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Behind Enemy Lines Q&A with One Foot Down

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Does Notre Dame have the horses to beat Michigan?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 12 USC at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Notre Dame fighting Irish are coming to Ann Arbor to take on the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday night.

The rivalry was renewed last season when Michigan lost 24-17 in South Bend, and now the Wolverines will be looking to win on their home field and even up the series at 1-1 during the Harbaugh era.

How is Notre Dame looking this season? To find out we spoke with Patrick Sullivan from SB Nation’s One Foot Down for some intel.

Behind Enemy Lines Q&A

Q: The Fighting Irish are 5-1 on the season. Although ND didn’t have a loss in the regular season in 2018, are they a better team this season?

I think the 2018 team was better overall just due to having a stronger defense and some more playmakers on offense, but the 2019 team is certainly no slouch when compared to the Irish’s first-ever College Football Playoff team.

I’ll start by saying this 2019 team has already exceeded all my expectations from the preseason, and even my expectations following the first game or two, when the defense looked less-than-impressive against the run and Ian Book hadn’t really shown any progress from 2018 (and perhaps some regression, instead).

But comparing last year’s squad to this one, the defense in 2018 was definitely better. As impressive as first-time starters at linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White have been, seniors Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney were even better and more reliable last year. For as well as DTs Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kurt Hinish, and Jayson Ademilola have come along as this season has progressed, having 1st Round NFL Draft Pick Jerry Tillery up front was much more preferable. And although Shaun Crawford and TaRiq Bracy have played well at corner opposite Troy Pride Jr., having All-American Julian Love locking people down was obviously much more of a game-changer (just ask Clemson about how much better things got when Love went out with an injury in the second quarter of the Cotton Bowl).

Just look at 2018 vs. 2019 statistically and it’s clear the defense was stronger last year:

2018 D: 331.5 total ypg allowed, 3.7 ypc allowed, 133.5 rushing ypg allowed, 5.4 ypa allowed, 198 passing ypg allowed, passer rating of 100.8 allowed, defensive SP+ rating of 14.5 and ranked 10th

2019 D: 346.2 total ypg allowed, 3.9 ypc allowed, 151.0 rushing ypg allowed, 6.2 ypa allowed, 195.2 passing ypg allowed, passer rating of 113.8 allowed, defensive SP+ rating of 21.2 and ranked 35th

Looking at the offenses of this year and last year, though, I was actually surprised to see that, statistically, 2019 has been a bit better:

2018 O: 440.1 total ypg, 31.4 ppg, 257.5 pass ypg, 182.6 rush ypg, offensive SP+ rating of 34.6 and ranked 33rd

2019 O: 450.5 total ypg, 39.2 ppg, 262 pass ypg, 188.5 rush ypg, offensive SP+ rating of 37.8 and ranked 13th

With that said, I still think I would take the 2018 offense over 2019, partially because I think most of the raw 2019 stats above are inflated from ND playing New Mexico and Bowling Green so far this season, and partially because the 2019 offense is roughly the same as 2018, except the Irish no longer have an every-down, home-run-threat at running back (Dexter Williams) or #1 WR Miles Boykin, who’s now reeling in touchdowns from Lamar Jackson in Baltimore.

Plus, in 2018 Ian Book was still a bit of a mystery for opposing teams, and his emergence as QB1 for ND was a pleasant surprise. Now, with a full year of tape on him and no clear improvement in his weaknesses, Book looks much less impressive as defenses have somewhat figured out how to contain him.

So, overall I think 2018 was a better team with a more elite defense and more offensive playmakers, but the 2019 team has been surprisingly productive so far, and could pull a little closer to 2018’s level, at least in terms of stats, considering the soft back half of the schedule after the Michigan game is past them.

Q: Quarterback Ian Book has had a great season through six games, throwing for 1,419 yards, 14 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions, while also rushing for 188 yards and 3 scores. Could you give us a scouting report on Book?

Ian Book is a very good quarterback who’s efficient, takes care of the ball, and is a very good runner who has legitimately clinched/won some games with big plays he’s made with his legs, both on designed runs and on desperate scrambles.

With that said, he hasn’t progressed much from last season, when some of his flaws were accepted because he had to take over mid-year after being a 3-star filler QB recruit in between high 4-stars Brandon Wimbush and Phil Jurkovec. He has really struggled to get through all his progressions in the pocket, oftentimes abandoning the pocket and scrambling away at the slightest hint of pressure. That’s part of the reason he isn’t very turnover-prone, but also the reason the Irish offense has lacked big-play potential through the air and why there have been a number of plays where Book has ended up running for minimal gain or throwing the ball out of bounds.

Furthermore, he’s not good at throwing deep balls (in terms of arm power or accuracy), which really limits the vertical capabilities in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s gameplan. Whether it’s from an unwillingness of Book to toss it deep very often, or a refusal by Long to give Book the play call and the go-ahead to chuck it deep very often, the Irish seldom make use of some serious weapons they could be sending on longer routes -- Chase Claypool, Cole Kmet, Tommy Tremble, Michael Young, and Braden Lenzy are all guys who could do some damage with the opportunity to stretch out the defense.

So, the key for Michigan is definitely for Don Brown’s defense to flush Book out of the pocket and make him uncomfortable. That’s either where he will make a mistake or two and throw an interception, or at least where he will be forced to abandon his progressions and give the Irish a likely lesser result from that play than if he were to stand in, find the open receiver, and deliver.

Q: Running back Tony Jones’ production has been crazy, rushing for 557 on just 80 carries (7.0 yards per carry). How good is Jones? And is his production also a reflection of how the ND offensive line has performed?

I love Tony Jones Jr. with all my heart, and he is a very good running back with excellent vision and cutting ability, plenty of power, quick feet, and good hands catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s struggled with injuries and having more talented guys above him on the depth chart over his career, so it’s been really nice to see him grab the reins and take control of this running game with Jafar Armstrong injured.

With all that said, let’s pump the brakes a bit and understand his production to-date, which has been a pleasant surprise and still impressive when analyzed, but is a little less significant when you look at it from an opponent-level view.

Notre Dame has played 6 games so far this season, against the following defenses:

  • Georgia Bulldogs: 5th in rushing yards allowed per game, 15th in yards per carry allowed, 5th-ranked defense in SP+
  • Virginia Cavaliers 14th in rushing yards allowed per game, 9th in yards per carry allowed, 14th-ranked defense in SP+
  • New Mexico Lobos: 56th in rushing yards allowed per game, 51st in yards per carry allowed, 122nd-ranked defense in SP+
  • USC Trojans: 96th in rushing yards allowed per game, 98th in yards per carry allowed, 44th-ranked defense in SP+
  • Louisville Cardinals: 98th in rushing yards allowed per game, 105th in yards per carry allowed, 100th-ranked defense in SP+
  • Bowling Green Falcons: 117th in rushing yards allowed per game, 116th in yards per carry allowed, 199th-ranked defense in SP+

Against the best and third-best defenses he faced in terms of rushing defense (UGA and UNM), Tony Jones Jr. ran for 38 yards on 15 carries. Now, to be fair to Jones, 5 carries is not much of an opportunity for two whole games, and obviously the offensive line’s performance and the playcalling factor heavily into Tony Jones Jr.’s production there. It’s remarkably clear where the offensive line struggled and where they had very good games, looking at the stats. Plus, TJJ did have a 131-yard (7.3 yards per carry), 3-touchdown performance against the 2nd-best defense he ran against when Virginia came to South Bend, and he’s been exceptional against everyone he should have been exceptional against, including carrying the offense with 176 yards on 7 yards per carry against USC.

Still, I just wanted to note that Jones Jr.’s stats are a little inflated due to the competition he’s faced, he isn’t a home run threat with that extra gear like Dexter Williams was for ND last year, and if Michigan is able to get a push up front on the Irish offensive line, his production will be limited and Chip Long/Brian Kelly will also likely go away from calling lots of runs and focus on quick passes and screens on early downs, as they are prone to doing.

Overall, Tony Jones Jr. is a very talented, savvy, veteran back who should certainly inspire some fear in the Michigan defense, but he also has some limitations and isn’t quite as ridiculously great as his numbers to-date make him out to be.

Q: Notre Dame has five receiving targets with over 130 yards, with that said which players are the most talented at receiver and tight end?

WR Chase Claypool and TE Cole Kmet are the two big names to know in terms of Irish receivers, as both will likely be in the NFL next year using their huge size, freaky athleticism, and reliable hands to continue to be match-up nightmares for any unlucky DBs or LBs trying to match up with them.

Claypool is a 6’4” receiver who runs like a deer, having drawn very warranted comparisons to Notre Dame great Michael Floyd in the off-season. He’s been the best receiver on the team so far (27 reception, 394 yards, 4 TD), physically dominating any DBs who try to cover him and always being Book’s go-to target on 3rd downs.

Kmet is even more elite at his position than Claypool, having missed the first two games of the year recovering from a broken collarbone he suffered during summer camp. Kmet returned from the injury against Georgia’s top-10 defense and didn’t look at all rusty, collecting 9 receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown. Season-to-date, he’s now got 21 catches for 265 yards and 3 touchdowns and looks more and more like a junior tight end who has no chance of sticking around for his senior season (although there has been talk he wants to stay at ND and play a season of baseball with his brother -- Kmet is also a pitcher for the Irish).

After those two, I’d say the rest of the Irish receivers are solid contributors who have been known to occasionally come up big -- think Chris Finke’s TD catch against Michigan last year -- but who are all, for the most part, secondary options in the passing game. Finke is shifty and generally reliable, but not physically overbearing for UM DBs to cover, Braden Lenzy is a super-speedster but very young and still mostly unproven as a receiver, and Javon McKinley is a senior with all the right physical tools, but there’s a reason he hasn’t really emerged as a significant consistent threat.

TE Tommy Tremble is actually probably the next receiver I’d argue as dangerous and as a guy for Michigan to worry about, as he’s a sort of tweener who has tight end size but very good speed up the seam, and could come up with one or two huge catches if the Wolverines don’t account for him.

Overall, though, if UM can contain Claypool and Kmet (a tall order, for sure), it will really spell trouble for Ian Book and the Notre Dame passing game.

Q: Who are Notre Dame’s best players on defense and what type of scheme should we expect?

Defensive coordinator Clark Lea runs a 4-3 defense that usually tries to bring heat off the edge with some very talented edge rushers (Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem) and occasionally sending linebackers or the occasional DB as an extra rusher (Alohi Gilman is always a fun option) , as he typically trusts his veteran DBs to take care of business on their end long enough for the pressure to wreak havoc in the pocket for the quarterback.

Two weeks ago against USC, however, the Irish did a lot of 7-guys-dropping-back to defend against the high-octane Trojans passing attack, typically rushing just 4 to focus on not giving up big plays to USC’s stud receivers. This week, although Michigan also has some big-play guys like Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones who will be threats deep, I think Lea will bring more pressure to try to fluster Shea Patterson and create turnovers, as he’s shown a propensity for turning the ball over early this season.

Okwara and Kareem are the two guys Michigan needs to worry about, as the Wolverines tackles should have plenty of trouble dealing with those two -- as well as very talented and senior defensive end reserves Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Jamir Jones -- on passing downs.

At linebacker, the name to know is Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a first-year starter at the Rover position who absolutely flies to the ball and is a very sure tackler. And then on the back end, Gilman and Jalen Elliott are two senior safeties who know what they’re doing and rarely let receivers behind them -- if UM players can get past them for big plays a few times, the Wolverines will be in great position to win this game.

One final name to remember -- true frosh safety Kyle Hamilton, who has already exceeded his 5-star recruiting profile expectations and plays A LOT despite the veteran talent in ND’s 2019 secondary. You WILL see him make a few plays on Saturday, so be prepared.

Q: What is the Fighting Irish’s biggest strength and weakness?

Biggest Strength: Clark Lea and his defense -- specifically their ability to create turnovers (1st in the country in turnover margin, tied for 13th in turnovers gained), their ability to bend but not break, and how they can just about always be relied upon to get a stop when needed

Biggest Weakness: Any sort of vertical passing game, making their offense very not-explosive and very limited in terms of how much the defense can cheat up against the run and short passing game

Q: What are your thoughts on Michigan? How would you go about attacking them on both sides of the ball?

I have not been impressed much by Michigan to-date, considering they needed overtime to beat Army, got absolutely eviscerated by Wisconsin, and got blown out early on by Penn State. With that said, the comeback against the Nittany Lions was certainly a nice improvement, and even though a 10-3 win over Iowa isn’t something that will ever blow me away, holding a decent team to 3 points is always an impressive feat.

So, I’m cautiously optimistic that the Irish are better than Michigan and should win somewhat comfortably in the end, but also know Brian Kelly has never won in the Big House (ND hasn’t won there since 2005) and Notre Dame always find a way to tear my heart out when I am very confident in them, so who knows what will actually happen?

In terms of attacking Michigan, let’s start with what I would do on defense, and please remember that I stopped playing football after freshman year of high school, so I am likely very bad at strategizing to shut down top-25 FBS football teams. I’d definitely use the pass rush talent I mentioned above, along with athletes like Owusu-Koramoah and Gilman and Hamilton on blitzes, to put constant pressure on Shea Patterson. I want to hit him early and often and force him to rush throws and take hits from his blind side in the hopes that some fumbles or interceptions are generated. It might lead to a big play or two when Patterson is able to evade the rush and throw downfield, but if overall it can lead to some turnovers that alter momentum and flip the field for Ian Book and his offense -- especially considering Michigan has a very good defense -- I like my chances.

On offense, I’d definitely try to establish some semblance of a running game early and often, even if it isn’t super efficient in the first half. I need Michigan to respect the run to loosen up the secondary a bit for Ian Book to find Claypool and Kmet to move the chains. Furthermore, establishing the run will mean that I could potentially have my offensive line wearing down the UM defensive front in the second half, which is when the Irish, like most teams, are typically most successful. Furthermore, I’d be stressing that the Irish offense take care of the ball, as the Wolverines will certainly bring some heat and challenge the Irish to beat them over the top. So, I’d try to get my quicker receivers out into space vacated by blitzing defenders for quick dump passes (Lenzy, Young, Finke), and hope I can call a couple well-timed deeper throws that Claypool, Kmet, and Tremble can go up and get over those physical UM DBs to pick up big chunks of yardage and lead to some points.

I don’t know if all of that would be enough, as Michigan has a very good defense and plenty of talent that could get loose on offense (plus they will be playing at home), but I do think the Irish are more talented and SHOULD have the advantage in this match-up.

Q: Jim Harbaugh said there’s been discussions to keep the rivalry going and to schedule more games in the future. What are your thoughts?

I definitely have mixed feelings about this that I think most people, UM and ND fans alike, would disagree with overall.

I do enjoy having another opponent on the schedule that I absolutely hate, so it’s been nice with Michigan back on the docket in 2018 and 2019 to have an opponent to despise so openly and viciously. Furthermore, the past couple meetings have made it much more fun to be an Irish fan in this series than most of the meetings prior to that that I can remember (looking at you, 2013, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2007, 2006, etc...I hate you all).

But none of the above is enough to convince me this series should be an every-year event like USC or Navy or Stanford are on the ND calendar. I do not see Michigan as Notre Dame’s rival or think having them as a “rival” on the schedule is needed. Notre Dame’s single, solitary rival is USC -- it will always be that way and that’s that. I hate USC as much as I hate Michigan, but it’s a different kind of hate. I respect the Trojans’ historical success and their willingness to play Notre Dame back when a bigoted Michigan athletic administration was black-balling the Irish from their conference (and thus forcing the Irish to play a national schedule and become the superpower they were).

My hatred for the Wolverines is different. My animosity for them comes from a more visceral, animalistic place. Despite the fact I have a number of Michigan-fan friends, for the most part I cannot stand the Wolverine fanbase, and I do NOT understand where their confidence comes from most of the time. Yeah, I’m sure every fan base has fans like that, including ND -- but in my personal experience, Michigan seems to have them in droves, and it’s odd considering Michigan really hasn’t been much more successful than the Irish this century.

So, if the Irish were to win this weekend and then never play Michigan again, I’d be just fine with it. Notre Dame definitely doesn’t need Michigan on the schedule considering the presence of USC, Stanford, a few good/decent ACC teams each year, and the occasional game against Georgia, Wisconsin, Ohio State, etc. And I think you all would definitely agree that Michigan doesn’t need Notre Dame on the schedule, considering they have their Big Ten stuff and their constant failure to beat their own biggest rival, OSU, to deal with. Let’s just have the Irish win one last one in Ann Arbor and then call it a series.

Please tear me apart in the comments, I know it’s coming.

Q: Any predictions for the game?

ND hasn’t won in Ann Arbor in 14 years, and obviously that means Brian Kelly has never walked out of there with a victory. But this Michigan team hasn’t exactly been scary this season, and the Irish have at least proven they can come to play against good opponents on the road, considering how close they were to taking down Georgia in Athens.

Because it’s in the Big House and UM has gotten a couple losses out of the way, I think Jim Harbaugh will have his team ready to play, and the crowd will be very spirited early on, meaning UM could build some momentum and even be leading at some point. But I also think this Irish team is significantly more talented than Michigan’s, and Clark Lea’s defense will mostly shut down Michigan’s pedestrian offense and Ian Book and his crew will do just enough to come away with a W.

I’m going to go with Notre Dame winning over the sliiiightly favored Wolverines 27-20 in a good, defensive-focused game.