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
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.
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?
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