Notre Dame / Michigan Primer

Going to the game…a tailgate… maybe just the day with watching with friends on TV? Don't be caught off guard with what happens on the field on Saturday. Know everything about this week's opponent with the Notre Dame Primer.

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 ‘09

Series: Michigan leads 20-15-1

Last Meeting: Notre Dame 35-17 in South Bend

Last Week: Michigan over Western 31-7; Notre Dame over Nevada 35-0

Irish to Watch:

QB Jimmy Clausen (Jr. #7) 15-18 315 yds 4 TD's

WR Michael Floyd (Soph. #3) 4 rec 189 yds 3 TD's

WR Golden Tate (Jr. #23) led ND in catches, yds and TD's in'08

TE Kyle Rudolph (Soph. # 9) 1 TD last week, Mackey Watch List

CB Rashon McNeil (Sr. # 8) Best cover corner in a deep secondary

SS Kyle McCarthy (Sr. #28) led team with 110 tackles in'08

Which of the Goliath's is back? We'll know on Saturday night. The winner will be considered on their way to either stirring the echoes or conquering heroes. The loser will be considered pretenders, with all the positive momentum scrapped from the week before and the Head Coach getting strapped down to a fiery seat. It's not fair, and in the long run probably not accurate. However, that's life in the impatient here and now.

No matter where I start, it keeps coming back to me that the Irish is a year ahead of Michigan in a very thorough rebuilding period. While Michigan's started last year, Notre Dame's began in 2007.

After losing approximately 80% of their statistical offense in '06, the Irish found themselves with many youngsters and without leaders. The ineptness was staggering for the Golden Domers, who finished 3-9, that included a 38-0 shutout stamped by the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.

In '07 Freshman QB Jimmy Clausen was thrown to the "wolves" literally and figuratively as he was sacked more than anyone in the NCAA. It was also alleged that fellow Freshman Golden Tate while fast, was only capable of running a ‘fly' route.

After nearly losing to San Diego State in the Season Opener in '08, Notre Dame improved finishing 7-6 that included a win over a turnover prone Michigan team and their first Bowl Victory in 15 years.

Like the Irish in '07, the Wolverines had lost nearly 85% of their offense a season later. Those that returned with any offensive statistics didn't play initially. In Year One, the Wolverines matched the Irish with a 3-9 record in '08.

Many are projecting the Wolverines to follow in the same path as the Irish in Year Two. Regardless of the predictions, it would appear that the Irish will be one year ahead for at least a couple of more seasons.

Last week's 35-0 shutout of Nevada proved to everyone that Jimmy Clausen, and the offense in particular, were not one-game wonders in the Hawaii Bowl. In his last two games, Clausen is 37-44 for 716 yards, 9 TD passes without a single pick. Based on the past two games, he's definitely 1st team All-WAC.

Michigan punished Brady Quinn in 06 / Jonathan Daniel, Getty Photo
In '05, former QB Brady Quinn made his biggest leap as a junior, and Clausen may be doing the same leap at nearly the same time, starting a game early with the Hawaii Bowl. Clausen relishes the opportunity to exercise the demons he experienced at Michigan Stadium as a freshman in 2007.

"Yeah, I was pretty banged up after that game. It took me almost three or four, five days to recover from that game. That might have been physically the toughest game I've ever played. I'm just a totally different person than what I was against Michigan in '07."

We shall soon see. Last week, Clausen's passes were sharp and on target in the middle, on the sideline and in the end zone, in the same manor that 109,000 saw Michigan starting quarterback Tate Forcier pass to Junior Hemmingway on both TD's.Michigan Head Coach Rich Rodriguez knows that receiver's Michael Floyd and Golden Tate have both come a long way from their freshmen seasons.

Michael Floyd

"One, they can run and Floyd is a big guy that can run.  They go get the ball.  They got tremendous ball skills.  So there are a lot of times when there are jump balls and there will be guys right on them and they'll go up and make a play.  That happened against Nevada.  It happened last year.  It happened against us.  We've got to do a great job of playing the ball in the air and then we got to get our safeties involved to help a little bit." 

Defensively, the Irish recorded their first shutout since 2002 and held a once potent offense to just 2-12 on 3rd and 4th down conversions. Their strength is in the secondary where everyone returns plus one. Jr. Darrin Walls returns after taking '08 off for personal reasons. Their secondary is led by Kyle McCarthy, who led the team in tackles at Strong Safety. Coach Rodriguez was impressed with the Irish defense last week.

"I thought they tackled well in space, which is a big thing to do when you play a spread team. They got pressure on their quarterback who is a very experienced guy.  I thought it was a great performance; they got the shut out and I'm sure that they are going to play with great confidence against us."

As good as Clausen was Saturday, his yardage statistics could be a bit misleading. One of his touchdowns came off a "swing" pass that went 70 yards. It's a play that's realistically designed to get you 8-12 yards, not 70. Also, half of the near Irish record setting 88 yard TD to Floyd was YAC yards after the "under" cover corner fell down. Look it's not as if a Michigan QB hasn't benefitted from some YAC yards after miss tackles and great blocking, but passing for over 83% for 215 yards is not as worldly as it is for 315 yards.

Nevada was able to move the ball on the Irish, too. They gave up over five yards per rush and let Nevada rush for 153 yards, thus proving there's work that needs to be done in the front seven. However, the most important statistic is the score, and you have to give them credit for preserving the shutout. I say preserve because Nevada was in Notre Dame's Red Zone three times.

Michigan rushed the ball for 242 yards and demonstrated a more proficient running game than almost all of '08. When Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson sees the field, he should be able to move the chains with his feet.

Jimmy Clausen

Speaking of Robinson, let's not also forget that Michigan Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson's Syracuse Orangemen were 19 point underdogs in South Bend last season. Robinson's game plan was effective enough to get a 24-23 victory and probably has had a lot to share with Michigan in how to beat the Irish this season. Robinson may understand one of the Irish's biggest question marks more than most, their Offensive Line.

On paper, Notre Dame has been stacked with highly rated offensive lineman, but they have been unable to get their ground game going for several years. Year after year this decade, the Irish have failed to live up to the lofty expectations of this group. This year's group is made up mostly of upper classmen including four seniors. Since nearly everyone returns this year, the Irish made their changes in coaching, replacing long-time coach John Latina for new coach Frank Verducci. Senior Center Eric Olsen says they're a better line.

"There are a ton of things that we do differently now. But we've changed the way we go about blocking a lot of our schemes. But as far as technique wise and stuff Coach Verducci has taught us a lot of new things and given us more tools to work with. I think it's just a matter of guys breaking bad habits or old habits that they have."

Michigan's defensive line was up to the challenge last week against a veteran Western Michigan offense that produced over 5,300 yards of offense last season. Michigan got contributions from Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Freshman Craig Roh on sacks, but Brandon Graham was forcing Western to throw a lot earlier than they wanted to according to Rodriguez.

"Brandon had a lot of pressures.  I think he probably got frustrated because he was close a lot of times. There was three or four times when he was right there.  I thought it was pretty solid." 

"We got some pressure from blitz, but we also had some 3 man pressure, which as a coach you really like to see… and if you can get pressure with a three man you're going to have a good day." Notre Dame, Rodriguez cautions, will give Michigan's defense a different look.

"Because Notre Dame will max protect a lot.  They'll keep a tight end or a back in to protect and then release them out late.  So they're not going to give him a lot of one on one opportunities. They'll have some, but they'll max protect and then release him out late and try to give Clausen time to throw it."

It would seem otherwise subtle, but there's a change in the Defensive coaching duties. Former Wolverine, Corwin Brown has been a D.C. at ND since 2007. In ‘08 Notre Dame employed two Defensive Coordinators bringing on the very highly respected Jon Tenuta, who coached against the Irish in the Season Opener against GA Tech the previous year. Brown was still calling the plays for the Irish, but this season Tenuta is taking over the play-calling duties.

Tenuta loves to sell out on the blitz, forcing the offense to make the right reads in a stressful situation. Knowing that Michigan's offense will be run mostly or entirely by one of two Freshmen, Tenuta is salivating. Rodriguez understands what's coming.

Jon Tenuta

"This is a big week for the O-line and for the tight ends and the backs and all the blitzes that we will see," Michigan's headman said. "They like to bring it on just about every snap.  I've played against coach Tenuta's defense last year.  You can see his impact on it.  I played against it a couple of years ago when he was the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech.  I played him in the bowl game.  We know that they are going to bring a lot of pressure, a lot of blitzes from all different angles and for our O-line this is a big week in preparation and our quarterbacks."

Rodriguez was too modest to add that his team beat Tenuta's defense for 38 points in the 2006 Gator Bowl.

The old adage is "you live by the blitz and you die by the blitz" Tenuta might be wise to be selective about it. When players blitz, openings in space are created for a fast Michigan player to isolate one-on-one against a defender. It's a match-up that defines the goal of an offense running a spread that Rodriguez created, but of course Michigan will have to find that space and get it there quickly. McCarthy expects Forcier to be up to the challenge.

"One thing was that you couldn't tell that it was his first collegiate game. He really ran that offense well. You see plays where his instincts kind of took over after the play broke down."

For the Irish offensively, we've highlighted their two talented receivers, Floyd and Tate. Floyd is 6'3, so while the Irish will try to do what they can to make sure Boubacar Cissoko covers him as Cissoko is listed six inches shorter than Floyd. However, if they want to expose Michigan's lack of depth at secondary, they may trot out a 3rd receiver like Duval Kamara or Shaquelle Evans. That could force Michigan to have a 3rd corner on the field and that could be a matchup problem in favor of the Irish. By doing so, however, the Irish would lose a little of their pass protection.

It was good to see both Cissoko and Donovan Warren playing tighter coverage on Western Michigan. Fans are tired of seeing six to eight yard cushions off the line of scrimmage, but Warren was called for pass interference twice last week, due to the physical play. A few of those flags may fly Saturday, but it might be worth it if it slows the timing between Clausen and his receivers.

Don't worry about the Wolverines not scoring in the 2nd half. The Wolverines had only five possessions. They wanted to give Denard more time on the field, where he primarily ran the ball, and Rodriguez didn't execute as well with what he called the "kill the clock offense". The Irish only scored just a single TD in the 2nd half themselves, early in the third quarter.

One thing Michigan can't afford to do is get behind in the fourth quarter. If Michigan is forced to pass and become one-dimensional, that plays to the strength of the defense, their secondary.

This rivalry was once known for games being decided by seven points or less, but in the last three years the average margin of victory has been 27 points.
Asked what to expect in '09 as compared to '07, Jimmy Clausen concluded with this,

"You know Michigan fans are crazy, and it's loud in there. I really didn't know what to expect. But going into that game and getting beat up like I did was not real fun. I think this year's going to be something special for us."

We've heard that before from Notre Dame. By 7pm, Saturday evening, we'll see if he's right or wrong.

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