by John Vannie
Notre Dame completes the Big-10 portion of its schedule on Saturday with a home game against the University of Michigan. The 3-0 Irish and the 2-1 Wolverines are idle next week, and both want to declare September a success by ending on a positive note against a traditional rival. The game will be played at night, starting at 7:30 PM Eastern time and will be nationally televised by NBC.
Michigan has won the last three games in this series, and each contest was decided in the final minute. Last year’s giveaway loss was particularly egregious for the Notre Dame community, and payback is certainly on the minds of the coaches and players despite public denials that they are looking backward in time. This season’s early successes have reenergized the Irish program, and the limited remaining space on the bandwagon could quickly disappear with a victory this week.
Coach Brian Kelly knows how difficult it has been to defeat Wolverine quarterback Denard Robinson, so he developed his own version of the elusive senior in Everett Golson. The youngster is still learning to read defenses and locate his receivers, but his calm demeanor, lightning quickness and slingshot arm are God-given traits that were not acquired at the Hesburgh Library or in film study at the Gug.
Equal praise must also be given to Notre Dame’s defense. The unit enjoyed a breakthrough performance last week in a 20-3 win over Michigan State after a decade of being maligned as slow, plodding and lacking in athleticism. The front line dominated their Spartan counterparts while linebacker Manti Te’o flashed from sideline to sideline like a jet-propelled tackling machine. Even the Irish special teams broke out of a season-long funk to make a positive difference in the outcome.
Meanwhile, Michigan has looked very ordinary to date on both sides of the ball. The lone exception has been Robinson, whose ability to improvise with his legs under pressure and somehow find receivers with an improbable array of fluttering passes makes him a dangerous opponent.
Neither team is injury free. Notre Dame lost its second starter from the defensive backfield for the season when safety Jamoris Slaughter went down in the third quarter last week. Defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore is also nursing an injured leg and wide receiver DaVaris Daniels is recovering from an ankle sprain. Both will play on Saturday. The Wolverines had already lost starting cornerback Blake Countess for the year, and key contributors such as linebacker Desmond Morgan, defensive end Brennen Beyer, tight end Brandon Moore and fullback Stephen Hopkins are questionable for this game.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE VS. MICHIGAN’S DEFENSE
With running back Cierre Wood back in the lineup and Daniels healthy enough to contribute at wide receiver, Kelly and Golson have a full complement of weapons to throw at Greg Mattison’s defense. The matchup to watch in the trenches is the right side of the Irish offensive line with Mike Golic and Christian Lombard against Michigan’s front four led by seniors Craig Roh and William Campbell. Mattison is sure to employ stunts and blitzes to attack Notre Dame’s relative inexperience as both Golic and Lombard have struggled at times.
The Wolverines have had trouble stopping the run, and that problem is not just confined to Alabama’s dominance in the season opener. They are ranked #100 in rush defense and the front seven is relatively nondescript as compared to traditionally well-stocked Michigan squads. The two starting safeties lead the team in tackles, prompting Hoke to remark, “I’ll always tell you we need to get more from our linebackers…but some of it is by design, depending on what coverages you’re playing and then some of it, obviously we like to see the second level guys and the guys up front get off blocks and make some plays.”
Hoke and Mattison have rotated linebackers in practice and in games in search of improved results. The best of the group is Jake Ryan, who starts on the strong side. If Morgan is not ready to go on the weak side, freshman James Ross will be inserted into the lineup. Veteran cornerback J.T. Floyd is the team’s best cover man, while both Raymon Taylor and Courtney Avery have tried to replace Countess on the other side with mixed results to date. Safeties Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon are solid players, but the Wolverines have not intercepted a pass this season.
Balance and unpredictability are again paramount for Kelly and the Irish. The team must improve its third down conversion rate and will struggle to do so if Mattison’s defense can force too many obvious passing downs. The running game should be productive as Notre Dame’s rugged tight ends should be able to block Michigan’s second level players. Golson will attempt to loosen up the safeties with a few deep balls to Daniels and freshman Chris Brown. These plays just missed last week but it’s only a matter of time before the Irish hit one or two for long gains.
MICHIGAN’S OFFENSE VS. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Wolverines have relied heavily on Robinson to generate offense both on the ground and through the air. Fitz Toussaint, the starting tailback, has failed to get untracked after missing the opener against Alabama due to a suspension. He is backed up by Vincent Smith, a small, quick player, and Thomas Rawls, a more compact and powerful runner. Robinson has accounted for 60% of the team’s rushing yards, averaging more than 100 yards per game and almost nine yards per carry. Many of these runs are improvised rather than scripted. Notre Dame must gear up to contain him, but Bob Diaco’s defense paid the ultimate price last year when they left Michigan receivers in single coverage to counter Robinson’s scrambling ability.
The offensive line has been a source of concern for Hoke despite the presence of three fifth year seniors at center and guard, along with huge tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. This group is adequate in pass protection but will have trouble moving the formidable Irish. Lewan acknowledged the line’s struggles when discussing their early season performance, saying, ”You have to play angry, a little nasty,” he said Monday. ”I think our offensive line needs to do that a little bit more.”
Despite the recent painful outcomes orchestrated by Robinson against Notre Dame, conventional wisdom still suggests that the Irish should challenge Robinson, who does not possess great arm strength or pass with exceptional accuracy, to beat them through the air. The Wolverines have a few quality wideouts in converted quarterback Devin Gardner, Drew Dileo, and pint-sized Jeremy Gallon. Each has a knack for getting behind the secondary for long plays, especially when Robinson buys time in the pocket and coverage breaks down. Roy Roundtree is a capable possession receiver and Moore is expected to return to the lineup at tight end. In his two-game absence, freshman Devin Funchess distinguished himself by catching six passes and scoring two touchdowns.
Notre Dame’s depleted secondary played extremely well last week at Michigan State, but the Wolverine receivers present a more difficult challenge. This matchup is critical to the outcome, and the absence of free safety Slaughter at the back end of the defense is bound to be felt at some point in the game. A strong pass rush will help Notre Dame, but the downside of all-out pursuit is to leave running lanes that enable Robinson to pull the ball down and break into the open field. The Irish must answer these excursions with sure, hard tackling. Robinson also likes to throw short, crisp passes of five to eight yards on first down to create manageable second and third down situations. If Michigan is successful in this area it will relieve pressure on its offensive line and lead to more scoring chances.
The Irish kicked and punted the ball very effectively last week, but the return game still has not produced the type of results that can make a difference in the outcome. The Wolverines have been relatively weak in punt and kick coverage this season, so there is an opportunity for DaVonte Neal or George Atkinson to break off a long gainer.
Strong-legged kicker Kyle Brindza has been a pleasant surprise for Notre Dame in the field goal department in place of the injured Nick Tausch, while Michigan’s Brendan Gibbons has attempted only one three-pointer this year and was successful. Gallon handles the punts for the Wolverines while the kickoff return duties are shared by Vincent Smith and freshman Dennis Norfleet. The overall production from this group has been unremarkable to date.
The Irish appear to have an advantage in the trenches that should translate to the scoreboard, but Robinson’s ability to create positive plays at crucial moments is a great equalizer. The key for Notre Dame’s defense is to extract a physical toll on Robinson for his forays out of the pocket and prevent his receivers from shaking loose downfield for backbreaking big plays.
The chess match between Kelly and Mattison will be an interesting element in this game, but the Irish offensive line can make this more of a non-factor by playing aggressively and establishing the run in any down and distance situation. In the passing game, the return of Daniels and the ability of Tyler Eifert to bounce back after being shut out last week are critical for Notre Dame.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Can Notre Dame continue to protect the football in exemplary fashion?
Will Robinson be able to generate enough big plays of more than 20 yards to tilt the outcome?
Can Notre Dame’s special teams secure favorable field position?
Will the young Irish secondary hold up against Michigan’s receivers?
Can the Wolverines get their running game going against Notre Dame’s massive front?
Will Notre Dame’s defense be able to put Michigan in third and long situations?
Can the Irish control the time of possession and limit Robinson’s scoring chances?
In each of the past three years, Notre Dame has been the better overall team on paper but has managed to lose in gut-wrenching fashion due to a few plays that can be considered miraculous or catastrophic depending on one’s perspective. This season, an Irish offense that has avoided costly turnovers will line up against a Michigan defense that would be hard pressed to take away a purse from a ninety year old, ninety-five pound grandmother. If recent history holds on Saturday, however, something strange and mind-boggling will happen to Notre Dame. You know it, and I know it. That said, this game marks a critical juncture in Kelly’s endeavor to restore the Irish program, and failure is not an option. Last season, his team came out flat in a much-anticipated night game and was pushed around by its other main rival, Southern California. Yet another inexplicable gaffe resulted in a 14-point swing in that affair, and Notre Dame fans were brought back to earth with a resounding thud.
Well, enough already. Robinson will be up to his usual tricks and make this a close game, but the Irish simply need it more than the Wolverines.
NOTRE DAME 27 MICHIGAN 24