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Preview: Notre Dame vs Michigan

I get a kick out of the reaction of people who learn that Michigan has never hosted a night game. Most I've heard say "wow that's weird" then make some disparaging remark about how behind the times Michigan is. Wait a second - when the Cubs installed lights many thought it was a sign of the apocalypse. "True" Cubs fans, a rare find indeed, still think night games open some sort of gateway to baseball hell. Why, when the Cubs play only day games, is it considered "traditional and the right way to do things" whereas Michigan is behind the times? I liked the fact that there were no lights at Michigan Stadium. I liked when they had to truck in the portables for games like 2005 Penn State. I'm embracing this night game thing for all it's worth - I think it's going to be awesome - but still, I think I prefer Saturday afternoon. Of course, if Michigan wins, this is all moot.

Michigan plays Notre Dame this weekend, who I grew up hating more than any other school but have been replaced by Ohio State (and understandably so) since Michigan has taken 4 of 5 from Notre Dame over the past 5 years. I kind of want Notre Dame to be somewhat good just so that I can hate them again. Will Brain Kelly be able to do it? The jury's still out. This week Vegas likes Notre Dame by 3.5 points, which surprises me, but there it is. You like Michigan? You like money? Here's your chance.

When Notre Dame has the Ball

As you're aware, Tommy Rees is now the starting quarterback after this happened last week:

Then-starter Dayne Crist was the recipient of the worlds scariest tongue position. I don't even know what color Kelly's face is there. Mauve? Eggplant? Purple just doesn't seem to do it justice. Either way, last week's offense for Notre Dame was a turnover filled disaster that drove the field consistently then crapped all over their shiny new drive by throwing interceptions, or fumbling, or getting called for stupid penalties. If any Notre Dame fan asks you how Michigan managed to lose to App State, just point to this game and say "that's how." Rees, for his part, did pretty well, going for 296 yards on 34 attempts. When I asked SBN blog One Foot Down about Rees, they had this to say:

Rees brings a little more consistency to the position. That doesn't mean he won't make the occasional bad decision like Crist, but he also won't throw bounce passes or badly overthrow receivers. Plus, like I said earlier, Rees just finds a way to get Floyd the ball.

That last part might be the most terrifying. Rees does tend to find Michael Floyd, who absolutely destroyed USF in the loss. Jordan White had himself a great game against Michigan last week, and much like White, Floyd is a big bodied presence. Floyd will be the best receiver we face this season. My guess is that he'll have something like 10 catches for 100+ yards this game, but as long as we don't allow him the big play he probably won't kill us. If he starts picking off 25 yard plays on the regular though, we're in trouble.

Michigan will likely put Woolfolk on Floyd primarily, although the coaches have said that they won't change what they're trying to do personnel-wise regarding Floyd. Woolfolk is pretty big for a corner, and should be able to keep Floyd in front of him. We'll try to bracket Floyd as much as possible, and take our chances with designated "other receivers" Theo Riddick and T.J. Jones.

Last week, Michigan was able to zone-blitz (something I missed until re-watching the game) with good effect, causing Carder - who is probably a little better than Rees right now - to start throwing off his back foot and eating grass. The Notre Dame offensive line is much better than Western's. If Michigan is able to get pressure with that zone blitz, which dollars to donuts is the first thing they try, then Rees will throw some questionable balls.

The run game for Notre Dame is spearheaded by Cierre Wood. Wood is good, and he's being blocked for by a massive offensive line. Wood's got a laser-sharp cut, and hits the hold hard. Michigan is going to have to hold up at the point of attack, and force Wood out of his primary hole. Brennen Beyer last week came in for some harsh picture pages on how to not defend power last week, and will likely be replaced by Jake Ryan who had himself a great game against WMU. Will this be enough to mitigate some questionable run defense? The temperature not being either a zillion degrees or torrential will help.

When Michigan has the Ball

The major question here is whether Denard will "go off" or not. Brian pointed out, in a post I can't seem to find, that Michigan's first drive against WMU is likely more indicative of what we'll see against Notre Dame, and I agree with him. That drive saw Denard-designed runs, primarily shotgun formation, and was in general just a little more aggressive. I think you'll see a more committed effort to the zone read. Notre Dame couldn't defend Navy's option to save their lives last year, and Borges is going to test them to see if they learned their lesson. If Denard's able to get on the edges, he'll have a big game.

This opens up that little "one step forward" play action pass that Denard ran so well last year, and just missed Dileo last week on it for a touchdown. I wasn't as down on Denard as some were after his game against Western - I thought he looked pretty comfortable out there - but I do think that his accuracy should improve from Western as he's able to get more into the flow of the game.

Defensively, Notre Dame is led by Manti Te'o, last seen being posterized by Denard in a picture that I will post again because it makes me happy:

And now I'm happy. Honestly though, Te'o is the real deal - he's fast, strong, and he hits. Here's ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco on the Michigan Offense:

"You need to be perfect," the Notre Dame assistant said. "Any little crease and it’s over. He’s gone. It’s not like somebody hits a crease and rattles for eight, 10 yards and you get him on the ground. This guy hits a crease and he can punch a hole in the top of the defense like that [snapping fingers]. Watching him live and really having a chance to see it, that’s the job.

There is little chance that Denard repeats his 500 yard+ performance of last year. He's not sneaking up on anybody this year. Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith had this to say about Denard:

"As a defense, we’re excited to get another crack at him because last year we obviously gave up a lot of yards to him throwing and passing," senior safety Harrison Smith said. "Going against him again is kind of a test for us and something that we’re excited about.

So they're expecting it this year. The Notre Dame defense is a confident bunch, having held their last 4 opponents to under 10 points. The bottom line here is that the Notre Dame defense is improved, but probably not enough to expect to hold Michigan to under 10 points. Against USF, they had real trouble defending the screen. In the run game, Notre Dame will outsize Molk at Nose Tackle with Cwynar and Nix. Notre Dame runs a 3-4, and being able to smoke the nose tackle is paramount in the rushing attack.

Special Teams

Special teams, somehow, remains a disaster. Wile is servicable as punter, but his kickoffs failed to reach the endzone, and Michigan players were quite literally tripping over each other in kick return coverage, regularly allowing WMU out to near the 40 yard line. This defense is not good enough to be put in that situation. Woolfolk's return to special team duties could help, but I have trouble believing that one player will make so much a difference as to start pinning Notre Dame deep in their own territory.

Alternatively, we didn't drop the ball once, which is a win. We have yet to embark on the great Field Goal Adventure of 2011, so we'll just have to see, man.

Notre Dame, alternatively, averaged 34 yards per punt and missed a FG of their own. Is this actually a push? Probably not. This remains Michigan Special Teams, which requires a haz-mat suit to get within miles of.

Final Prediction

The Notre Dame offense, despite throwing Turnover-Fest-2011 last week, scares me a bit. Rees is going to find Floyd come hell or high water, which might be a mistake in other circumstances, but Floyd's good enough to bail him out: remember Braylon for Freshman Chad Henne? I also think that Woods is going to get his on the ground.

So that means we need to score points. I just don't know enough about this offense to see if they're capable of that. Notre Dame wins 24-21. Prove me wrong, Michigan.

Key Matchups to Watch

Denard vs. Ability to play-action with his legs: Denard's ability to run will set up that "two steps forward, whoops it's a pass!" play that is so devastating. We'll need this play during this game, and Denard's going to have to be accurate enough to hit it. He missed last week for 6 - let's hope he doesn't miss this week.

Molk/Barnum/Guards in general vs. ND Nose Tackles: BLOW THEM AWAY and we'll be able to run the ball. If the nose is holding up at the point of attack, we're in trouble.

Woolfolk vs. Floyd: We can't allow Floyd the big play. He's going to get his yards; as long as they're in 6-7 yard chunks instead of 25-75 yard bombs we might be OK.

Tommy Rees vs. The Yips: If we're able to pressure Rees into just throwing it up for grabs in Floyd's general direction, he'll give us the ball back.

Gametime Drink of Choice

I'm letting my wife pick this one. She has so far suggested Bailey's Irish Cream. Not. Helpful. She's just stated that she's a "beer person" before going back to looking at paint swatches. Ok, here's to beer. This summer, we were able to visit the Rogue Brewery out in Oregon. I had this:

It was good. So grab you a beer that you wouldn't normally try tonight, crack it open and get drinking. It's a night game! Enjoy it!

Alternate Programming

TWC is running an "It Could Happen" marathon, including titles like "Tornado in DC," "Mount Rainier Eruption," and "Tampa Hurricane." They should run one called "Notre Dame beats Michigan" and focus it on the Beauford household.

Inanimate Object Threat Level

Obligitory Threat Level Red. Night game == Drinkin' == Ragin'. Hide Yo Remotes.

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