Saturday's Keys

This isn't your father's Notre Dame-Michigan game. Both teams are backed into a corner, sporting similar 0-2 records. A win on Saturday likely turns the season around for one program, while the other goes back to the drawing board, yet again.

If the Irish hope to avoid their first 0-3 start since 2001, they'll have to have a 180-degree turnaround offensively from the first two losses of the season.

Here are the keys to Saturday's game.

***Air the football out: Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis has tried to be conservative with his young quarterbacks, and it certainly hasn't gone according to plan. The Irish offense ranks as the worst in the nation. A few big pass plays against the Wolverines, and everyone will forget that.

Notre Dame's longest pass play of the season is a 35-yard reception by Rob Parris. And that was a catch and run. The next longest reception is 20 yards, and that accounts for the only two passes that have gone for gains of 20 yards or more.

Freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen has had over a game of action to get his bearings. A few good gains through the air in the first quarter, and maybe Notre Dame can jump start a rushing attack that also ranks last in America. Then you have an offense that looks similar to Weis's first two seasons.

***A touchdown on the first possession, or forcing a quick three and out: Notre Dame probably gets the ball first, as Michigan likely defers to the second half if they win the toss, and Weis always chooses to receive. An Irish touchdown on the first possession not only energizes the offensive unit and the team, but will turn cheers quickly into hostile boos from a crowd that is already angered with their head coach Lloyd Carr and the home team. Picture the Oregon loss last week, but worse.

Freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett will be making his first career start. The defense is replacing seven starters from last year‘s outstanding unit. There is a lot of youth on the field that could quickly begin to doubt themselves.

If the crowd turns on the team early, it could get even uglier in Ann Arbor. ESPN may never leave town.

***Confusing Mallett: Notre Dame defensive coordinator Corwin Brown isn't going to let the blue-chip recruit settle into his first start easily. The Irish are going to blitz from all over the field, disguise coverages, getting the freshman to think more and play less. A turnover or two early, and again, Carr might have to be escorted out of the stadium.

It's doubtful Mallett has the same poise Clausen displayed last Saturday at Penn State. He'll have it down the road when he is the superstar starter, but if things go bad quickly and early, Mallett could go into the tank with his team.

Prediction: Notre Dame 28, Michigan 14: The Irish will break through, mainly because everything up top will happen.

Michigan's star running back Mike Hart will obviously be the Irish's focus, so it will be tough for him to get going early. Mallett will make a couple first quarter mistakes based off of the scheme Brown devises for this game. Brown said he made some errors against Georgia Tech, not having a few of his players lined up in positions to make plays. He rectified that against Penn State, and he'll be on point against his alma mater.

Weis has hinted to the media it's time to open up the offense, despite what the consequences will be. My guess is it works. Clausen will be sacked a few times, but the positives outweighs the negatives here. Don't expect 400 yards of total offense, but starting with their first possession, look for the Irish to move the ball enough times to win. Top Stories