Each week we scout Michigan’s opponent. We’ll start with Notre Dame’s loss to USF, the change at quarterback, offensive and defensive storylines and a look back to last year, and wrap it up with some predictions.
“As a defense, I think we’re excited about getting another crack at him.”- ND safety Harrison Smith about Denard Robinson.
Series: Michigan leads 22-15-1
Last Meeting: Michigan 28-24 in South Bend
Last Week: Michigan over Western MI 34-10; Notre Dame lost to South FLA 23-20
Irish to Watch:
WR Michael Floyd (Sr. #3) Most dangerous player for the Irish; Last week 12 rec. 154 yds. 2TD’s
WR Theo Riddick (Jr. #6) Talented player but inconsistent. Definite X-factor for either team depending on confidence level
RB Cierre Wood (Jr. #20) 104 yds vs. USF was a career high
LB Manti Te’O (Jr. #5) Led Irish with 133 tackles in '10 (most by Irish player since '83); Bednarik, Butkus, Lombardi and Nagurski candidate
No Longer with the Irish:
The Notre Dame defense is tired of the highlights, tired of the big plays, tired of Denard Robinson’s (Jr. #16) Heisman pose that came naturally, not orchestrated, while shedding a tackler. The offense looks exhausted this week trying to explain how they’ll recover from all the mental mistakes that caused the Irish to lose 23-20 last Saturday to the University of South Florida.
What Happened Last Week
Someone called on the WTKA post-game show to say that the Irish are “licking their chops” based on the way Michigan played on Saturday. While his call wasn’t completely without merit, I couldn’t resist telling him that based on the way Notre Dame was playing; the Irish would be “licking their wounds instead.” Most were self-inflicted.
The Irish looked like an offensive machine in the first series. Dayne Crist (Jr. #10) led the march on the first play with a short pass to Cierre Wood (Jr. #20), who took it for a career long 31 yard reception. Michael Floyd’s (Sr. #3) first catch had great YAC. Jonas Gray (Sr. #25) got a single yard his first carry, but it didn’t stop the Irish momentum until Wood got stopped short a foot from the goal line. At that point the Irish had run seven plays for 79 yards. Wood, who had carried the ball on four consecutive plays, got up woozy and was replaced by Gray to punch it in. It would be an exclamation point to opening season series…until he got stood up at the line of scrimmage and Jerrell Young ripped the football away. Kayvon Webster picked it up on the bounce and went untouched for a record breaking 96 yard score. Luck wasn’t with the Irish as the play could have been whistled dead where forward progress ended. Instead it was a true 14 point turnaround, and the comedy of errors didn’t stop there.
Wood would have a touchdown called back because of a down field holding call by Floyd. The possession ended with a Crist interception in the end zone.
The Irish had an easy 3rd and one turn into a 3rd and six after a delay of game penalty. The subsequent pass was errant forcing a punt. Speaking of punting, the Irish’s first four punts netted an average of 24 yards thanks to a shank and a long return. The Irish punt return game was also costly. Chalk up three points to South Florida when Theo Riddick (Jr. #6) fumbled a punt and the Bulls started inside the Irish red zone.
Defensively, Harrison Smith (5th Sr. #22), arguably their best defender was called with back-to-back face mask penalties on consecutive plays.
At this point if you took away the biggest mistakes, Notre Dame would likely be leading 14-3 instead of trailing 16-0. That’s not a gross assumption. Many of those mistakes led directly to points.
Tommy Rees (So. #11) would relieve Crist in the 2nd half and throw two interceptions, himself. The first one wasn’t his fault. His target, Jones, wasn’t looking as he cut across the middle of the field and the football hit him in on the helmet. It was the Irish 3rd turnover inside the 10 yard line, and although the Irish made it interesting, the damage was done on multiple fronts early in the game.
The Quarterback Change
Head Coach Brian Kelly’s announcement Tuesday that Rees would start the Michigan game over Crist. The two battled in camp and the competition was close. Though Crist won on the practice field, it’s what happens in the game is what counts.
Crist was 7-15 for 95 yards in the first half. Rees was 24-34 for 296 yards and two touchdown passes in the 2nd half. Players and coaches think Rees is smart and instinctive, has a high football I.Q., and is a cool customer.
Michigan fans may be surprised as Crist was the superior quarterback in last year’s game and backed it up with a good performance against Michigan State the following week. Crist got a raw deal; he had one big mistake, but so did the majority of the team, including Rees. Crist wasn’t the reason why the Irish had a goose egg on the scoreboard at halftime.
Kelly talked about tempo getting faster with Rees as a reason for the switch. Being down 16-0 as the clock was ticking down in the 2nd half, tends to lead to having a faster tempo, plus tempo wasn’t bad in the Irish’s first possession of the game.
But the real reason may be the intangible relationship between Rees and Floyd. The Irish and their followers know that Floyd is more productive when Rees is the quarterback. Floyd is their best player, and the Irish can’t afford Floyd to be a pedestrian to win games and go to a BCS Bowl.
“I’m guilty of that,” says Kelly when asked about the switch during the USF game. “I’m definitely guilty of trying to get the ball to Mike in so many different fashions because he’s a catalyst for us offensively, the way he catches the ball, his demeanor when he catches it. He’s certainly a catalyst for our football team. We needed somebody to build some energy and Mike was the go-to-guy in getting that energy back.”
Floyd may have acknowledged he’s more involved in the offense when Rees is at QB.
“We’re friends, and I think he knows what I’m capable of doing,” Floyd said. “And I guess the coverage that they give us is he sees it open, so he throws it. There’s nothing too big about that. What they give us is what we take.”
I’m guilty of adding commentary to the quote, but the translation seems to be Rees sees Floyd as open and passes while Crist doesn’t and moves on.
Crist is stronger, faster and can throw downfield better than Rees, but Rees may help define what team chemistry is. Take what Jordan Kovacs (Jr. #32) has become. He has high football I.Q., not as big or as a fast as a scholarship player. Kovacs has been overmatched at times very early in his career, but has increasingly made plays for the defense and had a fantastic game last week. Kovacs’s critics are being pushed to the sideline as he was named to the Lott IMPACT Player of the Week. Rees is 4-0 as a starter last season and Floyd‘s numbers go up when Rees plays. The Irish are banking on this type of chemistry with Rees and Floyd and the rest of the offense because otherwise it doesn’t make sense.
Michigan’s Defense vs. Notre Dame’s Offense
So how do you defend Floyd? First it starts with preparation. Darryl Stonum is simulating Floyd on the scout team this week and that should help. Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison, who has been the man in charge of the defense for both Michigan and Notre Dame, has a game plan.
“You’d better make sure #1 that you’re playing with great technique on him,” says Mattison. If you don’t in the backend, if you don’t play with perfect technique or great technique, you’re going to get exposed. I think the second thing is that you can’t allow the quarterback all day to throw to him. I think you have to give him a number of different coverages, so he doesn’t know all the time what he’s getting.”
Floyd isn’t their only threat. Riddick is a very quick and dangerous receiver on the other side that will challenge Michigan’s secondary. Riddick played in nine games last season. He had 26 catches and three touchdowns in combined games versus Michigan State, Stanford and Boston College. He’s also been extremely inconsistent. Riddick didn’t have his best game last Saturday. He dropped several passes. He’s one of those players where if he gets a bad break early, he doesn’t recover the rest of the game. He can be his own worst enemy.
On the ground, the Irish have been muddled with mediocre backs for years. You have to go back to Darius Walker in 2006 as the last Irish running back to be really concerned with. That changes with Wood at tailback. Wood is a former Army All-American who many recruiting services ranked him as a top three back and a top 20 player nationally. Technically a junior, Wood was the team’s leading rusher last season despite only being a starter for five games.
The Irish are showing the ability to have a solid two-dimensional offense. That’s what you need to succeed. Like a basketball player who can shoot from long range and dribble past a defender, an offense that can run and pass is difficult to stop. A defender can put a hand in his face and get burned on the dribble or he can play off and watch him shoot the lights out or you do neither and get schooled either way.
Mattison will also decide whether he will man-up receivers or play zone.
“We won’t sit back and play zone coverage until we have the ability to get a rush with a four man front and that comes from technique that comes from a lot of things,” Mattison revealed. “It is not fair to that secondary and it is not fair to that underneath coverage to let a quarterback like that that has the arm that he has to hold it.”
Since Rees isn’t the biggest downfield threat, maybe Michigan can afford to blitz more than they could with Crist. If not, the Irish will have to throw underneath to Floyd or set him up with bubble screens, something that was effective at times against USF.
Turnovers have often been a big part in this game (1987,’90,’97,’98,’2002,’04,’06,’08,’10 come to mind), but don’t count on the Irish fumbling. The Irish fumbled twice last week; however, they only fumbled in one game last season.
To win, Michigan’s defense, specifically up front, is going to have to be better next week. The Irish will be a better than the Broncos against Michigan’s blitz packages and protect better. You simply can’t blitz every down. That’s a lesson learned when Jon Tenuta was recently the D.C. for Notre Dame and they gave up the most yards in program history doing it.
Whatever the case, Mattison is anxious to show they can do more.
“Because I really, really believe in my heart we can be much, much better than this and we have to be,” says Mattison. That’s the bottom line. We have to play better defense than what we did.”
Michigan’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
The Irish defense is now being led by 2nd year coordinator Bob Diaco, an EMU position coach from 2001-03. Up front, two of the starting three return and according to Michigan OC Al Borges, they don’t need to blitz to bring pressure to the QB. This should be a fun match-up between Michigan’s offensive line which returns five of six if you count tight end Kevin Koger (Sr. #86).
Notre Dame’s linebacking corp. is a mixed bag, but they have Manti Te’O (Jr. #5) making his third Michigan start and a pair of outside backers who has the biggest challenge of catching Robinson.
“Oh yeah, there’s been a lot of work with the outside backers,” admitted Kelly. “They’re so important in trying to keep Denard Robinson in a shorter space. Not only in the run and the pass, Robinson is outstanding in getting the ball to his receivers.”
Darius Fleming (Sr. #45) returns to Ann Arbor perhaps to find his jock left behind on the field during Tate Forcier’s 4th down 31 yd touchdown run.
The defense and the secondary in particular haven’t been blessed by speed, but this year they feel they have improved in that area and are more equipped to handle better offenses like Michigan’s and contain them. Though improved, the Irish defense, have been accused of being tentative at times. If a player fears of becoming the next Flemming, he will play even more tentative knowing that one wrong move may result in a first down or six points.
By now you’ve heard all about Michigan running only 39 plays against Western Michigan. I was the first to ask Brady Hoke about it Monday and wondered whether that was enough to answer all the unresolved questions they had about their offense or were they frustrated.
“I think it's a little bit of both,” said Hoke. “I think there are some things that we didn't get to in the offense that maybe we'd like to have gotten to a little more. Yeah, it wasn't many plays. So I would say yes. We also saw some things that we wanted to get done too.”
It means the Wolverines don’t know whether some of the things they want to run will work. The other thing it means is that when they try it, the Irish may not know what’s coming.
Last Year’s Game
The two things people take away from last year’s game was Denard Robinson’s unforgettable performance. Michigan fans point to Robinson’s school record of 502 yards of total offense with 244 passing yards and a remarkable 258 rushing yards. Notre Dame fans point out that if Crist played the entire the game, the Irish would have won, but there is a lot more worth remembering.
Stephen Hopkins (So. #33) first career carry was a touchdown, while Rees first career pass was a flea-flicker that was intercepted by Jonas Mouton.
Notre Dame’s T.J. Jones’s (So. #7) 53 yard touchdown early in the 2nd half that cut Michigan’s lead to 21-14, could have been called back. A replay showed that Jones flipped the ball into the air celebrating the touchdown a good yard before actually entering the end zone. The replay official never buzzed down.
Floyd caught five balls for 66 yards but didn’t make quite the impact that you would expect. Floyd was held scoreless and it was tight end Kyle Rudolph who led the team in receptions and got what Irish fans thought would be the game winning touchdown on a 95 yard pass from Crist with 3:41 remaining. Cue the band and cue the NBC announcing hyperbole as Crist was “coming of age” as the “sun and a rainbow emerges from the clouds.” Well nobody said the pot at the end of the rainbow was filled with Maize.
Facing what was really their last possession, and with Michigan coming up empty on points in their last seven possessions, some felt it was already over. Instead Robinson dissected the defense as the Irish played soft coverage. After tightening up, the Wolverines faced a 4th and 1. Robinson initially lined up under center before going into the shotgun as everyone held their breath. Robinson needed to be shifty but just made it passed the marker.
Then with :51 seconds remaining, Michigan faced a 3rd and 5. The Wolverines needed three to tie, but Michigan had missed two field goals in the 2nd half and no one wanted to see another attempt. At that point the Wolverines were 2 of 15 on third down conversions. Roy Roundtree (Jr. #12) was well covered over the middle, but Robinson’s throw couldn’t have been more perfect while Roundtree couldn’t have been more square in preventing a deflection. Roundtree’s catch at the two yard line set up the anticipation of what everyone knew what was coming, a direct snap to Robinson for the game winning score. The Irish did have a chance to win it on the game’s final play, but just like at halftime, both Irish throws were thrown inexplicably out of the end zone.
Most Likely Wolverine to Have a Career Game: Michael Shaw
Kelly is still kicking himself for last year’s defensive game plan strategy to stop Shaw and force Robinson to keep the ball. He looked dismayed that Robinson kept running with the ball play after play and Kelly appeared offended and indignant as he preached to reporters that quarterbacks shouldn’t carry the ball as much as he did. He carried on and on. Kelly will concentrate his defense to key on Robinson’s rushing and that should set up Shaw to be freer to have his best game. Besides can Robinson really outdo 502 total yards from last year?
Most Likely Domer You’ll Remember After the Game is Over: Michael Floyd
The last time Floyd came to Michigan he put up a quite a show. He was my pick to win the Belitnikoff award as the nation’s best receiver. After his injury in the 4th quarter that resulted in him missing games, his teammate Golden Tate, won the award instead. Despite not being a factor last year in South Bend, with Rees at quarterback, expect to Floyd to make his mark, hopefully in a loss.
According to Phil Steele, the underdog has won six of the last seven, while the home team has won 9 of the last 12. ’05,’06, and ’10.
ENJOY THE GAME!