Contender or Pretender?posted by Mike Coffey
Notre Dame and Michigan square off at the Big House on Saturday in a game that will provide a boost to one program’s rebuilding efforts while relegating the other to the dreaded “wait until next year” mode. Yes, I did say "rebuilding" in the context of Michigan and Notre Dame football, where seldom is heard such a discouraging word. The fact is that both Rich Rodriguez and Charlie Weis were forced to restock a depleted cupboard at their respective schools, and each recently endured a 3-9 season on what they hope is the road to recovery.
The Irish won last year’s rain-soaked contest 35-17 as Golden Tate burned the Wolverine secondary and Rodriguez’ spread option attack misfired by committing six turnovers. Both teams are improved this season, and the gap between them is certainly less than 18 points. One might argue that Michigan’s excess practice time this summer has accelerated its turnaround, but those expecting the NCAA to punish the Wolverines should not hold their breath.
Saturday’s game will be a contrast in styles. Michigan’s defense boasts a solid front four that will put pressure on the quarterback, but they are vulnerable in the secondary. The Irish bring pressure by blitzing linebackers, and rely on a solid secondary to cover opposing receivers. The weakness is up front, particularly against the run. Offensively, Notre Dame’s sophisticated passing attack will keep any defensive coordinator awake at night, while it’s improved rushing attack may not yet be ready to take over a game in the fourth quarter. The Wolverines prefer to stay on the ground and take the pressure off a pair of freshman quarterbacks.
Neither Tate Forcier nor Denard Robinson are prototypical strong-armed Michigan quarterbacks, but Rodriguez has changed the model to a more mobile and elusive style. The offense is built on speed and deception rather than raw power, and the Irish defense will be stretched from sideline to sideline. Although Notre Dame looks stronger on paper, the history of this series since its renewal 30 years ago indicates that upsets by the home team are more the rule than the exception.
Notre Dame’s Offense against Michigan’s Defense
Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson has joined the Wolverine staff this season after an unsuccessful run as the head coach at Syracuse. Robinson’s best achievement at Syracuse was an upset victory over Notre Dame last November in South Bend, but the Irish played without Michael Floyd and the running game was a mess.
The key to this game is the battle between the Michigan defensive front and the Irish offensive line. Michigan is aware of the significant advantage enjoyed by the Irish receivers against its secondary, and the likes of end Brandon Graham and tackle Mike Martin will be counted upon to neutralize it. The Wolverines will try to overpower the Notre Dame ground game and force quarterback Jimmy Clausen to convert on third and long. While Clausen was successful in this regard against Nevada, his protection will be severely tested this week. Not only will the Irish need to double team Graham, but they must also be on the lookout for well-disguised and delayed blitzes from anyone in the back seven.
Weis may use the same tactics on Graham and freshman Craig Roh as he did last week against Nevada’s talented defensive ends. A mix of screens and cut blocks will be employed to slow them down and allow Clausen to display his passing proficiency. As for the running game, the presence of Martin and linebacker Obi Ezeh will make it difficult to make yardage up the middle on Michigan, but there will be opportunities off tackle or wide in conventional sets or a wildcat formation.
Robinson will employ multiple coverages and pre-snap movement to create problems for Clausen. Last week, the junior did an outstanding job of identifying single coverage, looking off the safeties and hitting the open receiver. If he has sufficient time and is able to effectively read the coverage scheme, his receivers will enjoy success against the Michigan secondary.
Michigan’s Offense against Notre Dame’s Defense
Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator Jon Tenuta is adept at turning up the heat on young quarterbacks, and the Irish game plan will be to hit Forcier early and often. The risk in a blitz-happy strategy is that Michigan’s offensive line needs only to create small creases for its backs to burst into an opponent’s secondary. Both sides will guess right at times, but the unit that can establish a degree of physical dominance will prevail. The Irish linebackers and secondary need to be aggressive yet disciplined in run support, and the front four must penetrate the line of scrimmage and create disruption.
The Wolverines will employ Forcier and Robinson at quarterback, and both might line up in the same backfield. Forcier is the more accomplished passer while Robinson was the team’s leading rusher last week against Western Michigan. This rotation is far more strategically driven than last season’s ineffective quarterback carousel between Nate Sheridan and the since-departed Steven Threet.
Michigan’s speed and mobility at the point of attack also supports the extensive use of Manti Te’o at linebacker for the Irish. His speed may be better suited than the skill set of Toryan Smith to defend the spread option. Another player to watch for Notre Dame is free safety Harrison Smith. He will be a key player in run support but is also the last line of defense against the long passes to Junior Hemingway that Rodriguez will spring on the Irish at opportune moments.
While Hemingway’s movements will bear watching, Michigan does not have comparable weapons in the passing game to prevail if the ground attack fail to move the chains consistently. The Irish can weather the damage from a few big plays that will almost certainly occur as long as they are not on their heels the entire afternoon. Notre Dame’s success on defense will hinge on its ability to battle the Wolverines to a standstill in the trenches and keep them from running downhill.
Irish freshman Nicholas Tausch was not tested in the field goal department last week, but may get his chance in a clutch situation on Saturday. Punter Eric Maust was reasonably successful against Nevada. He did not realize extraordinary distance but none of his kicks were returned. Another freshman, Theo Riddick, had only one chance to return a kickoff on Saturday, but it’s too soon to tell if he can become a true weapon in this role.
Michigan kicker Jason Olesnavage came through on a 44-yard field goal attempt last week, and it’s always a relief to get that first successful kick out of the way. Zoltan Mesko averaged over 47 yards in five attempts, including a 66-yard rocket. Western Michigan could manage only six total return yards on his punts.
This is a rivalry game that both teams desperately need to win. Weis’ teams have been more businesslike than demonstrably emotional during his tenure, but the Irish must show some fire this week. Decision making by the quarterbacks will be a key factor in the outcome, and Notre Dame has a distinct advantage with Clausen at the helm. The questions surrounding the Irish are more of a physical nature. The linemen must give prepare for a hard-hitting battle and the defense must improve its tackling. The Wolverines may not be as talented at the skill positions, but they will attempt to stop the run and make Clausen hold the ball long enough in the pocket to hit him repeatedly. Since defensive pressure leads to turnovers, the team that is most successful in this regard will win.
Here are a few key questions that will determine the outcome:
- Can Notre Dame match Michigan’s intensity and emotion?
- Will Notre Dame allow the Wolverines to control the time of possession?
- Can Paul Duncan and Matt Romine handle Brandon Graham and give Clausen time to pass?
- What impact will Manti Te’o have for the Irish?
- Can the Irish force Michigan into third and long situations?
- Which defense will demonstrate superior hitting and tackling?
- How will Tausch perform under pressure?
- Which team will make mental mistakes and commit turnovers?
The game may not be decided until the fourth quarter, and Notre Dame will be in trouble if it has to play from behind all day. Conversely, the Irish might win by 10-14 points if they can build an early lead and force Michigan out of its comfort zone, but that rarely happens when these teams play in Ann Arbor. In recent visits, Notre Dame has made mistakes that put it in a hole early, but Clausen gives them a chance to recover if they can maintain their poise under adverse conditions.
Although anything can happen in this contest, it’s likely that neither team will dominate on defense or be able to run its offense with the ease it enjoyed last weekend. I expect the Irish to hold their own up front and exploit their advantage at the skill positions, but it won’t be a walk in the park.
Notre Dame 24 Michigan 21