by John Vannie
The on again, off again rivalry between Notre Dame and Michigan is scheduled to shut down for an indefinite period, but not before the two perennial football powers clash once more on Saturday night in South Bend. Both teams breezed to easy victories in their respective season openers, scoring a combined 100 points and racking up more than 1100 yards of offense in the process. The outcome will provide a much needed momentum boost to the winner and will cause the loser to regroup once again during a period where both programs have performed below historic standards. Kickoff is shortly after 7:30 PM Eastern time and NBC will provide national television coverage.
Wolverine Head Coach Brady Hoke is 27-13 in three years plus, but only 6-9 away from home during the regular season. Brian Kelly has his own set of problems at Notre Dame, where he is 1-3 against Michigan despite arguably having more talented teams. In an effort to rebuild his running game, Hoke has hired Doug Nussmeier as his Offensive Coordinator this season. Nussmeier was at Alabama the past two years where he had occasion to go up against new Irish Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder, who served at Auburn.
Barring a last minute change in status, Notre Dame will again operate without the services of five suspended players. Fortunately, the team did not suffer any significant injuries against Rice, but starting safety Austin Collinsworth remains out with a knee injury. On the Wolverine sideline, star freshman defensive back and punt returner Jabrill Peppers tweaked his ankle last week and may not be at 100%. Also, linebacker and captain Desmond Morgan went down with an arm injury and is questionable for this contest.
The players are very much aware of the rivalry and the upcoming break in scheduling these classic battles. The emotions on Saturday will be running high both on and off the field, as the winner on Saturday will enjoy bragging rights for what could be several years. At Big Ten Media Day in July, senior defensive end Frank Clark spoke about the hostility of Notre Dame’s environment, saying he has never seen so many middle-finger gestures in his direction in his life. Of course, Irish players and fans have plenty of experience with Michigan “hospitality” in Ann Arbor. While the players come from similar areas and often know each other quite well, there is no denying over 100 years of historical evidence that the fans and the institutions in general don’t really like each other at all.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. MICHIGAN’S DEFENSE
While the Wolverines lack star power on defense, they deploy a deep rotation of front seven personnel. Clark is the best overall lineman, and he is flanked by fellow team captain and senior Brennen Beyer. Taco Charlton typically replaces Beyer in passing situations to provide pressure on the quarterback. A pair of sophomores, Willie Henry and Ryan Glasgow, start at the tackle spots in Greg Mattison’s 4-3 alignment. The matchup to watch is Clark against Notre Dame right tackle Steve Elmer, who had some difficulty pass blocking in space last week against Rice.
Michigan is still searching for a permanent solution at linebacker, where James Ross III and Joe Bolden join Jake Ryan, who is being tried in the middle this season. The Wolverines frequently replace a linebacker with Peppers depending on the offensive personnel, usually to cover the slot receiver. The secondary boasts experienced cornerbacks in Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess, who had two interceptions last year against the Irish. Safeties Jeremy Clark and Jarrod Wilson have good size and range.
Notre Dame should be able to attack this group on the ground and strive to avoid third and long situations. The Wolverines will have to respect the downfield speed of the Irish and Everett Golson’s ability to deliver the ball, so the running game should work if the offensive line can handle a relatively average Michigan front. Mattison has asked his defensive backs to be aggressive this year and play more press coverage. This strategy may be too ambitious and could backfire against Notre Dame, leading to big plays downfield. The Wolverines don’t really have the defensive personnel to attack Notre Dame, and should adopt a more conservative approach. Against an outmanned Appalachian State squad, Michigan failed to force a turnover and recorded only two sacks.
The Irish have to clean up some pass blocking issues from last week, but there were also a lot of positives. Run blocking was excellent and the tailbacks all ran well. There were a couple of dropped balls by receivers that simply should not happen, but Golson’s poise and accuracy exceeded expectations. The team did not come close to making a turnover and issues that have been problematic in the past such as penalties, play clock issues and mental errors were absent in the opener.
MICHIGAN’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Devin Gardner was a difference maker against the Irish last season, but he struggled with inconsistent performances in several other games. This year’s edition of Gardner looks much improved, as evidenced by his 13 of 14 passing effort last week and overall leadership. His favorite receiver is converted tight end Devin Funchess, who had seven catches and 3 touchdowns. His size (6’5” 230 lbs.), speed and athleticism will create matchup problems for any secondary, but the rest of the receiving corps is very raw. Dennis Norfleet and Jehu Chesson need additional experience to be counted upon in big games, but Gardner’s scrambling ability can give anyone time to get open. Current tight end A. J. Williams is more of an in-line blocker at 6’6” 265 lbs., but he can also catch a pass or two in the red zone.
Michigan traditionally builds its offensive approach upon a dependable rushing attack, but for the first time in recent memory the Wolverines don’t have any household names along the line. Both starting tackles are brand new, including true freshman Mason Cole on the left side. Hoke is still tinkering with the lineup at guard and center as well. Jack Miller, Joey Burzynski and Erik Magnusson started the opener, but Kyle Kalis and Graham Glasgow will also see significant time. If this group can create space for talented tailbacks Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, the Wolverines will have an excellent chance to win. Each earned more than 100 yards and broke off a single run of over 60 yards last week. Green added another 59-yarder as well.
Were it not for Gardner’s dual threat capability, Notre Dame’s strategy would be simple: stop the run and double team Funchess in passing situations. If the Irish front line cannot win the war in the trenches and do a better job of containment, it could be a long, frustrating night. Michigan will have trouble blocking Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones in the middle, but the linebackers must be able to bring down Green and Smith, who are solidly built at 220 pounds each and are very dangerous if allowed to break into the secondary.
With so many new faces surrounding Gardner, the Wolverine offense is searching for an identity. If the ground game is not productive, Hoke does not have enough weapons in the passing game to frighten very many opponents. Consequently, the pressure on Gardner to create miracles increases exponentially.
Both coaches have made changes toward improving special teams this season. Hoke has placed numerous of starters on his return and coverage teams, while Kelly has made this an area of increased emphasis. Irish punt returners had actual running lanes last week for the first time in ages, and took full advantage. Cody Riggs in particular electrified the crowd on two occasions with significant gains. Norfleet returns kicks for the Wolverines, and he will probably return punts as well now that Peppers is operating with a bad ankle.
In the kicking game, Kyle Brindza continues to handle placements and kickoffs for the Irish. The senior badly missed a field goal attempt early in the opener but rebounded with two other successful attempts. One extra point attempt was barely successful, so Brindza is still a far cry from midseason form. He did an excellent job by booming several kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks, and only a bad bounce on one of them blemished a fine performance. Michigan’s Matt Wile hit an 18-yard field goal last week but missed from 48 yards.
Brindza punted three times last week and averaged 48 yards, while Will Hagerup’s lone effort against Appalachian State traveled 46 yards. The Wolverines also blocked a punt last week and reserve linebacker Ben Gedeon returned it 32 yards for a touchdown.
The Irish appear to have an edge up front, and need to exploit it to take control of the game in the early going. Offensively, this means running the ball and protecting Golson, while defensively the focus is on pressuring Gardner with the four down linemen. If either team is forced to blitz more than occasionally, it is probably going to fight a losing battle given the mobility and experience of the two quarterbacks.
Notre Dame will focus on having a mistake-free ballgame while addressing the dropped passes, blown coverages and pass protection breakdowns that occurred last week. The good news is all of these issues are correctable with a good week of practice. The Wolverine coaches are seasoned veterans who are quite capable of finding an opponent’s weakness and exploiting it. To be successful, though, the young players along Michigan’s lines will have to stand up physically to the Irish, as last week’s glorified scrimmage did not really answer the questions associated with this team.
Here are a few additional questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:
Which quarterback will do a better job of making plays to keep drives alive and put points on the board?
Can the Irish protect Golson long enough to throw the ball deep downfield?
Which team will be able to sustain its running game?
Will Notre Dame avoid catastrophic lapses in the defensive backfield?
Which special teams will have the greatest impact on the overall outcome?
Can the Irish find a way to defend the Devin to Devin (Gardner to Funchess) passing combination?
Which offense will perform best in the red zone?
With the impending break in the series of undetermined length and the strong desire by the players and coaching staffs to have the last word, this contest may become an instant classic. More often than not, there is a significant and memorable play in each game of this series that shapes the final outcome. Notre Dame has been on the short end of many of these in recent years, and is due for a reversal of fortune. That said, the battles between these schools are usually close and always hard fought, so don’t expect to go to bed early.
NOTRE DAME 34 MICHIGAN 24