Earlier in the season, Notre Dame was looking for a more balanced attack from its running game. Injuries prevented coach Brian Kelly from spreading the ball out to his backs and the team was relying heavily on running back Tony Jones Jr., who scores a 69 in the PlayStation Player Impact Ratings and, in part, quarterback Ian Book (86 rating) to deliver.
The team has gotten healthier, though, with running back running back Jafar Armstrong (38) ready to return this week, and is starting to put together some impressive numbers on the ground.
As No. 8 Notre Dame travels to Ann Arbor on Saturday to face the No. 19 Wolverines (7:30 p.m. ET on ABC), the Irish rushing attack against Michigan's run defense is going to be an interesting matchup to watch. In Notre Dame's most recent game against USC, the team ran for 308 yards and two touchdowns on 48 attempts, which was on the heels of putting up 233 yards against Bowling Green the previous week.
Michigan's defense has given up 119.7 rushing yards per game this season, which is ranked 30th among all FBS teams. That number might be deceiving, though, as 539 of the 838 rushing yards Michigan has allowed this season came against two run-heavy teams, Army and Wisconsin -- which features Jonathan Taylor, the best running back in college football.
Those games have to be considered in the stats, but taking those numbers out, in the other five games Michigan has played, the Wolverines are giving up only 55.8 rushing yards per game. That includes holding Iowa to one total rushing yard for the entire game in Michigan's 10-3 win, and holding Middle Tennessee, Rutgers and Illinois to under 70 yards on the ground.
A big part of Michigan's defense has been leading tackler Khaleke Hudson, who has a 93 rating, 64 tackles and two tackles for loss; safety Jordan Glasgow (77 rating), who has 4.5 tackles for loss; linebacker Josh Uche, who has a 94 rating and 7.5 tackles for loss; and upward rising linebacker Cam McGrone, among others.
Those defenders, and others, are going to have their hands full with the Irish offense.
In Notre Dame's game against USC, Jones had 176 yards on 25 attempts, Book had 54 yards on 12 attempts and Jahmir Smith (61 rating) carried the ball five times for 32 yards. Two of Notre Dame's three offensive touchdowns came on the ground, and a big part of that recent success is partially because of Notre Dame's impressive offensive line, with Liam Eichenberg (82 rating), Tommy Kraemer (61), Robert Hainsey (89), Aaron Banks (88) and Jarrett Patterson (57).
The running game is undoubtedly going to be featured in this matchup and Notre Dame was able to hold Michigan to just 53 yards on the ground in their last meeting. Now Michigan is going to look to contain the Irish running game to help limit big plays and sustained drives to get its defense off the field.
On paper this looks like a good matchup, but where the numbers might get murky are once the teams are in the red zone.
Notre Dame is one of three FBS teams (with LSU and Iowa) to have a 100% scoring percentage in the red zone this season. The good news for Michigan within that stat is when the Wolverines played Iowa, the Hawkeyes only made it to the red zone once and the Michigan defense held Iowa to a field goal.
Michigan's defense has allowed 12 touchdowns and one field goal this season on 16 red zone drives, and of those 12 touchdowns, 10 were on the ground. Notre Dame has scored 19 touchdowns on 22 red zone drives with 11 coming from a run.
That is significant because Notre Dame ranks third among all FBS teams in red zone touchdown percentage, and once they get to the red zone, the Irish have run the ball 64.3% of the time on an offensive play.
The key for Michigan will be to keep the Irish out of the red zone the same way it did against Iowa. Once its opponents reach the red zone, Michigan's defense has given up 4.52 yards per rush and has held its opponent to zero or negative yards rushing on only 12.7% of its plays in the red zone, which ranks 110th among FBS teams. If Notre Dame gets loose on the ground, it could be a long night for Michigan. But if the Wolverines can bottle up the Irish ground game, this could be another classic back-and-forth battle.