Contenders?

Relevant again, Notre Dame must take control early to down a familiar foe.

After following this program for three decades and after suffering through the last two seasons, I know better than to buy into Notre Dame's newfound status as masters of the middle-WAC.

49 points in a bowl game; 35 points and a shutout in the season-opener; 9 touchdowns passes and 0 interceptions from the quarterback...it certainly beats getting hammered at home by Air Force. But we still don't know enough about the 2009 Irish, not after the surprisingly easy handling of should-be-solid Nevada.

Then again, I have to admit – I was much more worried about the upcoming game at Michigan over summer than I am at present. And since the Wolverines looked better than advertised there must be something about this Irish squad that continues to bring out the bright side over early-season pessimism.

The Irish did what should have been expected of them last week: dispatched of a dangerous but flawed opponent in an opening game. But the 35-0 beating of the Wolf Pack was an end result than I wouldn't have imagined (and I'd have lost a hefty sum betting against an end zone shutout of Nevada's running attack).

The Irish looked better than most media and fans predicted with some obvious chinks in the armor left to smooth over before this week's trip to Ann Arbor, but no fatal flaw was proven save for a leaky middle in the run defense, and that could certainly be chalked up to both the opponent's personnel and the Irish defensive game plan

For three months my prediction for Saturday's contest at Michigan hovered near a 20-19 final in favor of the Irish. I thought a wounded UM team (likely struggling after a close call over Western Michigan) would bring its defensive A-game vs. the 1-0 Irish, and that the game would resemble the 2005 contest, when Notre Dame's defense held firm until the final minute in a 17-10 Irish victory. Instead, UM is flying high after soundly beating a lesser MAC opponent (a sign of the times) and the Irish are back on the national radar due to what appears to be (as expected, at least locally) one of the nation's best passing games.

A 20-19 slugfest could still materialize, of course, but I have four theories as to why you'll see a much different contest than that of the hard-hitting '05 affair, Weis' first in Ann Arbor and Notre Dame's only victory in The Big House since the powerful 1993 squad exploded all over the favored Wolverines en route to an 11-1 season.

Developed Talent Under Center

One viewing of the Wolverines showed a single truth: freshman quarterback Tate Forcier will be tough to handle the next time the Irish travel to Ann Arbor for the 2011 season. The same can be said for his change-of-pace backup, freshman Denard Robinson (Robinson could already rank among the five fastest players in America with the ball in his hands).

But neither remotely resembles a finished product entering his second collegiate game, and both will see a different level of talent on the other side of the line of scrimmage this Saturday than one week previous.

Robinson is, at present, a one-read quarterback, that is – he looks at his first option in the pattern (generally that player is one of 4-5 receivers in a spread formation) and if that player's not immediately open, Robinson takes off running. It's natural, he's always been the fastest player on the field and he will be again Saturday, but every time he enters the contest and lines up in the shotgun-spread there will be a well-schooled, athletic group of Irish defenders that will collectively take away his strength: the broken play.

Forcier, of course, will receive the vast majority of the snaps, and the freshman excels at escaping (sidestepping) pressure and throwing on the move. Two of Forcier's three touchdown tosses in the Wolverines season-opener occurred while the right-handed quarterback moved to his left. Western Michigan's defense did not appear to be prepared to counter Forcier's school-yard ability in the pocket … Notre Dame's defense has seen the film and more importantly, has the athletic skill to counter the talented freshman.

The Kitchen Sink

Make no mistake: the Irish defense will bring heat on Forcier. Defensive play-caller Jon Tenuta will have ample looks, myriad blitzes, and consistently disguised coverages in an effort to make the freshman think rather than react.

While Forcier appeared comfortable leading his teammates last week, he and the rest of the offense played the entire contest from a position of strength: jumping to an early lead, piling on with a few big plays, and playing out the string in the second half.

Forcier looked comfortable in his first career start as he led the Wolverines to a 31-0 halftime advantage, but the skill level of this week's defense won't afford the slippery runner as many opportunities downfield. If the Irish can frustrate Forcier, mistakes will follow.

Weakness vs. Weakness?

Last Saturday in South Bend, Nevada running back Vai Taua showed his wares as an inside runner behind a strong offensive front that specializes in accumulating yardage on the ground. The Irish interior did not play well, at least not as well as did the rest of the defense, but any "failures" exhibited up front resulted in exactly zero points.

Irish head coach Charlie Weis pointed out that this represented a perfect opportunity to teach, or as he put it: "Utopia" – indicating there wasn't a player in the film room not eager to improve due to the feel-good atmosphere after a 35-0 shellacking.

Tomorrow, Michigan will likely be without running back Brandon Minor (Minor also missed Game One due to an ankle injury). In his stead is solid but unspectacular senior Carlos Brown. Brown's a fine, no-nonsense north/south runner, but he's certainly not special (nor for that matter, is a less-than-100 percent Minor). The Irish interior need only to hold its own to keep the Wolverines offense from dictating to the rest of the Irish defense, but on the other side of the football, Michigan needs a herculean effort to contain the Irish passing game for 60 minutes on Saturday.

Contain, Contain, Contain

Two comments:

    Denard Robinson cannot beat Notre Dame passing the football.
  • Tate Forcier cannot consistently beat Notre Dame if he operates from the pocket.

The Irish can ensure both of these early-career weaknesses are exposed playing sound, disciplined defense. Containment blitzes on the edges and a spy inside should greatly limit the Wolverines ability to move the chains on 3rd down, and a passing game still in its infancy is a poor match for the talented Irish secondary.

Robinson and Forcier are special in space, but they're not yet BCS-level passers in long-yardage situations.

Big House Prediction

Previously, this was a game for the underdog, with the favored team dropping decisions in 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1992 (tie), 1993, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006. That alone is cause for concern in a rivalry road matchup.

The Irish offense certainly isn't infallible – to be blunt – its offense line could still spring a leak. And Wolverines DE Brandon Graham and MLB Obi Ezeh could still control the proceedings up front; and Clausen's technically only been perfect vs. the WAC while the Big 10 has treated him rudely over seven career matchups (2-5 W/L record with 7 TD and 7 INT).

Add it all up, and I can't get fully onboard after two seasons of disappointment:

Michigan 33 Notre Dame 30


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