Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We'll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we'll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.
Notre Dame at Michigan ‘10
Series: Michigan leads 21-15-1
Irish to Watch:
WR Michael Floyd (Jr. #3) 131 yds, 1 TD vs. Michigan last year
RB Armando Allen (Sr. #5) 93 yds, 1 TD last week
TE Kyle Rudolph (Jr. # 9) 5 catches 43 yds last week; Mackie Award Semi-Finalist in ‘09
Denard Robinson's (So. #16), performance against UCONN was one that will be remembered for years to come. Most won't be able to recall the numbers, like a Michigan record 197 rushing yards by a QB or a near record of 19-22 passing, but they will remember it as one of the most dominating performances by a single Michigan player.
While the Michigan football team was making many people re-evaluate people's pre-season prognostications made just hours before, some pleasant surprises were being revealed behind the curtain at Notre Dame Stadium, where the Irish beat Purdue 23-12.
New quarterback Dayne Crist performed above expectations. A childhood friend of former QB Jimmy Clausen, Crist tore his ACL Halloween night in mop-up duty against Wash State last season. Ironically, it was the last game the Irish won in '09. Crist wasn't exactly 100% healthy in the spring, but he needed to practice anyway. This August there were whispers that Crist wasn't adapting to new coach Brian Kelly's offense very well. Concerns of Crist missing his receivers by yards, not inches, were starting to spread faster than Kelly's desired tempo between plays.
Crist responded well in Saturday's opener. He didn't have the phenomenal game that Robinson had, but what he didn't do is stick out like Leprechaun frantically looking for his pot o'gold.
Crist was 19-26 (73%) for 205 yards and a touchdown and no picks for an efficiency rating of 152. Not Heisman numbers for sure, not even Clausen numbers from last season, but he more than exceeded the expectations from those that whispered or gossiped that the Irish offense was in big trouble. Crist made some mistakes, but not major ones, and those that witnessed the game thought he showed poise and leadership. Bottom line: Crist did something the last four Irish quarterbacks making their debut couldn't do…win.
Another surprise was Notre Dame's ability to rush the football. The Irish ground game has been a disappointment ever since Charlie Weiss came to South Bend in 2005. There was talent in the backfield and on the line, but it never translated. Despite returning only two linemen, the Irish rushed for 153 yards. That's not much when you compare that number with what Robinson did for Michigan, but the tandem of Armando Allen and Cierre Wood (RsFr #20) combined for 151 yards and just over 6 ypc.
The next surprise was the Irish played some pretty decent defense against Purdue, who was expected to generate some points and yards. The Boilermakers weren't spectacular at either, generating just 10 pts and 322 yards on offense.
Notre Dame, with nine returning starters, had four sacks while the secondary kept every play but one in front of them, a 23 yd touchdown run by Robert Marve. The Irish created two interceptions and Purdue's longest pass completion went 16 yards. The Irish cornerbacks did very well in run support as well. CB Darrin Walls (Sr. #2) had a pick and seven tackles. CB Gary Gray (Sr. #4) had nine tackles and a PBU, while DE Ethan Johnson (Jr. #90) had two sacks. Marve likes leaving the pocket and throws on the run pretty efficiently, but he Irish did a pretty good job containing those potential big plays.
A year ago this defense gave up yards and points like few others. The blitzing on nearly every play under former DC Jon Tenuta (now LB coach at NC State), has been replaced by a no-nonsense vision of Bob Diaco, a former EMU position coach from 2001-03. Tenuta's high risk-high reward style of play calling resulted in the Irish giving up nearly 400 yards of defense each game, a program's worst. Last week, Diaco's defense never let things get out of hand, and played strong in the end. Once Purdue had possession with a theoretical chance to tie early in the fourth quarter, the Irish wouldn't let the Boilermakers cross midfield.
Match-ups and Strategy
D. Robinson vs. Notre Dame D.
Realistically Denard shouldn't be able to repeat last week's performance. You just don't tally 383 yards of total offense every week. UCONN can say they weren't fully prepared to play against Denard as much as we, as fans, weren't prepared to witness it. This week Denard will be making his first start on the road in a very hostile environment. He will have the Irish's full attention. The question is will it matter?
Notre Dame isn't exactly the fastest team in college football. Last year, they allowed QB Tate Forcier (So. #5) to rush for 70 yards including that 31 yard rushing TD in which Darius Flemming (Jr. #45) still has not claimed his jock strap that he left on the Michigan field turf. Though improved, the Irish defense has been accused of being tentative at times. If a player fears becoming the next Flemming, he will play even more tentative, knowing that one wrong move may result in a first down or six points.
The Irish have moved from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. This will allow more defenders to roam the middle tier of the defense and reduce the spaces spread teams desire to have. Six of the front seven are returning starters including Sophomore Manti Te'O (#5), who is expected to be an All-American but who whiffed on some tackles last week.
Expect the Irish to put a helmet or a pounding or a twist on Denard's limbs whenever he hangs on to the ball. They don't need to knock him out of the game, just slow him down a little bit, make him sore. Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez admits that carrying the ball 29 times is a bit much for his QB's, so Michael Shaw (Jr. #20) and Vincent Smith (So. #2) will need to improve. The average yard per carry varies greatly between Denard and the two running backs.
It appeared, against Purdue, that the Irish were fast enough to stop a traditional running game, but a big thanks goes out to Head Coach Danny Hope for experimenting with some zone-read option in the 2nd quarter. Rob Henry entered the ball game at QB and Purdue appeared to run the Michigan offense for a few plays. The good news for the Wolverines is that it was the best the Boilermakers had to offer in the 1st half. Dan Dierking rushed for 14 on the first play. On the next play Henry kept it for nine more. Only after a mishandled snap that resulted in a three yard gain at the Irish 15, Hope decided to put Marve back in. The Boilermakers would settle for a field goal. A steady dose of Henry could have made it six.
As the season rolls on however, Denard will have to rely more on his teammates. If he doesn't, then we'll continue to see him take matters into his own hands on every critical 3rd down. It will eventually become predictable in key situations and that will lead to decreased production and potential injury.
Michigan's Secondary vs. Notre Dame's Passing Game
While the Irish fret about containing Robinson, the Wolverines need to come up with an effective plan to stop WR Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Floyd had 131 yards on seven catches last year at Michigan Stadium.
Departed junior Golden Tate may have won the Biletnikoff Award last season, but Tate wasn't really the best receiver on his own team. If Floyd wouldn't have messed up his knee late in the Michigan game and consequently sat out for five additional games, he would have had the hardware.
JT Floyd (So. #12) will be primarily responsible in covering M. Floyd, but James Rogers (Sr. #18) will be forced to cover as well. I'd be surprised if Michigan played a lot of single coverage against the playmaker, but regardless of how Michigan matches-up, this will be one of many tests facing the Wolverine secondary this season.
How Crist will throw still remains a mystery. South Bend looked free of the windy conditions that dominated in Ann Arbor, but Crist only threw the ball down field twice in anything reminiscent of Claussen's aerial attack on the Michigan secondary last year. Purdue's scheme may have more to do with that than Kelly's faith in Crist.
Purdue played a 4-2-5 or a Nickel package to help contain Floyd. Floyd was limited to five catches and 82 yards, but as a result of the scheme with sometimes just six in the box, it ended up helping the Irish running game. It also allowed Rudolph to get open on underneath as he went across the field.
Freshman TJ Jones (#7) may be a player to watch for the Irish. Jones had three catches for 41 yards and started over Duval Kumara (Sr. #18), who has made 19 career starts.
Shaq Evans, who was a promising freshman, asked and was granted his transfer last week. Evans is known internally as the guy who ran the wrong route on the critical 3rd down that forced the Irish to punt late against the Wolverines giving Michigan the chance it needed to win the game.
It's going to be essential for Michigan's D-Line to put pressure on Crist. The inexperienced secondary must be able to hang on to their man until the defensive front gets there. If this team was QB'ed by Claussen, I think it would be game, set and match, but Crist isn't Claussen and this offense returns only five starters.
Kelley has a reputation for developing QB's as did Charlie Weiss. The question is can Kelley turn Crist into a decent QB by game #2? Michigan is in good position in that they play this game early before Kelley can transform Crist into a dangerous QB.
Michigan's biggest problem in South Bend over the last two decades has been turnovers, with many of them self-inflicted. In Michigan's last three losses in South Bend, the Wolverines lost nine fumbles. They need to hang onto the ball and change the trend. The great majority of the U-M skill position players haven't played in South Bend, and that is a concern.
Robert Marve's 23 yd touchdown run early in the fourth quarter against the Irish in 2010 came on a 4th and 1 zone-read option with the defense playing cover zero.
Tate Forcier's 31 yd touchdown run early in the fourth quarter against the Irish in 2009 came on a 4th and 3 zone-read option with the defense playing cover zero.
Both the Michigan and Notre Dame Offense combined for just one penalty last week, a personal foul from the Wolverines very early in the game.
Brian Kelley hasn't lost a home game since 2007. It came against West Virginia, the last victory for Rich Rodriguez as a Mountaineer.
Rich Rodriguez is looking for his 2nd road win at Michigan. Remember the first?
According to Phil Steele, the underdog has won five of the last six, while the home team has won 9 of the last 11. '05 & '06. Notre Dame is a four point favorite.
For the first time since 1909, both teams play this game unranked (did they have rankings back then?). The winner of this game will be by Sunday morning.
ENJOY THE GAME!