EAST LANSING, MI - SEPTEMBER 15: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish talks to quarterback Everett Golson #5 while playing the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium Stadium on September 15, 2012 in East Lansing, Michigan. Notre Dame won the game 20-3. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
This week Michigan faces off against its old foes from South Bend under the lights in Notre Dame stadium in what has got to be the most important game in the eyes of most Irish fans. Michigan has absolutely tortured Notre Dame for three years and looks to extend that streak. Jon from One Foot Down was kind enough to answer my questions about the Irish and the game this week. I'll be answering some questions of his over there, but be sure to check out all the game week content they have put up in preparation for one of the biggest games on both teams' schedule.
Last week Notre Dame traveled to East Lansing to take on Michigan State and walked away with one of the most impressive wins in all of college football this season. What was Notre Dame's game plan against the Spartans and do you think this was the kind of controlling win that could be repeated, or did a lot just happen to go right for the Irish in beating a very good Michigan State team?
The goal was to shut down Le'veon Bell and force Andrew Maxwell to win the game. The Irish played very aggressive up front with the middle linebackers flying to fill gaps on every play. The defensive line also put in a rather dominant performance, controlling the line of scrimmage on almost every play. When Maxwell was forced to throw, he rarely had receivers open and had a defender in his face constantly. On offense, the plan was to do enough to get some points on the board and then don't screw up the rest of the game. It was a game that would have brought a tear to the eye of Jim Tressel.
That game plan works great when the opposing quarterback is Andrew Maxwell and the opponent is running an offense out of the Stone Age, but Denard Robinson is an entirely different beast. The linebackers won't be able to play as aggressively because Denard can pull the ball down and is one missed tackle away from a 30 yard gain. The defensive line will still need to win the battle up front, but the linebackers will need to keep contain and make sure Denard doesn't break a play to the outside.
In the week before, Purdue came to South Bend and gave the Irish quite a scare by tying the Irish in the fourth quarter. What was the difference between this game and the Michigan State game in terms of how Notre Dame prepared and how it played? What game do you think more closely resembles how this Saturday's game is going to go?
A lot of things went wrong In the Purdue game. The offensive line had one of the worst games I've seen in a while. The Irish struggled to run the ball and Golson was sacked five times. Golson, in his second career start, struggled to get plays called. In addition, Purdue's punter was pinning Notre Dame back deep in their own territory all game.
Most of those problems cleared up against Michigan State. Outside of the first series of the game, Golson did a much better job getting the team lined up on every play. Notre Dame had great field position all game. And the offensive line played much better, though Notre Dame still didn't run the ball very well.
With another game under his belt, I think Golson will be more comfortable with his pre-snap responsibilities. I also expect a much better game from the offensive line. The o-line was thought to be a strength coming into this season, but they struggled against Purdue and MSU. The Boilermakers and Spartans both have strong front sevens and hopefully the line will have an easier time against a defense that doesn't feature Kawann Short or Max Bullough.
Notre Dame's history with Denard Robinson is well documented. The Irish have faced Robinson twice as a starter and he has over 900 yards and eight touchdowns in those two meetings. Denard has beaten the Irish in just about every way imaginable, but the Irish front seven is looking much stronger this year while Michigan's offensive line has had a number of struggles thus far. Do you think Notre Dame finally finds a way to shut down Robinson, and if so, how do the Irish do it?
Shutting down Denard is unreasonable; he's the focus of the Michigan offense and he'll get his yards. The key will be making sure players who aren't Robinson are gashing the Irish defense, particularly Toussaint and Smith. If Toussaint is picking up a lot of yards on Saturday, the Irish will be in for a long day.
But forcing the game onto Robinson's shoulders isn't enough. Notre Dame did a great job stopping the Michigan offense for three quarters last year and then fell apart in the fourth quarter under a barrage of big plays. Notre Dame needs to contain Robinson as best they can and force the Wolverines to go on long, methodical drives. Big plays are what killed them last year, so that's what they need to limit.
It would also be great if Notre Dame could run the ball consistently. Denard can't make plays if he's sitting on the sidelines.
One area that was supposed to be a big problem for the Irish coming into the season was the defensive secondary. Both Austin Collinsworth and Lo Wood were lost before the season, and Notre Dame has played the first four games with new starters at both corner spots -- both positions switches from offense. Now Jamoris Slaughter is injured and out for the year. Despite this litany of problems, the Irish have held Purdue to under 200 yards passing and two interceptions while holding Michigan State to 187 yards. Still, last year must give you nightmares. Denard Robinson is looking better as a passer thus far in the season, but even last year he was able to bomb his way to the end zone early and often in the fourth quarter. Do you think Notre Dame will be able to shut down the Michigan passing game with its secondary?
The secondary is a concern, but the issue is inexperience, not talent. Besides senior safety Zeke Motta, the Irish are starting a true freshman, a redshirt freshman, and a junior who spent his freshman year as a wide receiver. All three players are terrific athletes, but they're all learning their position.
The good news for Irish fans is that the secondary is backed by a terrific group of linemen and linebackers. The defense spent spent a lot of time harassing the Purdue and Michigan State quarterbacks and that helped cover up the secondary's flaws. The front seven will have to step it up again, because if Robinson is allowed to sit in the pocket or improvise he'll surely find open receivers all day.
Notre Dame flashed quite the strong run game down the stretch against a Michigan State team that is well known for its rush defense. Cierre Wood is back from suspension, Theo Riddick has been getting significant snaps in the backfield, and George Atkinson III has proven himself a big play threat. Meanwhile, Michigan is depending on a completely retooled defensive line and has been running out two true freshmen as the first linebackers off the bench. Is there anything that makes you think Michigan could slow the Irish ground game down? How well do you think the unit does against Michigan on Saturday?
As I wrote earlier, Notre Dame really needs to run the ball well against Michigan. The Michigan defense hasn't been very good at stopping the run but, frankly, Notre Dame hasn't done a good job running the ball against teams that aren't Navy. Forget Robinson vs. Notre Dame's defense; this might be the match-up that determines the game. If the Irish can pound out yards on the ground, they can kill the clock and keep Robinson off the field while keeping the defense fresh. If Michigan stuffs the run and forces Golson to throw the ball... well, I don't know what will happen. It could be glorious or it could be painful. But either way, I'd rather not risk it.
Of course I'm looking through blue-and-gold-tinted shamrock glasses, but I think Notre Dame has the upper hand in this match-up. The left side of the Irish offensive line is fantastic and the right side played better against Michigan State than they did against Purdue. Right tackle Christian Lombard has been a little shaky in his first year as a starter, but he has loads of potential. Michigan, meanwhile, no longer has Mike Martin, and that makes me very happy.
One of the running jokes over the off season was Notre Dame's seemingly futile search for a starting quarterback. The position has been a thorn in Brian Kelly's side thus far in his time in South Bend because of calamitous seasons from Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees. However, the Irish settled on redshirt freshman Everett Golson in August and he has generally looked good, throwing just one interception in 81 attempts with 611 yards and three touchdowns. Still, when it came down to the final drive against Purdue, Brian Kelly went to Tommy Rees for the final drive. Does Notre Dame finally have the quarterback that Brian Kelly has been looking for, and how good do you think Golson can be this year?
I'm very excited about Everett Golson, as are most Notre Dame fans, but he's still a redshirt freshman who spent last season running the scout team and there's going to be growing pains along the way. That was on full display during the Purdue game. Golson actually played very well (21/31 for 289 yards and a TD through the air and on the ground) but he had problems getting the plays in from the sidelines. I think Kelly went to Rees out necessity to run the two-minute drill, not because Golson was struggling throwing the ball.
But the sky's the limit for Golson. He's gets tagged as a "running" QB (for reasons I won't get into) but he threw the sixth most touchdown passes in high school football history. He's a natural passer with a cannon for an arm and enough athleticism to punish defenses with his feet. He's never going to be confused with Denard Robinson, but he can extend plays and carry the ball a few times himself. He's certainly a welcome change from Tommy Rees, who can't move in the pocket at all and doesn't have the arm to complete long passes or throw a deep out.
One play in particular stand out for me. Against Purdue, Golson got flushed from the pocket and ran towards the sidelines. Instead of tucking the ball and picking up whatever yards he could, he kept his eyes down field and found Troy Niklas streaking across the field for a 40 yard gain. That play never happens with Tommy Rees. Golson's numbers against MSU don't look great, but he did a great job avoiding pressure and had the presence of mind to throw the ball away instead of forcing it into coverage. He's going to be deadly once he gets more comfortable in this offense. But for now, we'll have to live with a little bit of shakiness.
Ok, prediction time. First, what do you think Notre Dame has to do well to win this game, and conversely, what do you think is the most important factor in a Michigan win? Does the game follow the script of the last few years staying close until the fourth quarter, or is this finally the year that the favored Irish team takes care of business early? Final score?
First, let me be upfront and inform you that I am an unabashed homer. Therefore, I will make my prediction and come up with a narrative to fit it.
I think if Notre Dame is going to win this game, they'll need to keep the score down. I don't really like the Irish's chances in a shootout. Michigan's skill position players don't strike a lot of fear into my heart, but Denard Robinson is a one-man shootout waiting to happen. If Michigan breaks 30 points, I think ND will have trouble winning this game.
I think ND will find it easier to move the ball on offense against the Wolverine defense than they did in the past two games, but I think there's still going to be plenty of stalled drives, especially if the running game isn't clicking. Therefore, I think Kyle Brindza's leg might play a crucial role in this game.
I'll say the Irish win 23-20. Just because I made this prediction does not mean I feel confident in any way. We could be up seven touchdowns with two minutes to play and I'll still be sweating bullets. But these are two pretty evenly matched teams and it's probably going to be a close game. Again...