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Tale of the Tape: 2018 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The Fighting Irish resurrected in 2017, improving by six wins. They figure to lean on their defense once again as the offense adjusts to key losses.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Tale of the Tape! The goal here is to take an upcoming opponent and review film of their games last season against teams that closely resemble Michigan.

Michigan — for those who don’t live under rocks — opens Jim Harbaugh’s fourth year at night at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish resurrected from a 4-8 debacle in 2016 to a 10-3 finish a year ago, culminating in a 21-17 Capital One Bowl victory over LSU.

If the Wolverines want to start the year with a bang, the defense has to corral a powerful run game while the offensive line handles a disruptive front seven.

The Notre Dame offense

In order to best evaluate Notre Dame trying to move the ball on Don Brown’s defense, let’s look at the Irish last year against national runner-up Georgia. The Bulldog and Wolverine defenses were almost identical in 2017.

While Georgia utilized a 3-4 alignment for most of the year, it opted for a four-man front against the Brian Kelly spread.

Michigan also deployed four linemen to deal with Ohio State’s power-run spread, and since Notre Dame ran the ball 61 percent of the time in 2017, the comparison works.

Two themes emerge in this 20-19 nail-biting Notre Dame loss. Brandon Wimbush combines sub-optimal accuracy with bad decision-making, and the offensive line has occasional problems with an elite front.

Take the first play at 0:37. Wimbush (#7) — the presumptive starter — pulls the ball on a read option. Two things go wrong here. One, he fails to read a safety bearing down on him, which forces him back towards the traffic. Two, several blockers miss their assignments, particularly Durham Smythe (#80) and Quenton Nelson (#56) on the linebacker.

A one-yard gain forces a third-and-long. The line struggles continued.

At 3:32, Nelson — the No. 6 draft pick this spring — gets overpowered by third-round pick Lorenzo Carter — almost a hundred pounds lighter — for a minimal gain.

One more example for the offensive line — at 6:39, watch Alex Bars (#71) and Mike McGlinchey (#68) allow the Georgia defenders to meet Wimbush in the backfield for a sack. Bars simply loses leverage, while McGlinchey can barely get a paw on his man — admittedly a stud in Butkus Award-winner Roquan Smith.

The point here is Nelson and McGlinchey both departed, and despite both being first-rounders in the 2018 draft they had major problems in this game. Take them away, insert their backups and watch them try to deal with Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich.

Before moving on to the Notre Dame defense, we need to talk about Brandon Wimbush more. Man, he is a scattershot passer.

Skip to 7:47. He short arms a throw to the right flat because he doesn't get his feet under him and relies only on his arm strength. He throws off his back foot again at 8:51, nearly throwing an interception on a throwback to the tight end. In short, he is combining faulty mechanics with even faultier decisions. This leads to his 49 percent completion percentage.

His success depends on his legs, and when Kelly’s offensive coordinator Chip Long sets up wide-open receivers for him. Watch him beat defenders to the corner for a touchdown.

At 1:09, you can see him execute an easy pitch-and-catch off a play action fake. Hey, even Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton sometimes got guys open for John O’Korn.

What Michigan needs to do on defense

Gary, Winovich and the rest of the front seven need to overpower the run game. We’ve seen Don Brown scheme to shut down Ohio State for long stretches the last two years, and this Notre Dame offense is no Ohio State.

Without the passing threat from Wimbush, and without some of the best linemen in the country, Notre Dame will have problems moving the ball, let alone maintaining balance.

The Notre Dame defense

Notre Dame had an odd statistical profile last year defensively, ranking only No. 27 nationally on S&P despite ranking no lower than No. 13 in any metric. Seeing as they return 10 of their 11 starters from that solid defense, this will be a much stiffer test.

One of the teams that broke them was Stanford. Since Jim Harbaugh is trying to replicate his Stanford success in Ann Arbor, it’s a pretty good comparison.

Since Michigan’s passing offense was so abysmal in 2017, Harbaugh opted for more running to compensate. The ratio seen at Stanford fits more with what he wants, and the first two years in Ann Arbor bore that out.

Roll the tape.

Early on, you see a creative wrinkle, as Bryce Love takes a toss and counters outside behind a lead block from...the tight end-sized quarterback. It’s at 0:15.

This Stanford play stems from this original design shown here.

Much like David Shaw deployed a change-up to spring Love free, Harbaugh will work with Pep Hamilton to similarly manufacture yards.

And he’ll need to, because the Irish front takes no prisoners. Watch the third-and-two attempt at 1:34.

Jonathan Bonner and Jerry Tillery occupy four Cardinal blockers, leaving outside blitzers to swarm Love for the loss. Tillery made the “best of” list for a reason.

If you manage to get past the line, you run into 6-foot-1, 238-pound middle linebacker Te’Von Coney. He’s a load, as demonstrated at 1:47.

Lastly, former defensive coordinator Mike Elko was comfortable lining up his linebackers on the perimeter. WILL backer Drue Tranquill powers through an edge block to minimize a gain on a rocket screen (2:13). First-year coordinator Clark Lea — who weirdly enough was my freshman football coach at Harvard-Westlake — will probably deploy his players the same way.

The strengths are as follows: it’s hard to run into the teeth of the front-seven and there’s too much athleticism to try an east-west approach.

Fortunately, Stanford found ways to attack them en route to 38 points.

They used their big, physical receivers and tight ends to win one-on-one matchups with smaller defensive backs. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound JJ Arcega-Whiteside boxes out senior nickel back Nick Coleman for a first down at 2:27.

As mentioned in the graphic, the top returning receivers for Michigan are even bigger, bolstered by Mackey Award candidates Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon. Throw in second-year targets Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black — both over 6-foot-2 — and the size advantage is clear.

At 3:49, Trent Irwin muscled past back-up corner Troy Pride for the first touchdown. This also shows an opportunity to pick on the reserves, as starters Shaun Crawford and Julian Love can’t be everywhere.

David Shaw also found success drawing up plays to isolate linebackers in space. At 4:28, quarterback K.J. Costello finds Coney in no man’s land and rifles a strike over his head for a first down. Two plays later (4:50), Drue Tranquill can’t stick with the Stanford tight end, and Costello converts.

If you throw downfield, and give the quarterback time — a big “if” for Michigan — there will be open receivers. After the early struggles on the ground, Notre Dame’s run defense opened up and Bryce Love crossed the 100-yard mark.

What Michigan needs to do on offense

See above paragraph. Most people expect breakouts from Gentry, McKeon and at least one between Peoples-Jones and Black, but all is for naught if the pass-blocking woes persist.

Michigan has the tools necessary to pound the rock. With Notre Dame, that doesn’t matter if they aren’t off-balance.

Final thoughts

Michigan should follow Georgia’s script if they want to win. Don Brown’s defense was close to elite last year, and with all the talent returning it could return to 2016 levels. That quality means Notre Dame should become one-dimensional barring massive improvement from Wimbush.

They have a backup with a better arm named Ian Book, who won them the Capital One Bowl, or should I credit Miles Boykin?

Definitely Boykin. Pass was way high.

Georgia’s defense gave Jake Fromm time to get his feet wet in his first start, and he ended up driving them for the win in the fourth quarter. Michigan’s defense can offer the same luxury to new starter Shea Patterson.

This is strictly a projection based on the Michigan offensive line returning back to 2016 levels of mere competence, but expect a tight 20-14 victory in South Bend.