Irish Collide with Michigan

Eighth ranked Notre Dame (5-1) opens the second half of the season on Saturday night with a road trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to play the 19th ranked Wolverines. The 5-2 hosts are fresh from a tough road loss to Penn State, while the Fighting Irish had a bye last week after defeating USC on October 12.

Jim Harbaugh laments the 2018 loss at Notre Dame

Both teams are desperate for victory, but for different reasons. Notre Dame is trying to keep hope alive for a post season playoff berth and would be in great position for the stretch run if they can win this weekend. Meanwhile, Michigan is trying to salvage its season while bolstering the sagging resume of Coach Jim Harbaugh, who is just 1-10 against top ten teams during his tenure. The schools are also rivals off the field in terms of recruiting players, and to say these programs and fans simply don’t like each other would be a gross understatement.

The Irish prevailed in the September 2018 meeting in South Bend, and this year’s rematch is the last time these programs will meet for the foreseeable future. Notre Dame has scheduled upcoming series with Wisconsin, Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State, Texas A&M and Alabama, among others, over the next decade.

Injuries will not be a significant factor entering into this contest. Notre Dame is healthy except for cornerback Shaun Crawford, whose return from a dislocated elbow remains questionable. Crawford’s participation will be a game time decision, but he is not expected to start and will see only limited action if he is cleared to play. The Wolverines remain without linebacker Josh Ross, who has been out most of the season with a foot injury. Backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey remains questionable with concussion-like symptoms.

NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. MICHIGAN’S DEFENSE

The linebackers have been the strength of the Wolverine 3-4 defense this season. Khaleke Hudson and Jordan Glasgow lead an athletic group that pursues laterally quite well and are aggressively deployed on blitzes by Coordinator Don Brown. In fact, the vast majority of Michigan’s sacks have been recorded by linebackers this year as opposed to the down linemen. End Kwity Paye is the team’s best pass rusher up front. He is joined by nose tackle Carlo Kemp and end Aidan Hutchinson.

Notre Dame can attack this front seven by running directly at them, where they have shown some vulnerability. In the passing game, the Irish offensive line must be able to communicate well in order to pick up the wide variety of blitzes that Brown will throw at them. Michigan relies on negative plays to get off the field, but quarterback Ian Book can burn them with screens and other passes to vacated areas if he maintains his poise and has time to execute those plays.

Irish Offensive Line

The challenge for the Notre Dame offense is to be able to handle the crowd noise, something they did not do well in a similar environment at Georgia last month. Coach Brian Kelly told reporters earlier this week that he addressed this issue during the bye week. “We’re not going to make that same mistake twice,” he said. “Our guys are really tuned into understanding that the atmosphere will be loud and that you cannot be distracted if you are interested in executing at a high level. If you’re distracted, then you’re not in the right place emotionally, and our guys are pretty locked in on that.”

While the Wolverine front is solid, the secondary has struggled in man coverage against the pass. Safeties Josh Metellus and Brad Hawkins are strong run defenders but liabilities when isolated in one-on-one matchups. Cornerbacks Ambry Thomas and Lavert Hill are good players, but the Irish can have some success there and against Thomas in particular.

Michigan’s defensive game plan will be to pressure Book into short, easy to defend throws to Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet. The key to the game for Notre Dame is to protect Book and force the Wolverines to cover its faster players such as Jafar Armstrong, Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys in the open field. The Irish won’t win if they are not aggressive and Book checks down to the short pass all night.

MICHIGAN’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE

The Wolverines have a wealth of offensive talent but have not been able to put together a consistent attack under first year Coordinator Josh Gattis. There is renewed optimism in Ann Arbor this week, however, as the team believes it found its rhythm in the second half against Penn State.

Wolverine Guard Ben Bredeson

Guards Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu lead a veteran in front of senior quarterback Shea Patterson, who has struggled with accuracy (57% completion rate) and consistency all season. Patterson has four gifted receivers in Ronnie Bell, Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black. Bell is very dangerous in space and Peoples-Jones often pulls down contested balls for long gains. Tight end Nick Eubanks is a reliable target in the passing game but less valuable as a run blocker.

The Irish secondary will be challenged to defend this group unless the pass rush can get to Patterson as it did last year. While Michigan uses linebacker blitzes to create havoc, Notre Dame’s deep army of defensive linemen has generated most of its sacks and pressures. This has allowed the linebackers drop into zone coverage.  In order to leave town with a victory, the Irish front four must be able to disrupt Patterson’s vision and timing.

Like Notre Dame, Michigan’s running game is fueled by a strong line and running backs that are physical but not explosive. Freshman Zach Charbonnet has emerged as the starter and is backed up by Hassan Haskins. Patterson is also a threat to run either by design or when the pocket breaks down.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Irish have performed well in special teams this season, and this area got even better two weeks ago with Jonathan Doerer’s three long and decisive field goals against USC. Coverage teams have been excellent with Claypool leading the charge, while the return teams play a more defensive game. Kelly prefers to guard against penalties and turnovers during returns rather than take a more aggressive approach.

Punter Will Hart boasts an impressive 46-yard average, although half of his punts are returned for plus yardage. Kicker Jake Moody won the job last season when Quinn Nordin struggled, but neither has converted better than 50% of their field goal attempts. In the return game, Bell and Peoples-Jones are a threat to break free when bringing back punts. Freshman Giles Jackson handles kickoffs with average results thus far. The Wolverine coverage teams have not yielded any big plays to date.

In a game of this magnitude between evenly matched teams, any play in the kicking game that significantly tilts field position can have a major impact on the outcome. Recall that a Michigan kickoff return for a touchdown last season turned a comfortable Irish lead into a nail biter.

SUMMARY  

These teams are quite similar, and a close game is expected. Both have strong offensive lines. Neither quarterback performs well when pressured in the pocket, but both can extend plays with their running ability. The winning team will do a better job of protecting the passer and opening enough holes in the running game to keep the defense honest.

Michigan WR Ronnie Bell

Defensively, Michigan will blitz liberally in order to create negative plays and force Book and the Irish to lose their poise. This strategy, if successful, will fuel the hostile environment the Wolverines hope to maintain throughout. From Notre Dame’s perspective, the defense must rotate fresh troops to put maximum effort into the pass rush.

It’s also important for the Irish to tackle much better than they did against USC. Two-yard runs cannot become seven-yard gains because defenders are staying high to grab for the ball instead of using proper technique. Receivers such as Bell cannot be allowed to gain twenty yards after a catch because of a missed tackle on a flat pass or crossing route. Irish safety Alohi Gilman also needs to have a strong game. He has been burned a few times this season by trying for the spectacular play instead of making a sure tackle.

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

Will the Irish speedsters (Armstrong, Lenzy, Keys) become difference makers?

Which quarterback will be pressured into sacks or turnovers?

Can the Notre Dame defense improve on the poor tackling it showed against USC?

Which team’s running game will be most effective?

Can the Irish cover the tall Michigan receivers?

Which special teams will make plays that alter momentum or field position?

Will the Irish finally execute a successful screen pass against the Wolverine blitz?

Which team will be most effective in the red zone?

PREDICTION

Michigan native DE Khalid Kareem leads the Irish

The Irish have not demonstrated the ability to burn opposing defenses when they choose to live by the blitz, but this would be a good week to start. An early lead is critical to keep the crowd noise to a minimum, and Kelly must be willing to attack early with speed and tempo rather than stand back and throw short, tentative jabs. Michigan has been the more mistake-prone team this season, with 14 turnovers against only four by the Irish. As was the case against USC, however, Notre Dame cannot count on receiving many gifts in a rivalry game from the Wolverines (or the Big-10 referees, for that matter). Still, the deep Irish defensive line can again be the deciding factor when the teams otherwise wear down in the fourth quarter.

NOTRE DAME 23  MICHIGAN 20

Tell John what you think in the comments below

20 thoughts on “Irish Collide with Michigan

  1. Cameron McGrone (No.44) has emerged as Michigan’s best linebacker. Jordan Glasgow (No. 29) is Michigan’s weak link at linebacker.

  2. StoneyBehindtheCiderBarrel says:

    Harbaugh whined about the refs last week. B1G refs assured him it will be MUCH better this week. Look for phantom holding and pi calls on the visitors in the Big Outhouse.

  3. Really looking FW to this contest John despite the fact that I will be unable to watch it live (the things we do for these knucklehead kids). But I confess myself feeling more hopeful than confident. I hope that:
    1-Armstrong coming back makes a difference and we have a good night running
    2-The turnover stat you mentioned doesn’t decide to suddenly reverse itself
    3-The DL gets some pressure
    4-The Game Ball Doerer of 2 weeks ago was the real deal and not just an average guy having a great night
    5-The speedsters can have the same or greater impact against these guys as USC
    Can you ease my anxiety about any of these points?
    I like your score. As your colleague Coffey has mentioned, Skunkbear tears are magical. Go and get some, Lads!

    • Doc, I think your points are well taken. My only concern is the turnover stat. It means nothing from week to week as we found out with USC, who had a history of giveaways and dumb penalties before we played them. They were nearly perfect against us and almost won. I fear Michigan at home will bring us down to the wire, and I can’t shake the feeling that something bad will happen to ND again as it has in the past during the Kelly era. My positive prediction is based upon setting that fear aside and just looking at the objective data.

  4. I hate the Vegas line on this game. They always know more then us fans and this line on the surface feels wrong. The Irish are the better team but opened as 3.5 point underdogs. That concerns me more then anything Michigan does or how Harbaugh coaches. Looking at last years game, the game was fairly lopsided until a kick return changed the momentum. All that being said, it’s about timing when you play teams and I fear we are getting them at the wrong time. They showed well most of the PSU game but couldnt overcome a horrific start and a drop in the end zone. I really hope I’m wrong here but I bet we get an A+ Michigan performance and drop this one 22-20.

    • PC the line is currently even. I did see Irish at -1 earlier today, so the line is moving favorably.
      I believe if both teams play their best, ND wins comfortably. If….

      • The game opened Mich -3.5 (late Saturday night) and yes it’s now moved to ND -1. All the early money clearly came on ND to move the line sharply and now has maintained. More then the line opening and movement, I just don’t like the timing of this game. Michigan is playing a home game at night and pressure is now mostly off them. No shot at playoff or Big Ten title. They’ll probably relax and are due for a few breaks plus the close calls going in their favor. I’m also not a fan of Book. He hasn’t played well in any game they weren’t clearly the better team. He’s limited in all aspects of his game. That is usually not a recipe to win these type of games.

  5. Folks, I am thinking ND has this game solidly. We are the better team at most or almost every area. We (ND) are not senior laden but many are juniors so I think experience is on our side. Gonna be a great Saturday night and my dozen shrimp will be eaten right after the win is decided, that is, mid 4th quarter !!!!

  6. Against Harbaugh I have it that we are 2-2 when he was at Stanford
    and
    2-3 while he was at Michigan.
    We are the underdogs.
    Go Irish!

  7. I do believe ND will win this one. It will be close for 3qtrs and then we will wear them down. The second half of UM v PSU didn’t scare me like it does others – I think it had more to do with PSU calling off the dogs and poor coaching. I see this as a 31-20 type of game.

  8. I don’t have a good feeling about this game. Sure, Kelly is 22-2 after a bye week but he’s also never won at the Big House and is pretty bad on the road against ranked teams.

    For ND to have a chance to win the offense can’t take the third quarter off like they have been all season. If the defense allows Michigan to nickel and dime them with the running game and short and medium passing game as happened to PSU in the second half it could be a long night.

    I want ND to win but unfortunately my prediction is Michigan 27 ND 23

  9. I think from all indications so far this year ND seems like the more rounded and better team. IMO this is the best of ND’s rivalry games (more so than USC). With that said I have just about zero confidence in Brian Kelly, on the road in a huge game. A feeling that I just can not shake. Michigan wins 24-22 in a game ND should win.

  10. Michigan feels good about its come back, not giving up second half vs. PSU. Statistically Michigan beat PSU everywhere but on the scoreboard. Am not a Michigan fan but they deserved to win that game. No one is talking about the rain forecast! Hopefully our speed receivers will not be going deep….hopefully BK learned something from playing in a hurricane and losing to a patient coach who just ran the ball all game given those conditions….ironically think we need Michael Young more than speed this game. We need to win big but each team will score only one or two touchdowns in a brawl of the lines as ND wins with field goals.

  11. Fred DiBernardo says:

    How is it that Brian Kelly has 2 weeks to get his team prepared for a Mega Rivalry Game, and the players lay an egg and looked like they didn’t belong on the same field. Either the “FIX WAS IN” or Brian Kelly needs to go. In my humble opinion, It is definitely the latter. This is the umpteenth time when Notre Dame has an opportunity to make a name for itself on National Prime Time TV, that they prove once again, that they are the chokers they have been since the Lou Holtz era. I have been a Notre Dame fan my entire life. Where was the fight in the Irish last Saturday? It obviously was not there…. again. It wasn’t that they lost the game. Its how they lost the game. As much as Kelly wants to appear in control of the team. They players don’t respond in big moments. There was no hunger or pride. Ian Book totally wilted under pressure. In his second year as a starter, this can’t happen. No attempt to take charge and be a leader. This is not what National Champion Contenders do. This is no accident. Kelly is not a bad coach. He is an average coach in a top program. He can’t recruit the top talent, because the top talent in the country does’t respect an average coach. Until this perception changes, and the players respect the head coach, and buy into the system, Notre will continue to be the imposters of a National Championship caliber program. It has, and always will be, about recruiting the top talent in the country. Notre Dame used to be able to do this. It’s quite obvious that this hasn’t been the case for the last 30 years. Change has to start at the top. Sorry Kelly. I was hopeful after the Weis Debacle, but You’re not the answer either. Tired of being one of the Top 4 teams in the Country, only to be humiliated on the National Stage in the big moment, time and time again with excuses. 10 years is long enough. Time to move on.

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