Looking at the six biggest storylines heading into tomorrow's game against Notre Dame.
1.) Denard Robinson
As Matt Hinton so eloquently stated a few days ago:
Denard Robinson against Notre Dame is the ur-Denard from which all other versions of Denard follow and against whom they are all compared. With the possible exception of the Denard who played a nearly perfect game in the process of snapping a seven-year losing streak against Ohio State last November, the others almost always come up short. Denard against Notre Dame is the original formula. The idol to which thousands of No. 16 jerseys pay homage every weekend, hoping for a mere glimpse of what they got in South Bend in 2010, and under the newly installed lights in Michigan Stadium in 2011 – if not necessarily the best version of Denard, as they saw in the former case, then at least the version who abruptly forgot everything he'd ever been coached in the latter and proceeded to turn the fourth quarter into his own personal PlayStation at the Irish's expense. No player in college football in the last decade has inflicted as much emotional damage on a single rival.
Even after glimpses of staggering potential during Denard's freshman season, and even after a near-flawless evisceration of UConn in the 2010 season opener, the legend of Denard Robinson was born when he ran roughshod over Notre Dame in South Bend. Like Hinton said, he's been largely unable to recapture that sort of magic since, except for last year against... Notre Dame. Inexplicable as though that victory may have been, the record still shows: Denard 2, Notre Dame 0. Accounting for nearly 1,000 yards and 8 touchdowns combined in two consecutive years against a rival is unfathomable -- adding in two thrilling comeback drives and, well, words aren't sufficient. Regardless of what happens in Notre Dame's final matchup with its dreadlocked bogeyman, those two performances will stand out as some of the best work done by a player against a rival, ever.
Until Denard's eligibility is up, he will be the most vital -- and most unpredictable, usually -- component in order for Michigan's offense to be successful. Even though it's received some excess hype for shutting down a mediocre Michigan State offense, Notre Dame's defense is easily as good as it's been since Denard's been at Michigan. Fortunately for Michigan, the Irish have an inexperienced and very shallow secondary, a potentially fatal weakness that Michigan is likely much more able to exploit than Michigan State was. The responsibility for that falls squarely on Denard's shoulders -- he'll have to play with good mechanics, make accurate throws, and be able to surgically pick apart the Notre Dame secondary. Hitherto, he has not been able to do that in his career, but if the belief that Denard has improved significantly as a passer turns out to be true, his arm could very well put another dagger into Notre Dame's psyche for the third consecutive season.
2.) This game comes at a critical juncture for both teams
For Notre Dame: It's not hard to say that Notre Dame's upset over Michigan State in East Lansing last week was easily their biggest win in years. For the first time in what seems like forever, the Irish defense was great enough to completely overwhelm a quality opponent and cruise to a comfortable win. Year three under Brian Kelly could be a huge turning point for Notre Dame; the Irish have a ridiculously tough schedule -- games against Stanford, Oklahoma, and USC follow this one -- but a win here would take Notre Dame into October witha 4-0 record for the first time since 2002. A win tomorrow and a win against one of those three elite BCS conference opponents would probably be enough to carry the Irish into a BCS Bowl game at 10-2 (providing they don't get upset by anyone else). Winning against Michigan State -- then presumed the Big Ten favorite -- was a watershed moment, and beating Michigan, who Notre Dame has lost to five out of six times, would be another.
For Michigan: So far this season has been a bit of a disappointment for Michigan. The game against Alabama was a beatdown that was more thorough than most of us could have anticipated, and the narrow win over Air Force underscored some of the same issues (namely running the ball and stopping the run) that Michigan had against Alabama. Right now the Big Ten looks extremely weak and Michigan could regain its status as the favorite by springing the road upset over Notre Dame. Michigan's schedule doesn't set up very well -- Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State are all road games, so winning this one and gaining some confidence would be huge as Michigan moves on to its Big Ten schedule (and a road game against a potentially dangerous Purdue team). Most early season fears would be assuaged as well if Michigan is able to beat a good opponent in a tough environment, and it would create some momentum after a lackluster showing thus far.
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3.) Can Michigan run the ball, with or without Denard?
So far this season, Notre Dame's run defense has been outstanding. They held Purdue to just 90 yards on 30 carries and followed that up with an even better performance against Michigan State; the Irish held workhorse running back Le'Veon Bell to 77 yards on 19 carries and sacked Andrew Maxwell four times. (sacks count as negative rushing yardage in college football for some reason). Altogether, Notre Dame's two Big Ten opponents have rushed the ball 55 times for 140 yards, just 2.5 yards per carry. All-American linebacker Manti Te'o headlines the ND front seven, and rightfully so, but Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and true freshmen Sheldon Day anchor an impressive defensive line and Prince Shembo is a terror off of the edge as an outside linebacker in Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme.
Last season against the Irish, Michigan was largely unable to run the ball and essentially scrapped the running game in favor of a downfield passing attack to spearhead its comeback effort. To be fair, Michigan was without talented running back Fitzgerald Toussaint last season because of an injury and that certainly would have helped, but Michigan -- outside of two longer runs by Denard -- was shut down by Notre Dame's front seven. This season, Michigan has struggled to get much production out of the running back position. Michigan's offensive line (which was replacing two starters, including the best center in the country) has struggled to open up holes in the running game, and Michigan's backs haven't been able to do much of anything. To keep Notre Dame's defense honest, Michigan's offense will probably try to run the ball -- between Toussaint and Robinson there are options in the backfield to do that, but a lot rides on Michigan's offensive line. Notre Dame's front completely ovewhelmed the Spartan offensive line last week, so we'll see how well Michigan's o-line can hold up against a formidable run defense.
4.) Everett Golson and Notre Dame's newfound ball security
Lost in the euphoria after Michigan's thrilling win over Notre Dame a year ago was how well the Irish offense played, if not for five crippling turnovers, three of which came in the redzone. One Foot Down points out that "...the Irish gave up the ball up 8 times over the last two meetings against the Wolverines and were -5 in just those two games alone." Notre Dame's frustrating propensity to turn the ball over at the absolutely worst time possible was perhaps the biggest factor into their struggles last year, and it enabled Michigan to come back late in the game. The Irish offense doesn't have star receiver Michael Floyd anymore -- Floyd was one of the biggest reasons why ND moved the ball so successfully against Michigan last year -- but they do have redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson, who may be the cure to their turnover woes. So far this season, Golson has only thrown one interception (which happened in Notre Dame's blowout win over Navy). Golson is still just in his first year of college football and could certainly fold under the pressure and confusion brought by Greg Mattison's zone blitzes. Still, he's held onto the ball well thus far, and even though he didn't have a fantastic day against Michigan State (14-32 passing, 178 yards, one passing and one rushing touchdown), he played risk-averse football. Notre Dame's turnover woes could very well be behind them, and since Michigan has yet to force a turnover this year, they could continue their run of critical mistake-free offense tomorrow.
5.) Michigan's inexperienced receivers vs. Notre Dame's inexperienced secondary
This matchup really hasn't garnered its deserved attention leading up to the game. Against Alabama, Michigan's passing game struggled mightily outside of a few long bombs, but since then, converted quarterback Devin Gardner and true freshman Devin Fucnhess have emerged as talented options for Denard Robinson in the passing game. Michigan's receiving corps was the biggest question mark on the offense entering into the season, and even though they're still relatively unproven, Gardner, Funchess, Jeremy Gallon, Jeremy Jackson and Drew Dileo have done fairly well so far. Senior wideout Roy Roundtree hasn't regained his form as a sophomore in Rich Rodriguez's offense, but he's been productive in the past. Lining up opposite them will be an injury-ravaged Notre Dame secondary that's starting solid senior Zeke Motta, two freshmen, and a converted receiver. Notre Dame was able to generate enough of a pass rush against Michigan State to limit the Spartans to just 4.2 yards per attempt and the secondary remained relatively untested by State's mediocre passing game. They'll face stiffer competition tomorrow -- Michigan's receivers are probably talented enough to get open, and even though Gardner and Funchess are still learning their positions, they're easily the best receivers that Notre Dame will have faced this year (I know technically Funchess is a tight end, but he's functionally a receiver since he's never in the game to be a blocker). The Irish have played pretty well on the back end thus far largely due to the success of their pass rush, but they'll probably be good for a couple of blown coverages and opportunities for Michigan's passing attack to generate a big play. It will be on Denard and Michigan's receivers to capitalize.
6.) Michigan's defensive line...
...it's going to be a big question mark for pretty much every game here on out, and it's going to be the key to stopping Notre Dame from moving the ball. Golson is a talented-but-unproven passer with an average cast of receivers (as well as excellent tight end Tyler Eifert), so the Irish could find themselves with the need to run the ball. Running backs Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson are all pretty talented and possess a variety of skills. Zach wrote this about the ND offensive line a few days ago:
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.
It's hard to accurately judge Michigan's defensive line after they were blown to smithereens by Alabama and optioned to death by Air Force. Notre Dame should provide a good measuring stick for an offensive line that's pretty decent in its own right but not nearly as elite as Alabama's. If Michigan's defensive line can hold up early against the run and force Notre Dame and Golson into long down-and-distance situations, it's hard not to like Michigan's chances of limiting the Irish to a pretty low offensive output. Purdue was able to generate a pretty solid pass rush, so that's something to look for from Clark and Jake Ryan.