Michigan at Notre Dame Preview

Can Michigan once again steal the luck of the Irish? (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

(18) Michigan (2-1) at (11) Notre Dame (3-0)

7:30pm, NBC; September 22nd, South Bend, IN

Enemy Blog: One Foot Down

While getting geared up for this game is natural, I can't help but worry that in some ways the 2012 edition of the rivalry will feel a little anticlimactic. After all, the Michigan-Notre Dame series of the past few years has been marked by an increasingly harried and exciting series of comeback wins, all of which ending with Michigan on top and Notre Dame collapsed in a heap.

I've already started to link to memorable highlight reels from the past few years of Michigan-Notre Dame games, and the three early in the week are just as memorable for how lopsided they were. Two dominating wins by the score of 38-0, and the 47-21 blowout at the hands of the 2006 defense. In that span Notre Dame also crushed Michigan's early season hopes (2004, 2005) and cakewalked past the bumbling 2008 version of the Wolverines. Not all of these rivalry games are dripping in drama, we just happen to be in a fertile period.

I'm no expert in Michigan football history, but I feel safe to say the rivalry has never before reached the heights of excitement that it has experienced the last three years. How could you possibly top:

- A 58-yard touchdown drive that began with 2:13 on the clock and ended with 11 seconds remaining and gave Michigan the go ahead score.

- A 72-yard touchdown drive that began with 3:41 on the clock and ended with 27 seconds remaining and gave Michigan the go ahead score.

- An 80-yard, three-play touchdown drive that began with 30 seconds (!) left on the clock and ended with just two seconds remaining, giving Michigan the lead again and capping a frenzied four touchdown fourth quarter and 17-point comeback. All of it happening in the first night game ever in Michigan Stadium.

What does Saturday have in store? Can this version of the rivalry -- the second in a row at night -- possibly compare to the past incarnations? Can Michigan once again find a way to sneak out an improbable victory?

Some of the signs don't look good for Michigan, but with Denard Robinson on the field, in this game, there is always a chance.

When Michigan has the ball

Michigan's offense over the last three years has been very good at finding ways to exploit the Notre Dame defense. In 2009 it was Tate Forcier who led the charge with a magnificent game, but the last two years have been something else entirely thanks to the man at the center of it all: Denard Robinson.

The 2010 version of the game could well be the finest single offensive performance of any Michigan player in the school's history. The Wolverines needed every bit of Robinson's career day to outlast the Irish, who looked thoroughly unprepared to handle Robinson after his off season transition from "guy who is electric but can't pass" to the guy that dismantled UConn in the 2010 opener. Denard uncorked a game for the ages going 24 for 40 passing for 244 yards and a touchdown while running for 258 (!) yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries.

The Irish weren't going to be caught with their pants down the next year, as they devoted all their time and energy into stopping the run game that had cost them so dearly the year before. With the onus put on the passing game, and not much help from the running backs, Michigan's offense failed to put together a drive longer than four plays until the fourth quarter and had fallen behind by 17 points. What followed was five drives to end the game, four ending in touchdowns, and all covering a total of 239 yards. In all Robinson was 11 for 24 for 338 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions, in what can best be described as an up and down day. Still, Michigan survived.

This year it is going to be imperative that Michigan throw the ball better, because the run game could be slow going. Notre Dame has a deep and talented front seven that has thus far held opponents to an average of 96 rushing yards per game. What's that you say? The numbers are distorted because it is still early in the season and the Irish have feasted on cupcakes? Not only is that line of thinking wrong, the opposite holds true. That number is even more impressive when you consider the three teams that Notre Dame has beaten so far are all primarily run teams, and good ones at that. Literally all Navy does is run, and the Irish held that triple option attack to a paltry 149 yards on 40 carries. Purdue was able to net just 90 yards, and Michigan State got 77 from workhorse LeVeon Bell.

So yeah, this defense is legit. Notre Dame lines up in the same kind of 3-4 defense that Alabama does. Three big, talented defensive linemen to eat blocks and clog running lanes, with four fast, talented linebackers to run free and make life hell on the offense. Nose guard Louis Nix III (6'3, 326lbs.) is back to make life miserable on the interior of the line. He already has a sack and three TFLs. Flanking him at DE is returning starter Kapron Lewis-Moore (6'4, 306lbs.) and first year starter Steven Tuitt (6'6, 303lbs.). Tuitt has already acclimated well to the starting role with five solo sacks and five solo TFLs, Lewis-Moore has 29 starts under his belt. This is a large and talented front line, and it could well give Michigan nearly as much trouble as the Alabama front three.

Having that much talent along the front line in the 3-4 is essential for success, because it opens up lanes for the linebackers to search and destroy. Three starters return, but the biggest name is Manti Te'o (6'2, 255lbs.), one of the most talented linebackers in the country. Te'o has played in every game during his Notre Dame career, and started in all but two. He is an all-American and could have left for the NFL draft a year ago*. Through three games Te'o has 30 tackles, and he should be a nightmare for Michigan to handle once again.

*(Te'o, in the week before the Michigan State game, lost both his grandmother and his girlfriend in back to back days. That is unimaginably sad, and the fact that he was able to play through that, and play very well, speaks to the kind of man he is. I know I speak for all of us here at MnB when I say that our thoughts are with Te'o during this incredibly hard time in his life.)

The other returning starter inside is Dan Fox (6'3, 240lbs.) who was a starter in 2011 and a key reserve the year before. Fox is a capable inside player and solid tackler that will be tasked with cleaning up the garbage on the inside. Look for Carlo Calabrese -- who probably watches too many gangster movies -- to get significant time as well. On the outside Prince Shembo (6'2, 250lbs.) returns as a starter at the rush linebacker position, and opposite him will be first year starter Danny Spond (6'2, 248lbs.) who is getting his first dose of meaningful playing time this year.

This is going to be the biggest problem for a Michigan squad that hasn't shown much ability to open up running lanes thus far. Notre Dame's front seven is built to clog up the line and fill running lanes with big, athletic linebackers. Given the play of the front five for Michigan this season, it isn't hard to see the run game essentially coming down to "hey Denard, go make something happen." While that has worked in the past, it will put a lot of pressure on the Wolverine passing game.

But hey, funny I should mention that. Remember Gary Gray, the oft targeted Irish corner from a year ago? He's gone, but so is pretty much anybody else with defensive experience in the Notre Dame secondary. Thanks to injury, Notre Dame entered the season minuw two players -- S Austin Collinsworth and CB Lo Wood. The Wood injury forced true freshman KeiVarae Russell into the starting lineup. Russell came to South Bend as a running back recruit. Opposite him was Bennett Jackson, a converted wide receiver. If this all has visions of "Never Forget" dancing in your head, then you'll probably guess what comes next: starting safety Jamoris Slaughter is out for the season after an injury against Michigan State last week.

Who still exists? Well, safety Zeke Motta is still back there and uninjured (for now), but things look pretty dire as of now. Notre Dame dodged a bullet in the first three weeks playing Navy (doesn't pass), Purdue (ACLOL), and Michigan State (first year starter at QB + a bunch of inexperienced receivers = you're gonna have a bad time). Michigan should be the first team capable of really taking advantage of Notre Dame's weaknesses in the secondary. With the front seven occupied with visions of Denard Robinson breaking laughably long touchdown runs, the back four are going to have to handle Michigan's surprisingly good receiving corp with relatively little backup.

Ask Gary Gray how that worked out for him.

The Outlook

This one is going to be a pretty simple competiton between how easily Notre Dame can stop the Michigan rushing attack, and how well Robinson comes out throwing the ball. If Michigan can break a few runs with Robinson and Toussaint, it will force Notre Dame to focus more energy trying to defend the run. This will leave Michigan's receivers with a great opportunity to do serious damage down the field. Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess both have the size to excel in this matchup, and Michigan should be able to constantly attack the edges with bubble screens to test the tackling ability of Notre Dame's young corners.

However, if Denard is missing his throws down the field and Notre Dame is bottling up the run without too much trouble, then Michigan is going to see a lot of three-and-outs and ultimately succumb to the same type of loss as Michigan State a week ago. In this matchup I trust the group that has shown me more.

Advantage: Lean Notre Dame

When Notre Dame has the ball

If the story of the last three years has primarily been about Wolverine quarterbacks doing terrible things to Notre Dame's defense late in games, then the subplot that is just as important in driving the story to is conclusion is the hilarious string of mishaps that have befallen the Irish through the course of the games. The 2009 game saw Michael Floyd get injured and then Charlie Weis try out his "decided schematic advantage" in throwing the ball late to try and convert a first down when three run plays would have cut almost all of Michigan's time needed to stage a proper comeback. The next year it was a series of quarterback follies. Dayne Crist got injured early after leading a long touchdown drive. Both his backups came in and threw interceptions, and all of it kept Michigan in the game despite the 2010 U-M defense being quite possibly the worst thing ever. Last year? Turnovers. Lots of 'em. All gift wrapped by Tommy Rees.

So when you tell me that there is a redshirt freshman starting at quarterback for the Irish and that he doesn't have Michael Floyd to throw to, it's hard not to get a little excited.

The thing is, despite being a freshmen, Everett Golson has two things going for him coming into this game, A) he only has one turnover in three games and B) he beat out Tommy Rees (as opposed to Rees just up and leaving a la Dayne Crist) for the starting job. Golson isn't big -- just 6'0, 185lbs. -- and isn't a huge run threat, but he has done a good job distributing the ball to Notre Dame's receivers and as I said before: he hasn't turned it over but once.

With the ascension of Michael Floyd to the NFL, the Irish are now without that terrifying downfield threat that has made Michigan's secondary look stupid the last three years. In his stead are TJ Jones (5'11, 190lbs.) ,Robby Toma (5'9, 185lbs.), and John Goodman (NTJG) (6'3, 215). Toma and Jones are both quicker types where Goodman is a downfield plodder and possession-y type. This part isn't scary. Tyler Eifert is. Eifert is Notre Dame's 6'6, 251lbs. monster of a tight end; the kind of long, athletic downfield threat that is en vogue in NFL circles and what we all somewhat irrationally hope Devin Funchess eventually becomes (though that is becoming less and less irrational by the day).

Going back over the Michigan State game, one thing became clear: Notre Dame wasn't afraid to take shots down the field with Golson. He didn't have a wonderful game -- just 14 of 32 for 178 yards and a touchdown -- but it was this willingness to huck it deep that threw Michigan State's defense a bit off balance and eventually helped open up the run game. What's more, Golson didn't really force anything, and he wasn't afraid to get rid of the ball rather than go all Brett Favre on it. This is concerning because A) MSU has better corners than Michigan and B) Michigan State has a better run defense than Michigan. With Blake Countess out, a lot of pressure is going to be put on Raymon Taylor and Courtney Avery, not to mention entrenched starter JT Floyd. Notre Dame will try to run the ball, and most likely it will do so well. This will keep Michigan's front seven occupied and leave Michigan's secondary members vulnerable to Golson trying to go over their heads. If this happens with any regularity, head for the hills.

Michigan will have to hope for some luck in stopping the downfield passing game, because Notre Dame will look to make its mark running the ball, and it will take everything Michigan has up front to keep that in check.

The Irish return the left half of last year's offensive line in LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, and C Braxton Cave. All three are over 300lbs. and are solid run blockers. Martin has been starting for the last two years at the LT spot, and should be very reliable in both the passing and running game. Watt has a full year of experience starting next to Martin and was a prominently used reserve the year before that. Cave is also entering his third year as a starter, although an injury kept him out the final four games of 2011. The new guys are Mike Golic Jr. -- the starter at right guard for the Irish after filling in for Cave at center to finish 2011 -- and Chris Lombard, the newest member of Notre Dame's line and the one with no previous starting experience.

This unit should be good, and certainly more than capable of handling Michigan's defensive line -- a unit that is 99th in sacks, 46th in TFLs and has had varying amounts of difficulty holding up to three very different offensive lines this season. While we won't be able to accurately judge Michigan's defensive line until after this game, the early returns are discouraging. If Michigan hopes to get any pass rush, it will look to come from either WDE Frank Clark or the linebacker corp on whatever evil machinations Greg Mattison has planned for this game's menu of zone-blitz schemes.

One thing Notre Dame does have is a number of capable runners. The headliner is Cierre Wood, back from suspension and fresh off a ten run, 56 yard performance against Michigan State's tough run defense. Wood put up 1102 yards a year ago and should slide back into his role as the primary running back. When Wood isn't carrying the ball it will be either converted receiver Theo Riddick or George Atkinson III. Both are skilled in space and add an extra dimension to the Irish run game.

The Outlook

Notre Dame is going to score on Michigan's defense, and like the last few years it is going to be spurred by a solid run game that consistently moves the chains and forces Michigan to contend with long drives. However, unlike last year it doesn't seem as likely that the turnover bug bites the Irish, which will be a significant disadvantage for a Michigan defense that needs to find ways to get off the field.

The game could very well come down to Michigan making big stops in the passing game. If Notre Dame can use its rushing success to get Michigan's secondary players peeking into the backfield, it could open up a wave of long pass plays that swing momentum and put Michigan's offense in catch up mode. For Michigan to come out on top the linebackers are going to need to have a very good game and effectively slow the Notre Dame rushing attack so that the secondary can focus on taking the Irish receivers out of the picture. If Blake Countess were out there I would feel better about this game. Also if it wasn't possible that two true freshmen end up playing a significant amount at inside linebacker.

Advantage: Lean Notre Dame

When someone is kicking the ball

We know what Michigan has. Will Hagerup looks like the heir to Zolton's throne again, Brendan Gibbons is solid if a bit limited, and Matt Wile has the leg to boot it out of the end zone every single time.

Former Michigan target Kyle Brindza has taken ahold of the place kicker duties for the Irish and is thus far 4/4 on the year kicking field goals. Meanwhile Ben Turk has Notre Dame 17th in net punting on the year with a 40.73 avg. Both seem to be solid options roughly equivalent to their Michigan adversaries.

Return duties go to Atkinson and Riddick on kickoffs and Davonte' Neal on punts. Kickoffs are a moot point and Neal has all of 28 return yards on seven punt returns.

This area of the game should see solid production from both teams, and in the event of a huge gaffe you can bet it will play a big role in the final score. Here is guessing one team makes a big mistake here, but I can't tell you which one it will be.

Advantage: Even

Coaching

Brian Kelly hasn't had an easy go of it thus far in his Notre Dame career. His first two years in South Bend ended at 8-5 with a middling bowl invited. Year one was accompanied by the death of a student video assistant because of negligence as well as a sexual assault cover up that led to a suicide. Year two just involved a lot of jokes about how red Kelly's face got during games.

Still, you don't get to Notre Dame by not knowing what you're doing, um, well in this case Brian Kelly was properly vetted. In fact, given all the bad hires the university made over the past decade and a half, the Brian Kelly hire was a no brainer. He was a guy that had cut his chops coaching in the Midwest, had built up a number of smaller programs, and had a proven system for winning at the college level with mediocre talent. It always felt like it was only a matter of time before he put it together in South Bend, and this may be the year when we get our first glimpse of just how good Notre Dame is going to be under Kelly, and for the first time in years a "Return to Glory" isn't a totally laughable idea.

Kelly's Notre Dame teams have also had some struggles in big games so far in his career, and nowhere have those struggles been more profound than in the first two meetings with Michigan. Kelly has assembled a solid team and has established a good offensive game plan going forward. He also isn't afraid of taking chances and going for the jugular when the opportunity presents itself.

Brady Hoke has done a marvelous job since taking over at Michigan, but this one is far more even that most Michigan fans want to admit.

Advantage: Even

Other Bits and Pieces

Key Matchups:

  • Michigan's Pass Rushers vs. Golson - The Wolverines have utterly failed to produce adequate pressure thus far in the season, and with the worrying state of the interior line, it is going to be up to Jake Ryan and Frank Clark to make Golson sweat in passing situations.
  • Michigan's O-Line vs. Getting a push - Early returns are not positive, but this will be the first game where Michigan's offensive line will be counted on to make holes against a normal BCS caliber defense. If this doesn't happen it could be a long night.
  • Denard vs. Immortality - Do you realize Denard has almost 950 yards of offense against Notre Dame in two games? Two. Games. This game can make or break Denard Robinson as the biggest villain in Irish football history.
  • Michigan's secondary vs. not getting burned deep...

...let's not let that happen again, mkay?

Alternate Programming: Missouri at South Carolina, 3:30 should be a solid afternoon game, and LSU at Auburn (7pm) will be fun for those of you that like ritualistic sacrifice. The best games, however, are on at the same time Michigan is. Oklahoma-Kansas State (7:50pm), FSU-Clemson (8pm), with Arizona-Oregon starting at 10:30pm.

Inanimate Object Threat Level: 11 our of 10. Seriously, last year during this game I sat alone in my room shouting at the TV while my roommates literally had a party going in the rest of the house. I trudged to the keg every commercial break. There is no way a game at Notre Dame at night doesn't lead to at least 50 dollars worth of property damage.

Final Predictions:

- Fitz Toussaint gets bottled up to the tune of 40 yards on 12 carries, but Robinson once again goes over 100 yards thanks to one or two big plays (the rest of his runs are 3-5 yard gainers).

- Both Devin's haul in a touchdown pass.

- Robinson still throws an interception.

- Cierre Wood gets his first 100-yard game of the season and scores a touchdown to go with it.

- Everett Golson throws two touchdowns (one long one that probably dooms my remote) but also tosses an interception because of pressure from Clark or Ryan.

- In a year we breathe the same sigh of relief at Manti Te'o's graduation as we did when Michael Floyd left for the NFL.

Against my better judgment I think Michigan makes enough plays through the air and catches one or two key breaks -- either turnovers or blown calls -- that help the Wolverines pull out a win at the end. However, this year it is on a defensive stop, not a Denard drive to take the lead.

Michigan 31 - Notre Dame 28

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