Monsters in the MiddleWith the notable exception of most coaches and scouts, few of the sport's viewers regularly turn their attention to the pivot points at the line of scrimmage. But if you're looking for an immediate indicator of success for each snap Saturday, try to occasionally focus on the battle between the team's centers and nose guards: Michigan's David Molk and Mike Martin (NG) and Notre Dame's Braxston Cave and Ian Williams (NG).
A redshirt-junior with 17 career starts, Molk rarely receives (needs) help vs. the opposing nose guard. Williams, however, possesses the best blend of quickness, power and low center of gravity that Molk will face until at least mid-October (vs. Iowa). Look for the occasional third shoulder thrown into Williams by guards Stephen Schilling (more on Schilling below) and Patrick Omameh as Williams showed he could control Purdue's front (albeit vs. a less polished or powerful center) when solo-blocked last Saturday.
Molk is technically sound and unusually strong at 285 pounds – if he can handle Williams 1-on-1, the Wolverines will find running success vs. the Irish front seven.
When the team's change ends, two juniors will do battle in Martin and Cave. A true junior who started 12 games last season and earned the team's top defensive lineman award, Martin finished second in tackles-for-loss last fall, though he was held in check vs. the Irish and senior center Eric Olsen, recording just one solo and two assists – each between 4 and 9 yards downfield in what was a career rushing day (139 yards) for Armando Allen.
Olsen is gone, but aside from experience and likely early-season consistency, few Irish fans need worry about his replacement as Cave showed both skill as a pulling blocker in space and power at the point of attack last week. Martin is a better player than anyone on Purdue's interior, and as a 3-4 nose guard, will be lined head up vs. Cave for the duration of the contest. That could be an issue if Cave's purported "yips" as a shotgun snapper resurface after battling defenders shaded to his shoulders last Saturday. Give Martin the edge in terms of experience and savvy but Cave – Notre Dame's strongest player – will not succumb athletically in many encounters this fall.
Manti in the MiddleWhile helmet to helmet contact dominates the battle detailed above, the consistent encounters between Michigan's best guard – senior Stephen Schilling – and Notre Dame's inside ‘backers Manti Te'o and Carlo Calabrese will also play a key role in the contest.
Schilling is effective in space at 6'5" 308, and will make his 38th career start Saturday in South Bend. He'll be tasked with finding and controlling Te'o or Calabrese on Michigan's read-option runs through the B gap…a play run with great success early vs. Connecticut in Saturday's 30-10 victory.
The redshirt-freshman Calabrese enjoyed a stellar debut vs. the Boilers, tying for the team-high with nine tackles and showing much better in space than I had anticipated. Te'o missed a full handful of opportunities in the open field, but still finished with 9 stops, three of which after fantastic recognition of tunnel screens to Purdue receivers. His improved play in pass coverage will serve the defense well as Michigan's Robinson is, at present, a two-read passer – one who relies heavily on the slant after a quick look to the flat.
Schilling vs. the Irish inside tandem at the second level; and the latter's ability to tackle immediately after the catch vs. a host of speedy Wolverines will determine if more than a few short passes result in key third down stops...or UM first downs, with any ensuing long gains resulting in a tough Saturday afternoon for the Irish defense.
Denard Robinson vs. the Second (and Third) DefenderBad news, Irish fans…Saturday's contest won't include a clinic on form tackling in space; at least not when Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson tucks and runs.
Notre Dame's linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks will miss. They'll learn angles mean little vs. the different-kind-of-fast that Robinson brings to the table. But the second man in will determine whether Robinson earns 90-100 yards the hard way, or erupts for nearly two bills again en route to a Michigan victory.
Last week, Notre Dame earned nothing lower than an A minus for their secondary's tackling efforts after the catch. Nary a Boilers ballcarrier found success after initial yardage was gained. The key last week was the first hit; the key this weekend will be the immediate presence of a second and third tackler: getting Robinson to the ground is Step One…making him feel each hit would be a bonus, especially if he approaches 30 carries as he did last week vs. the Huskies.
Stonum Strikes Again?Last September, Notre Dame returned the nation's No. 1 kickoff coverage unit. The perceived team strength turned weakness less than 10 days into the season when Michigan sophomore Darryl Stonum took a Nick Tausch kickoff 94 yards to the Big House's student end zone, staking the home town Wolverines to a 14-3 first quarter advantage.
Stonum is back for 2010: the only Michigan player to exceed 1,000 yards on kickoff returns in a single season (Editor's Note: that also means the Wolverines yielded a record-number of points). Stonum averaged a solid 25.67 yards per return and has emerged as one of the team's starting wideouts this fall.
The Irish will face better wide receivers than Stonum in four of the team's first six contests, but Saturday's contest will feature its fair share of points: the Irish can't yield any in the return game, nor can they give the dangerous Wolverines a short field more than once and hope to emerge 2-0.
Open TryoutsThe Wolverines hosted open tryouts for students hoping to walk-on the Maize & Blue this season. I'll venture a guess that more than a few self-assured Social Sciences and Engineering majors will find their way into the defensive backfield during game week preparations for the duration of the 2010 season.
The Michigan defensive backfield includes junior J.T. Floyd (who's happy to hit you), he of the three career starts; redshirt-junior James Rogers (nice instincts); redshirt-freshman Thomas Gordon (more of a linebacker) or walk-on Floyd Simmons; and redshirt-sophomore Jordan Kovacs (poor in deep zones, but looked comfortable in the box in Game One).
Graduation, expulsion, transfer and injury depleted a unit that struggled in 2009 and returns just two players (Kovacs and Floyd) that appeared from scrimmage vs. Notre Dame last fall.
The 2010 Irish passing offense isn't as dynamic as its predecessor, but future first-round draft picks Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd will have opportunities in the passing game. Michigan's pass defenses succeeded last week though their opponent offered ample assistance, dropping passes throughout the contest. (And as a colleague noted last November: Zach Frazer might be the worst opposing QB to ever win a game in South Bend...those days are gone).
The unit's first litmus test is Saturday: expect a heavy dose of Michael Floyd to compliment the running back tandem of Armando Allen and Cierre Wood throughout the afternoon. It will be up to Irish quarterback Dayne Crist in his second career start to execute vs. the equally green Michigan secondary.
Note: Our Friday prediction column will be published tomorrow morning.