NT Mike Martin vs. the Irish interior lineThough relatively experienced entering his second season as a competitor, Irish left guard Chris Watt will make his second career and first road start Saturday. Prior to that milestone, the promising junior mauler should elicit the advice of senior teammates Braxston Cave and Trevor Robinson, both of whom struggled mightily in the first half vs. Michigan's best defensive player last season.
At 6'2" 304-pounds, Mike Martin starred on what was an historically poor Michigan defense, earning second team All-Big 10 honors from the league's coaches. His efforts were noticed by Irish head man Brian Kelly as well.
"He's very active. He has a great motor and great experience. He's one of their leaders on defense," Kelly said. "Very emotional guy that plays with a lot of passion; a guy inside that can be disruptive."
Martin served as the anchor in Michigan's 3-4 fronts over the previous two seasons. Under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, the defensive line's looks vary, beginning with a base 4-3 that provides Martin with a partner inside – the pair aligned over two shoulders of Notre Dame's three interior players noted above.
"They do that by design based upon down and distance and personnel," Kelly said of the changing fronts. "They're using both of those schemes to try to get pressure."
Notre Dame offensive line coach Ed Warinner offered that while his center Cave was solid in most one-on-one blocking situations last season, the occasional combo block – one in which he, in tandem with Robinson/Watt first double-team a defender with Cave subsequently attempting to locate a block at the next level of the defense (the linebackers).
That improved skill set must be on display Saturday, as Martin is too talented to tangle with one-on-one over the course of a contest.
Though Cave (in his second career start) was outplayed by Martin last year, he did win two crucial matchups that resulted in Irish touchdowns vs. the hard-nosed defender. Look for Martin's efforts on the nose – largely in medium and short-yardage situations – to continually challenge the Irish interior Saturday evening.
C David Molk vs. Irish NGs Sean Cwynar and Louis NixMichigan's (Denard Robinson's) 2010 rushing performance vs. the Irish has been well-documented. The Wolverines finished with 288 yards – 258 courtesy Robinson – with a two rushing scores and an obscene team average of 7.0 yards-per-carry.
Though Wolverines enjoyed success on the ground in their 2009 win over the Irish as well, rumbling for 190 yards, 5.0 yards-per-carry, and another pair of scores.
In the middle of both efforts – literally – was Michigan center David Molk.
"When they reach-block you, especially their center, its tough to get back into your gap," said Irish defensive end Ethan Johnson of the Wolverine's undervalued offensive front. "How quick they are magnifies how quick Denard Robinson is, because if you're already struggling to be in your gap, and then you finally (get there) and then try to make a play and you're out of position, it turns into a disaster.
"Their offensive line is very good; it's not just Denard Robinson. They have a lot of talent across the board."
A team captain, 2010 Rimington finalist (nation's best center) and three-year starter, Molk's use of leverage, footwork, and technique (hand placement/pad level) will be a challenge for like-sized Irish nose guard Sean Cwynar (a technician in his own right) and his understudy, redshirt-freshman Louis Nix. Nix enters Saturday with nearly 40 pounds on the 286-pound Molk, but at a decided disadvantage in just his second collegiate contest.
Graduated nose guard Ian Williams performed well vs. Molk last fall. But the 5th-year senior Wolverine will be the best center the Irish face this season – Saturday will reveal if the Irish nose guard tandem and defensive line as a unit is as BCS-ready as we've indicated over the off-season.
Michael Floyd – Pick your PoisonCourtney Avery, Troy Woolfolk, J.T. Floyd…one of the Wolverines' three main cornerbacks, maybe two of the trio or the entire set, will get worked over by Notre Dame's best player Saturday Night. The threesome can't cover him, but that plight's not unique to the Wolverines, as there may be one cornerback on the Irish schedule capable of competing with Floyd, one-on-one, for 60-65 snaps. (I don't know who that "one" is, I'm just being polite.)
Yet with the exception of the 2009 tussle in Ann Arbor (7 rec. 131 yards, TD in a loss), Floyd has not enjoyed (relative) success vs. the Wolverines. He caught a nondescript five passes for 63 yards in the loss last fall and just two for 10 yards as a true freshman (a blowout Irish win). The Wolverines are expected to offer plenty of help for their overmatched corners – safety Jordan Kovacs had an outstanding game vs. the Irish last fall – but Notre Dame piled up 715 passing yards in the teams' last two meetings for a reason, and double-teaming Floyd isn't always the answer.
Quarterback Tommy Rees will find Floyd (12 pass attempts, two touchdowns, and 10 total connections between the pair in one half last week). And Brian Kelly won't limit Floyd, the technical boundary receiver, to one spot in the team's passing formations.
As with the Irish defense vs. Robinson, Michigan will need its entire back seven to contribute vs. Floyd. A reality that leads to our next matchup to monitor…
Tyler Eifert vs. Cam Gordon and the UM 'backersAs noted previously, Kovacs is a solid safety – a former walk-on turned proven playmaker on a defense otherwise bereft of that trait last fall. And though the bigger, faster Eifert would have the advantage over Kovacs in one-on-one situations, Kovacs isn't a player to underestimate.
Michigan's best coverage linebacker, former safety Cam Gordon, will be forced to contend with Eifert often, a difficult proposition. Just as the Wolverines' 'backers couldn't offer a speed bump vs. a one-legged Kyle Rudolph (8 rec. 164 yards, 95-yard TD) in last year's 28-24 victory, expect the trio to struggle in their individual matchups vs. Eifert Saturday night.
Not yet a household name, Eifert has 32 receptions for 448 yards in his last seven contests – the most productive stretch at the position since second-round pick John Carlson teamed with Brady Quinn in 2006. Look for another 4-7 receptions and 65-100 yards from Eifert in Ann Arbor, the end totals dependent upon the Wolverines' coverage scheme geared to stop Floyd.
Eifert is ready for prime time, and there's not a Michigan linebacker that can contend with him down the seam.
Wolverines in space vs. Prince ShemboLast year it was Martavious Odoms and Ray Roundtree that cut up the Irish short zones. Both targets return, buoyed by the added presence in the offense of formerly forgotten tight end Kevin Koger; trio has accounted for 22 receptions, 230 yards and a pair of touchdowns over the teams' last two meetings. (The Wolverines have forged depth, with Odoms no longer a starter, replaced by 5th-year senior stalwart Junior Hemingway (the 6'1" 222-pounder missed both the '09 and '10 contests vs. the Irish due to injury).
Regardless of which Wolverine lines up in the slot/field side, that player will have a speed, lateral quickness, and/or route experience advantage on Irish sophomore ‘backer Prince Shembo, the former pass-rush phenom starting his second game at the Drop linebacker position.
"Oh yeah, there's been a lot of work with the outside 'backers; they're so important to trying to keep Denard Robinson in a shorter space," Kelly noted of this week's practice focus. "Not only in the run but in the pass; Robinson is outstanding getting the ball out to his receivers.
"Their quick game is outstanding," Kelly continued. "They get the ball to the possession guys and they make plays. We've got run issues and pass issues. What we don't want is conflict. You can't put your ‘backers in run-pass conflict, that's the most important thing."
Graduated Dog (drop) linebacker Kerry Neal was in that conflicting position often last fall. One instance led to an untouched 31-yard gain inside the Irish 1-yard line; another, a 36-yard sprint by Robinson.
So too was boundary ‘backer Darius Fleming, whose faulty choices in short-zone coverage on the Wolverine's game-winning march have been well-documented by his head coach, and used since as a teaching point to illustrate how far Fleming has progressed. (Teaching points and progression are both great, just not when the Wolverines issue both at your expense.)
Michigan's offense starts with Robinson, but as defensive coordinator Bob Diaco noted Wednesday, the Irish are tasked with defending a village, not merely its king.
"Absolutely. The same." Diaco said when reminded of his glowing critique of the Wolverines' skill position players prior to the 2010 contest. "It's ridiculous. They're a dynamic offensive outfit."
New head coach Brady Hoke has tweaked that approach, but Diaco knows one element of the attack that must be contained: Robinson...the passer.
"They have another player detached. You have to respect that," Diaco said, explaining, "It's not like ‘Wildcat' where the ball-handler can't throw the ball. This player is a proficient passer, so everybody needs to be covered. You have to defend the power but you have one less guy to do it with."
The Irish outside ‘backers will again be on the spot: faced with a decision in space vs. skilled, shifty athletes. Still learning his craft, Shembo is a quicker, more explosive athlete than his predecessor, and the sophomore can cover an enormous amount of open space, quickly. He'll need to vs. Robinson and his cohorts Saturday night.
Note: Our weekly site predictions and my game preview will be published late morning and early afternoon, respectively.