After opening the season with three completely different opponents – Alabama, not Alabama, and the opposite of Alabama – Michigan finally gets into the real portion of its schedule. Much of the narrative so far has been about how little we know of this Michigan team because of that unusual schedule. But that will change this week when the Maize and Blue visit a 3-0 Notre Dame team that has folks in South Bend talking BCS.
When the Irish routed Navy on Sept. 1 it turned some heads. After all, this was the team that had lost two of the last three to the Midshipmen. But this one seemed different. It was never in doubt. Notre Dame took a 27-0 lead before Navy scored a point and cruised to a 50-10 victory. But then Navy turned around and got thumped by a winless and beleaguered Penn State squad.
Notre Dame Stadium - South Bend, Ind.
In Week 2, Notre Dame fought off a stingy Purdue squad that wouldn’t go away. The Irish struggled to find offense in the first half, as the teams went into the locker room tied at seven. But they took the first drive of the second half for a touchdown, picked off a pass, and added a field goal to take a 10-point lead. Purdue put up 10 points of their own in the fourth quarter, tying the game with just over two minutes remaining. With Evertt Golson banged up, Brian Kelly turned to last year’s starter, Tommy Rees, to lead the Irish down the field for the game-winning field goal. It was a solid, hard-fought win against a Purdue team that we don’t know much about. The Boilers have beaten Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan. Are they contenders or pretenders?
Last week, the country took notice as Notre Dame went to East Lansing and put a licking on No. 10 Michigan State. The Spartans defense was considered one of the best in the country, but Notre Dame hung 20 points on it. More surprisingly, the Irish defense held State to just three points, displaying a dominating defense that harassed rookie quarterback Andrew Maxwell and shut down star running back Le’Veon Bell. But was Michigan State really as good as its preseason ranking suggested? Perhaps the win wasn’t that surprising given the personnel losses State faced.
So yes, Notre Dame is 3-0 for the first time since 2002, but are they as good as their record and the hype suggest they are? The Irish have proven more than Michigan has so far in the early going, but I would submit that they’re not ready to be in the BCS picture just yet. That said, this is the best Notre Dame team Michigan has faced in a few years. Let’s take a look at the matchups.
When Notre Dame has the ball
Despite an unblemished record, the Irish have put up just 20 points each of the last two weeks. Yes, one of those was against a Michigan State defense that hadn’t surrendered an offensive touchdown in its first two games, but the other was against Purdue, which won’t be confused for Alabama anytime soon.
Notre Dame’s offense is quarterbacked by sophomore Golson, who has completed 47 of 81 passes for 611 yards, three touchdowns, and just one interception so far. The most impressive number in his pocket is the interception total. Through three games last season, Tommy Rees and Dayne Crist had combined for six interceptions. Golson has done a nice job of managing the offense.
He has several targets to throw to, most notably tight end Tyler Eifert who leads the team with eight receptions for 120 yards and a touchdown. But nine different players have caught multiple passes for the Irish, five of which have caught six or more. At 6’6″, 251 pounds, Eifert is a tough matchup for a linebacker. He was ND’s second leading receiver last year, behind Michael Floyd, with 803 yards and five touchdowns. T.J. Jones and Robby Toma lead the Irish in receptions with nine. They’re small - 5’11″ and 5’9″, respectively – but talented in the same manner as Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Sophomore DeVaris Daniels is the one true outside receiver. He had six catches for 119 yards in the first two games, but didn’t record a catch last week.
In the backfield, Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and George Atkinson III are the main trio. Wood was in line to be the starter at the beginning of the season, but was suspended for the first two games. In his return last week, he carried the ball 10 times for 56 yards (5.6 yards per carry) against Michigan State’s stout defense. He had 134 yards and a touchdown against Michigan last season on 25 carries. Riddick is a more versatile back who has 190 yards and two touchdowns on 46 carries so far (4.1 average), but also has nine receptions for 85 yards. Catching the ball out of the backfield has always been his strength, similar to Vincent Smith. He had six catches for 62 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan last season. Atkinson is a track star (he placed third in the 200-meter dash at the Big East championships) and has 15 carries for 142 yards (9.5 average) and two touchdowns thus far.
The offensive line is led by senior left tackle Zack Martin who started each of the past two seasons. Fellow seniors Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Mike Golic Jr, and junior Christian Lombard round out the line. It has been up and down so far, allowing four sacks by Purdue and compiling just 53 rushing yards, but keeping Michigan State’s vaunted defensive line at bay. State recorded just one sack, while Notre Dame ran for 122 yards.
Notre Dame’s offense is somewhat conservative, relying on the run game, a short passing game, and a lot of tight end use, however, it’s mostly done in the spread offense. After last year’s mistakes (29 turnovers) and the loss of the big play threat in Floyd, this year’s offense is predicated around not beating itself. The running game is a lot of zone reads out of the shotgun and Kelly rolls Golson out a lot to utilize the run-pass threat.
Michigan has a small advantage of playing a very similar offense last week. UMass head coach Charley Molnar not only served as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator the past two seasons, but was Brian Kelly’s right-hand man since 2006. But his Minutemen weren’t nearly as talented as Notre Dame’s. The Irish will likely look to run the ball against Michigan’s defense that hasn’t shown it can stop the run yet, and use a short passing game to set up big plays to Eifert and fellow tight end Troy Niklas.
It will be up to Michigan’s front seven to stop the run first and get pressure on Golson, which is much easier said than done, considering Michigan State couldn’t do it. Forcing Golson to make plays with his arm all game will be a win for the defense.
When Michigan has the ball
It’s no secret that Notre Dame’s game plan will be to stop Denard Robinson. He has already amassed more career yards against the Irish than any single player in Notre Dame history. Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will be hell-bent on not allowing those numbers to pile up again. They’ll employ the same strategy they did so successfully against Michigan State: load the box and stop the run.
The front seven is very good, led by senior middle linebacker Manti Te’o. He spurned the NFL Draft last spring to return for his senior year and so far has racked up 30 tackles, one for loss, an interception, two pass breakups, and two fumble recoveries. The other inside linebacker is Dan Fox who has 16 tackles. On the outside, former high school quarterback Danny Spond will make the start at the “Dog,” or drop linebacker, spot alongside junior Prince Shembo. Shembo plays the “Cat,” or rush, linebacker position where he’ll put his hand on the ground sometimes as a rush end. He leads the team with four quarterback hurries so far and has a sack and two tackles for loss.
The biggest strength of the Irish defense is the line. Nose tackle Louis Nix is a beast and ends Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore are extremely talented as well, forming one of the best lines in the country. Tuitt has five sacks already (two more than Michigan’s entire team has), while Nix and Lewis-Moore have combined for two.
The weakness of the defense is the secondary which lost its top corner, Lo Wood, right before the season and its top safety, Jamoris Slaughter, last week. True freshman KeiVarae Russell and converted receiver Bennett Jackson are the starting corners Jackson has a pair of picks so far to go along with 13 tackles. At safety, another converted receiver, Matthias Farley, will replace Slaughter, while the only player who has started more than three games is Zeke Matta. Matta ranks second on the team with 19 tackles, including 11 against MSU.
Rushing Attempts: 2 – Denard will pass Billy Taylor for 7th in career rushing attempts
With the Irish focused on stopping Denard’s and Fitzgerald Toussaint’s feet, Michigan will need to open with a game plan similar to what it started with against Alabama. You’re probably saying I’m crazy right about now, but Notre Dame doesn’t have the corners to take away the quick passing game like Alabama did. Once Michigan can establish the passing game, it will open up room for the running game to get to work. ND will bring a lot of guys to try to force Denard into quick decisions, so the calls early on should take advantage of that agressive defense.
The other third
Senior punter Ben Turk has had an up and down career, but is averaging 41.5 yards per punt so far this season. Senior Nick Tausch began the season as the starting kicker, but hurt his groin prior to the Purdue game, leading to sophomore Kyle Brindza getting a chance. He missed his first attempt, but has hit all four since, including a 47-yarder against Michigan State to seal the game. The return game hasn’t done anything yet this season, though with Atkinson handling kick return duties, he’s always a home run threat.
It’s a pretty safe bet to say this will be a close game. The last three have all been decided by four points and have all come down to the wire. Notre Dame has the advantage of being at home and under the lights where the Irish are 5-1 all-time, including 2-0 against Michigan. South Bend is always a place where weird things happen. But Michigan has the human kryptonite in Denard Robinson, leprechaun slayer. He’s a senior, it’s his 22nd birthday, and Notre Dame is terrified of him. He will once again have one of the best games of his career, but this time it will be mostly through the air, torching the inexperienced secondary. Devin Funchess and Devin Gardner will each catch touchdown passes. It’s strength (Michigan’s offense) versus strength (Notre Dame’s defense) and weakness (Notre Dame’s offense) versus weakness (Michigan’s defense). Michigan’s offense is much better than any of the three opponents ND has faced to date and I don’t think Notre Dame’s offense has enough firepower to keep up. It will be close, but Michigan will continue the trend and pull it out in the end.
Michigan 33 – Notre Dame 27