Game Two Preview: Michigan vs. Notre Dame

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the sports' most storied programs meet once again under the lights in the Big House. Will this one go down to the wire like the last game, or does one team have an advantage?

Michigan vs. Notre Dame

Ann Arbor, MI | 8:00 PM, ESPN

Enemy Blog: One Foot Down

So again we meet under the lights, only this one is a little different.  The yearly series is over after Michigan's return trip to South Bend next year.  The ongoing conference expansion saga forced Notre Dame's hand and caused the conference to ditch the Big East American whatever and hitch its wagons to the ACC.  This also meant football scheduling agreements with ACC teams that spread an already thin Irish schedule even farther out.  Thus it was decided that something would have to give.  Notre Dame wasn't going to give up its yearly series against Navy, USC, or Stanford — all three of which are big rivalries, and the latter two important recruiting tools — and with the guaranteed games against ACC folk, the Big Ten was the one left holding the short straw.  Purdue will stay on the schedule, because everyone likes at least one easy win a year.  Michigan State will as well.  Unfortunately, when talking about the odd team out, it's Michigan (fergodsakes).

This understandably led Michigan fans to lose their shit, and its hard to blame them.  While the rivalry has taken long breaks in the past, you would be hard pressed to find another game that is as consistently entertaining as recent UM-ND games.  With both schools trending back up from the days of the "Return to Glory" Bowl late last decade, this game was once again looking like it would have national implications on a yearly basis.

Brady Hoke was clear.  Notre Dame was chickening out of a heated rivalry.  The school was walking away from the Michigan game because it was the toughest of the three Big Ten games, not because it meant the least.

Of course, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly sees it differently:

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

While he is right that this wasn't always a game that was played regularly (someone tell that to Mark May), if you look back at its history, these two teams have had some really great games, and for a long time that game had national implications.

But that ship has sailed.  Notre Dame will move to its new scheduling agreement and Michigan will continue to fill that spot with quality BCS competition.  Hopefully this time it won't take 35 years to get another game scheduled between these two.

When Michigan has the ball

One thing that the Wolverines will look to do is the thing the team hasn't had much luck doing in the last two meetings: running the ball with a tailback.  In 2012 Fitz Toussaint gained 58 yards on 13 carries and in 2011 Michigan's three tailbacks combined for eight carries and ten yards.  Part of this has been the fact that the Notre Dame game is annually the Denard Robinson show, but a bigger part is the Notre Dame defense, and it looks to be just as good this year.

The front three in Notre Dame's 3-4 defense are as big and strong as you'll find in college football.  Louis Nix is the man in the middle, a senior nose guard that checks in somewhere between big human and small automobile size — 6'3 357.  Lest you think he is simply a mound of humanity to run around, he had 2.0 sacks, 7.5 TFLs, and 50 tackles a year ago.  He is a load, and will be the stiffest test Michigan's three new interior linemen will see until November.  If you have any lingering concerns about Jack Miller's ability to block defensive linemen — and you probably should — this will be where you get your answer.

On the outsides, Notre Dame returns Stephon Tuitt who weighs in at 6'6 312 and Sheldon Day who is the smallest of the three at 6'2, 290.  Tuitt is a junior who is on his second year as a full time starter and was as highly rated a defensive end recruit as you could find.  He led Notre Dame with 12.0 sacks and 13.0 TFLs a year ago.  Day — a former Michigan DL recruiting target — played in a reserve role last year in all 13 games and registered two sacks of his own.  Outside of possibly Ohio State and Michigan State, this could be the best defensive line Michigan faces all season.

Of course, what makes the defensive line even better is the effect it has on the linebackers.  Having three really good lineman to absorb blockers lets Notre Dame's backers do a lot of damage.  Of course, those linebackers are all pretty good to begin with.  The best is arguably OLB Prince Shembo (7.5 sacks, 10.5 TFLs), who at 6'1 258 has the strength and athleticism to get into the backfield with regularity.  He was second to Tuitt in both sacks and TFLs a year ago.  Now in his senior year, Shembo has started for nearly two full seasons and played an important reserve role as soon as he got to campus.

On the inside Dan Fox, a fifth year player entering his third year in the starting lineup, is a solid yeoman-like linbebacker that can pound in the run game.  He split time last year with fellow fifth year player Carlo Calabrese, the other starter on the inside now that Manti Te'o is gone.  The two had 63 and 49 tackles respectively a year ago, and there is enough game experience here that the Irish should be able to replace most of Manti Te'o's production in run defense (pass defense and blitzing is another question).

The lone newcomer is true-freshman five-star recruit Jaylon Smith, who jumped to the top of the depth chart after wowing every scout that saw him play in high school or participate in a camp.  Smith is already solidly built at 6'3 230, and his athleticism sets him apart from most players.  He may be young, but he has a lot of potential to be very good, very soon.

Behind this stellar group of front seven defenders is a secondary that should prove to be capable of making life hard for Devin Gardner and his receivers.  The only player the Irish lose in the back four is Zeke Motta, and that loss is somewhat offset because of the return of senior corner Lo Wood from injury.  Wood missed all of 2012 after going down in fall camp, and he was poised to push for a starting role last year after two years as a reserve before that.  He should provide depth this year.

The insane thing is that he probably won't win back his job, but last year at this time Notre Dame's corner situation looked to be dire.  Once Wood went down with an injury, Notre Dame looked to start A) a true-freshman that was recruited as a running back and B) a former wide-receiver and special teams player.  Normally, position switches of this magnitude in fall camp signal impending doom.  Instead, they turned out to be savvy moves that gave Notre Dame solid corner play all season.

Bennett Jackson, now a senior, had seen only special teams duty before taking over the starting job a year ago, and he finished the year with 65 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, and four interceptions.  His stat line against Michigan: nine tackles, a fumble recovery, and an interception.  Opposite him was true-freshman KeiVarae Russell, who was recruited as a running back and ended the season a freshman all-American at corner.  He had 58 tackles and two interceptions.  These two should reprise their roles and be pretty good once again.

Notre Dame also returns free safety Matthias Farley, who started 11 of 13 games a year ago.  It looks like he will be joined in the lineup by senior Austin Collinsworth, another player that missed the entire 2012 season due to injury, but reentered the starting lineup against Temple last week.  Sophomore Elijah Shumate is also in line to receiving playing time, but he has struggled with consistency.

Outlook

Other than possibly Penn State, this is the best defense that Michigan is going to see until its hellacious stretch run in November — and even then, only MSU and OSU look to be on this level.  The Irish boast experience all over the defense and as evidenced by what this team accomplished last year, the defense can be pretty good when everything is clicking.

While Temple is hardly a juggernaut, Notre Dame was able to hold the Owls to 362 total yards on offense and just one touchdown.  What is curious about this performance is that the run defense actually performed worse than the pass defense.  Temple passed 47 times for 23 completions and 228 yards; this was good for 4.9 yards/pass which is not a good number no matter how you look at it.

However, the Owls were able to rush the ball 29 times for 134 yards and 4.6 yards/carry.  What's more, four of the five Temple players that rushed the ball at least once had a run over 10-yards, and no one had one longer than 20 (meaning the final YPC average wasn't skewed high by a long run).  Temple quarterback Connor Reilly led the way with 12 carries for 65 yards.

Once again, Notre Dame would probably be okay with the rushing load falling on Devin Gardner.  If Gardner is the one source of positive yards on the ground, he is going to get hit a lot.  Michigan will need to get its running backs involved early to keep the chains moving.  This won't be easy.  Jack Miller, Kyle Kalis, and Graham Glasgow haven't seen anyone like Louis Nix yet in college.

Brian at MGoBlog came up with an interesting thought based on Michigan's reliance on zone stretch plays against Central Michigan:

Stretch plays are good for getting rid of planetoid defensive tackles and making them run down the line in a futile chase to the ball. Notre Dame fans also apparently think their starters in the middle these days (Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese) are uninspiring plodders after the Temple game, so Michigan would like to make them run, too. Hypothesis: the stretch is something Michigan thinks will beat ND.

If that is what Michigan is planning on doing, it is as good an idea in the run game as any.  This allows Michigan to try to seal the edge with Taylor Lewan, and force Nix to make plays while moving laterally down the line of scrimmage.  Better that than count on some combinantion of Miller and Glasgow/Kalis to blow Nix off the line on inside power or zone plays.

Michigan's success passing against this secondary is still up in the air.  The Wolverines will need to do a good job with protection (something that isn't out of the question thanks to the existence of Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield on the outside), but the big factor is how much did Devin Gardner learn from his slow start last week, and has he shaken off the jitters yet.  If Gardner comes out looking like the quarterback we expect, Notre Dame is going to have a hard time keeping him contained.

When Notre Dame has the ball

So we meet again, Mr. Rees.

Tommy and Michigan have an interesting history.  The young quarterback debuted against the Wolverines in 2010, throwing two passes — one of them to Jonas Mouton.  He was then back as the starter in 2011, passing for 315 yards and three touchdowns, and nearly winning the Irish the game with his touchdown pass to Theo Riddick with just 30 seconds left.  Of course he also had three pretty bad turnovers including two interceptions.  Last year, despite being benched in favor of Everett Golson to start the season, Rees got the call up during the Michigan game while Golson struggled.  Rees would hit on 8 of his 11 passes for 115 yards, and would help Notre Dame escape with the win.

If there is any player on Notre Dame's roster that wants revenge for the first Under The Lights game, its Tommy Rees.  If he doesn't wake up in a fevered frenzy at least once a night cursing Jeremy Gallon's invisibility cloak, I'd be shocked.

While his debut against Michigan wasn't much to write home about, he has proven to be a solid passer in the other two meetings, and outside of a few bad decisions and freak turnovers, Rees has very nearly beaten Michigan for about 119 minutes of football.  He isn't the best passer, and not the most mobile guy, but he is capable of making Michigan's secondary pay.  Of course, without Jordan Kovacs in the lineup, this could spell trouble for a Michigan secondary that has already been beaten deep by Rees a few times (I'm thinking back to that horrible safety bust in 2011 that almost ended the game by letting ND go up with 30 seconds left).

Rees will have a lot of weapons to use in the offense, but in the backfield most of them will be unproven.  The top returning rusher is George Atkinson III, who was Notre Dame's big play option a year ago with 51 rushes for 361 yards and a yards/carry average over seven.  Atkinson III came out of fall camp on top of the depth chart but was used less than Notre Dame's other backs in the opening game.

Those other backs are Cam McDaniel and Amir Carlisle, both juniors.  Carlisle comes by way of USC where he played for one season before transferring.  McDaniel got some playing time as a backup a year ago.  Neither is much in the way of a proven commodity, but Irish fans have high hopes for both, especially Carlisle who could play out in the slot as well.  Atkinson III will probably be the most heavily used option against Michigan, but Notre Dame will spread carries around.  The biggest question is which one of these three is capable of carrying the load between the tackles and excelling in short yardage situations.  My money is on McDaniel as the bruiser, but the jury is still out.

The worry about how good the running backs can be is lessened because of the line that they are running behind.  The strength is on the left as LT Zack Martin returns after having started every game since his redshirt freshman year.  He is as good as it gets on the offensive line and should be a load for Michigan's still burgeoning pass rush.  Next to him is LG Chris Watt, who has started for two full seasons at the position before this year and spent the year before that as a oft-used reserve at RG.  This would be like Michigan running to the left behind Taylor Lewan and the guard version of Taylor Lewan.

At center, Zack's brother Nick has taken hold of the starting role after having played as a reserve in all 13 games last season as a redshirt freshman.  Next to him at RG will be Christian Lombard, a 13 game starter a year ago at RT, with Ronnie Stanley, a second year player, assuming the starting duties at RT.  The right side of the line isn't as experienced as the left side, but overall the Irish boast an impressive front five that should pose a tough challenge for Michigan's defensive line.

In the passing game, Tommy Rees will have the second and third most productive receivers from last year back.  TJ Jones tied Tyler Eifert in both receptions (50) and touchdowns (4) but was just short of the TE in total yards (649 to 685).  DaVaris Daniels also returns after 31 catches for 490 yards.  The most productive returning tight end is Troy Niklas.

Both Jones and Daniels had big games to start the season.  Jones went off for 138 yards on six catches, and Daniels scored touchdowns on two of his three catches.  Niklas had one catch.  It went 66 yards for a touchdown.  The Irish have weapons, and Rees has shown an ability to come up with those pass plays in the past.

Outlook

Last year's game was an offensive crap-fest in which Michigan threw five interceptions (in a row, because just throwing five in a game doesn't quite hurt enough) and the Irish completed just 11 passes.  There was one offensive touchdown scored.  As stated above, I think Michigan's offense will be more capable of moving the ball this year, and the same looks to be true of Notre Dame.  Rees has had success as a passer against Michigan the last couple years and the Irish still have a lot of talent around him as well as a solid line to run behind.

A lot will come down to how well Notre Dame can establish its run game.  In 2010 Armando Allen almost eclipsed 100 yards, and Cierre Wood got there in 2012 with 134.  Last year Wood , Riddick, and Atkinson III didn't manage to crack 100 yards.  Thankfully for the Irish that wasn't necessary with Michigan giving the ball back six times.\

Notre Dame should rely heavily on the left side of its line to move the ball on the ground, and Rees will look to pass the ball down the field a lot more when not in nurse-the-tiny-lead-against-a-dumpster-fire-mode.  This won't be a one-touchdown game, but Michigan still has enough on defense to make life hard on Notre Dame.  If the Wolverines can also avoid giving up big plays — please Jarrod Wilson be as good as you were last week — Notre Dame might still struggle to get to 20.  If Notre Dame can get some big pass plays, Michigan will be playing from behind.

The biggest difference will come from what Michigan's offense forces Notre Dame to do.  Last year Brian Kelly basically packed it in somewhere between Denard Robinson's second and third interception.  Rees got to be the savvy game manager, and Notre Dame's flustered play maker (Golson) was benched after a rough start.  If Michigan's offense can get into the end zone, all the sudden Kelly is going to have to open things up with Tommy Rees.  Really, that could go either way.

When someone is kicking the ball

You already know what Michigan has.  Brendan Gibbons has proven himself to be incredibly accurate on just about everything.  If Michigan punts, it could look to feature Kenny Allen who had the lone punt for the Wolverines that was 51 yards.  Matt Wile is still there and can do just about everything pretty well.

Notre Dame returns last year's kicker, Kyle Brindza.  He missed his one attempt vs. Temple last week from 44 yards.  Nick Tausch also got one field goal attempt, which he missed from 39 yards.  Although it was Tausch that took all four extra points.  Brindza did handle punting duties in game one as Notre Dame lost Ben Turk to graduation.  He had five punts for a 41.2 average and two downed inside the 20.  Not a bad outing.

The real game changer could be in the return game, where Dennis Norfleet flashed the skills that have had everyone chomping at the bit to get him more return opportunities.  He might still make a horrible decision, but it he doesn't he is probably going to make you gasp at some point in his return.

Notre Dame looks to rely on Atkinson III again for kickoff returns, where he averaged 20 yards per return a year ago.  T.J. Jones took all three punt return opportunities against Temple and did little with them.

Michigan could have an advantage in special teams, but the randomness and possibility for a horrible error make me wary to predict anything.

Just don't mess up, guys.

Other Stuff

Key's to the game:

- Free Safety Competence:  Michigan's defense looked stout all over last week, and that should continue again this week for the most part.  The worrying part is that Notre Dame will look to attack Michigan deep with better athletes than Central had, and if Jarrod Wilson gets the start again he is going to have to be ready for a much stiffer challenge.

- Sacks and Stuff(s): A big thing that was missing from the defense last year was negative plays.  With Jake Ryan not available, that becomes an even more dire situation.  Michigan showed an ability to get into the backfield last week with Ryan's replacements at SAM, but the pass rush will need to beat a better line than it saw last week.  Getting in Rees's face is the best way to force the kinds of throws that have swung games in Michigan's favor in the past.

- Gardner's time:  To be plainly honest, if Michigan is going to win this game against this very good defense, it is going to have to be the same way that Michigan won in the recent past — behind a strong effort from the quarterback.  Michigan should be able to get more from its running game and the defense looks capable of keeping this one manageable, but Michigan needs Devin Gardner to put his stamp on this game early and often.

- Nixing Nix and Co.: Notre Dame's defensive line is going to create a lot of problems for Michigan's young interior offensive line.  How well Miller, Glasgow, and Kalis can adapt on the fly and keep executing the gameplan will influence just how well Michigan can run the ball, which will have a big effect on how much Al Borges can set up his full offense.

Alternate Programming: Most of the Big Ten action is going to be blowouts, so your best bet early is to watch Da U take on Florida at noon with an eye on Tennessee-WKU in case that gets interesting.  Once the afternoon slate of games starts you can watch just enough of Oregon bloodying Virginia's lifeless corpse to make it to UGA-South Carolina at 4:30.  The Syracuse-Northwestern game at 6pm should be enough to get you through until the main event.  If you're still in the mood for football after Michigan and Notre Dame finish up, the USC-Washington State game should be entertaining.

Inanimate Object Threat Level: 10+.  Last week I bought a new TV.  I went to bed on Friday thinking about it and woke up Saturday with a hardened resolve to pull the trigger.  I got a 43-inch plasma.  It is beautiful.  I haven't ever owned my own flat-screen before (having roommates helps) and I am really, really excited to have this TV for football this year.

That being said, I almost don't want to watch the game on that TV for fear that I lose my mind and wake up a half hour later to it smashed in a corner and my fists bloodied.  Yeah, hide yo' kids, hide yo' wife, hide the remote, this one is going to be intense.

Final Thoughts: Last year I had Michigan winning 31-28.  Both teams combined couldn't even muster 20 points.

I don't think you can necessarily blame me.  The three prior games had been so otherworldly that it lulled me into this false sense of security.  Notre Dame-Michigan was just one of those games that had to end on some last minute heave into the endzone or a harried final minute drive down the field.  Two heavy weights trading hay-makers as time winds down until the final bell.

Of course, real life is nothing like that.  Most exciting games that go down to the wire will end with one team kneeling for the final minute of regulation.  That Michigan-Notre Dame was actually able to, for three consecutive years, say, "so you thought that was cool, wait until you see this," is a gift beyond anything we could ask for as football fans.  And Michigan won.  Three years in a row.  Three of the most exciting, nail-biting, heart-attack-inducing games of my lifetime.

No wonder then that last years game was less of a football game and more an assault on the idea of football as a spectator sport.  I looked over the stats and was shocked that in a game that ended 13-6 in which neither team went over 300 yards that there were only five punts.  It was a knock-down, drag-out, horrific display of quality football.  Two superior defenses kicking the crap out of their over matched counter parts.  It was everything that the previous games weren't, and there was enough of it that you felt like it was a cosmic balancing act.  "You got those, now sit through this while someone up here calibrates this damn machine that spits out football game outcomes."

I did ten minutes on a Chicago sports talk radio show yesterday on the game, and I ended my bit by saying how I just knew that these two teams would take each other to the wire, and it would be one of those classic match ups.  With all the talk of the end of the series, the bulletin board material on both sides, and the upward trajectory of both teams, you expect greatness in this match up because now the stakes are even higher than they were.  And besides, it's Michigan-Notre Dame (fergodsakes).

In the last day and a half I wrote these nearly-4000 words about this game and now I'm not so sure.  Michigan will be better on offense and Notre Dame looks to be plucky itself.  The defenses are both very good with Notre Dame's still bordering on elite (which is how last year's team made it to the title game).  All the players are in place, but the sequel is rarely as good as the original, and that goes 1000 times for the fourth installment in a movie franchise.  This game has the feel of a close game without the ending.  An anti-climax waiting to happen.  Notre Dame threatens throughout but can't make a move.  The last five minutes simmer with tension about the explosion that could come but never does.  The Wolverines win another one Under The Lights, and your lasting image of this game isn't a hail mary, but Devin Gardner sitting on the edge of the student section, arms outstretched, grinning like only one person could have taught him how.

Michigan 24 - Notre Dame 17

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