Michigan-Notre Dame Q&A with One Foot Down

Nick Laham

Notre Dame will come to town for the second edition of Under The Lights, and the Irish bring a strong defense and an offense full of young playmakers. Just what can we expect from Notre Dame? Patrick from SBN's Notre Dame blog, One Foot Down, gave me the insider scoop on the Irish this year.

You can follow the guys at One Foot Down on twitter here, and you can follow Patrick here.

The big story coming into the season for Notre Dame was the situation at quarterback, where the Irish lost last year's starter Everett Golson to an academic suspension. This once again sends the Irish back to Tommy Rees, Rees did well in the opener against Temple, passing for 346 yards and 3 touchdowns on 16/23 attempts. How do you feel about the Irish passing offense going into the game against Michigan - especially considering that Rees has a solid history passing against Michigan?

-I think we know what we're going to get from Tommy Rees this season. He showed a great downfield ability in the game against Temple that we haven't really seen from him until now. He's no Jameis Winston, but he can at least make those throws. He'll be able to check into the correct plays at the line, and is a great reader of defenses. We just hope to avoid "Tommy! No!" moments this season, which we were all too familiar with in 2011.

The main difference this season is the balance of weapons that Rees has to choose from. TJ Jones, Chris Brown, Davaris Daniels, Troy Niklas, and RBs out of the backfield like Amir Carlisle mean that he's not locking onto one receiver like he's been prone to do in the past (2011 Floyd, 2012 Eifert). Add in the freshman Corey "Catch Radius" Robinson in the red zone, and he has more weapons at his disposal to correctly pick apart a defense than probably any Notre Dame QB in recent memory. He'll find the open man, and that open man is going to be a great athlete who will make the catch and do some damage after he heads upfield.

Notre Dame's top two running backs from last year are gone. In the opener a handful of running backs split carries and got Notre Dame to 5.4 yards/carry, although not one seemed to separate himself from the pack. How do you expect Notre Dame to do running the ball against a Michigan defense that has been strong against the run thus far under Greg Mattison?

Most Irish fans look at the RB rotation against Temple as a quasi-preseason game where the staff was trying to solidify their own depth chart. We expect George Atkinson III to get the lion's share of the carries, but there are concerns there regarding his pad level and ability to get away from a speedster/finesse running style. After Atkinson, both Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel will get work - Carlisle as more of a receiving/outside threat, and McDaniel as a more inside/short yardage back. Lurking in the wings is true freshman Greg Bryant, who appears to already be the most physically impressive athlete in the ND backfield. Many fans expect him to usurp GA3 by the end of the season, but I doubt we will see much out of him in the Michigan game.

One of the strengths of ND is the offensive line, and I think this is where we'll see some success against Michigan. The left side of ND's line is amazing, and we will run behind it early and often. We've got a bit of a weak spot at RG with Christian Lombard, who moved inside from playing RT a year ago, but as a unit, the OL is better than it was last season. I think that ND's running game will do plenty well enough to keep ND in the game.

There are a few losses up front, namely Manti Te'o and Kapron Lewis-Moore, but overall Notre Dame brings back a great deal of its strong front seven from a year ago, including Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt on the line and Prince Shembo and Dan Fox at linebacker. Can the Irish maintain the level of run defense from last year that saw the unit rank 11th in yards allowed with 105 per game? Everyone knows Brian Kelly has brought in talent to South Bend, but is it still on campus and ready to step up?

DE Sheldon Day steps in for Kapron Lewis-Moore, and returning seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese are helping fill in Te'o's shoes, along with Jarrett Grace. This front seven is comparable to what it was last year, and even if it is a small level below, the secondary's improvement should allow for some extra help to the front seven should it be needed.

The biggest problem for Michigan's running game is the fact that the pro-style I-formation running attack is precisely what ND's front seven is built to stop. What ND fans noticed in the Temple game that was missing was a sideline-to-sideline presence that Te'o brought. This mostly reared its head in passing situations, which raised some concerns that our MLBs are a little too big to defend space effectively. Against a spread team this may cause some issues defending the run, but is much less of a problem against an attack like Michigan's. One of the bigger losses that is going less publicized than Te'o is the loss of SS Zeke Motta, who was essential to a lot of run fits in Diaco's 3-4 system. If Michigan is able to take a page from Alabama, getting their RBs one-on-one with Matthias Farley or Austin Collinsworth/Elijah Shumate, and ND's safeties aren't up to make the tackles, it could be a long day for the Irish. Then again, Fitz Toussaint isn't quite Eddie Lacy (Green looks out of that mold, though).

There were a lot of flashing red sirens surrounding the Irish secondary going into 2012, but that unit ended up one of the better performing secondaries in the nation. With almost everyone back, how do you think Notre Dame will hold up against Devin Gardner - more of a passer than Denard Robinson ever was - and a Michigan offense that will look to go deep with regularity?

I'm certainly more worried about Gardner's arm than I ever was about Robinson's. That being said, I'm not sure Michigan has the weapons on the outside to adequately test the Irish secondary. I expect ND's secondary to bracket Gallon, and still be able to handle the other receivers. I am worried about Funchess running rampant over our MLBs, especially with the play action that Borges loves to call. Freshman Jaylon Smith may be tasked with covering Funchess on occasion, and I think he may be the only player on our team that will be able to match up with him physically.

The more pertinent battle regarding Michigan's passing game to me is ND's defensive line vs. Devin Gardner's scrambling. If we are able to keep him in the pocket and get some pressure on him to make him throw quickly, I give the advantage firmly to the Irish. I've seen a lot of Gardner having happy feet, and some errant throws because of it. Should he be able to escape the pocket and extend plays, there's only so much a secondary can do, and I'd expect him to start gashing us on the ground and hitting his receivers sandlot-style.

Michigan and Notre Dame have played some ridiculously close games over the past few years, and both teams look to be strong again this year. If you had to guess, will this be a close shoot-out, a close defensive slugfest, or will one team finally make a strong statement (and which one will do so)?

There's a poster on OFD who was in the armed forces who always says "you prepare for the most likely and the worst case." I've been going into games for a while with these ideas in my head, and more often than not, they give a pretty good picture of what will go down.

Most likely scenario: If there's such a thing as a high-scoring defensive slugfest, I think this will be it. I believe ND's offense is going to be able to put points on the board vs. Michigan's defense, with the limitations of Michigan's secondary, and the WR corps that has arisen in South Bend. I think Michigan will have a much tougher time on offense, but Gardner will escape the pocket enough to make some momentum changing plays with his feet. The final score will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 24-21. Complete toss up as to who wins (obviously I think ND has the edge, but rational me knows it's a toss up).

Worst case for ND: Devin Gardner turns into a better-throwing version of Denard Robinson. He's able to get out of the pocket to extend plays and make downfield throws at will. He looks like Vince Young lite, and ND's defensive line is simply chasing him all game long. Michigan's running game is getting to the second level, using the Alabama game plan of attacking our strong safety, and both Shumate and Collinsworth are not tackling well enough. This snowballs into Michigan's play action becoming extremely strong, and Gardner is throwing rainmakers for long completions with regularity. Michigan Wins 35-17

Worst case for Michigan: Notre Dame's offensive line is opening up tractor-trailer sized holes for the RBs to plow through, and end up averaging > 5 ypc. Tommy Rees makes the throws he needs to, hitting seemingly every third down back shoulder fade. Notre Dame's defense stuffs Michigan's running game without committing a safety into the box, and utilize Ohio St. type contain blitzes on passing downs to keep Gardner in the pocket and put him under a ton of pressure, causing him to heave a few ill-advised passes that ND's secondary picks off. Brian Kelly gets a bucket of KFC out late in the 4th quarter after the game is in hand. ND wins 24-7

The yearly game between Michigan and Notre Dame will soon be a thing of the past, and that has led to a bit of verbal sparring between coaches in comments to the media. First, Brady Hoke called Notre Dame 'chicken'. Now, Brian Kelly is on the record as saying UM-ND isn't a 'historic Notre Dame rivalry'. What are your thoughts on UM-ND and the end of what has been a terrific series the last few years, and throughout history? Is it an important rivalry to you?

It is an important rivalry to me. On my personal rivalry list, Michigan is only second to USC. I pure, straight, hate you (but dammit I respect you). The historical reasons and background to why Michigan and Notre Dame have a rivalry are amazing. That being said, it's not one of the games on ND's schedule that I can point to and say "we have to play this game every year". Do I want to play every year? Absolutely. Especially in the coming years when both teams are going to be highly ranked, with great recruits, and rebuilt programs. But from ND's point of view, it isn't one of those "every year, no matter what" games. Those games are USC, Navy, Stanford, and to a lesser extent Purdue.
I understand why both coaches said what they said, but I wouldn't have said either statement myself. It's a rivalry that had an easy-out clause that worked out well for our ACC scheduling arrangement. I fully expect ND-Michigan to get back on the schedule in the future when ND can make it work. Otherwise how can our respective fanbases effectively hate each other?!

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