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  • A Close Game Likely at Michigan

    by John Vannie

    Notre Dame travels to Ann Arbor on Saturday night to write another chapter in the moderately significant but soon to be discontinued rivalry with the Michigan Wolverines. Both teams won season-opening games against overmatched opponents, but this contest is a more reliable barometer of strength and national standing. The Irish will try to dispel the perception that its defense has slowed and become more vulnerable, while the Wolverines must realize improved passing efficiency from quarterback Devin Gardner in the wake of two unforced interceptions last week. The game will be televised nationally by ESPN starting at 8:00 PM Eastern.

    Both coaches withheld their full offensive and defensive repertoire last week to maintain an element of surprise on Saturday. Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly successfully established that his team can throw the deep ball over the top of a defense, while Michigan’s Brady Hoke made sure his offense was balanced with no discernible tendencies. Defenses dominated last year’s game as both staffs were able to confuse the opposing quarterback and invite ill-advised throws into coverage. While this game won’t be a shootout, both offenses are good enough to generate some excitement.

    Senior Tommy Rees was poised in the pocket last week, but Michigan will attempt to drive him toward narrow passing lanes that more severely test his accuracy and arm strength. Conversely, the Irish will try to pressure and confine Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner in the pocket and disrupt his timing. It follows logically that the winner of the game will be lead by the quarterback who best avoids turnovers. Close games in this series have usually been decided by big plays that create huge shifts in momentum, although more fundamental elements such as the relative success of each team’s running game will have a bearing on the outcome.

    On the injury front, Notre Dame’s DaVaris Daniels should start at wide receiver after suffering a mild groin strain last week, while defenders Nicky Baratti and Tony Springmann were lost for the year in preseason practice. The Wolverines lost reserve running back Drake Johnson to a torn knee ligament last week, and must continue without the services of similarly injured linebacker and 2012 leading tackler Jake Ryan until mid-October.

    Michigan has yet to lose a home game in 15 outings under Hoke, who is in his third season as head coach. Kelly’s lone visit to Ann Arbor in 2011 ended in horrific fashion, as the Irish surrendered an improbable length of the field scoring drive in a matter of seconds after taking the lead with a minute remaining. Both coaches have managed to restore a culture of winning in their respective schools after a few down years, and this game takes on even more significance as the programs will no longer play each other after the 2014 season for at least the rest of this decade.

    NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. MICHIGAN’S DEFENSE

    While Notre Dame’s defensive line boasts nationally acclaimed players, Michigan’s strength is in sheer numbers. The Wolverines can employ up to a ten-man rotation, which allows maximum effort throughout the game. Stalwarts Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black play inside, and are flanked by unheralded ends Frank Clark and Keith Heitzman. Second teamers include a number of talented but inexperienced newcomers, such as end Matt Godin and tackle Ondre Pipkins. The left side of the Irish line in particular should be able to open running lanes against this group, but sustained success will require patience and persistence.

    The tandem of fifth year senior Cam Gordon and junior Brennen Beyer have filled in capably for the injured Ryan at strong side linebacker. Beyer frequently moves up to the line on passing downs, and the pair combined for three sacks last week. Middle linebacker Desmond Morgan was the leading tackler in the opener. Michigan’s front seven does not have elite size, but they move very well and swarm to the ball. Notre Dame can have success running right at them and by using its plus sized tight ends and tall receivers to block downfield. Horizontal plays such as stretch runs and screen passes into the flat will probably not make much headway.

    Michigan’s secondary will get a boost from the return of senior safety Thomas Gordon from a one-game suspension. He will team with sophomore Jarrod Wilson, who is filling in for injured senior captain Courtney Avery, to defend the back end. Avery is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery two weeks ago and is unlikely to play in this game. Raymon Wilson and Blake Countess are the starters at cornerback. Both played well last week but will go up against a very talented Notre Dame receiving corps.

    Daniels is an emerging star and his health is vitally important this week for Tommy Rees and the Irish. He presents a tall downfield target that may demand double coverage from the Wolverines. This would create operating room for T.J. Jones and tight end Troy Niklas on intermediate routes and Chris Brown as a deep threat. Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison will use his vast experience to disguise his team’s defensive intentions prior to the snap, and Rees will have to be at his best to release the ball on time and avoid throwing it into the teeth of the coverage.

    Notre Dame must therefore be able to run the ball competently and get themselves into manageable third down situations. Assuming a balance of breaks and turnovers in the game, the Irish may need 150 rushing yards to come away with a victory. While Rees was effective against Temple, an over-reliance on the passing game this week against Mattison and his group of athletic defenders will almost certainly lead to a few costly mistakes.

    MICHIGAN’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE

    Gardner is fully in command of the Wolverine offense, and his raw talent was obvious on a 22-yard touchdown run last week. At 6’4”, he also has above average arm strength and is far more accurate than his predecessor, Denard Robinson. Notre Dame’s front seven looked sluggish trying to pursue Temple’s mobile quarterback last week, and Gardner is even more elusive and dangerous. Pocket containment and pressure must be the defensive focus for the Irish, or Gardner will frustrate them all evening. If pressured, however, he will make mistakes or fail to adjust to defensive shifts on the fly. Interceptions have been his Achilles Heel, and Notre Dame must create turnovers to win this game.

    Jeremy Gallon is the team’s best receiver, while tight end Devin Funchess has become a favorite target in the Wolverine offense. Drew Dileo is the other wideout. Both he and Gallon are small but very quick. Hoke’s objective is to maintain balance between running and passing, and he has a pair of capable backs to share the load in senior Fitz Toussaint and impressive freshman Derrick Green. Fullback Joe Kerridge is often deployed as a lead blocker in a two back set. Although Michigan does not often employ its backs in the passing game, potential matchups with the Irish inside linebackers may become very tempting.

    Gardner is clearly the X factor due to his ability to run and throw. Ideally, Notre Dame will be able to slow down the running game and force Gardner to throw from the pocket under duress. The Irish secondary should be able to stay with Michigan’s receivers, but it could still not be enough if the Wolverines can run the ball with moderate success and give Gardner enough time to break down the defense and make plays with his arm or legs.

    The matchup between Notre Dame’s defensive front and the Wolverine offensive line is critical to the outcome. On paper, the Irish have an advantage, but the group looked slow, out of shape, and generally disinterested last week. The linebackers were also slow to react and were often caught in the vortex between filling the run gaps and dropping into the passing lanes. Better recognition is a must this week especially since the Irish coaches can’t do very much to overcome their lack of foot speed.

    Michigan is strong at tackle with a pair of seniors, including All-American Taylor Lewan on the left side and Michael Scofield on the right. The middle of the line is still a work in progress. Center Jack Miller is flanked by guards Kyle Kalis and Graham Glasgow, all of whom are raw underclassmen who performed only adequately in their debut against Central Michigan. One would expect Louis Nix to wreak havoc on such inexperienced players, but the vocal leader of the Irish defense was handled rather easily last week by unheralded linemen from Temple. His running mates also had mixed reviews, as Stephon Tuitt showed only brief flashes of his early 2012 dominant form and Sheldon Day went missing from the opening whistle.

    Hoke’s plan should be to attack the Irish linebackers in space with draw plays, misdirection, and play-action passes. Funchess will be a primary target in the middle of the field, where Notre Dame’s safeties have failed to establish a no-fly zone to this point

    SPECIAL TEAMS

    Irish Special Teams
    I’m not sure I can continue to label this section “Special Teams”, since the Irish version of this component has been objectively awful. There was nothing special about this group last week, particularly with regard to kickoff coverage, punting, and field goal attempts. The only remotely positive outcome was a few plus yards on punt returns from T.J. Jones, who also made a couple of errors in judgment inside his own ten yard line. Generally, these not-very-special teams are an embarrassment to Notre Dame’s tradition, and it a miracle this weakness has not cost the Irish a victory in the Kelly era. That run of luck may end this week.

    Meanwhile, the Wolverines blocked a punt for a touchdown to jump start their win last week, and displayed competence in the punting and kicking game. Although punter Will Hagerup is sitting out this season for disciplinary reasons after leading the Big-10 last year, Kenny Allen stepped in and blasted a 51-yarder in his only attempt. Senior Brendan Gibbons is an efficient place kicker, and strong-legged Matt Wile handles kickoffs, long field goals, and is the back-up punter. In the return game, Dennis Norfleet is the primary ball carrier whose opening week statistics were above average. As busy as he is breaking in an inexperienced quarterback and coaching a slew of young players, Hoke has somehow managed to develop effective coverage teams as well.

    SUMMARY

    The Irish appear to have an advantage in the trenches, but they must play up to their talent level. Michigan will be energized by its home crowd and typically plays up to or beyond its capabilities when Notre Dame visits. Both quarterbacks will need help from the running game to be successful, and there could be a few interceptions if either team is forced to throw the ball more than planned.

    Defense was supposed to be the core strength for the Irish this season, but the opening performance raised alarm bells. While Temple failed to capitalize on multiple scoring opportunities, the Wolverines are unlikely to be that accommodating. Notre Dame fans must hope that the unit will exhibit the intensity, emotion and leadership that were obviously lacking against Temple.

    Here are a few questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:

    Which team will be able to run most effectively?

    Will weak special teams and a balky kicking game cost the Irish a victory?

    Which quarterback will throw the ball into the wrong hands?

    Can Notre Dame’s defensive pursuit contain Gardner?

    Will Rees be able to continue his downfield passing success against a much better secondary?

    What Brent Musburger drinking game will take the sting out of a defeat for the losing team’s fans?

    PREDICTION

    It’s not necessarily wise to rely on the opening game for both teams against inferior opponents to predict the outcome in this rivalry. Michigan looked better than anticipated while the Irish were not overly impressive, but the season for both teams really begins this week. Still, the apparent issues of conditioning and agility that plagued Notre Dame’s defense cannot be fixed by an inspirational pep talk. Gardner and the youthful Wolverines are more likely to make costly mistakes, but things have a way of going south for Notre Dame during recent trips to this venue. Whether it is attributable to Gardner’s athleticism, special teams play, or a stellar defensive plan by Mattison, the Irish will find a way to come out on the short end once again.

    MICHIGAN 23 NOTRE DAME 21

    42 Responses to “A Close Game Likely at Michigan”

    1. BeveragePavilion_69 says:

      Dont agree at all

    2. I don’t agree because I think you have the margin too narrow. I see 2011 Stanford redux where ND is simultaneously not getting blown out and getting blown out at the same time. 28-13 sounds about right with Michigan taking a commanding lead and then slowly squeezing the air out of the ball. Gardner will have one backbreaking third down scramble after another just as we think ND has a small chance at a comeback after the score is 21-10 or something like that.

    3. ditto.

    4. Fair assessment, but just as likely to go 23-21 ND.
      I think we stuff their run offence and Gardner throws one bad pick.
      GA111, playing for his starting position makes one great run for a td.
      And tommy will be great.
      ND 28-17.
      Go Irish!

    5. brendenomalley says:

      On offense it is simply Tommy Rees. If he plays 60 minutes the way he can look for 10, we have a great shot. He has never done this and there is nothing yet to show that he can.

      Defensively we look as slow in the middle of the field as we did during the glory days of Weis et al. I have a feeling that we are all going to be screaming at the TV for someone to tackle Gardner as he hurts us with key 3rd down pickups.

      This game will be won on 3rd down. Can Rees deliver key passes and convert 3rd down and can we keep Gardner from picking them up?

    6. I think u honestly wimped out on this perdiction after overshooting last weeks. The Temple game was over when ND went up 14 end of story when temple did manage points after a lousy pass INT call ND answered back withn seconds. ND has been the better team the past 3 years and you will see why on Saturday we have the best D line in the country Tommy will be virtually mistake free. ND will lead early and not let go this time.They will not give up ridiculous plays that have haunted the past Kelly wants this one and Brady Hoke is do for a loss he should have recieved two years ago. ND 31 -Michigan 21

    7. As usual, Mr.Vannie, analysis is intelligent and cogent. I think the Irish D will be a much different group than last week. I was in the end zone, 5 rows up for Temple, and it didn’t appear to me that Louis Nix or Stephon Tuitt were going 100%. Plus, lots of 3 man rushes, not many blitzes etc, made for a vanilla afternoon. As BK said afterword, they were never worried against Temple.
      The score will be close but this defense doesn’t give up 80 year drives in under a minute. Tommy Rees controls the ball, the D stops the run and the Irish hold on 24-17.

    8. So….. what did you think about the Temple game?

      • John Vannie says:

        Obviously I was not impressed with the defense, and special teams had me groping for the Maalox.

        • Obviously. My question was rhetorical. I think you’re dwelling too much on a glorified preseason game in which we were favored by 29.5 but only won by (gasp) a mere 22 after taking a knee inside their 10 yard line.

          In college football, the team who is stronger in the trenches usually wins and ND seems to have that edge on both the offensive and defensive lines. I agree it will go down to the wire, but because of the physical advantage I expect ND to rush for more yards and I expect Gardner to get sacked more than Rees will. I think Michigan has their work cut out for them and will need to play a more flawlessly executed game than ND does.

          • John Vannie says:

            I’m not dwelling too much on Temple, but I’m not going to ignore it. That performance was not good enough to beat a lot of teams, and ND will have to be measurably better this week. That fact combined with our historical performances at Michigan should lead an objective person to conclude the game will be close and hard fought. Any advantage ND has on paper won’t matter if they play like crap.

            • I generally don’t like to use old seasons to predict new ones, but let’s keep in mind that Game 1 is usually against a lower talent team, so holding back schemes oft pays dividends when you get into the harder part of your schedule. Here’s one example…

              1993 – Notre Dame 27-12 Northwestern (2-9) – We literally showed them nothing.
              Notre Dame 27-23 Michigan

              Correct me if I’m wrong, but Tuitt and Nix were getting doubled all day against Temple, yet we pretty much never sent an ILB on a blitz against a QB that was not fleet of foot. Bizarre.

              BOTTOM LINE: Don’t put much stock in the Temple game. Does that mean ND wins this one? No, not at all. But it does mean that past performance (Temple) is definitely not indicative of future growth.

    9. NDBonecrusher says:

      Y’all are all out of you blessed minds. Except for Ahern and canuck.

      Yeah, I was underwhelmed by last week also, but the issue was never in doubt. While I am continually frustrated by ND’s apparent inability to beat the stink out of a lesser opponent (a phenomenon that goes back to Lou), I think we have to take Coach Kelly at his word and believe that he played his cards very close last weekend.
      I grow weary of the assumption that to be a true ND supporter one must also be a pathological pessimist. Any of you notice that we went undefeated in the regular season last year? While there were missed opportunities and a general “Meh…” feeling from most of us regarding the Temple game, let us not lose sight of the fact that there were NO TURNOVERS and TR had one of the best, if not THEE best statistical games of his life.
      My prediction? We’re gonna be just fine. The D will wake up from nap time, Tommy will throw a single pick but otherwise look awesome, and offensively we will see stuff that will cause a collective “Whoa–when did they add THAT?!?” We may not even have to berate the (not so) Special Teams. OK–that’s probably too much of a stretch…

      The IRISH bid a fond farewell to Michigan with a 24-17 victory, just as Ahern predicted.

      GO IRISH BEAT SKUNKBEARS!!!

    10. NDBonecrusher says:

      joe burke will also be invited to my victory party.

      • John Vannie says:

        Be careful with him though. I think he’s already drunk.

      • I was not drunk when I wrote my response no promises for saturday Lol. I was angry earlier I agree with bonecrush we do not have to be pessimist anymore. The only thing from Temple that truly dissapointed me was speacial teams which was atrocious. Ill gladly celebrate in spirit with you and Have respect for Vannies anaylsis even if I dissagreed today

    11. ndgoldandblue says:

      I wish I could disagree with you, Mr. Vannie. I’m not saying that the Irish can’t go into the Big House and win. Even though the talent is fairly even, I think ND has a slight overall advantage. That being the case, the Irish have a history of underperforming in Ann Arbor, and if I’m thinking with my head and not my heart, I would say that your prediction is right on. What I’d love to see is the Irish go into Michigan Stadium and beat down the Wolverines in their own house like they did to us back in ’06. This team is capable of that. I just don’t see it happening.

    12. While I’m not predicting a final score, this game could be close or most probably a blowout.
      ND wins. (Suddenly, Kelly is a genius)

    13. To really change the perception from the fan base to the pundits, ND needs this game more. They need to back last year up, with another monster season and its quite fitting they need to do it in the Big house, where they have suffered incredibly crushing loses. They are the better team, with the better coaches (Kelly & diaco), and truly have the confidence now to be consistently good.

      This win will not be as close as everyone thinks. Irish 27-13

    14. My concern, too, is the middle of the field where our LBs seem very slow and late to the ball. Michigan will likely exploit this all night. The lack of intensity by our big guys up front also discouraged me. Would like us to play four quarters the way we played the first three two years ago. I still can’t get over allowing 80 yards in twenty-eight seconds. That may have been the worst secondary coverage in the history of football, with number 4 giving us the most pathetic demonstration of ball awareness in the endzone that modern man has ever seen.

    15. While there is some age on Rees’ performance in 2011 (and he was part of the debacle) Hoke does not yet have the talent on the defensive side to concern me. Rees had some epic turnovers in that game but he also hung a ton of points and yardage on that team. Hoke might coach a better defense now but with the absence of Ryan the talent is not much better than that year…arguably worse. Michigan as usual thinks they gave us last years game – but we had a true first year starter in his second home game who went 3/8 for 30 yards passing…and we still beat them. I think Rees can improve on that.

      On balance we are a far more talented team than Michigan especially when you consider experience. The only concern from last year’s team to this year’s is twofold: less talented running backs from an experience standpoint and the absence of Golson’s legs. Holtz always said that a true measure of how a team is going to play for the season is the improvements made from game 1 to game 2. We should win this game convincingly. NOBODY on Michigan’s offense scares me as an elite threat. If we don’t win, then once again I have to look at the coaching staff. I am hopeful we are past all of that. 27-10 irish.

      P.S. All the Temple game did was provide Diaco hours and hours of tape to ride his D on for this week. If they are not frothing at the mouth something is wrong.

    16. Could you please help me to understand our lack of progress on special teams? I just don’t get it.
      thanks.

    17. JV,you tellit the way it is without the rahh rahh.
      Better defense than last year? joke
      The Lord only knows how a 19-20 year old can gain 20 lbs.and hten run faster than before.
      Can these ST players be taught to block on returns? appears not.
      Wonder what to do when Nix is double teamed? duh
      I just hope Kelly had the team watch the 12 Alabama/Michigan game film..the first game of that season.
      Wil an ND qb ever be taught to look off a receiver? doubt

    18. atlantadomer says:

      Shut-out of the endzone, you heard it here.
      The “hype meter” swings too far in the other direction after this one.
      ND 28 – UM 6

    19. Predictions of an ND rout are absurd. When have we ever beaten Michigan by a big score? Not since 1987 when we won 26-7. I hope we win, but if we do it will be close.

    20. Thomas Burke says:

      It seems to me that our three man rush contained quite well. Kelly made it clear that the “dink and dunk” thing was something he expected from a team he did not have film on, plus, there was that horrible pass interference call that got a pulse going for Temple. I look at the final score more like 45-6. Trust me, it’s a good thing that everyone is questioning our defense that wants nothing more than to rock the skunks in prime time! I think, maybe, just maybe, a little more intensity will be evident. They will stuff Toussaint, and Gardner was throwing picks last week without pressure… think there’s gonna be a little more tomorrow. Also, say what will about Tommy, but that boy has faced every type of pressure there is, wins football games and everybody still thinks he’s no good. Now, Devin Gardner, who all of a sudden is the greatest QB who ever lived, has never, ever performed under this type of pressure. I think he gets frazzled… fumble, int, Our Lady takes advantage and seals this win Oklahoma style.

      Notre Dame 31-Michigan 17, and joeburke is drunk… don’t let him fool you. Joey, I want to see The Flag waiving in the stands tomorrow night. Notre Dame our mother…

    21. eddie the geek says:

      Frightening as it may be, I am not worried about this game. I foresee that ND comes ready to play and handles Michigan rather easily, winning 28-13, with a defensive TD making up half the margin. I don’t think Michigan is all that, and ND will show marked improvement from week 1. I remain a TR doubter, but he did well against Michigan two years ago, driving the Irish for what absolutely should have been the winning touchdown. Michigan escaped with that victory, and karma says that the Irish are more than due for that, even after winning the close one last year.

    22. It will be a nail biter I’m predicting 30 27 Irish. I think we have the talent to win by a lot higher margin but for some reason Kelly has a fetish for keeping these games close. Even against teams like Temple. The thing that bothers me is other people around the country judge a teams style points by how good they play against lesser opponents and how many points they put up, and its like Kelly doesn’t seem to care. If we prepare for a mediocre performance against teams like Temple then how can their mindset come out and kill a team like Michigan? I feel that in order to be consistent you have to have the same mindset week in and week out and that is to destroy your opponent. No game film or not on Temple it doesn’t matter we know what to expect, its Temple; we have the talent to annihilate them and we should do it. Why hold back? If anything I think this gives Michigan more confidence going into this game and doesn’t strike any fear into them knowing we kept Temple a float. I don’t think Alabama goes into a game thinking, “Well we can let off the gas this week.” It makes you sloppy and complacent, and quite possibly could be the reason why Notre Dame struggles with the Purdue’s and the Pittsburgh’s when they shouldn’t. I want Notre Dame to win every game, I just don’t want to see the intensity fluctuate up and down.

    23. austinirish says:

      If the Dee plays like it did against Temple, Michigan may not punt, and the Irish will lose by double digits. If they show significant improvement, the Irish will win a close one.

    24. Conditioning and agility? Huh?

    25. I could not agree with you more when you say about the defense, “the group looked slow, out of shape, and generally disinterested last week.” I was appalled. Where’s the energy? Speed? Last year ND was ready to go from day 1. In shape. Chip on shoulder. Play they could believe in and build on. Come to think of it. It may be the only year they were in shape in Kelly’s 4 years. Why?

    26. Let’s please keep in mind that the Pope has called for worldwide prayer and fasting today for the people in Syria.

      The game is on ESPN. I don’t get ESPN. I get to be noble and not watch the game.

      31-10 good guys. (ND)

    27. I think this game will be a toss up. Last week’s performance didn’t fill me with optimism, and ND will need to regroup and play much better across the board to have a chance. Since Ann Arbor has been house of horrors the last several trips, my fear is that ND will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory late in the 4th quarter. I hope I’m just being too pessimistic.

      Oh, and Brady Hoke and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie look like they were separated at birth.

    28. Irish win, everyone does the hokey pokey.

    29. So much for our vaunted defense.Rees is who we thought he was.Too bad.

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