Although both Michigan and Notre Dame had impressive victories in their initial game of the 2009 football season, analysts across the board questioned whether either registered a quality win. Most commentators point to this game as the real test for both programs.
Notre Dame and Michigan have split the last ten games in the series, with Michigan winning four of the last five in Ann Arbor. Notre Dame's lone win in the "Big House" over that stretch came during Charlie Weis' first year (2005) as Notre Dame's head coach. Michigan dominated Notre Dame in 2003 and then again in 2007, registering two 38-0 blowout wins.
Rich Rodriquez is 0-2 against the Irish, with one loss coming as head coach at West Virginia and last season's deluge in South Bend. In last season's contest, the Irish capitalized on seven Wolverine turnovers and floated away with a convincing 35-17 victory. Weis is 2-2 against the Wolverines since taking over the Notre Dame program.
Michigan will hit Notre Dame with multiple looks with their spread offense. Michigan will attempt to establish the option game and then sprinkle in some passes. If they can keep the Notre Dame defense off balance… Katie bar the door. Freshman Tate Forcier and sophomore Denard Robinson will split the duties at quarterback, although I believe we'll see more of Forcier. Both can run, but both are young and neither is an effective passer. Running backs Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown are very good. Both are strong runners and hit the hole hard. The offensive line is experienced and very solid. With basically the same group last season, the Wolverines were able to gash Notre Dame's defense for 202 yards rushing (159 net yards). Again, if Michigan can do that on Saturday…
On defense, the Wolverines have a blend of youth and experience developing in Greg Robinson's "3-4-4" defense. Five starters return for last season. If that isn't the biggest question mark… quality depth likely is. Nearly all the No. 2s are young and inexperienced…especially in the secondary. The big-time playmakers that Notre Dame will have to neutralize are defensive end Brandon Graham, linebacker Obi Ezeh, and hybrid linebacker Steve Brown. All three are very active defenders that can find the ball and finish the play. Graham has a knack for dumping the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage. Michigan has two aggressive and talented cornerbacks in Donovan Warren and Boubacar Cissoko. They won't be able prevent Michael Floyd and Golden Tate from getting their catches, but they are very capable of limiting big plays and containing the Irish receivers.
On offense, the Irish need to be able to run ball. I expect that to be a recurring theme for the Irish this season. In 2008, Notre Dame only rushed for 113 yards. In 2009 they must do better or they will be staring at 1-1 after two games. Last week Charlie Weis threw the ball early and often and he was rewarded with big plays. I don't think that will happen this Saturday. I expect Notre Dame to try to pound the ball a little more in order to control the pace of the game. Ultimately, he'll open things up and get the ball into the hands of Floyd, Tate, and Kyle Rudolph. Michigan will move players around on defense and give Clausen varied looks. Clausen should have enough experience at this point to read the defensive set, get to the right play and avoid the temptation of forcing the ball into coverage. Rudolph, Robby Parris and Duval Kamara should have productive days underneath.
Notre Dame has to have a better day stopping the Wolverine's inside running game, than they did with Nevada last week. Michigan's backs are bigger and faster, so it certainly won't be an easy task. Defensive ends, Kapron Lewis Moore and Kerry Neal need to be more productive and make a few plays. They have to be relentless in pursuit and keep containment on passing plays. If either quarterback squirts out of the pocket, they become effective passer. In the pocket…not so much. This game is set up for Toryan Smith to have a big game, but he'll need to be able to make plays when Michigan runs their off-tackle plays. If Robinson hits the seam untouched, he's likely to reach the paint before he stops. Although Michigan has a trio of talented wide receivers, I think Notre Dame matches up with them very well. Again the problems in the passing game come when the Michigan quarterbacks get out of the pocket.
Too many Notre Dame fans think that this game will be a cakewalk based on Michigan record last season. My advice… forget last season. This is a different Michigan team. They don't have much depth, but their frontline players are athletic and talented. Their offense is dangerous and should be able to move the ball. Conversely, Notre Dame will be able to throw the ball, but the offensive line must create holes for Armando Allen, Jonas Gray and Robert Hughes. This one will be close, but Notre Dame has more depth and experience, which will be the difference.
Score: Notre Dame 31 – Michigan 27
ND Offensive MVP: Kyle Rudolph
ND Defensive MVP: Toryan Smith