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.
#18 Michigan (2-1) vs. #11 Notre Dame (3-0)
Notre Dame Schedule
Fighting Irish Players to Watch:
Last meeting: U-M wins 35-31 last season
What a win means for Michigan: A fourth straight win over the Irish (longest streak since 1908) and six wins in seven meetings; gives them a win as an underdog (current line is U-M +5).
What a win means for Notre Dame: Revenge for losing three straight games to the Wolverines in the final :30 seconds; makes ND 9-9-1 all-time vs. U-M in South Bend; Gives coach Brian Kelly (0-3) his first career win over Michigan.
What Notre Dame Brags About: 2nd in All-time winning percentage; 3rd in All-time wins; 11 claimed national championships; the most Heisman Trophy award winners (7); By beating MSU they think THEY’RE BACK-and this time they mean it!
For the first time since 1997, Notre Dame will be taking on Michigan after facing Michigan State. The placement of the games has generated debate as to why Notre Dame has struggled more against the Spartans than the Wolverines. ND was 3-8 against the Spartans from 1998-2008 but 5-4 over the Wolverines during that same period. Three of those Michigan wins were followed up by losses to MSU.
Wolverine fans have contended that playing Notre Dame after the Michigan game was always easier for MSU because the Irish were emotionally and physically spent after so many last minute deciding games. Spartan fans just simply said they’re a better program. One game doesn’t answer a theoretical argument and the Irish have beaten the Spartans the last two years, but a ‘what if’ question being asked since the mid 90’s will be answered for the first time.
Starting safety Jamoris Slaughter, the leader of the secondary, tore his Achilles tendon against MSU and will miss the rest of the season. Matthias Farley (Rd. Fr. #41) makes his first start after entering Notre Dame as a receiver last year.
Kapron Lewis-Moore (Sr. #89) (calf strain) should return to start at defensive end for a 33rd time.
The Last Time They Met
Notre Dame was in cruise control through three quarters leading Michigan 24-7. However, the Wolverines would score 28 pts in a game changing fourth; starting with Denard Robinson (Sr. #16) picking up a fortuitous bounce from a fumble on 3rd and goal on the quarter’s opening play. When Vincent Smith scored on a 21 yard touchdown pass with 1:12 remaining, many thought the game was over. When Irish QB Tommy Rees (Jr. #13) found a wide-open Theo Riddick (Sr. #6) with :30 seconds remaining, most everyone else thought the game was over. But as so often happens (see ’94, ‘99, ‘09-11, the Irish secondary gave Michigan a lifeline.
Robinson connected with an uncovered Jeremy Gallon (Jr. #10) for 64 yards to the Irish 16 yard line. Instead of kicking a field goal to tie, again to everyone’s surprise, Michigan went for the win. Roy Roundtree’s (Sr. #21) 1st catch of the game was a 16 yard touchdown grab in the corner of the end zone with two seconds remaining and gave Michigan the 35-31 win. It was the their third straight win over the Irish, all coming from behind to score in the game’s final :30 seconds.
The Fighting Irish shocked everyone, including their own fan base by beating, then #10 Michigan State 20-3 in East Lansing on national TV. The Irish dominated defensively holding MSU to 237 yards of total offense and just 50 yards rushing. MSU only crossed into ND territory for two snaps in the 2nd half. Aiding ND’s success was the absence of State’s starting right tackle Fou Fonoti and starting guard Jack Allen, who returned but was playing less than 100 percent.
Offensively, Notre Dame took some shots vertically to stretch out Michigan State’s defense and had a number of plays go over 20 yards including a 36 yard touchdown pass from redshirt freshman QB Everett Golson (#5) to John Goodman (Sr. #81). The Irish were 1-14 on third down, but in the 2nd half weren’t risking fate to give MSU an opportunity to get right back in the ball game.
Their Season So Far
The Irish have started 3-0 for the first time since 2002 under Ty Willingham’s rookie season. Notre Dame was dominant over Navy, resilient against Purdue, and defensively shutdown Michigan State holding the Spartans to their worst offensive output at home since losing to Central Michigan in 1991.
“It’s a big leap. It’s a signature win. There’s no question that when you go on the road against the No. 10-ranked team in the country and you beat them, it’s definitely going to build the confidence in that locker room…You need one of those wins to break it open, and this win will help in that development.”- ND Head Coach Brian Kelly.
I recently heard the only thing worse than an arrogant Michigan fan is an arrogant Notre Dame fan. I know there aren’t any arrogant Wolverine fans but based on the response to the win over Michigan State, the Irish are pretty annoying. Beating a top ten team for the first time since 2005, and on the road at night since 1983, the fan base is near delirium. Talk about “waking up the echoes?” They’re not alone. The national writers and broadcasters are too. BCS? National Title shot? Yep, it’s being talked and written about. It doesn’t seem to matter that the Irish have Michigan, Oklahoma (road), USC (road) and Stanford still on their schedule. All beatable, local and national scribes write. While some of the local writers discuss cautious optimism, focusing on the road of possibilities so early in the year means even they are caught up in it. Give the team credit; they’re downplaying the talk, while the rest of the country is popping the corks on vintage bottles of Leprechaun wine. You can allow the fans to be ecstatic for the ‘W’ because it’s been a while, but when a number of articles start writing about Holtz, Ara, and Kelly in the same sentence after beating a one-dimensional MSU team, it reminds me why many like to see them lose.
Michigan Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The Irish defense has been impressive this season but appears to be validated despite some personal objections with their win at Michigan State. Through three games, the defense has allowed 10 ppg, which is ranked 8th in the NCAA. Only two of the teams above them (Alabama and South Carolina), have played only FBS schools. ND hasn’t allowed a 1st quarter point and got stronger as the game went on against the Spartans.
The defense may be headlined by pre-season All-American Manti Te’O (Sr. #5), who had 12 tackles and turnover recovery off an errant pitch on 4th down, the strength of the defense in the entire front seven. They line-up as a 3-4 with outside linebacker Prince Shembo (Jr. #55) close to the edge. Shembo had a career best nine tackles, two for a loss including a sack as he was solid despite MSU focusing on Shembo in their run and short passing game. The D-Line is being coached by former Michigan player and coach Mike Elston, whose players had 3 ½ sacks last week.
“(I) couldn't be more happy with the progress that we have made there which Coach Elston is the lead of,” said Kelly.
It’s strength vs. strength when you look at Michigan’s run game against Notre Dame’s front seven. It’s also perceived weakness vs. perceived weakness when you analyze Michigan’s passing game vs. the Irish secondary.
Notre Dame’s defense isn’t as strong or as fast as Alabama’s, so Michigan shouldn’t be afraid to run Denard more than the two carries he had in the first half against the Tide. In hindsight, Michigan may have been wise not running Denard more. With the few scrambles Robinson showed, he twice came off the field hurt.
There’s no concern with the defensive pressure against left tackle Taylor Lewan (Jr. #77), but the same can’t be said for the other side. That’s where the pressure and penetration is most likely to come in the passing game and the Irish may be successful. Nose guard Louis Nix III (So. #9) might be able to stuff the run on the inside as Michigan figures out whether Denard keeps it or gives it.
Based on the strength of the defensive line and their ability to limit Michigan’s run game last year in Ann Arbor, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges might be wise to implement a game plan similar to Alabama. That may sound crazy on the surface, considering how unsuccessful it was, but a vertical passing game on the Irish secondary has been a recipe for success for ND opponents. Denard will make mistakes and won’t always be accurate, but Michigan will need to take shots down field to stretch the defense and give their ‘non-Denard’ running game a chance. The Wolverines can’t wait until their behind to turn Denard loose and expect to come back the way they did last year.
Michigan won’t be as one-dimensional as MSU is either. A weapon Michigan has now that they didn’t have in week #1 is freshman tight end Devin Funchess (#19). He’s tall (6’5”) and appears to have good hands. Devin Gardner (Jr. #12) is getting better with each game, and Roundtree scored his first touchdown of the season last week.
“We were never up in arms about our receiving corps,” says Borges. “And the way they’ve developed, it’s made it even more so. I think it’s become a position that could be eventually of strength .”
With a season ending injury to cornerback Lo Wood in August combined with Slaughter’s, who was the Notre Dame’s most versatile defender because of his ability to play safety and linebacker, the troubled secondary will be challenged. Slaughter’s replacement is a freshman. However, last week the Irish had four corners going in rotation and not only did they shut down MSU, it appeared that they were fresher at the end of the game. It’s quite a contrast from where it appeared the Irish lived and died with former players Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, who spun and turned so much that they were more like augers digging holes in the turn than corners.
Irish Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco known to be more conservative in his game plans is being elevated to genius level this week for playing press coverage against Michigan State’s inexperienced receivers. You have to wonder if they’ll try to push around Roundtree, Gardner and Gallon. Clearly, leaving Gallon alone underneath in deep coverage was a bad idea.
Michigan Defense vs. Notre Dame Offense
The Domers don’t have a Joe Montana, Tim Brown or a Jerome Bettis out there, but they appear to have a dual threat quarterback, who’s learning every week and a number of receivers and running backs with different skills that can be utilized depending on the situation.
Kelly has made it clear that as long as the Golson isn’t turning the ball over, he’ll continue to play. Golson has received the message and has thrown only one interception this season. When he fumbled after a sack in the 4th quarter against Purdue, he was pulled.
It’s hard to predict how Golson will do. Against Purdue he had 289 passing yards and when his receivers were covered he could take off, yet the Irish scored only 20 pts. Against the Spartans Golson passed 14-32 for 178 and the team converted just once on 14 third downs, but the Irish still scored 20 points.
“Everett Golson gets your attention because he made some plays,” said Michigan Head Coach Brady Hoke on Wednesday.
“I think he’s got a good arm, I think he mechanically is pretty good, and he’s got the ability to be elusive and run the ball.”
Golson is getting a simplified offensive package that the coaching staff intends to build as the season goes along. He won’t make too many checks on the line and will depend on the talent around him to move the chains.
A trio of runners in the backfield should help. Riddick returns to tailback after being a receiver the past couple of seasons. Naturally, he’s a threat to get the ball thrown to him in the flat. There’s no telling when he comes into the game whether he’ll run, catch or throw a block.
Cierre Wood (Jr. #20) returned last week after serving a two game suspension. Wood’s carries for first downs in the fourth quarter chewed a bunch of clock and helped ND get a two touchdown lead. Wood also rushed for 134 yards against Michigan last season and was Notre Dame’s last 1,000 yd rusher since 2006. He’ll probably get the bulk of the carries.
George Atkinson III (So. #4) is the speed back and kick returner. Atkinson had two touchdowns off returns last season and Kelly used him running misdirection to counter the Spartans aggressive pursuit to the ball. Subtract Atkinson’s 56 yard touchdown run against Navy, and he’s still averaging 6.1 ypc. You won’t see him run inside and if he just gets decent blocking, he’ll score. Fans sometimes hold their breath as he has a reputation for losing the football.
At receiver, T.J. Jones (Jr. #7) is looking to play to his potential. Jones has good weeks and bad weeks. Jones had four catches for 59 yards last week and has scored a touchdown in each Michigan game he’s played.
Tyler Eifert (Jr. #80) ended a streak of 22 games catching at least one pass, but he was coming back from a concussion and remains a dangerous target against Michigan’s linebackers.
Goodman and Robby Toma (#9) are a pair of seniors with four career touchdowns between them, yet both are contributing early on in the offense.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will do his best to rattle Golson enough to make poor decisions and if Michigan is fortunate, Golson won’t be able to check out of a no-win pre-snap decision. The concern is whether Michigan has the talent enough up front to put pressure on the Irish front wall to put Golson and company into bad decisions. Michigan’s defensive front will have to play at their best. If Golson has time he’ll be able to slice his way through a secondary that misses Blake Countess.
Turnovers margin has been a dramatic change for ND. The Irish were -8 through three games a year ago starting the season 1-2, but are a very healthy +5 this season. The defense has forced seven on their side. Michigan has thrown five interceptions, but hasn’t lost a fumble for a -3. This game has a history for numerous turnovers, and the Michigan defense, which hasn’t recorded an interception this season was +7 in 2011. It’s been a point of emphasis for Mattison over the past couple weeks.
Most likely Golden Domer you’ll remember after the game is over: Everett Golson
It’s easy to go with the quarterback, but he’s their most versatile player on offense. He has had some ups and downs like any freshman quarterback. If the Irish defense doesn’t shut down Michigan, than Golson is likely the hero or goat giving Michigan fans plenty to say about him in the future.
ENJOY THE GAME!