Quick Preview: Notre Dame

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

This is just a quicker than quick preview of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Obviously Zach will have a more extensive preview later in the week.

Whatchu talkin’ bout, Kelly?

You have probably heard by now that Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly made some comments regarding what he thinks of the Michigan rivalry:

"I really haven't seen it as one of those historic, traditional Notre Dame rivalries," Kelly said on a conference call. "I've seen it as just one of those great football games that Notre Dame has played."

West Wing President (and ND alum) Josiah Bartlett begs to differ:

They treat it like a rivalry there. Shame on you, Brian Kelly. SHAME!

Kelly has predictably retracted his comments after doubtlessly facing overwhelming wrath from Notre Dame alumni who played in games against Michigan and very much considered it a rivalry. Kelly’s clarification:

"This is a great and historic rivalry that we'll be playing this Saturday," Kelly said during his weekly news conference. "So let's get that out of the way right away, so we don't have to answer any more questions about this rivalry. We're excited about the game, we're excited about playing it.

"This will be decided by the players on the field, and the preparation that goes along with it. So we can stick to that, and dispense with the nonsense. We're excited about it.

"I know Brady. He's never been one to show dispresct to anybody or anything. It's really for me about two programs that share a border, that it makes sense to play. I get that. There's so many complexities with our schededule and our agreement with ACC that it's difficult and frustrating. I can see the frustration would be there.

"(Hoke) is a first-class guy. There's nothing there, other than he's done a great job at Michigan, and I know he wants to continue to play Notre Dame. We'd like to oblige him, but right now it's difficult with the commitments we have."

Message Board Translation: WE WOULD LIKE TO PLAY MICHIGAN, WE REALLY WOULD, BUT YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND! WE CAN’T BECAUSE WE HAVE TO PLAY DUKE! DUKE!!! THEY ARE OUR RIVALS ACTUALLY AND IF ANYONE SUGGESTS THAT WE CANCEL THE SERIES WITH MSU OR PURDUE, YOU WILL HAVE TO GO OVER MY DEAD BODY! STFU SCUM GO IRISH

Okay, enough about that. Here's the fast preview:

Offensive Line: Overrated or Underrated?

It’s a little of both. When I was watching the first couple drives of the Temple game (which can be viewed here), I was very impressed with Notre Dame’s offensive line, to the point where I thought the defensive line was overrated and it actually should have been the offensive line that got some of the pre-season love. Of course, as the game went on, Notre Dame’s OL looked increasingly shaky.

In general, they handled Temple’s rush and were able to create holes for the running backs, but one of the reasons why Notre Dame looked underwhelming to Notre Dame fans was because of the line play. Zach Martin is clearly the best lineman Notre Dame has. He’s basically their version of Taylor Lewan but is obviously not Taylor Lewan. Martin was consistent in pass protection; the other side of the line, however...

Screen_shot_2013-09-03_at_10

Not so much. This happened quite a lot. Here, senior right guard Christian Lombard gets beat big time. He repeatedly let the DTs get around him with only the slightest push. This should be a major concern for Notre Dame’s offensive line. The ironic thing is that Lombard is a senior and a returning starter.

Screen_shot_2013-09-03_at_10

Here, Notre Dame faces a three-man rush and gets owned. Temple does send in a fourth man, linebacker Blaze Caponegro, on a quasi-blitz, that is meant to distract the left tackle, Zach Martin. Caponegro eventually backs off once his role is done. But the right four of Notre Dame's offensive line (LG, C, RG, RT) completely collapses under Temple's three-man rush, which forces Tommy Rees to scramble outside of the pocket. In the commentary, Mayock calls what he just witnessed "really good pass protection."

Defensive Line: Elite?

Possibly. Temple's offensive line did surprisingly well against the reportedly fierce defensive line of Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, and Sheldon Day, despite Mike Mayock's opines that the Owls were "outmanned." (Honestly, they probably were.) Nix was triple-teamed on several downs, and of the three Sheldon Day got the most consistent penetration. (On occasions when they rushed four, Ishaq Williams played the end.) However, Notre Dame was blitz-happy in 2012 (much the way MSU is), and the front 3 are definitely good at eating up blocks, so the question becomes: why didn't they blitz all that much against Temple? Was Brian Kelly testing out his DL? Was it a preparation for Michigan? Can we expect to see lots of blitzes from the Irish in the Big House?

On strictly rushing three, Notre Dame rarely got penetration against Temple's offensive line, which is not a good sign for the Irish when you consider the gap in talent. Where the Irish were most dangerous was when they brought more than 3. This is likely what made Manti Teo so successful for the majority of the year in 2012. Teo's strength was keying in on the runner and plugging the hole. This happened because Notre Dame's DL ate up the blocks, and another linebacker took one as well so Teo could have his moments.

As the Irish found out against Alabama, this defensive front will be seriously challenged when they face an elite offensive line. Guards that can handle Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt one-on-one will allow the other linemen to get up to the linebackers. That's how Bama rolled over them.

If we're applying this to our offensive line, obviously we're not as good as Alabama yet, but there's a good chance Kyle Kalis matches up well with either Nix or Tuitt. Lewan should be able to handle whoever is rushing on the end. I'm slightly worried about Graham Glasgow if he's tasked with taking on Nix, though. Same goes for Jack Miller. They might end up having to double-team Nix, in which case it's going to be tougher to establish a run game that gets going, with ND's linebackers plugging the holes.

Notre Dame Running Backs

I watched Greg Bryant extensively in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, and I can conclusively say that he clearly looks like a Notre Dame running back. Think Cierre Wood or Armando Allen. Medium height, medium build, not elite speed, not elite power, but runs with determination (something fans always appreciate*). I was never impressed with Cierre Wood, he was never that fast, he was never that good at shedding tackles, but sweet Isaiah did he run with determination. Greg Bryant looks like the latest incarnation of this model. I MIGHT NOT OUTRUN YOUR DBs BUT NOTHING EXCEPT INJURY OR LINEBACKERS WILL STOP MEEEE

Cam McDaniel, despite his whiteness, at 5’10", 210 lbs., is too small to be a fullback or a tight end. He looks like a slower, less exciting version of Sam McGuffie. BUT! He is also extremely good at powering through things!

Wiokim-thio_medium

Or not! NOTRE DAME RUNNING BACKS!

So how about a USC running back instead? That’s Amir Carlisle. He was all the rage in his recruitment to the Trojans, and when he transferred to Notre Dame there were outcries of a Pat Hayden conspiracy. Honestly if I’m comparing him to a running back currently known to Michigan fans, he’s probably pretty close to Ameer Abdullah, or maybe a more talented version of Purdue’s Akeem Hunt. He’s a burner but gets knocked down easily.

George Atkinson III is the Michael Shaw of Notre Dame. He is their tallest ball carrier at 6’1", 210 lbs., who seems to be living up to his potential far better than Shaw ever did here. Atkinson is probably the Irish’s best overall running back, but he has issues with ball security, getting through the holes, and possibly seems injury prone. So... Michael Shaw.

*To put it further into context, Justice Hayes is a Notre Dame running back playing for Michigan. Search your feelings; you know it to be true.

Notre Dame Offense: Threat Level

The Irish have always had a big name playmaker when they’ve entered the season. In 2011 it was Michael Floyd. In 2012 it was Tyler Eifert. In 2013, it’s... Davaris Daniels? Maybe?

Notre Dame doesn’t have a standout superhero yet, but that could be a good thing. It will force Kelly to rely more on the sum of his parts than on a singular player who completely bails out the offense all the time. Of course, on the flip side, that same prospect could spell trouble: without a proven playmaker to provide the safety net for Tommy Rees, what’s the offense to do when things don’t go smoothly?

Threat level right now is tentatively placed at 6. Notre Dame’s offense in general is pretty vanilla: despite Kelly’s spread pedigree, he leans heavily on the run even though that’s not what he did at Cincinnati to eventually be hired in South Bend. I would probably have bumped it down to 4, but Tommy Rees didn’t turn the ball over once against Temple (I know, strange, right?), so that means that an offense that is a vanilla 5 should get a bump up because the quarterback is experienced and should be polished when he plays Michigan.

An argument could be made for 7 or 8 based on Notre Dame’s receiving corps. There are virtually no areas of Notre Dame’s team that I would trade with Michigan’s except possibly wide receiver. Then, of course, you have to remember Jeremy Gallon. But Notre Dame has like two of those. And while their running backs might not be the fastest, their receivers are. Still, I’ll stick with the comfortable, tentative 6.

Notre Dame Defense: Threat Level

I fully expect Notre Dame to blitz like crazy against Michigan, even though they didn’t really blitz all that much against Temple, so this unit is placed at an emphatic 8 and could be higher. Notre Dame’s front does enough to eat blocks so the Bob Diaco formula of linebacker production works to stop the run. Their secondary is also markedly improved. Granted, they played against Temple, whose receivers couldn’t catch a cold even if they tried in Notre Dame stadium. So the secondary could have looked better than they actually are, or they could actually be pretty good.

Three Matchups That Will Decide the Outcome

Michigan Defense vs. Notre Dame Running Game

The running game is going to likely be the staple of Kelly’s offense for the fourth consecutive year, and Michigan will look to come out and shake the confidence of unproven runners. The Wolverines seem to have the better stable of linebackers, especially in terms of experience, and should be strong enough to stop Notre Dame from breaking off big runs. However, if the Irish are able to consistently produce on the ground, even worse because it would be without the legs of Golson, Michigan’s defense could risk giving up too many yards like they did in 2011.

Tommy Rees vs. Michigan Pass Rush

Considering the trouble that Temple gave Notre Dame’s OL in week one, the Irish have to be worried about facing a significantly more stout, talented, and grisly defensive line, which the Wolverines have. In terms of sample size we have to temper expectations because let’s remember that Michigan’s front seven dominated Central Michigan, which you have to remember is Central Michigan. Still, the Irish OL seemed to underestimate the Temple rush, and while they might be more focused in playing Michigan, that’s going to be the question.

Special Teams

Michigan’s unit seems to definitively have the edge here. While Notre Dame might have a bigger return threat (M’s Dennis Norfleet has yet to return one for a TD), the Maize and Blue appear to have the advantage just about everywhere else: kickoff and punt coverage, as well as field goal kicking. Notre Dame’s punting unit struggled mightily against Temple, but that could have simply been opening day jitters.

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