When Michigan and Notre Dame met in Ann Arbor two years ago, it was the first night game in Michigan history. The atmosphere was electric and the uniforms were different, but it was a classic Michigan-Notre Dame battle. In the end, Michigan pulled off an improbably comeback thanks to a monster game by Denard Robinson.
Last season, the new tradition of night games continued, this time in South Bend. The Irish defense stifled Robinson and the rest of the Michigan offense all night long, forcing six turnovers and holding the Wolverines without a touchdown.
Now, Robinson is gone and Devin Gardner holds the reigns to the Michigan offense. With six starts under his belt, having started the final five games in 2012, Gardner is certainly no slouch. He played receiver against Notre Dame last season, which will undoubtedly help his preparation for the Irish defense this week.
|Michigan Stadium – 8pm EST – ESPN
|Notre Dame Head Coach:
||Brian Kelly (4th season)
||81-33 (28-11 at ND)
||Chuck Martin (2nd season)
||Bob Diaco (4th season)
||13 (5 offense, 8 defense)
||12-1 (BCS Runner-up)
||ND 13 – UM 6 (2012)
||Michigan leads 23-16-1
|Record in Ann Arbor:
||Michigan leads 13-7
|Last 10 Meetings
||Michigan leads 6-4
|Last ND win in Ann Arbor:
Notre Dame enters having won 13 of its last 14, but that one loss was a big one in the BCS National Championship game against Alabama. The Crimson Tide exposed the Irish in every facet of the game, sending Brian Kelly’s squad into the offseason on a sour note despite a season in which it played above its head.
Thirteen starters return if you count Tommy Rees who didn’t start last year but started in 2011. But the biggest loss is middle linebacker Manti Te’o who virtually willed the team to the title game.
The Irish opened the 2013 campaign with a 28-6 win over a Temple team that went just 4-7 last season and might be even worse this year with a new quarterback, running back, receiving corps, and re-tooled offensive line. Despite just three returning offensive starters, the Owls managed to rush for 4.6 yards per carry and throw for 228 yards on the vaunted Notre Dame defense. The 362 total yards were more than Temple recorded in nine of its 11 games last season, and they had a 1,000-yard rusher then.
Most Notre Dame faithful have been downplaying the perceived struggles of the defense, convinced that they will rise to the occasion against a real opponent like Michigan. But only time will tell. Let’s take a look at the Irish and what to expect on both sides of the ball.
Michigan defense vs Notre Dame offense: When Notre Dame has the ball
The Notre Dame offense put up a lot of yards against Temple last week but managed just 28 points, which does nothing to show that it will be any more improved than last season’s 26 points per game average. In fact, eight of Temple’s 11 opponents last season put up 28 or more points against the Owls, including 4-8 Maryland (36 points), 3-9 USF (28), and 2-10 Army (32).
The guy at the helm is Tommy Rees, who has already been given the nickname “Reesus” by the Notre Dame faithful. That’s pretty bold for a group of fans – and a coach – who had no faith in him the past two seasons. It also lends itself to some great headlines if Michigan wins, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
The senior, who started 12 games in 2011 before losing the job to Everett Golson last season, completed 16-of-23 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns last week, and if you listen to Notre Dame fans talk about him you would think it happened against Alabama. Alas, it was against a Temple defense ranked 115th nationally in pass efficiency defense a year ago. That means only five teams in the country were worse than the Owls. Rees has surely improved since the last two seasons, but let’s see what he does against a good defense before anointing him the chosen one.
He does some talented weapons to throw to in TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels. Jones caught six passes for 138 yards last Saturday and also caught a touchdown pass against Michigan in 2011. He led the Irish with 50 receptions and four touchdowns last season and despite being just 5’11″, is a solid number one receiver. Daniels is the bigger receiver at 6’1″, 203 pounds and caught two of the three touchdown passes last week. He caught 31 passes for 490 yards in 2012 and was one of the few bright spots for the Irish in the BCS National Championship, catching six passes for 115 yards against Alabama. He also led the Irish with 15.8 yards per reception, and that was evident against Temple with his three receptions for 69 yards.
Aside from those two, there isn’t much else in terms of proven receivers, but tight end Troy Niklas is sure to become the next in the recent line of talented tight ends. He had just five catches for 75 yards and a touchdown last season behind Tyler Eifert, but caught a 66-yard touchdown on Saturday.
Michigan's safeties absolutely cannot allow DaVaris Daniels to beat them deep (Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)
The backfield is where questions lie after the departure of last year’s top two, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood. The pair combined for 1,659 yards and nine touchdowns. Stepping in is George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle. Atkinson was the team’s third leading rusher last season with 51 carries for 361 yards and five touchdowns, and he led the Irish with 7.1 yards per carry. He has good size, 6’1″, 220 pounds, but explosive speed when he gets in the open field. He rushed eight times for 34 yards and the only rushing touchdown of the game last Saturday.
Carlisle started his career at USC before transferring to Notre Dame. He missed the spring with a broken collarbone, but showed enough to replace Riddick’s role. Against Temple, he rushed seven times for 68 yards, 45 of which came on one play.
Cam McDaniel also figures into the mix. He’s the guy who ran into the backwards gauntlet during fall camp. He got the most carries (12) last week and rushed for 65 yards.
The offensive line is anchored by fifth-year senior left tackle Zack Martin who, like Taylor Lewan, turned down the NFL Draft to come back for one last go-around. The second-team All-American has started 40 straight games. Left guard Chris Watt has started 27 straight and forms a very good left side of the line along with Martin. Nick Martin, Zack’s brother, assumed the center role, while Christian Lombard returns after starting all 13 games last season at left guard, and Ronnie Stanley, who many think is the eventual left tackle, starts at right tackle. It’s a solid unit that has a lot of experience and has paved the way for the running game to improve from 92nd to 54th to 38th nationally during Brian Kelly’s tenure.
As you can see, the Irish have abundant talent on offense to be sure, but it remains to be seen whether the offense will be able to win games or whether it will continue to rely on the defense. Big plays were the name of the game against Temple as the first two drives included four plays of 32 yards or more, two going for touchdowns. After that, the Irish offense punted four times, missed two field goals, scored two touchdowns, and fumbled once. That’s not exactly an effective offense, especially against a team like Temple.
Look for Michigan to keep the safeties back so as to not get beat deep like Temple did often. The Irish offense likes to use play action to set up the deep ball, so Cam Gordon and Jarrod Wilson cannot afford to get beat deep. The linebackers are fast enough and smart enough to handle the run game without safety support. ND also likes to get the ball to Jones in space behind the line of scrimmage or on crossing routes, but they won’t be as effective against Michigan’s defense as they were against Temple’s. Despite the gaudy yards last week, I just don’t see this Irish offense as better than last year’s that put up just 13 points on Michigan’s defense. Unless ND can gash Michigan with the run game, expect the safeties to stay back and prevent the big play.
Michigan offense vs Notre Dame defense: When Michigan has the ball
It’s no secret that the strength of the Notre Dame defense is the ferocious front. The combination of Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt is as good as it gets in college football. Nix is a bowling ball at 342 pounds and, while many feel Tuitt has what it takes to Justin Tuck’s career sack record at ND. The AP second-team All-American recorded 12 sacks a year ago, including one against Michigan, and notched the only Irish sack of the game last week. Sophomore Sheldon Day is the other starter on the line and should benefit from the focus on Nix and Tuitt.
The linebackers are all talented even without Manti Te’o. Fifth-year senior Dan Fox is the veteran with 23 starts under his belt and is a good run stopper, though not the most fleet afoot, while fellow senior Prince Shembo has 22 career starts and is the “Cat,” or rush linebacker. He recorded 7.5 sacks in 2012. Carlo Calabrese has been around for a while, starting eight games in 2010, falling back to a reserve role in 2011, and starting five last season, but like Fox is good in run stopping. The other starter is highly touted freshman Jaylon Smith. He managed just one tackle, and although he may play like a freshman at times the talent is certainly there to be a star. Junior Jarrett Grace, who was predominantly a special teams player last season, also rotates in in the middle.
Shembo, Tuitt, and Nix form a ferocious defensive front (Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)
Both starting corners from last season are back, Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell. Jackson has good size (6’0″, 195) and picked off four passes last season. Russell improved as the season went on, eventually going toe-to-toe with USC receiver Marqise Lee. The duo will have the advantage over Michigan’s less experienced receivers, Jehu Chesson, Jeremy Jackson, and Joe Reynolds. Free safety Matthias Farley also returns after starting 11 games in 2012, but doesn’t have great speed, while strong safety Austin Collinsworth returns from a shoulder injury that held him out last season. They form a good but not great deep middle. Sophomore Elijah Shumate also rotates in.
Michigan’s offense was miserable in South Bend last season after two straight big games by Denard Robinson in 2010 and 2011. ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was determined not to let Denard beat them a third time and as a result the Irish defense forced six turnovers, including five straight interceptions. The good news is that Michigan’s offense is much more multi-faceted with Devin Gardner at the helm, instead of relying so heavily on the quarterback running the ball Gardner is certainly dangerous when he tucks and runs, but that’s not the first option.
Look for the offense to attack Notre Dame’s defense in three ways. First, run stretch plays to neutralize Nix in the middle and force the linebackers, especially the freshman Smith, to be in the right spot and make plays on the edge. MGoBlog broke down the stretch earlier in the week and hypothesized that it could be used against the Irish and I think he’s exactly right. Fitz was close to busting through for a bigger gain on those stretch plays a couple of times and don’t be surprised to see it run with Justice Hayes who has the speed to do so.
Second, attack the middle of the Irish defense and the flats with Drew Dileo, Dennis Norfleet, and the tight ends. I don’t trust the outside receivers against Notre Dame’s corners, although Jeremy Gallon has a knack for getting open, so he’ll get his catches and yards, but the others haven’t proven anything yet. ND doesn’t have Te’o, who was great at dropping into coverage and being in the right spot to pick off or break up passes. Gardner, unlike Denard, is capable of seeing over the line to make those throws without them getting batted down or having to alter them to avoid getting batted down. Get the ball to Dileo and Norfleet in space and make the linebackers tackle them in space.
Finally, after the stretch is run with effectiveness, I guarantee you will see some play-action off of it which will either get Gardner in open space to run or find Devin Funchess down the seam for a big play.
The other third: Special Teams
Kyle Brindza was the starting kicker last season, making 23-of-31 field goal attempts, which set the school record for field goals made in a season. But Nick Tausch, who made 14-of-17 field goals way back in 2009, got the first field goal attempt of the season against Temple and promptly missed it. Brindza attempted the second one and also missed it. Both are fully capable of making field goals, so last week’s performance can probably be chalked up to a fluke. Brindza also handled the punting duties, booting five punts for a 41.2-yard average.
Atkinson is the kick return specialist, and while he averaged just 20 yards per return last Saturday, he has taken two back for touchdowns in his career. Jones handles punt returns and Notre Dame fans considered his 7.7 yard average per return a cause for excitement considering last year’s 2.2 average.
However, there is some concern about the ND kick coverage unit which allowed Temple to average 29.3 yards per return, including a 39-yarder. That bodes will for Norfleet who is sure to break on soon, and even if he doesn’t take a kick all the way, it should help give Michigan good field position to start its drives.
Yes, Notre Dame is the defending BCS runner-up, but let’s not forget how close the 12-1 season was to being a four- or five-loss season. It was one of those magical years where everything goes just right. But that can only last for so long. The defense is still very good, but the heart and soul of that defense was Te’o and he will be missed against opponents tougher than Temple. Combine that with a more dimensional Michigan offense and we’ll see a much different ball game than we saw in South Bend last September.
Michigan’s defense is also faster and deeper all around and will focus on not giving up the big play, instead forcing Rees to make the short and intermediate throws and the Irish running backs to carry the load. If Michigan’s safeties do get sucked up Rees and Daniels will make them pay and it could turn into a shootout. But I don’t see that happening. It will be close all the way but Michigan will feed off of the electric Big House crowd under the lights and get a late Gibbons field goal to put the game away.
Michigan 27 – Notre Dame 17