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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Big Uglies Battle in Ann Arbor

posted by John Vannie
After suffering two crushing defeats to start their respective seasons, Michigan and Notre Dame will stagger into the Big House on Saturday like a pair of aging, punch-drunk heavyweights. Each team will start a highly recruited freshman quarterback and attempt to rebuild its foundation for the remainder of this season and beyond. Rather than a pre-game flyover by a squadron of F/A-18 Hornets, it’s more likely that a flock of buzzards will circle overhead and descend upon the loser.

Ryan Mallett replaces the injured Chad Henne at quarterback for the Wolverines. The strong-armed Texan played the entire second half against Oregon, but failed to guide his team into the end zone. Jimmy Clausen experienced similar frustration against Penn State, as Notre Dame’s problems along the offensive line and in the running game turned a difficult road game into a nightmare.

While the offensive woes of the Irish are well-documented, Michigan can protect Mallett with a competent line led by left tackle Jake Long, hand the ball to senior tailback Mike Hart or throw it to a pair of veteran receivers in Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Coach Lloyd Carr is expected to utilize Hart early and often while refraining from undue risks in the passing game. The operative question for the Irish defense is whether or not to load up against the run and dare to single cover the Wolverine receivers.

Michigan’s defense, which has surrendered over 500 yards per game this season, has been the area of greatest concern for Carr. The front seven has been uncharacteristically soft against the run, allowing 5.2 yards per carry. The secondary has been burned for big plays in the passing game and a 69% overall completion rate. Since Notre Dame’s offense has not demonstrated the ability to move the ball in any manner, it will be interesting to see if one of these blundering units will rise up and outplay the other.

Much to the dismay of Coach Charlie Weis, Notre Dame was unable to make Penn State pay when they blitzed last week and left themselves in single coverage situations. This was not due to a lack of confidence in Clausen, but rather the failure of the offensive line to allow the freshman time to deliver the ball downfield. This week’s game is pivotal for both teams in that neither wants to start with three straight losses, so Weis will continue to be aggressive against the struggling Wolverines.

Notre Dame’s Offense vs. Michigan’s Defense

While Georgia Tech and Penn State exerted relentless pressure on Irish quarterbacks, Michigan’s front seven is not as athletic and fast. The best players in this group are tackle Terrance Taylor and linebacker Shawn Crable. Notre Dame will more frequently run away from Crable’s side and keep a tight end at the ready to pick him up when he blitzes.

The Irish should finally be able to open some holes for tailback Armando Allen. After failing to run the ball in its first two games, Notre Dame must demonstrate some semblance of balance if it expects to win on Saturday. After another week of intensive practice, the offensive line must begin to demonstrate noticeable improvement. The unit reduced the number of mental errors last week after a forgettable opener, but physical breakdowns and poor technique remained constant.

Michigan will undoubtedly follow the lead of Notre Dame’s first two opponents and blitz Notre Dame repeatedly. The Irish have not shown the ability to handle pressure, and opponents will continue to attack until Clausen and friends make someone pay. If Notre Dame is able to protect Clausen, it can spread out Michigan’s defense and strike for big plays in the passing game or with Allen on quick bursts through the line. One key element to look for is whether tight end John Carlson is forced to stay in and block or if he can get downfield and catch passes.

Although Clausen is not known for his running ability, Michigan’s first two opponents burned the Wolverines several times when the quarterback was able to break containment and run for first downs. There may be times on Saturday when Clausen will need to do the same thing in order to keep a drive going or simply avoid a negative play. This obviously is not an ideal strategy, but such is the current state of Notre Dame’s offense.

Michigan’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense

The Wolverines will run Hart and backup Brandon Minor at the right side of Notre Dame’s defense behind the massive Long. The strategy is rather simple: keep first time starter Mallett out of difficult third down situations and set up play action bombs to Manningham when the Irish safeties are most susceptible. When Mallett must throw the ball, Carr will try to keep things safe. Arrington is a polished possession receiver, and 6’3” Greg Mathews is another favorite target.

Notre Dame understands that Hart will be the primary threat, but they will be able to contain him only as long as the Irish offense can keep them fresh. If Corwin Brown’s overachievers can rely on the offense for a few points, reasonable time of possession and decent field position, the game can be won.

On passing downs, Notre Dame must pressure the slow-footed Mallett in the pocket and attempt to confuse him with different coverage looks. The Irish want to force him to take slightly longer than is ideal to deliver the ball and thereby create turnover opportunities. This would be far less likely with the senior Henne in the game, but all bets are off when a freshman is taking the snaps.

Under normal circumstances, Manningham’s dangerous presence would keep the Irish secondary honest and allow Hart a bit more room to run. Since Mallett is making his first start, it will be interesting to see if Notre Dame gambles with eight men against the run and to what extent Carr will allow his young quarterback to counter attack.

Special Teams

The game is likely to be a low scoring affair, therefore field position, the return game and field goal conversion are critical. Both teams have excellent punters, but the Michigan’s Jason Gingell is only two for five in field goal attempts. Brandon Walker has a strong leg for Notre Dame, but his experience is limited and he has yet to attempt a real pressure kick. The Irish appear to have an advantage in the return game as Tom Zbikowski (punts) and Allen (kickoffs) compare favorably with the Wolverines’ Johnny Sears.


The entire season may not be on the line for both teams, but the winner can begin to move forward while the loser will continue its rare and embarrassing downward spiral. The team that holds a lead by a touchdown or more will have a distinct advantage in being able to force the other out of its game plan. It would not be surprising if the margin of victory was provided by a score on defense or special teams. As far as the offenses are concerned, 112,000 people will either witness the first of several classic battles between Clausen and Mallett, or they could just become bored out of their minds.

The key elements that will determine the outcome are as follows:

Will Notre Dame be able to run the ball?
Will Hart be able to keep Michigan from third and long situations?
Will Notre Dame give Clausen time to throw?
Will the Irish be able to contain Manningham?
Which team will commit costly turnovers and penalties?
Which freshman quarterback will best execute the game plan?
Field goal success rate


Notre Dame will achieve a respectable level of competence on offense at some point this season, but the question is whether or not it will happen this week. Meanwhile, Hart will get his share of yards and Manningham is bound to escape for a score at some point during the afternoon. Mallett will not have to win the game by himself, while Clausen has neither the same level of protection nor the weapons at his disposal to put a winning total on the board.

The Michigan defense certainly can be scored upon, but the Irish offensive line has been so bad that it won’t be able to take full advantage. As much as Notre Dame fans hope the rivalry with the Wolverines will bring out the best in their offense, it’s unrealistic to assume the Irish will transform in one week from an inability to generate a first down to a point producing machine.

Notre Dame’s offense will finally reach the end zone, but it will not be enough to pull out the win.

Michigan 21 Notre Dame 17
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