by Mike Coffey
Notre Dame looks to build upon its shaky but ultimately successful debut against San Diego State with a win over the visiting Michigan Wolverines this Saturday. As was the case last season, both teams enter the contest with something to prove and the intention of using a victory over a rival school as a springboard to a strong season. Michigan has thrashed the Irish in each of the past two seasons, but their offense has been retooled since most of the last year’s personnel and their head coach of eleven years have moved on.
Former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez has taken over in Ann Arbor and will lead the 1-1 Wolverines. He is attempting to install the spread offense that was highly efficient in Morgantown, but his young players have only scratched the surface. The quarterback position has also been unsettled as two freshmen are competing for playing time with no clear leader having emerged to date.
Steven Threet will start the game and Nick Sheridan will also see considerable action. Threet is the better passer and has moved the team more effectively, but Sheridan is a threat to run the ball and therefore brings an element to the attack that Rodriguez seeks to employ.
Michigan’s strength rests with its defense in general and its front four in particular. Will Johnson, Tim Jamison and Terrance Taylor are seniors with three years of experience as starters while junior end Brandon Graham has two seasons under his belt. Notre Dame has been unable to run the ball against this group, as evidenced by a combined -10 net yards rushing in 2006-07. The Wolverines have also recorded 11 sacks and forced nine turnovers in this same period.
The Irish expect to repay the favor this year and turn the tables on Michigan’s offense while it is still getting untracked under Rodriguez. Notre Dame will attempt to pressure Threet and Sheridan into misreads and outright mistakes, and the Irish offense hopes to pick up where it left off in their productive fourth quarter last week.
Notre Dame’s Offense vs. Michigan’s Defense
There is no secret that Rodriguez plans to lean on his defense to win this game, and the rainy weather that is forecast may work in his favor. “If we get an opportunity to make a play or an interception that could change a field position or score points, those are things that we’re really going to need. That’s where we’re at right now” he said earlier this week.
Besides the front four, Notre Dame will have to contend with Michigan’s big, physical linebackers. Obinna Ezeh has taken over in the middle and is a force at 247 pounds. John Thompson has emerged on the strong side with backup from Marell Evans, and the athletic Jonas Mouton plays well in space on the weak side. The secondary is potentially vulnerable, but corners Donovan Warren and Morgan Trent are experienced and get help from a strong pass rush. Safeties Steve Brown and Brandon Harrison are talented but often inconsistent. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen will look for Golden Tate to run past this group on occasion and also create space underneath for the likes of David Grimes, Duval Kamara and Michael Floyd.
The Irish may be tempted to abandon the run early and attack through the air, but the weather may be the twelfth man for the Wolverines. The games between these rivals rarely turn into aerial shootouts, and the team that is most dominant in the trenches usually emerges victorious. Notre Dame must make Michigan respect the run while proving that its improved, stronger offensive line is more substance than rumor.
Neither team figures to score many points on Saturday, but turnovers will provide opportunities that the winning team will convert. Clausen and the Irish must clean up their act after four giveaways last week. Notre Dame’s linemen, backs and tight ends will be matched up against bigger and stronger players than they were called upon to block last week, so they must be up to the task.
Michigan’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
While the Wolverines prefer to emphasize the running game, Threet will throw short passes early in the contest to build his confidence and probe the underneath zones that San Diego State exploited against Notre Dame. He has demonstrated a good touch on the long ball and will look to find freshman speedster Maratavious Odoms if the Irish safeties begin to cheat forward.
Michigan has good speed in the backfield with running backs Sam McGuffie, Brandon Minor and Michael Shaw. They will attempt to attack the perimeter of the Irish defense while neutralizing the blitz at the same time. The Wolverine offensive line is a far cry from recent years where Jake Long led the charge, and this is compounded by an injury to Long’s replacement, senior Mark Ortman. Still, they will rarely turn the ball over or beat themselves with penalties. The Irish must tackle well to avoid large gains on first down. The goal is to force Threet or Sheridan into low percentage passing situations on third and long.
The Irish must also realize a higher success rate from the blitz than last week. Threet will not necessarily pick them apart, but the risk of a big play by the Wolverines must be weighed against the reward. Notre Dame did knock down a few passes against SDSU, but they rarely hit the quarterback and disrupted his rhythm. Michigan has sufficient talent at wide receiver with Darrell Stonum, Greg Mathews and LaTerryal Savoy to execute a short passing game.
Despite the potential for Michigan to hurt Notre Dame through the air, the Irish secondary matches up well with the Wolverines. The key to the game on this side of the ball is Notre Dame’s ability to stop the run as Utah was able to do in the season opener. The Irish will win comfortably if they are stout and physical in this endeavor, and Michigan is more vulnerable up front this year than in recent memory.
K.C. Lopata is a solid place kicker who can make any kick inside 50 yards. Odoms and Warren handle the return duties and the coverage units are rarely beaten for big gains. The Irish showed improvement in most special teams areas last week, but the Wolverines still have a clear advantage when a field goal is needed. Adequate depth on kickoffs also remains problematic for Notre Dame but is not an issue for Michigan. This factor could dictate field position and influence the outcome.
Both teams will prey upon the other’s weaknesses, but the offense that is able to establish both running and passing will carry the day. Notre Dame has a tall order against the Wolverine front four, which is clearly the most productive unit among the respective offensive and defensive lines.
If given time and reasonable conditions, Clausen is the more accomplished quarterback and has a few more weapons at his disposal than his Wolverine counterparts. This advantage will be negated if the Irish fall behind early and are forced to the air almost exclusively. For that matter, either team will be in serious trouble if down by more than seven points after the first twenty minutes.
A review of the key questions that will determine the winner:
Which team will control the line of scrimmage?
Will Mike Haywood rebound from a forgettable debut as the Irish play caller?
Will the Irish defense hold up on the perimeter against runs from the spread option?
Will the Irish be willing and able to run the ball?
How well will Mike Turkovich protect Jimmy Clausen’s blind side?
Can Notre Dame win the field position battle on special teams?
Which team will hit big plays over the top in the passing game?
Cynical question of the week: At what point in the game will Weis take over the play calling duties?
The Irish have a great opportunity to capitalize on a young Michigan team that is trying to find itself, but Charlie Weis’ troops must demonstrate that they are ready to assert themselves physically. In a low scoring affair that will likely be played in poor weather conditions, Michigan’s defensive front will force more negative plays than Notre Dame’s and its kicking game will contribute just enough to overcome Clausen and the Irish.
Michigan 20 Notre Dame 14