Michigan Football Opponent #3: A Maize n Preview of 2008 Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football

The Game

The University of Michigan Wolverines at The University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Location: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Indiana
Date: September 13, 2008
Game Time: 3:30
Game #: 3
TV: NBC
Radio: WOMC-FM and CKLW-AM

The Opposition
University: University of Notre Dame
Location: South Bend, Indiana
Team Name: Fightin' Irish
Facility: Notre Dame Stadium (80,225)
Conference: Independent
Number of National Championships: 12 (1924, 1929, 1930, 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1953, 1966, 1973, 1977, 1988)
First Season of Football: 1894 (1-2-1)
Last Season: 2007 (3-9)
All Time Record: 824-279-41
Head Coach: Charlie Weis (23-15-0) (4th year)
Versus Michigan All-Time: 14-20-1

Stadium-nd_medium

 

via www.notre-dame-football.com

Fine Notre Dame Sites and Blogs

Rakes of Mallow; The Blue Gray Sky; The House Rock Built; ND Nation; Drink That Drink; NDChooChoo; Irish Roundtable; Her Loyal Sons; OC Domer; Robot Charlie

Last Year's Maize n Prediction: Best: 7-5; Worst 4-8; Predicted 6-6.

Man. I so didn't get that right

So What Happened, Smartass?

In a word? Everything. Notre Dame last season was a mess in terms of coaching, players, injuries, donors, and even the club house. Nothing went right. Players bolted before, during and after the season. When the talent would play up to its potential, the coaching would sabotage it. When the coaches would put their players in the best position to win, the players would take a nap. It was just horrific.

Coaching

Yeah. Where do you go with this without beating a dead horse? Weis has already bee proven the most overrated coach in D1 football. Whether it's the fallout from "spy gate," his noxious arrogance, the putrid play of his teams, or the general state of affairs at the once proud football power, people inside and out of the golden dome have grown tired of him. Inside Domer information indicated to me that Wies would've been gone after last year, but the buyout clause was too much for anyone or any group to take on. You can say what you want, "he's making that up" or "he's full of it," but Weis was a portion of his cash buyout from being gonzo at the end of last year. And I know that for a fact.

This year, however, if he doesn't produce he's history. Buyout or not. And to Weis' credit he realizes this. After a spotty showing from the Irish defense Weis went out and brought in arguably the best defensive coordinator on the market in John Tenuta. Tenuta's official title is linebackers coach/assistant head coach, but in actuality he's the defacto DC. Notre Dame never blitzed like it did against San Diego State while Corwin Brown was calling the plays. I expect good things from the Irish defense, long term, as a result. He's simply too good a coach to let this group wallow the way it did last year.

However, the biggest question I have is how on the name of God's green earth is John Latina still employed. I have never seen such a criminal mismanagement of talented athletes in my life. And this includes Barry Switzer. He's actually worse than Andy Moeller was at Michigan, and that's something I never thought anyone would have the opportunity to say. in fact, because I said it, it's raining frogs outside. Over the last four years Notre Dame's offensive lines have grown progressively worse, and it's not just due to young faces. These guys can't block to save their lives and they're getting worse.

Unless there are changes, new offensive coordinator Mike Haywood is being set up for the fall. Haywood was announced in February as the new OC and play caller so Weis could concentrate on his Head Coaching responsibilities. Haywood deserves some credit for finding a way to bail the Irish out of a horrific near upset to San Diego State, but deserves full blame for his failure put the offense in a position to succeed for three quarters.

Coaching wise, things are rough for the Irish and this year is the make or break for Weis' and his staff's tenures. Anything less than a bowl game with Weis' recruits in year 4 will be it for the Notre Dame Alum.

Offense

Notre Dame runs a standard, pro style offense. one to backs, two to three receivers, and the occasional tight end. The numbers are split evenly between rush and pass. Notre Dame ran the ball 33 times and passed 34. Coming into the Michigan game, I have to think the Irish will focus on the passing game after Michigan's rush defense has yet to give up 100 total yards rushing this season. But who knows? It took the Irish until the fourth quarter, and nearly going down 20-7 to realize that SDSU's corners couldn't cover a toilet with a lid and instructions.

Keys:

Which Clausen will show up? There were two Clausen's on display last Saturday. The first was an erratic, undisciplined dumbass who spent the majority of his day overthrowing receivers or throwing the ball to the wrong team. The second was a somewhat poised pocket passer who lofted a couple of decent balls to his receivers. The issue is Clausen didn't start to have success until SDSU coughed the ball up on the goal line in the fourth and their depleted defense finally started to show their pedigree. Of his three TD passes two would've been, at a minimum, PBUs against decent corners. His third, I'll give him credit, was a nice fade. One of the things that's struck me about Clausen is his ability to be rattled by physical contact. Clausen actually stated for the papers that he has only hit five (5) times in his four year high school career. As a result, he gets jumpy when there's pressure. If Clausen has time, he'll do what any competent quarterback can do, throw the ball accurately. But if he sees anywhere near the pressure Michigan's put on Utah or Miami, I just can't see him holding up. At this stage in his career, Clausen is still a bad quarterback with glimpses of competency. If he plays competently, hell maybe show a flash of the ability that made him the #1 recruit in the country a couple years ago, Notre Dame's in business. But if he plays anything like he played in the opener, Evan Sharpley has to see some playing time to make this a competitive game.

Can I Use Notre Dame's Offensive Line to Sift Flour? No. The holes are too big. I've already delivered my rant on Latina's Moeller-like incompetence, but this group should be so much better than it is. 105 yards? Against SDSU? To the line's credit, Clausen had time to throw the ball, but the running game was atrocious. Blitz. Rush three guys. Rush one. You'll get pressure. I expect the line will see improvement between week one and week two, but in all honesty is was just as bad as Michigan's line was against Utah.

So, Even If the Line and the Quarterback Play Well, Who Should We Be Afraid Of? Golden Tate (WR) and Armando Allen (RB). Golden Tate was by far the best player on the field for Notre Dame's offense, hauling in six catches for 93 yards. Tate's got speed and a natural ability to adjust to the ball. Watching the game, he was the most impressive athlete on the field and will challenge Michigan's DBs. He's good. The other guy to watch, though he didn't have much of an afternoon, is Duval Karama. Kamara's got big play potential, but couldn't find ways to get open last week.

At tailback, the guy that scares me is Armando Allen. He's a shifty, speedy little bastard that hasn't quite found a rhythm. If he gets loose, he's gone. He split last week's carries with Robert Hughes, but Hughes isn't the back Allen is. When you think of Hughes, think Kevin Grady except more fumble prone and more likely to run upright. Hughes is another guy that should play better than he has, but he hasn't quite sorted it out at the college level.

The rest of the offense is young and small. Martaveous Odoms small. Frankly, the WRs don't match the system Weis is running, but they're all talented and if put in space can do some damage. The key, as always, is to limit YAC, something Michigan couldn't do effectively against Utah and Miami (Ohio).

The match up questions are pretty simple.

Can Michigan's D line get pressure? Judging from Brian's UFR, I'm guessing they can. In particular Brandon Graham, who ate Clausen's pancreas last year during one of his 65 sacks.

Can we cover ND's receivers? Yes. The danger guy is Tate. Sure David Grimes is a good possession guy, but Tate is a playmaker. Blanket him all day force Clausen to throw to his second and third options.

What about Stevie Brown, smart guy? Ugh. Good question. Brown's been bad. Real bad. If the Irish can get him either in the flats defending underneath stuff or alone on single coverage... Cry.

And the Irish running game? I expect more of the same from Michigan's defensive line. Against two large, veteran offensive lines (though not BCS conference lines), Michigan's d line has held its own. The majority of the time the line has gotten great push and snuffed opposing running games. The key to this continued success will be improved linebacker play, but the line can hold its own.

Can't they dink and dunk us? Sure. Of course they can. But that type of offense takes a lot of practice, patience and execution. It also takes the threat of a running QB to suck the linebackers in close enough. Notre Dame seems to like the long pass over the short completion. The bomb versus the bullet. Even if the philosophy changes, Notre Dame's scheme isn't well suited for it, particularly the O-Line, and the tailbacks and slot guys have to play a much bigger role than they have during Weis' tenure. Tight Ends certainly can catch a couple of passes, but the big gainers against Michigan this year were small fast guys juking in the spread, in space on a linebacker with little help. But the pro style offense ND runs just doesn't do that. Michigan's defense definitely has the edge here.

Notre Dame Defense

Don't get too cocky. The Notre Dame defense has some teeth. With Tenuta's arrival came a new attitude and a much more aggressive style. I'd liken it to the '85 Bears' "46" defense. Bring one more guy than they can block. Tenuta went blitz batshit against SDSU. He was so Blitz happy that Rakes of Mallow did a "Please stop blitzing so much" article. I think it's arguable that a portion of this has to do with the graduation of Notre Dame's top d-lineman in Trevor Laws and a patchwork remaining line. The other part of it is Tenuta's philosophy of dictating the play to the offense, which is something I admire. Unfortunately for him, Notre Dame simply didn't show the capability to do the things he wants in its first game. As a result, I don't see much of an advantage for Notre Dame in their 3-4.

On the line the Irish are wait for some of the heralded recruits to live up to their billing. With the exception of Laws, last year's team was incapable of getting pressure of the opposing QB without some help. This year's group appears to have the exact same problem, expect there's no Laws around to free anyone up. The line of Ian Williams, Morrice Richardson, Justin Brown, and Pat Kuntz limited SDSU to about 100 yards in rushing, but gave up their share of easy yards. If not for the fumble on the goal line by the Aztecs, this would've looked a lot worse.

What really seems to be an issue is the front four's inability to get pressure. I'm willing to chaulk up at least a little bit of the line's performance to "meh, it's SDSU," but not a lot of it. But without pressure from the line Tenuta blitzed the Aztecs like they were Poland, circa 1939.

Leading that charge was Irish MLB Mo Crum. Crum is easily my favorite player on Notre Dame. For lack for a better descriptor, Crum just plays hard. He's everywhere. He's a leader out there, or at least that's how me appears to me. Crum is the key, because even though he's not an elite level linebacker, he's the guy that sets the tone of the defense. If he's flying around without a body on him, it'l be a long day for our offense. On the outside will be the two Smiths, Brian Smith and Harrison Smith. They're both young, but talented. Harrison's got some wheels and spend some time patrolling the flats for tight ends and running backs as a pseudo safety. Two other linebacker/ends Kerry Neal and John Ryan both saw time and notched some tackles against SDSU, but I'm blanking on their contributions. I'd liken it to Michigan's linebacking corps, except there's definitely more experience in Crum and a little more depth, but its not a strength of the defense and don't appear to be any better is pass coverage.

The safeties and corners look decent but that's about it. The safeties David Burton and  Kyle McCarthy tallied 6 and 14 tackles against SDSU. At the corners Terrail Lambert, junior Raeshon McNeil, and redshirt frosh Gary Gray are going to see the majority of time of the field against Michigan's wide outs. They're not very good at covering people, but Michigan doesn't have a passing game so it really doesn't matter. Lambert is solid in run support, but I'm not sold on McNeil or Gray putting a body on anyone. If Michigan can establish a vertical passing, a big if, Notre Dame's going have some problems because they won't be able to keep their safeties within 10 yards of the LOS to support the linebackers. But until Michigan does so, I suspect Burton and McCarthy will be banging the line the entire game.

Keys:

So, Can Michigan Move the ball on these Guys? I think so. SDSU ran the spread and succeeded in getting people in space with the ball. Watching the Big Ten Network's breakdown of the ND/SDSU game, the Aztecs were proper execution away from just torching the ND defense on multiple occasions. Lots of over pursuit, Crable style, by ND. But it still comes down to execution. Michigan honestly executes its offense just as poorly as SDSU, albeit with better athletes. Notre Dame's defense of the spread looked a lot like last year's Michigan defense of the spread. Meaning bad and mismatched. If Michigan's offense executes even at 60 percent efficiency, I think they can take advantage of ND's aggressiveness. Anything less than that, and this game grinds on at a painful, error prone pace.

So this passing game people speak of, can it be found here? Probably, probably not. I'd love to say we pick these guys apart, but Henne's gone. Even worse, Henne seems yo have left his special helmet from Threet which allows him, and only him, to see Tacopants (Michigan's imaginary 11 foot tall receiver) and find him downfield instead of the actual receiver five feet below him. My gut is Michigan will have plenty of open receivers. The key will be Threet (or Sheridan) making a quick read and the proper progression to the open receiver. The guy Michigan should use over and over again is Carson Butler. Speed. Size. Hands. He'll be open against this defense. If Michigan goes down field once or twice early, it should back the safeties off a tad and give Butler and Martaveous Odoms space to move. But based on past performance I can't tell you Michigan will complete anything other than short slants and perpendicular WR screens a quick hitches.


Well we have to move the ball some how?! It's going to be on the ground. While the O line hasn't been great, neither has Notre Dame's D line. Notre Dame doesn't posses the gigantor NT or DT that's given the interior line so much trouble. So I think there will be gaps and O line getting to the second level. Another thing that should play in is the quality of Michigan's downfield blocking by receivers. This has really been a pleasant surprise (especially Butler's contributions).
But to make this all work, Threet's gotta be able to play the ball fake against Notre Dame as well as he did against Miami.


Special teams? A wash, with a slight Michigan edge based on BooBoo's returns. The punting and kicking games for both teams are mediocre right now. Michigan might block another kick, but I'm not betting on it.

So What Happens Saturday? Total toss up. Michigan's defense appears to be better than Notre Dame's offense. The pro-style attack of ND fits Michigan's scheme better. But Michigan has a tendency to have lapses in concentration, and Clausen seems to have the arm strength to take
advantage. There's an edge, but not as much as I'd like, for Michigan.

When Michigan faces Notre Dame's defense, it's a total wash. Both units have huge holes with some good players scattered in between. If Michigan can run the ball, I think they win. But if it comes down to Threet or Sheridan putting the ball in the air Michigan's going to be in trouble. I've got more faith in Threet, but he has to produce in this game for Michigan to have a shot at 6 wins this season.

I've got Michigan winnin' ugly, 20-17.

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