards and scored three times the last two weeks.

Zach Charbonnet #24 of the Michigan Wolverines runs with the ball on his way to a touchdown during the second quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions on October 19, 2019 at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

This could be the week Michigan finally gets into a rhythm on the ground, and that would be a huge boost for a quarterback who appears to be finding some of his old magic.

Shea Patterson

Shea Patterson put the fumbles and inaccuracy behind him last week, despite playing in the most difficult environment of his Michigan career. He completed 24 of 41 passes for 276 yards while running for 34 yards and a touchdown.

Patterson should have completed at least 30 passes for more than 350 yards, but a half-dozen drops by his receiving corps ultimately doomed Michigan's upset bid.

This hasn't been the senior season Patterson envisioned. He has 14 total touchdowns and eight turnovers in seven games, completing 57.4% of his passes with an average QBR and mediocre rushing stats.

Shea Patterson #2 of the Michigan Wolverines signals to teammates during the second quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions on October 19, 2019 at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

But there's no denying Patterson has steadily improved over the last four games.

After fumbling five times in the first three games -- four of which were recovered by the defense -- Patterson has fumbled just once in his last four contests. He has nine touchdowns and three turnovers in that span.

Most importantly -- besides taking better care of the ball -- Patterson has started to run the ball with more regularity, opening up the rest of the offense. After rushing just 15 times (excluding sacks) in the first four games, Patterson has 21 runs over the last three weeks.

His ability to move the chains on the ground gives pause to opposing pass rushers and takes pressure off the traditional running game.

Notre Dame is averaging three sacks per game, so Patterson and the offensive line will need to maintain the improvements they've made in limiting that threat.

Defensive challenge

The final numbers from the Penn State game look pretty impressive for the Michigan defense, but Don Brown's unit simply didn't do enough to win the game.

Michigan allowed just 283 total yards, but it was only on the field for 22:15. The offense finally put the defense in a good position, and the result was 28 points, no turnovers forced and a few backbreaking long plays.

Brown droned on about how he couldn't sleep after the 2017 thrashing in Happy Valley. If that's the case, last week's performance wasn't exactly a lullaby.

Sean Clifford #14 of the Penn State Nittany Lions carries the ball for a touchdown during the second quarter against the Michigan Wolverines on October 19, 2019 at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

One unit that has been excellent is the pass rush, namely Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye and Cam McGrone.

Hutchinson and Paye have developed into two of the best players on the team, combining for seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss this season.

Since joining the starting lineup against Iowa, McGrone has been exactly what the doctor ordered for a team trying to replace star linebacker Devin Bush. McGrone has been all over the field, making 30 tackles, six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.

McGrone isn't just a playmaker in the backfield. He's also a reliable tackler who can make plays in space.

Josh Uche has also been an X-factor, leading the team with 5.5 sacks while chipping in 7.5 tackles for loss.

Notre Dame has only allowed nine sacks this season, so it will be critical for those four to figure out a talented offensive line and wreak havoc on Ian Book.

Book didn't play against Michigan last season, but he's been phenomenal since taking over the starting job midway through 2018. He's thrown 33 touchdown passes and nine interceptions while running for seven more touchdowns and passing for over 4,000 yards.

Cameron McGrone #44 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates a fourth quarter sack against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Michigan Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 10-3. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The senior is completing 63.2% of his pass attempts and averaging 8.3 yards per throw. If Michigan can't make him uncomfortable, he'll pick the secondary apart.

The Fighting Irish average 5.31 yards per rush, led by star running back Tony Jones Jr., who has 557 rushing yards on the season and averages 7 yards per carry.

Michigan's defensive line will be challenged in both phases of the game Saturday.

Penn State exposed Michigan's safeties with K.J. Hamler, and Notre Dame will likely try to do the same. Between a top-20 rushing offense, an efficient passing attack and a quarterback who can make plays with his legs, Brown has his work cut out for him.

Rivalry implications

Jim Harbaugh hinted he's interested in possibly renewing the series in the future, but Saturday is currently the last scheduled meeting between Michigan and Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish have the scheduling advantage once again, coming off a bye week while Michigan battled through a Penn State whiteout. These teams look much different than when they met 14 months ago, so that extra week of preparation will be a factor.

Ambry Thomas #1 of the Michigan Wolverines returns a kickoff for a touchdown in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 1, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Michigan doesn't want to get swept in this home-and-home series, certainly not when there's no scheduled opportunity for revenge.

Notre Dame is a playoff contender, but Michigan still has plenty to play for. If the last two meetings under the lights in Ann Arbor are any indication, this has the makings of another classic.

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