by John Vannie
Michigan’s defense is similar to Georgia Tech’s in that both have a veteran front seven and a young secondary led by a top cornerback. The Wolverines are bigger and have more depth than the Yellow Jackets, however, and will be more difficult to wear down than either of Notre Dame’s first two opponents. The Irish have yet to establish an effective running game this season, and are unlikely to find much room again this week.
This game is likely to be another low scoring contest. Brady Quinn will once again face considerable pressure up the middle, as this is the method of attack proven to be most successful against Notre Dame in the Weis era. The Wolverines shut down the Irish in the second half of last year’s contest with this type of pressure, and Penn State had some success with a similar approach during the third quarter last week.
The Wolverine defense boasts an impressive front four led by end LaMarr Woodley and huge tackles Terrance Taylor and Alan Branch. The linebackers are also big and have adequate speed. David Harris holds down the middle while leading the team in tackles, and Prescott Burgess teams with Shawn Crable on the outside.
Leon Hall is the leader of the secondary, while fellow cornerbacks Charles Stewart and Morgan Trent may become the targets of Quinn’s passes should they be forced to cover Jeff Samardzija or Rhema McKnight without help. Safeties Ryan Mundy, Brandent Englemon and Willis Barringer will also attempt to hold down tight end John Carlson and the rest of the Irish aerial attack.
Notre Dame must protect Quinn, perhaps by rolling him out or moving the pocket, and generate enough rushing yards to keep Michigan’s defense from dominating the game. The Irish may not get very many scoring opportunities, so they must avoid drive-killing penalties and get into the end zone by taking advantage of their more experienced pass receivers against the Wolverine cover men. Darius Walker should also have some success as a receiver in this game.
When Michigan has the ball, they will run it until someone stops them – which admittedly may not happen. Surprisingly, their offensive line is only adequate except for left tackle Jake Long, but they are blessed with three talented and diverse running backs in Mike Hart, Kevin Grady and Brandon Minor. Expect the Wolverines to attack the right side of the Irish defense on the ground and attempt to hit them with play action passes when safeties Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe creep toward the line of scrimmage.
Quarterback Chad Henne is a three year starter, but he has hit only 50% of his passes this season despite weak competition. If he is sharp, Notre Dame could be in trouble. Michigan’s receivers are fast and dangerous, but consistency has been a problem and Henne misfires more often than a veteran passer should.
Still, the trio of Mario Manningham, Steve Breaston and Adrian Arrington can burn opponents from anywhere on the field. Doug Dutch and Carl Tabb will also see playing time without a significant drop-off in production. The Wolverines have always featured an excellent tight end, and this year is no different. Tyler Ecker fills the role for this year’s team, although he may not be at full strength this week.
The key for the Irish defense will be their ability to stop the run while containing Breaston and Manningham with corners Ambrose Wooden and Mike Richardson. While slowing down Penn State’s deep threat receivers was the focus last week, Notre Dame must first slow down Hart to win on Saturday.
Special teams will also contribute significantly to the outcome, as field position will be at a premium. The Irish have played well in all aspects of returns and coverage so far this season, but Breaston is a dangerous return man who has burned Notre Dame in the past. Michigan’s kicker is the reliable Garrett Rivas, who rarely misses a kick of less than 40 yards.
The overall matchups, as one might expect, are relatively even.
Position / Advantage
Quarterback – Notre Dame
Running Back – Michigan
Wide Receivers – Notre Dame
Tight Ends – Notre Dame
ND OLine vs. UM DLine – Michigan
UM OLine vs. ND DLine – Even
Linebackers – Michigan
Secondary – Notre Dame
Punting – Notre Dame
Kicking – Michigan
Return Teams – Even
Intangibles – Michigan
Michigan desperately needs this game for its program, and the Wolverines have circled it as a must win during the long off-season following a disappointing 7-5 campaign in 2005. The question is whether they can pressure Quinn enough to neutralize the advantage he holds over Henne.
Prior to the start of the season, I thought that this would be the September game the Irish would most likely lose. One disturbing statistic in the first two Irish games with Big-10 referees is that opponents have not been called for holding while Notre Dame has been flagged five times. Overall penalties are 17 for the Irish and nine for their opponents. If this trend continues and if Michigan’s offensive linemen are allowed to use any means to keep Victor Abiamiri from Henne, anything can happen.
On balance, however, Notre Dame’s preparation, playmakers and coaching should overcome Michigan’s emotion in a hard fought contest.
NOTRE DAME 24 MICHIGAN 20