Scouting Report: Michigan

This is not just another game between "Natural Enemies", the apt title of John Kryk's book. This is not just another Notre Dame vs Michigan tilt at the The Big House. This is not just a game that affects the long running battle for college football's highest winning percentage. This is not just a game that affects both teams recruiting battles. This is a game both programs desperately need to win.

It is a game where the winner has hopes of getting the media of their backs, thus dooming the loser to more media hype, more scrutiny, and more misplaced analysis and criticism that often passes on, or eliminates, facts for sensationalism.

Both teams are winless. Both teams have been media whipping boys in many ways that approach tabloid journalism. One coach's job security has been questioned. One coach's acumen has been challenged and has been drug through the media mud with the name of his predecessor. I cannot recall a contest between two winless schools having so much riding on the game than in this week's Irish vs Wolverines contest.

Michigan Offense v Notre Dame Defense

Michigan will start freshman Ryan Mallett at quarterback. Mallett was 6 of 17 for 49 yards in his relief appearance of Chad Henne last week. He didn't lead the Wolverines to a score and suffered one interception. I think it's safe to assume that the Michigan staff will develop the game plan for what Mallett does best in conjunction with the amount of the Michigan offense he has absorbed so far, which seems to be a lot based on his command of the offense against Oregon. Mallet's arm strength is not a fairy tale. He threw one bomb to Manningham that was right there, but just tipped away, and with the throw coming from the left hash to the right sideline it was easily 75 yards. Several of his passes went off the hands of his receivers, including the interception. Several of his passes were just tipped away at the last second, but were on target. Mallett also shows good pocket presence and can throw effectively while running to avoid a sack. In short I'm impressed in this talented and poised young man. The only downside I saw was two fumbled snaps by Mallett and the loss of one to Oregon.

Michigan's rushing offense is led by Mike Hart who is averaging 157.5 yards per game and averaging 6.56 yards per carry. Irish fans can expect a strong dose of Hart all afternoon. Hart, especially without Henne, is the heart and soul of the Michigan offense, and one has to think that Coach Carr, the epitome of conservatism, will lean heavily on Hart during the game. I'd take Hart on my team in a New York minute, not only for his running skill, but for his blocking as well. In the Oregon game I saw Hart stand up, not cut, a 280 pound defensive tackle coming fast and furious and halt him in his tracks. One would think that Coach Bown's approach this week would be to concentrate on stopping Hart and making Mallett win the game. However, stopping Hart isn't easy as all teams approach him with that in mind. One uppermost goal for the Irish this week this week is tackling Hart before he gets into the secondary.

Unfortunately, in making Mallet win the game Michigan has two very good receivers for him to rely on. The most dangerous, the home run hitter, is Mario Manningham, 11 receptions for 183 yards, and 16.6 yards per catch. Not too far behind is Adrian Arrington, who at six foot three inches has 10 receptions for 121 yards, and 12.1 yards per catch with one TD. Both seem definite NFL material and will test the Irish secondary. I watched the tape of Michigan against Oregon this year and compared my play sheet with last year's Michigan play sheet against Vanderbilt. One comforting thought about Michigan is that year after year they are pretty much the same, so any new wrinkles would be a major shock.

What we'll see from the running game is the inside zone and outside zone that Hart runs so well. The maligned offensive line for Michigan actually does a good job blocking these plays. Add the tight end, Carson Butler, often coming in motion from a tight slot to block at the point of attack for both running plays. The change of pace for Butler's blocking is to show motion, fake the run, and dump the ball off to Carson in the flat. This play to Butler would be an easy toss of Mallet and I'm sure it will be seen a few times Saturday. Add a few draws to slow the pass rush on Mallet, a reverse to Manningham, and the Michigan offense is a carbon copy of last year's offense.

In my opinion Michigan runs the outside zone much better to their left than to their right. When they do so they will be running away from Notre Dame's strength and best defensive lineman, Trevor Laws. Both Justin Brown and Dwight Stephenson, Jr. must have big games for the Irish at right defensive end in the three-four defense. The outside containment, be it John Ryan and Anthony Vernaglia in the thirty look, or John Ryan and whomever in a forty look, must also have a big day.

I actually feel that the Irish defense, though facing a talented, but poised freshman quarterback and despite John Hart, will hold the upper hand this week provided they aren't on the field to the point of exhaustion.

Michigan Defense vs Notre Dame Offense

This is not a typical Michigan defense. They are weaker, slower, and poorer tacklers when compared to last year's Wolverines. They were not ready for the speed of Oregon and it showed in their pursuit angles.

I saw a few of their defensive lineman give it the "five yard sprint, five yard jog, and watch" routine to wide plays. Number two, linebacker Shawn Crable, seems out of position playing as a down lineman in their four man front. Yet, Michigan, feeling they have enough depth, rotates players in and out of the defensive line throughout the course of the game so they won't wear out, evidenced by a goal line stand in the fourth against Oregon.

The keys I see against the Wolverine defense will be will Notre Dame finally get some semblance of a running game going and will the Irish receiving corps place any pressure on the defensive backs of Michigan? In other words will there be successful strides in production and an identity for the Irish offense?

If the Irish cannot muster a running attack they face the problem of wearing out the defense in the second half just like the past two games. One would think that the rushing offense would come to light considering the Wolverine sieve against the run in their first two games. However, the Irish do not run the spread offense that Michigan faced in playing Appalachian State and Oregon. Michigan, in playing Notre Dame will be facing a rushing offense that they are more familiar with, and one that really hasn't made any waves this year on the field.

Michigan defensive backs usually gave Oregon receivers a large cushion and got burned all too often when they didn't do so. The question in this game is whether the Irish receivers can separate themselves from the Wolverine defensive backs. I think the Irish need to have Golden Tate and Duval Kumara on the field as much as possible as I haven't seen whole lot of separation occurring with Notre Dame's other receivers.

The Irish must also throw the ball down field or just resign themselves to a long, long day. The Michigan defense isn't up to par with last year's Wolverine defense, but the Irish offense hasn't done anything to warrant confidence that the situation will change, even against a defense that doesn't stack up to Georgia Tech's or Penn State's defensive teams.

Special Teams

Here the Irish may have an advantage in a few areas.

When punting Michigan has the strong legged Zoltan Mesko who is averaging 48.7 yards per punt. The Michigan punt coverage is only allowing 8.2 yards per return. However, Mesko, on the basis of the Oregon game seems unable to drop one inside the twenty and just boots it as far as he can, in one case leaving Michigan with a net gain of twenty yards on the punt. I feel Geoff price to be superior in this area of bottling up the opposing defense.

In punt returns it appears to be a push with Michigan averaging 8.33 yards per return and again, 8.2 yards allowed per return. Notre Dame is averaging 15.33 yards per return, but the push comes from the Irish allowing 16.7 yards per return and a TD against Penn State. Imagine place kicking to be an Irish strength in this game. Michigan's Jason Gingell is 2 of 5 on the season with one being blocked. Conversely, Notre Dame is 2 of 3 field goals on the year with one miss being from 50 yards.

Kick returns and kick coverage goes to Michigan as Irish special teams play in this area has been a disappointment thus far for Notre Dame.

My take on the game:

In order to win the Irish must be able to run the ball, something they haven't shown any ability to do thus far. I don't see that happening though I hope I'm wrong. If that's the case then the game is in the hands of Jimmy Clausen and the Irish's problems with sacks and receiver separation makes for a gloomy prognostication.

My pick:

Sad though it is.

Michigan 31 Notre Dame 17.

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