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Friend vs Foe: Notre Dame

September 5th, 2013 by Justin Potts


Ryan Ritter of the Notre Dame blog Her Loyal Sons is our guest for this week’s edition of Friend vs Foe. He will provide his perspective on how Notre Dame can beat Michigan on Saturday. You can follow him on Twitter @HLS_NDTex or the site’s main feed @herloyalsons. Josh is handling the Michigan perspective and you can follow him @jdemille9.

So what do the Irish need to do to win in the Big House for the first time since the Weis era (seriously, how did y’all allow that to happen?!)?

With Tommy Rees once again the Irish starting QB, I can’t help but think of 2011’s tilt under the lights. After all, Rees will return to the scene of the nightmare that unfolded in that fourth quarter and there is no doubt those memories stick in the minds of both ND and Michigan fans a bit more than his performance in 2012.

However, this appears to be a different Rees, or Reesus, as he is now known among a good portion of the ND faithful. Rees had a career best 16-23, 346 yard, 3 TD performance against Temple in week one. Granted, the game was against Temple; however what stood out most was Rees’ accuracy, especially on the deep ball which has practically been non-existent in his ND tenure. 2011 Rees, aka Turnover Tommy, did not make an appearance and really only had one pass the was ever in real danger of being an INT.

The ability to get Amir Carlisle and the running game going is crucial to ND's success on Saturday (Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

Rees does not need a career day in order to beat Michigan; however, he must continue to protect the football and make smart passes. Otherwise, the Irish will find themselves scrambling to stay in the game.

Probably more important than Rees though, are the five, yes five, quality running backs. Amir Carlisle made his Irish debut with a bang, ripping off a 45 yard run with his first carry. George Atkinson III returns, although it seems Kelly is still hesitant to use him as an feature back due to his continuous failures to lower his pads which led to him getting rather rocked by a Temple defender on one of his initial carries. Cam McDaniel led the Irish in carries and maintained a very solid 5.4 yards per carry. Finally, you have freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston who Kelly seems to still be feeling out just how to use them.

Without a solid rushing attack, the Irish offense is dead in the water. The book on Tommy Rees is simple: rush three, drop eight and make him beat you with his arm. A solid rushing attack negates the defensive gameplan and opens the playbook up for the Irish.

Switching to the defense, it is hard to predict and preview just what the Irish will do. In the first half against Temple, the Irish ran man coverage more than they ever had in the Kelly era. On top of that, they blitzed more than I can remember in recent memory as well, and I’m not talking the usual 3-4 blitz that brings a fourth pass rusher, but ones that brought five or six to the line. This strategy backfired against Temple. Connor Reilly managed to settle in, made the proper hot reads and used his feet to take advantage of the open field that the spy-less man coverages gave him. In the second half, the Irish went back into their more familiar zone coverages and turned in a much better defensive performance.

I’m not exactly sure if defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was using Temple as a test for whether or not a more aggressive style of defense was viable or not. Either way, I wasn’t a fan of the results and I do not believe the Irish can go against Michigan running man coverage the majority of the time. If Temple receivers can find space against man-to-man coverage and Connor freakin’ Reilly can cause damage, I can only imagine what Michigan and Devin Gardner can do.

Instead, the Irish need to follow the 2012 defensive recipe to success: bend, don’t break. Keep plays in front and don’t get burned deep. Further, the Irish pass rush must remain as fearsome as it was last year to ensure that Gardner never gets as comfortable as Reilly did in the first half. Further, the Irish need to spy Gardner and ensure his tendency to scramble is neutralized as best as possible.

Should the Irish manage to put everything together as described above, there is no reason why the Irish’s last trip to Ann Arbor for the foreseeable future won’t be a successful one.

Notre Dame’s passing attack looked very good against Temple last week. Tommy Rees threw for a career high 346 yards on 16-of-23 and added three touchdowns. Despite putting up almost 550 total yards of offense they also gave up almost 400 yards to a Temple team that is not known for their football program. The star of the Temple offense was its quarterback, Connor Reilly, who passed for 228 yards while also rushing for 65 more on 12 carries. They allowed a lot of yards, though only one touchdown, and did not force a single turnover and only recorded one sack. Clearly this is not even close to the same Notre Dame defense as last year, at this point at least.

True, Tommy Rees played well and the Notre Dame offense was moving along quite well from a yardage standpoint, but it concerns me that they only managed to score four times on a Temple team that was 4-7 a year ago.

Without Everett Golson in the backfield the Notre Dame offense is a shade of what it was in the latter half of 2012. Rees is a capable quarterback with a ton of experience but he is not a threat to make plays with his legs like Golson. Most of the vaunted ND defense has returned but their inability to force any turnovers and only nab one sack against Temple is interesting.

Thomas Gordon returns from suspension to solidify the UM secondary against a good passing team (John T. Greilick, Detroit News)

If Michigan can keep ND out of their backfield making plays then this one won’t be close for long. The Irish had trouble with a mobile quarterback last week and odds are Devin Gardner is at least twice the athlete Connor Reilly is.

Thomas Gordon comes back this week to anchor the secondary and with the rust shaken off from last week Michigan should be in good shape back there. If they can limit the big plays, or even prevent them, then Michigan will be in prime position to win. The defensive front looked better, albeit against an overmatched CMU line, at creating pressure without the blitz and that should carry over. Mattison will still dial up some blitzes but if the front four can get there without them then this team is all the more dangerous. If Frank Clark and Co. can at least make Rees move around more than he wants and force him into some quick and/or bad decisions Michigan will win.

On offense, and in this series lately, it’s all about not turning the ball over. The team that commits the fewest turnovers wins, period. Last year Michigan gifted Notre Dame six turnovers and still had a chance to win the game late. The year before Notre Dame coughed it up five times, allowing Michigan to go on an epic game winning drive for the ages in the fourth quarter.

While Gardner did throw two picks last week we can probably chalk those both up to first game jitters and rust. He admitted they were bad (reads) passes and I’m sure it will be a point of emphasis in practice this week. Luckily for Gardner, he only has classes on Monday this fall, and with it being Labor Day this week he was left to focus solely on ND all week long. I don’t expect him to make those types of passes this weekend.

Fitz Toussaint looked pretty good running the ball and the offensive line opened up some good holes for both he and behemoth freshman Derrick Green. There was some concern about Green being overweight coming into camp but he looked solid to me and let’s be honest, he has tree trunks for legs so it’s no wonder he’s 240 pounds. If the line can open up some lanes again then the play-action pass should be set up nicely for Gardner.

This game will not be easy, but the keys to winning are simple. Limit the turnovers (win the turnover battle), pressure Rees into making bad decisions and run the ball well to set up the play-action passing game. That’s how Michigan will win.