Posts Tagged ‘Brian Kelly’

Michigan and Notre Dame to close rivalry under the lights

Thursday, February 20th, 2014


UM-ND

The last meeting for the foreseeable future between college football’s top two winningest programs will take place the same way it has the past three seasons — under the lights. NBC will televise the Michigan-Notre Dame game at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 6 at 7:30 p.m.

Night games have been good to Michigan as the Wolverines have won two of the three played, but the one loss was two years ago in South Bend when Michigan was held without a touchdown and fell 13-6.

While Michigan leads the overall series 24-16-1, Michigan hasn’t had as much success at Notre Dame Stadium, trailing 8-7-1 all-time. This fall’s matchup will give the Wolverines a chance to even it up before the teams take an indefinite hiatus.

Michigan has won four of the last five in the series and six of the last eight, but that doesn’t mean the Wolverines have dominated. Last season’s 41-30 victory in Michigan Stadium was the first to be decided by more than one score since 2008. The previous four were decided by an average of less than five points. In fact, each of Michigan’s wins from 2009-11 was decided in the final two minutes.

It will be the second game of the season for both teams. Michigan opens on Aug. 30 at home against Appalachian State while Notre Dame hosts Rice.

It’s safe to say that there will be a lot of hype entering the final meeting and both teams will want to end the series as the victor. Notre Dame passed Michigan in all-time winning percentage at the end of the 2013 season, so a Michigan win on Sept. 6 would likely give the Wolverines the lead back.

Final Look: Notre Dame

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013


With a breather game, or as Brady Hoke calls it a “glazed donut game,” coming up, the huge win over Notre Dame is still fresh on our minds. The Irish came to Ann Arbor for the final time and in front of a record-setting Big House crowd Michigan laid it to them. So let’s take one last look back at the big plays, numbers, stats, and observations from Michigan’s 41-30 win.

Three big moments

1. Gallon’s pinball catch and run

Notre Dame won the coin toss and elected to receive, but Michigan forced the Irish to punt it away. On Michigan’s first possession, the Wolverines showed some trickery with a jet sweep and a reverse, but the drive only netted three points. The defense forced another three-and-out, and on Michigan’s next possession, Devin Gardner found Jeremy Gallon over the middle. The little bulldog bounced off a pair of defenders, one of which tried to strip the ball, got a great block from Jehu Chesson, and raced the rest of the way to the end zone for Michigan’s first touchdown of the game. It put Michigan ahead 10-0 and signaled to all involved that the Wolverines came to play.

2. Michigan’s game clinching drive

Blake Countess picked off two passes, one to set up a touchdown and one to seal the game (MGoBlue.com)

After Notre Dame pulled within four with nine minutes to play, Michigan needed an answer. The Irish had seized the momentum that Michigan had spent the first three quarters building up and Michigan’s previous two drives had resulted in a Notre Dame interception in the end zone for six points and a shanked punt that gave the Irish great field position. Two drives, six plays, five total yards leading to 10 Irish points.

If ever there was a time for a good drive it was then, and the Wolverines answered, going 75 yards in 10 plays, consuming 4:57, and pulling ahead by 11 points. The drive started with an incomplete pass, but on second down, Fitz Toussaint rushed 22 yards to the Michigan 47. Two plays later, Toussaint caught a pass out of the backfield and raced 31 yards to the Notre Dame 21 and suddenly the momentum had swung.

Gardner lobbed the ball to Gallon, but it appeared to be picked off. However, the Irish defender was flagged for pass interference. Two plays later, Gardner tried to connect with Jake Butt in the end zone, but again Notre Dame was called for pass interference, this time giving Michigan the ball on the 2-yard line. After a Gardner rush for a loss of two, he found Drew Dileo in the end zone for the touchdown. Aided by the two Irish penalties, which were the correct calls no doubt, Michigan got just the drive it needed to put the game away.

3. Blake Countess comes up big

The redshirt sophomore who missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL had his hands full with an explosive Notre Dame passing attack on Saturday. The Irish used big plays to beat Temple in Week 1 and Greg Mattison made not giving up big plays priority number one for the game.

Late in the first half, after Michigan had kicked a field goal to take a 20-13 lead, Notre Dame was trying to drive down and tie the game heading into the locker room. George Atkinson III had returned the kickoff 26 yards and then a 15-yard late hit penalty was tacked on giving Notre Dame the ball at their own 42-yard line. But on the second play, Countess stepped in front of an Irish receiver and picked it off. He then raced 30 yards to the ND 23 and the Wolverines punched it in to take a two touchdown lead into the half.

Then, after Michigan’s big fourth quarter drive to go up by 11, Notre Dame was trying to fight its way back. Rees was methodically picking apart the defense, picking up 12 yards here, seven yards there, and the Irish reached the Michigan 6-yard line. On 1st-and-goal, Rees fired a pass into the middle of the endzone, but it bounced off Raymon Taylor’s leg and Countess grabbed it for a touchback and sealed the win.

The numbers game

115,901: The official attendance, which set the all-time record for largest crowd to ever watch a football game, college or pro

400: The win was Michigan’s 400th victory in Michigan Stadium since it opened in 1927. The Wolverines are 400-120-15 in the Big House

1940: The last time #98 had been worn by a Michigan football player until Devin Gardner was given Tom Harmon’s Legends jersey

$200,000,000: The donation given to the university by Stephen M. Ross, who served as the honorary coin flip captain for the game

Sept. 16, 2006: The last time a Michigan receiver caught three touchdown passes in a game. Mario Manningham was the one to do it and Jeremy Gallon matched it on Saturday

184: Gallon’s receiving yards, which ranks as the sixth best single game performance in Michigan history

224: The number career points scored by Brendan Gibbons after making two field goals and five extra points, passing Desmond Howard in career scoring

Drive Chart
ND
UM
ND
UM
ND
UM
ND
UM
ND
UM
ND
UM
ND
UM
ND
UM
ND
UM
UM
ND
UM
ND
UM

*Hover over team initials to see drive statistics

Three observations

1. The defense

Despite the win there has been quite a bit of talk since Saturday night about Michigan’s inability to get a consistent – or any – pass rush on Tommy Rees. That concern is certainly understandable, but I think it’s important to remember two things.

First, the Notre Dame offensive line is very good. It is anchored by All-American left tackle Zack Martin, has a left guard who was starting his 28th straight game, a right guard who was a returning starter from last season, a right tackle who will likely take over for Martin next season, and Martin’s younger brother at center. The line gave up just 18 sacks all last season, the same number Michigan’s line allowed, and has improved the running game from 92nd to 54th to 38th nationally the past three seasons under Brian Kelly.

Secondly, Greg Mattison’s defensive game plan was to sit back, give up the short passes, and not allow the big plays. There were very few blitzes, especially from the secondary, so the rush was mostly dependent on the front four. Much of the time, Notre Dame had extra blockers in to protect Rees, so it’s understandable that the line wasn’t able to generate much pressure. If it struggles against Akron, UConn, or Minnesota in the next few weeks, then we should start to worry, but I think Mattison has enough quality bodies to rotate in that when all is said and done this will be a pretty good line and it’s only going to get better.

What Michigan’s defense has done very well overall is flying to the ball and tackling. Remember the Rich Rod days when it seemed that tackling was a lost art? Those days are gone and it was no more evident than on Saturday. Michigan’s secondary sat back and kept the ball in front of them and then made the open field tackles needed to keep the Irish from yards after catch. These guys aren’t the best defense in the country, but they are very well coached and it shows.

Drew Dileo is a proven pass catcher but who else will step up? (MGoBlue.com)

2. The offensive line

On the flip side of the previous observation, one of the main questions coming into the game was how would Michigan’s young offensive line hold up against Notre Dame’s ferocious defensive front. On paper, Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller, and Kyle Kalis going up against Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt seems like a huge mismatch, but aside from the one interception in the end zone – which is as much on Devin Gardner as it is on the line – the men in the winged helmets all but neutralized the guys in gold.

Nix III tallied four tackles (one for loss), Tuitt didn’t make a stop, Michigan ran for 4.3 yards per carry – which isn’t great but it was effective – and Gardner was sacked once. Our friends over at Her Loyal Sons charted every Michigan offensive play and found that Notre Dame blitzed on 63 percent of them. On 24 percent of Michigan’s offensive plays (roughly a fourth) Notre Dame brought at least six rushers. Gardner did a good job of getting the ball of quickly, but the line did a very good job of keeping him upright.

3. Who else will step up in the passing game?

Gardner shredded the Notre Dame pass defense to the tune of 294 yards, which is more passing yards than the Irish allowed in any game last season except for Oklahoma. But 184 of those went to Jeremy Gallon. Seven other players caught passes – one being Fitz Toussaint out of the backfield on that final, game-clinching drive. Gardner’s comfort level with Gallon is obvious, but sooner or later opponents are going to start game planning Gallon out of the offense and other receivers will need to step up.

Drew Dileo certainly capable and showed that with the game-clinching touchdown catch, running a great route and catching the ball. But where is the rest of the production going to come from? Devin Funchess has five catches through two games, Jeremy Jackson is who he is at this point, and the jury is still out on Joe Reynolds who did catch a deep pass in Week 1. Jehu Chesson still hasn’t caught a pass, and I don’t think he’s even been targeted, though he has done well blocking.

I’m not trying to be negative or picky, but I want to see others step up in the passing game. I want to see what Chesson, Reynolds, and Jackson can do, and we should get to see that in the next couple of weeks. I do think Gallon is talented enough to break 1,000 yards this season, but we can’t rely on him to have a huge night every game, so let’s see more from the other guys.

Notre Dame postgame transcript: Brady Hoke

Sunday, September 8th, 2013


(Justin Potts, M&GB)

“You guys ready to go home? It’s late.”

On the plan of running wide early in the game…
“Well, we thought that we had a chance to get the edge and with Mike (Schofield) and Taylor (Lewan), the two tackles, we felt that we could take over block, zone it out, and then got a couple good blocks by (Devin) Funchess. He’d motion over or be stationary there and that let Fitz (Toussaint) determine where he wants to cut and I thought Fitz made some really good runs tonight. He had some really good cuts.”

On how the offensive line was able to neutralize Notre Dame’s defensive line…
“Well, I don’t know if neutralize is the right word, but at the same time they had some success too. I thought the three interior guys, they take a lot of pride, Taylor and Mike have really taught those guys well (and) Darryl Funk has. They just, good fundamentals and really wanted to finish every block.”

On breaking two records, Gibbons’ consecutive field goals and the attendance record…
“It’s nice to see Gibby because a couple years ago, to me, he wasn’t really kicking the ball as well. To see the work ethic that he put forth and the confidence that his teammates have in him is part of it. I think having the all time attendance record, I think that’s pretty cool, and it was a great atmosphere.”

On what he was disappointed by with the defense…
“You’ve got to give Tommy Rees some credit. I think he’s a good quarterback and I think he’s proven that against us now three years in a row. He’s accurate. They have some big play receivers. We were playing mostly off until we did play man. We were going to give him some of those throws and I think what was disturbing a little bit was they ran the ball in there a couple of times when we were set up defensively well enough to where they shouldn’t, even though we played mostly a seven man front all day.”

On the defense’s ability to come up with a big play when needed at the end of the game…
“Well, that was critical. I think Greg (Mattison), especially in the second half, mixed some things up from a front standpoint to some coverage standpoint, some zone blitzes and some zero blitzes, and I thought it worked out pretty well.”

On whether he spoke to Devin Gardner after the interception…
“Every time he comes off the field we talk. Maybe we’re going to need more, like I told him tonight, we’re going to need more because we were struggling a little bit defensively. They were efficient sometimes. When he came off the field (after the interception) I didn’t have to say a word to him because he was beating himself up all the way off the field. It was one of those things that he knows better and I’ll go back to the same thing (I’ve said before), it’s a blessing and a curse when you have that ability.”

On Gardner’s athletic ability allowing him to get that pass off instead of just taking a sack…
“Yeah, there’s no question. He’s very conscientious in trying to do things that are going to help the team and stay away from those negatives.”

On how it felt to beat Notre Dame…
“Well, it’s always nice to win. It’s just such a great rivalry and to be able to be on the right side of it always feels good. It also tells you a lot (about) where you’re at when we play them early in the year, where you’re at as a program, what we need to do if we want to win the Big Ten Championship. I think we learned a lot about that because of the team we played.”

On whether the offense achieved the balance he wanted it to…
“That’s probably what we’d like to be, that 55-45, somewhere in there, run-pass. We always like to run it a little more, especially with the tailback if we’re having success. We had some tonight.”

On  Jeremy Gallon and the work he has put in to become an elite receiver…
“You know, Jeremy is, I guess I would say first of, he’s a very very tough kid. As well as he catches the ball, finds those seams and creases, he blocks. And when he blocks, he gets on people. Catching the ball is important for him, but he loves to block. And I think how he comes to work every day, because he does come to work every day, and how he competes is probably one of his strengths.”

On Gardner storming off the field…
“Well, storming off the field…I think there’s different storms that can happen. It wasn’t one that I think a whole lot of people would notice, but when good things and bad things happened during the course of the game I think he was pretty even as far as demeanor and how he looked.”

On whether Michigan took it personal this week that Notre Dame ended the rivalry…
“You know, I don’t think so. I think we were playing Notre Dame and I think they always think that – and I’m going back to the Michigan teams that I coached on when I was an assistant – and I just think that there are certain games that you get very excited about, those rivalry games. So I don’t think there was any kind of…I mean, we just…we want to win. And we want to win every week. And we want to win and improve as we win.”

On at what point he realized he needed to tell Devin we need more…
“I say that every game. You can get a feel for a game. We went three and out the first possession defensively, and I just think we always know we’re going to need more.”

On the two interceptions by Blake Countess…
“Yeah, the last one, number one, being an athlete and catching the ball that was kicked, but also being in the right place at the right time and just playing through the play. He was pursuing towards the ball and that’s what you like to see. The first one gave us great field position, a great opportunity, and it was well needed at the time.”

On where the offense is now in terms of the style he wants it to be compared to what it was with Denard Robinson at quarterback…
“Well, number one, we were fortunate to have Denard. Al (Borges) was smart enough to conform what we do with the abilities that you have on your team – and you need to do that in all, offense, defense, and kicking game. I would say this is more like what we’d like to do. We’re going to be multiple enough personnel-wise, multiple enough from a formation standpoint – two backs, three backs, whatever it takes, another offensive tackle in, a lot of different things that we like to do – but this was more like what we want to do.”

On how important was it for Devin to make plays with his legs, picking up a lot of critical first downs…
“Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. It is critical. When he doesn’t see what he wants to first and second read he does a nice job pulling the ball down and getting what he can, and we’re fortunate that he has that kind of ability.”

On what he learned about Devin in this signature game that will help for the bigger games going forward…
“I don’t know if I learned a whole lot different than I knew, because I get to see him every day. But I would say the thing that you take form it is he made some very good plays but a the same time he’s got to be more consistent once in a while.”

On the one lasting memory he will take away from tonight, the last home game against Notre Dame…
“Probably two things…three things. Probably winning for maybe the last time. 115,000 and a sea of maize. And it didn’t necessarily happen tonight, but honoring Tom Harmon and having Mark (Harmon) here. It was special. He visited with our team and it was really a special thing.”

On the injuries…
“AJ (Williams) got a little bit of an ankle. He came back in, probably could have gone, but would not have been as effective as we’d like him to be. Taylor’s fine, he got poked. Jeremy’s got a little muscle that he’s got to work through.”

On whether he brought up Brian Kelly calling it a regional rivalry this week…
“Never did.”

On what he learned about the team…
“What we learned a little bit about our team is we can be a good football team if we do a better job playing the run, if we’ll be a little more – and this is all defensive perspective to some degree to start with – be a little tighter in coverage. I think we’ll have a little more confidence to do that. I think in the kicking game, Dennis (Norfleet) had a couple of good kickoff returns. I think they were blocked decently well. Obviously, we gave up some field position, had a kickoff out of bounds, and a punt that wasn’t exactly like we’d like to punt the ball, and they had a return. So those are things that we need to work on so that they don’t happen again.”

Michigan-Notre Dame game preview

Friday, September 6th, 2013


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.

Quick Facts
Michigan Stadium – 8pm EST – ESPN
Notre Dame Head Coach: Brian Kelly (4th season)
Coaching Record: 81-33 (28-11 at ND)
Offensive Coordinator: Chuck Martin (2nd season)
Defensive Coordinator: Bob Diaco (4th season)
Returning Starters: 13 (5 offense, 8 defense)
Last Season: 12-1 (BCS Runner-up)
Last Meeting: ND 13 – UM 6 (2012)
All-Time Series: 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: 2005

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.

Prediction

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

Friend vs Foe: Notre Dame

Thursday, September 5th, 2013


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.

Big Ten football coaches weekly teleconference transcript (Week 2): Brady Hoke

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013


Brady Hoke spoke for a little over 10 minutes on Tuesday afternoon, answering questions about his thoughts on the Notre Dame rivalry, recruiting battles with the Irish, Taylor Lewan, FCS opponents, and San Diego State.

Opening Statement

“We’ve got a huge football game this weekend, big game against a great rival that we’ve played 29 of the last 35 years. I can remember being here with Coach Schembechler when he was still alive and in the building. He would always tell us that that’s how you gauge your team, in this great game against Notre Dame, and you find out a lot about where you are as a football team. So it will be an exciting atmosphere, it will be a lot of fun. We obviously need to play a heck of a lot better than we did last week. We’ve got to clean up some turnovers, we’ve got to clean up targeting as far as when you look at offensive linemen getting up to the next level or those combo blocks taking them over. And defensively we’ve got to hit some runs better and play better in the back end.”

Adam Rittenberg, ESPN.com: How intense were the recruiting battles between Michigan and Notre Dame when you were an assistant under Lloyd Carr?

“They’re a national school, a national brand like we are, so those battles then and today for the student athletes I think were similar in a lot of ways when you look at universities from an education standpoint and goals that we have for our student athletes. I think we look at a lot of the same kids.”

Adam Rittenberg, ESPN.com: With Notre Dame focusing more on recruiting the southeast, are you seeing less of them on the recruiting trail than you were before?

“I don’t think so. I think it goes cyclical a little bit, how many scholarships you have to offer, sometimes positionally what you’re looking for, all those things. But believe me, we bump into them enough.”

Dennis Dodd, CBSSports.com: If ND-Michigan and Oklahoma-Nebraska can go away because of conference realignment, are you worried about losing traditions in college football?

“Yeah, as a guy who grew up loving college football and grew up loving those games, those big games, were far and few between televised nationally, but you’d always have the Nebraska-Oklahoma game, Notre Dame-Michigan, USC-UCLA. Those were always games that you were interested in, and obviously Michigan and Ohio. So yeah I hope for college football that this series comes back and I know we have two more games, but I hope it comes back.”

Dennis Dodd, CBSSports.com: What was your favorite besides Michigan-Ohio State?

“I would probably say the Notre Dame-Michigan game. Just as far as they’re such a national brand and we are. There were always people in your school or in your community that were staunch Notre Dame fans.”

Teddy Greenstein, Chicago Tribune: What are the most important things that Taylor Lewan has done since deciding to come back last winter?

“I think number one, his leadership that he’s provided since that day in January. How he attacked the weight room, how he went about his business, he brought a lot of guys with him. I think his commitment level and I say that just because I’ve seen what he does in practice, what he does in meetings, in team situations and then individual situations and I think his play. He wants to master it. He doesn’t want to have minuses on his gradsheet at the end of the game.”

Teddy Greenstein, Chicago Tribune: Were you surprised when Brian Kelly called it a regional game?

“Everybody sees it differently and I think Devin (Gardner) spoke really well yesterday about it. We all look at things in this world differently. I think that’s his perspective and that’s fine. I just grew up a little differently about this football game.”

Eric Olson, AP: In the wake of several FCS schools beating FBS schools in Week 1, do you think games against FCS schools will go away with the playoff format starting next season?

“Number one, I think we opened up with Alabama last year and some people probably think we were crazy. Personally, I think it was probably one of the best things we’ve done. No one likes to lose, obviously, but I think it taught us a lot as a staff, taught us a lot as a team (about) where we want to get to and what we need to do. I think the Notre Dame rivalry is such a great game to play. I think there’s a balance somewhere in there, but I think if they’re truly going to take strength of schedule in deciding who’s going to be in the national championship, then I think you need to play a strong schedule.”

Eric Olson, AP: Do you think in some cases playing the 120th best FBS school versus playing a top FCS school changes things somewhat?

“Well, there’s some great coaches out there at all levels and there’s some teams that through their recruiting or taking some bounceback guys that help you from year to year. But I don’t know if there’s any difference to be honest with you.”

Jonathan Schopp, Spartan Nation: How has this Notre Dame team evolved from the last time you played them?

“I think offensively, obviously, you’ve got a little bit different quarterback, but you’ve also got the quarterback who’s got right now the all time percentage in completions. He’s given us fits the last two years that we’ve played against him. I think he’s a tremendous quarterback. I think he’s very accurate. I think their team itself, they’re at the point where Brian has been there four years, he’s been able to recruit well and replace guys well. So numbers can fool you a little bit from last week, but you see the technique and the fundamentals they’re playing with, you see how hard they play. Their front seven defensively is still a tremendous front seven.”

Jonathan Schopp, Spartan Nation: What do you expect about this week’s environment and how unique was it last time Notre Dame played at Michigan?

“Well, for being here eight years before as an assistant and coming back, it was exciting as any stadium I’ve been around. The evening, the dusk and all that kind of stuff, and the fans being in the stands when warm-ups were going on, just the environment itself obviously, the game was one that was down to the wire, so it kept everybody into it.”

Stefanie Loh, San Diego Union Tribune: Have you talked to the San Diego State coaching staff at all this week and provided any insider info on how to beat Ohio State?

“Well, I don’t have that message, I can tell ya. I talk to Brian Sipe probably a couple times a month. That’s a great staff and Rocky (Long)’s a great football coach. He’ll have something unique, probably defensively, that will be a little different than Ohio is used to getting. But those kids I can guarantee you are going to play hard.”

Stefanie Loh, San Diego Union Tribune: Are you surprised by the fact that they dropped the opener to an FCS team?

“Again, I think the question really is about some of those teams. Sometimes there’s some awfully good football players that started their careers somewhere else and ended up for one reason or another back at an FCS school.”

Gannett News Service: Why did you feel Brian Sipe would be a good fit for the quarterback coach position at San Diego State?

“Well, number one, he had won four regional – in California they break it up a little differently – championships. I had gone by there, not that he had a player that we were recruiting at Michigan, but it’s Brian Sipe for God sakes, one of the best to play the game, and have the ability to visit with him, so we got to know each other, probably a little bit of a relationship, and then knowing what his teams did and how they played. You have a guy who was one of the best to ever play at San Diego State and has such love for that university. I knew he could coach the quarterback, that was the least of my worries. He was a great fit and a guy that we wouldn’t have had some of the success we’ve had if it wouldn’t have been for Brian Sipe.”

First Look: Notre Dame

Monday, September 2nd, 2013


Notre Dame and Michigan both opened the season with wins over lesser opponents on Saturday, setting up the first big game of the season for both teams. First games are always difficult to gauge with new starters being broken in, rust being shaken off, and plays and formations being tested against actual competition. Add in the quality of opponent and there isn’t a whole lot that can be gleaned from Michigan and Notre Dame’s first games.

But there is a game to be played in Week 2, and it’s a remarkably important one for both teams, regardless of how Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly views the rivalry. The reality is that it is college football’s most historic rivalry, dating back to 1887, and the two teams rank first and second in all-time wins. This week’s matchup will be the last in Ann Arbor for at least the near future, which means, aside from this season’s implications, both teams have a lot at stake in terms of bragging rights.

Let’s take a look at how Michigan and Notre Dame compare through the first week of the season.

Notre Dame Statistics & Michigan Comparison
Notre DameMichigan Rank Opponent Rank
Points Per Game 28.0 | 59.0 T-59 | 7 6.0 | 9.0 11 | 22
Rushing Yards 188252 134 | 66
Rush Avg. Per Game 188.0 | 252.0 50 | 29 134.0 | 66.0 49 | T-12
Avg. Per Rush 5.4 | 5.1 4.6 | 2.3
Passing Yards 355221 228 | 144
Pass Avg. Per Game 355.0221.0 13 | 57 228.0 | 144.0 65 |21
Total Offense 543463 362 | 210
Total Off Avg. Per Game 543.0463.0 T-18 | 42 362.0 | 210.0 T-50 | 10
Kick Return Average 20.0 | 26.5 63 | 23 29.3 | 21.6 102 | 66
Punt Return Average 7.7 | 10.0 37 | 30 2.0 | 0.0 T-47 | T-7
Avg. Time of Possession 31:5334:16 35 | T-13 28:07| 25:44
3rd Down Conversion Pct 38% | 67% T-61 | 10 40% | 29% T-62 | T-30
Sacks Allowed-Yards/By-Yards 1-5 | 1-3 T-21 | T-21 1-4 | 4-22 T-59 | T-9
Touchdowns Scored 4 | 8 1 | 0
Field Goals-Attempts 0-21-1 0-2 | 3-3
Red Zone Scores (1-2) 50% | (7-7) 100% T-96 | T-1 (1-3) 33% | (3-3) 100% T-1 | T-41
Red Zone Touchdowns (1-2) 50% | (6-7) 86% (1-3) 33% | (0-3) 0%

Three stats stand out most from Notre Dame’s first game of the season. First, the 355 passing yards against Temple, 346 of which were put up by quarterback Tommy Rees. What’s more is that he did it on just 16 completions, averaging 21.6 yards per, and he completed 70 percent of his throws. The past three seasons, Rees completed 63.6 percent of his throws and averaged 11 yards per completion. It’s impossible to tell whether the increase in completion percentage and yards per completion are indicative of Rees’ progression or the quality of opponent, but we will get a much better idea this Saturday.

Tommy Rees threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns against Temple (Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports)

Second, the Notre Dame defense gave up 228 passing yards and 362 total yards to a Temple team that averaged just 120.8 passing yards and 322 total yards per game last season. Temple quarterback Reilly Connor threw it 46 times, completing half, and was sacked just once. Last season, Notre Dame’s defense was one of the best in the nation, allowing just 305 yards per game, and recording 34 sacks. With most of the starters returning, it’s a little troubling that Temple, which went just 4-7 in 2012, was able to move the ball so well against the Irish.

Finally, Notre Dame’s special teams were underwhelming. The Irish missed both field goal attempts, a 39-yarder by Nick Tausch in the second quarter and a 44-yarder by Kyle Brindza in the fourth. In addition, the kick coverage unit gave up an average of 29.3 yards per return, including a long of 39. In a rivalry like Michigan-Notre Dame, when three of the last four meetings have come down to the final minute, a missed field goal or a big return given up could make the difference. Michigan has a kicker who is currently tied for the school’s consecutive field goals made record, and if the Irish can’t shore that up before Saturday, Dennis Norfleet could give Michigan great field position all day.

With all the yards the Irish accumulated in the opener, the ND offense put up only 28 points against a team that allowed 31 in 2012. Maryland, USF, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati, Army and Syracuse each put up more points against the Owls. In fact, after Notre Dame’s first two possessions, which covered 164 yards in just six plays, the Irish offense went punt, punt, missed field goal, touchdown, touchdown, missed field goal, punt, punt, fumble. Nine possessions that resulted in two touchdowns. Rees’ big numbers through the air are a little bit hollow, but even so, the Notre Dame faithful is giddy about a 28-6 win over a team that likely won’t reach a bowl game again this season.

Regardless, we’ll find out a lot about both teams by the time midnight hits on Saturday. A Michigan win will likely catapult the Wolverines up the polls, while a Notre Dame win will set up a big showdown with Michigan State two weeks later. Michigan has won the last three in Ann Arbor and three of the last four (and five of the last seven) overall.

Key Players
Passing Comp-Att Yards TD INT Long
Tommy Rees 16-23 346 3 0 66
Rushing Attempts Yards TD Long Average
Amir Carlisle 7 68 0 45 9.7
Cam McDaniel 12 65 0 18 5.4
George Atkinson III 8 34 1 14 4.2
Receiving Receptions Yards TD Long Average
TJ Jones 6 138 0 51 23.0
DaVaris Daniels 3 69 2 32 23.0
Chris Brown 3 57 0 33 19.0
Troy Niklas (TE) 1 66 1 66 66.0
Defense Solo Assisted Total Tackles TFL-Yds Sacks-Yds
Dan Fox (LB) 5 5 10 1-2 0-0
Carlo Calabrese (LB) 2 7 9 0-0 0-0
Jarrett Grace (LB) 4 3 7 0-0 0-0
Stephon Tuitt (DE) 2 1 3 1-4 1-4
Full Stats

2013 opponent preview: Notre Dame

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013


Yesterday we previewed Michigan State, so that leaves two teams left. Today, it’s time to showcase who we feel will be the second toughest team Michigan will face, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Previously, we previewed AkronCentral MichiganUConnMinnesotaIowaIndianaPenn StateNorthwestern, and Nebraska.

Overview

Not many expected Notre Dame to reach the BCS title game last season, but the Irish did just that, putting together one of those special seasons in which all the breaks go their way. Whether it was a last-minute drive to sneak by lowly Purdue, needing six turnovers to beat Michigan, benefiting from a questionable call to beat Stanford in overtime, slipping by BYU at home, a late comeback to top Pitt in overtime, or getting to face an injury-ravaged and barely recognizable USC squad, Notre Dame was a that close to four or five regular season losses.

As it was, the Irish didn’t stand a chance against the buzzsaw that was Alabama, but it was an exciting season nonetheless. Typically, when a team sees all the breaks go its way, it enters the next season with soaring expectations, but is prime to take a step back. Michigan saw that from 2011 to 2012 and Notre Dame faces the challenge of avoiding a letdown this season.

Tommy Rees has taken a lot of criticism from Brian Kelly over the years, but gets his chance to shine this season

Offense

The first letdown came on Memorial Day weekend when it was announced that quarterback Everett Golson was ineligible for the fall semester due to academic violations. Big things were expected of Golson after he broke onto the scene in 2012. Part of the reason the Irish squeaked by in more than a few games was because Brian Kelly played pretty conservatively offensively and relied heavily on the defense. The offense was supposed to take a big step forward with Golson’s maturation this year, but now Kelly will have to go back to the drawing board with either senior Tommy Rees, redshirt junior Andrew Hendrix, or true freshman Malik Zaire.

Rees actually has the most starting experience of any quarterback on the roster with 18 starts under his belt, but Kelly has never fully trusted him to run the offense. Zaire was a four-star recruit and has a similar skill set to Golson, which would allow Kelly to run his offense similarly to last season. But freshman mistakes will undoubtedly be made. Hendrix will get a chance to compete for the job, but may the odd man out.

At running back, the Irish will have to replace the graduated Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, who inexplicably left for the NFL only to go undrafted. George Atkinson III takes over the position by default. The 6’1”, 210-pound junior carried the ball just 51 times for 361 yards and five touchdowns last season, but provides a home run threat. Amir Carlisle, a former four-star who transferred from USC, has a lot of potential, but has been plagued by injuries, including a broken collarbone he suffered in the spring. Incoming freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston will get the chance to see the field right away as well.

There is production returning at receiver with T.J. Jones and DeVaris Daniels who combined for 81 receptions for 1,139 yards and four touchdowns. Jones has the tools to increase his production this season, and Daniels should be a solid No. 1 option if he can stay healthy all season. The Irish will have to replace the production lost by tight end Tyler Eifert’s departure, and Kelly expects junior Troy Niklas to step right in. With no true slot receiver, look for Kelly to use a lot of two-tight end sets or send the running back in motion into the slot fairly often.

The offensive line has two holes to fill, one at center and one at right guard. The center spot will likely be filled by Nick Martin, although if Matt Hegarty can recover from heart surgery, he’ll be in the mix. At right guard, Connor Hanratty started all spring, but isn’t the clear-cut starter yet. Christian Lombard may slide into the guard spot if Ronnie Stanley is able to lock up the right tackle position. What is for sure is the left side of the line where senior tackle Zack Martin and senior guard Chris Watt return.

Defense

While there are questions offensively, the defense should be strong once again despite the loss of its heart and soul, Manti Te’o. The front seven could be one of the best in the nation, led by the line combination of end Stephon Tuitt and nose guard Louis Nix III. If not for a hernia, Tuitt may have broken Justin Tuck’s single season sack record, but instead he finished with 12. Nix is very similar to Vince Wilfork of the New England Patriots. Both figure to be high NFL draft picks next spring. Kapron Lewis-Moore is gone, but Sheldon Day is the likely candidate to step into his vacancy at the other end spot.

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 31 Temple
Sept. 7 @ Michigan
Sept. 14 @ Purdue
Sept. 21 Michigan State
Sept. 28 Oklahoma
Oct. 5 Arizona State
Oct. 19 USC
Oct. 26 @ Air Force
Nov. 2 Navy
Nov. 9 @ Pittsburgh
Nov. 23 BYU
Nov. 30 @ Stanford

Three starters return at linebacker, including senior Prince Shembo at the “Cat” (or rush) position. Though slightly undersized, he has enormous strength and should show improvement in his second year as the starter. The other outside spot, the “Dog,” was supposed to be held by Danny Spond, a solid run stopper, but he recently chose to give up his career due to chronic migraines. His replacement may be highly touted freshman Jaylon Smith, but if Kelly decides to go with a player who has been on the roster more than a few months, it will likely be junior Ben Councell. In the middle, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese will share one the “Will” spot, while Jarrett Grace will replace Te’o at the “Mike.” He’s not as thick at this point as Te’o was, but has good sideline to sideline speed.

The secondary was a concern for the Irish heading into 2012, but played very well and returns all but safety Zeke Motta. Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell lock down the cornerback spots. Russell was a freshman All-American last season and is a budding superstar. Matthias Farley should hold down at free safety, while Elijah Shumate, Nick Baratti, and incoming five-star Max Redfield will contend for the strong safety job.

Special Teams

Kicker Kyle Brindza is back from a 23-of-31 season. He also may be the best option to replace Ben Turk for the punting duties. Atkinson will likely man the kick return duties again and the punt return spot is up for grabs.

Outlook

It should be another successful season for Notre Dame, but expectations will have to be lessened without Golson behind center. Trips to Michigan in week two and Stanford to close the season are the only road games that could give the Irish trouble. Michigan State, Oklahoma, and USC all come to South Bend. A slight regression from last year is to be expected, but a BCS bowl is well within reach.

What it means for Michigan

The final matchup with Notre Dame in the Big House for many years is sure to be a memorable one. Everybody remembers the inaugural Under the Lights game against the Irish two years ago when Michigan won in thrilling fashion, but last year’s turnover-filled loss was a forgettable one. The Wolverines would love nothing more than to send the Irish away from Ann Arbor in defeat, while Notre Dame would love to steal a win in its final trip to the real holy land of college football.

The game falls as the second game of the season for both teams after what are sure to be snoozers in Week 1. Michigan should have no trouble dispensing of Central Michigan, while Notre Dame gets Temple. Rest assured neither team will unveil its full arsenal in those games, saving looks for the big showdown. Win this one and Michigan has a very good chance to be unbeaten headed into November. It’s also a huge recruiting night, just as it was two years ago, so a Michigan win will do wonders for future recruiting classes.

It’s sure to be a down-to-the-wire affair like the past few meetings have been, but Michigan has the better offense and the edge in what will be a rockin’ Big House.

M&GB Pick’em: Notre Dame staff predictions

Friday, September 21st, 2012


Last week, we all underestimated both teams’ offenses, although UMass’ lone touchdown was a defensive one. Matt nearly hit the score on the head with his 56-13 pick. Michigan’s final touchdown ruined his perfect pick, but it was a good one nonetheless. Games like that are always hard to pick because you never know how long the starters will stay on the field and how soon the coach will ease off the gas pedal. This week should be better. We’re all familiar with Notre Dame and nobody expects a blowout in either direction. Let’s take a look at our picks:

M&GB PREDICTION SUMMARY
_____________________________

Justin: Michigan 33 – Notre Dame 27
Chris: Michigan 27 – Notre Dame 30
Josh: Michigan 27 – Notre Dame 23
Matt: Michigan 38 – Notre Dame 31
Sam: Michigan 24 – Notre Dame 27
Katie: Michigan 33 – Notre Dame 30

_____________________________

Average: Michigan 30 – Notre Dame 28

Justin: What’s that? Is that an echo I hear emanating from South Bend? The Irish, who have been largely dormant for the better part of a decade, if not more, have set off BCS buzz following their first 3-0 start since 2002. ND ventured to its homeland to crush Navy, and may have found a bit of luck that had escaped the fighting leprechauns of late. It carried over once back in the States, holding of pesky Purdue and dominating a top-10 Michigan State squad on the road. Now, Lou Holtz isn’t the only one clamoring over the postseason possibilities for the Blue and Gold. A win tomorrow would snap several years of misery and likely propel the Irish into the Top 10.

But you know what? To hell with Notre Dame. All the talk surrounding the Irish is just that. Talk. Sure they beat a Navy team that got trounced by Penn State. Sure they kicked a late field goal to hold off Purdue. Sure they won convincingly against an overrated MSU squad that has very little offensive firepower. Michigan has the trump card in the form of Denard Robinson. His exploits against the Irish have been well documented this week, and the fact is, Notre Dame is terrified of him because he has single-handedly ripped out their hearts, poured out their lucky charms, and stolen their pot of gold each of the last two years.

Notre Dame has a vaunted front seven but a MASH unit in the back. Michigan’s receiving corps is rapidly becoming the best it has had in years, which no one foresaw entering the season. As I said in this morning’s game preview, Michigan will come out firing and make the front seven back off in order to open up the run game. And Notre Dame’s offense doesn’t have the firepower to keep up. It will be close and Michigan will have its share of struggles, but Denard will pull it out and celebrate his 22nd birthday in style.

Michigan 33 – Notre Dame 27

Chris: This week the Wolverines face a tough test when they travel to Notre Dame Stadium to play the Fighting Irish in an Under the Lights game Part 2. ND has been tough to gauge after three weeks of the season, after a close home win vs Purdue and a fairly dominating defensive win against Michigan State in East Lansing. ND quarterback Everett Golson looked good last week, but the ND offense struggled to convert 3rd downs as they went 1-14, an issue that could prove to be a problem on Saturday. Defensively, ND has looked faster than expected, especially up front, where sophomore nose guard Louis Nix (6’3″, 326 pounds), and senior inside linebacker Manti Te’o, control the inside. To me, this looks like the best ND team that has been in South Bend since 2006.

Tight end Tyler Eifert will be tough to stop (photo by Michael Conroy, AP)

At the beginning of the season, ND was set to return 14 starters from the 2011 squad. Then starting cornerback, junior Lo Wood, was injured. This past Saturday, ND lost another starter, senior Jamoris Slaughter, when he tore his Achilles’ tendon. This could be an opportunity for the Michigan offense if the offensive line can keep the pass rush from putting too much pressure on quarterback Denard Robinson. MSU was supposed to have one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten this season, however the ND front seven pressured the quarterback all game and also held the running game to 50 total yards. The key for Michigan offensively will be how they handle this group and whether they can keep the rush off of Denard long enough for him to pass or make a play with his feet. The Michigan offensive line has improved in each of the first three weeks, but this will be a tough task. I do believe that ND will get pressure on Denard for the majority of the game, so it will be imperative that Denard not try to stand in the pocket and force passes to his receivers. Running lanes will be there and he will need to use his running ability to pick up yardage and move the ball. To counter this, I expect that ND will use one of the linebackers to “spy” Denard all game in an attempt to tackle him before he can get too many yards.

The ND offense is stronger this year as well. In addition to Golson, ND features the running back tandem of junior Cierre Wood and senior Theo Riddick. They are fast and strong and can pile up yards quickly. They also have a good offensive line which did well against an MSU defensive front which was predicted to be very good this season. Junior tight end Tyler Eifert will create match-up problems for the Wolverine defense, as linebackers are generally too slow and defensive backs are too small to cover him. I expect ND head coach Brian Kelly to use him similar to how Michigan’s Al Borges has used Devin Funchess this season and I think the potential is there for Eifert to have a big game. I think Michigan will come out and try to pressure Golson with a number of zone blitz schemes which defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is famous for. The goal will be to create turnovers by forcing Golson into making mistakes, as he is just a sophomore playing in this rivalry for the first time.

I believe that Michigan will face a tough scene at ND on Saturday. In addition to this being a night game, this will also be a revenge game for ND, as they try to return the favor to Michigan after they blew a 24-7 lead in the fourth quarter and gave up the game-winning TD with two seconds left on the clock last year in Ann Arbor. Michigan has improved as a team in Brady Hoke’s second season, but the inconsistent play by the offensive and defensive lines has me concerned for this game. That, combined with a raucous atmosphere in South Bend tells me that ND may have the advantage in this game. I think the game will be back and forth the entire time, but ND will win in the end.

Notre Dame 30 – Michigan 27

Josh (1): Ah, Notre Dame week. It doesn’t quite have the ring of Ohio week but it is a big game nonetheless. This game has a little more meaning for me this year, not in a ‘intra-family rivalry’ way like Justin, but in a ‘I live about a mile from Notre Dame stadium and see their fans everyday’ kind of way. Notre Dame has looked good, and bad, thus far. Michigan has looked bad (though who doesn’t against ‘Bama?), OK and finally good. I usually just go out and pick Michigan because they’ve owned the Irish recently but this year I’m not so sure. Notre Dame’s fronts (on both sides) took care of business last week against State’s lines, and those guys are big and physical. This worries me more than a bit. Michigan is heading in the right direction and I think they’ll be in the national title hunt come 2015, but at the moment they don’t possess Big Ten size and strength up front.

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt already has five sacks this season (photo by Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

Notre Dame has seemingly solved their QB questions and Everett Golson is entrenched as the starter. While he he hasn’t put up really eye popping numbers he has played well and makes plays when needed. Reminds me of someone, less than stellar passer, comes up big when he’s needed. Now I am in now way shape or form comparing Golson to Denard (well, I am) but he has a similar skill set, though he doesn’t use his legs quite as often.

Michigan “righted the ship” last week, if you will. And got their offense back on track as they dominated an overmatched UMass team. Notre Dame is not UMass, but they are not the Notre Dame of old either. Notre Dame is putting up 30 points per game and only allowing 10, Michigan is putting up 36 and allowing 26; something has to give. Both teams have fairly balanced offenses. I think Notre Dame has the better passing attack but Michigan has the better ground game.

The loss of Blake Countess should rear its ugly head Saturday night and I fully expect Golson to try and take advantage of either Courtney Avery (we all know my comfort level with his coverage ability) or Raymon Taylor (he’s young and inexperienced but he has good upside and hey, a true frosh stepped up last year at CB). On defense, as always, the name of the game is stop Denard. And this will be no different. If the Irish can force Denard into a passing QB under duress or on the move (neither are his forte) then they have a great chance of winning this game.

Michigan will most likely employ some pressure via blitzes and hope to make Golson move around and force him into some bad throws. Golson can make plays with his legs but that is not his game, so if Michigan can get him out of his comfort zone they can force him into some poor decisions. On offense the Wolverines need to build on their momentum from last week. Fitz needs to be heavily involved and the receiving corps needs to continue to make strides.

Denard has had success against the Irish, with both his arm and his legs, and I expect to see more of the same come Saturday night. While the passing game has been much maligned and his struggles well documented (and those with faith in Denard’s arm dwindle in numbers) he is not an awful passer. He just needs to make better decisions and not throw off balance. With the emergence of Devin Funchess at WR/TE and the crazy athleticism of former QB Devin Gardner, Denard now has two big (literally) time receivers to help him out. I don’t advocate the jump ball, but if you’re gonna throw those 50/50′s those two guys are nice to have out there, not to mention their after the catch ability.

Notre Dame is at home and while they’re not the Notre Dame of old, it is always a tough place to play. Their fans are passionate and loud and they hate Michigan. The Irish should be playing with a little extra passion and vigor, they’re fresh off a big win over Michigan St. and they’re looking to not make it 4 straight losses to a bitter rival. A feeling we know all too well.

If Notre Dame can control the line of scrimmage it will be a long night for Michigan but I don’t expect them to come out and dominate like they did last week. I don’t expect them to roll over and die either. Last year the Irish lost the game with their numerous mistakes on which Michigan capitalized. Golson has only thrown one INT so far but he only has 5 total TD’s in three games, so I don’t think we’ll see as many turnover opportunities as we did last year.

Theo Riddick scored two touchdowns against Michigan last season (photo by Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

For me, in the end it comes down to line play for both teams. Whichever team comes out and controls the LOS is going to create opportunities for big plays. This one should be another great game and it could really go either way.

I’m not very confident about this pick but it’s tough for me to pick against the Maize and Blue, at least when they’re evenly or only slightly overmatched. Michigan wins another close one and the Irish’s 4-0 start is derailed.

Michigan 27 – Notre Dame 23

Matt (2): Well here we are. Notre Dame week. And I have to admit, I’m probably more nervous for this game than any other Notre Dame game. It’s a big rivalry, and I have to say, they are tied for my  second least favorite college football team alon with Michigan State (obviously Ohio State takes the number 1 spot, but more about them in November).

Michigan started out the season not lookin great. Getting clobbered by Alabama and beating Air Force by only six points. After that we beat up on UMass, but…it’s UMass.

Saturday at 7:30 we play Notre Dame in South Bend. And I tell you, the Fighting Irish look good this season. They gave Navy a good beating. Beat Purdue by three, and last week sort of embarrassed Michigan State. Did I already mention I’m nervous?

Anyway, Denard hasn’t looked terrible, although he is still over throwing wide receivers. Devin Gardner hasn’t had a whole lot of chances to prove how good he is at wide receiver, although I think he is going to prove that this year. One of the biggest offensive weapons we have been surprised with this season, is tight end Devin Funchess. Keep your eye on him in this game. Also keep your eye on Denard (obviously), as I think he’ll break a few nice runs.

It will be hard to follow up last year’s heart attack of a football game last year, and I don’t see it being quite as entertaining, or high scoring. Both team’s defenses have improved.

I think Notre Dame will come out with a couple of scores like last year, and seem to have our number. But I see Brady Hoke rallying the troops, and Michigan coming back for the victory.

Last week I almost hit the score square on the head. Let’s see how I do this week.

Michigan 38 – Notre Dame 31

Sam: For the Michigan Wolverines, this weekend presents a lot of firsts for the season: the first night game, the first (true) road game, and, of course, the first rivalry game. For star quarterback Denard Robinson, however, this Saturday will be the last game of his career against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, the team he has loved playing against more than any other college in the country.

You see, over the past two seasons as a starter, Robinson has absolutely feasted on the Golden Domers, rushing for 366 yards and three touchdowns and throwing for 582 yards and five touchdowns in 28-24 (2010) and 35-31 (2011) Michigan nail-biters. Michigan has won the past three matchups between these bitter rivals, but to extend it to a fourth straight under the lights this Saturday, Denard Robinson is going to have to make one hell of an encore.

Brian Kelly said in his weekly press conference that Shoelace will be the best player on the field, a statement that seems obvious. I’m not sure it’s as clear cut as most would say, however. Notre Dame’s hulking middle linebacker, Manti Te’o, is an All-American who likely would have been a first round NFL draft pick this year before deciding to come back for a final swan song, and perhaps a chance to taste victory against the Maize and Blue. Not only will Te’o be playing to avoid being shut out in his career against Michigan though; he will also be playing with a heavy heart and a head of steam as he continues to mourn the loss of his grandmother and girlfriend, both of whom died last week.

Hopefully we'll see more of vintage Brian Kelly tomorrow (photo by Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

What is obvious is that Notre Dame’s whole defensive game plan will be to stop Denard Robinson at all costs, and that starts by keeping him bottled up in the pocket. It was Robinson’s arm that led Michigan to victory in the fourth quarter last year, and it will have to be his arm once again this year if Michigan is to have any chance. Sure, he will break a couple runs over 10 yards, but Te’o will have his eye on him the whole game.

Luckily for Michigan, Denard has been notably more accurate this season and will be testing a very inexperienced Notre Dame secondary. Kelly has already lost starting corner Lo Wood and starting safety Jamoris Slaughter for the season and will be starting freshmen in their places.

Having said all this, I still think Fitzgerald Toussaint is the key. If he goes for over 100 yards and finds the end zone, Michigan wins. That will not be an easy task, though, as Te’o and company come off a dominating performance against Michigan State in which the Spartans never made it past Notre Dame’s 30-yard-line and put up a total of three points on the scoreboard.

Unfortunately, I think Michigan’s defense has proven to be a bit weaker this season, especially up front. Freshman quarterback Everett Golson has been solid so far, throwing for 611 yards and three touchdowns while completing 58% of his passes through three games and will have weapons Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood in the backfield with him. Notre Dame hasn’t had any standout receivers thus far, but tight end Tyler Eifert is very good over the middle and could present some matchup problems. If Notre Dame’s offensive line is getting half the push Alabama’s did, say goodbye and good night, because Michigan’s not winning. If the Wolverines can at least contain the run, they should be in good position at the end.

Like the past three years, this game is going to be very close and shouldn’t be decided until late in the fourth stanza. And as much as I would love to see Michigan spoil Notre Dame’s night once again and as much as I know Denard Robinson loves playing against the Fighting Irish, I’m worried. Notre Dame pulls it off in the end, 27-24.

Notre Dame 27 – Michigan 24

Katie: I’m predicting a barn burner. Whether or not it will take place in the fourth quarter I cannot say, but for Michigan’s sake I hope that it starts with a few long rally’s early.  After watching Michigan State struggle all day on offense last week, I’m confident that Michigan will be able to do better with a fleet footed quarterback, but as for the passing struggles, well, Michigan better not reflect its in state rivals productivity. The Wolverines have been doubling the number of points scored each successive week, but that’s only because the opponents have been lessening in rank each Saturday. As for Notre Dame, whose schedule makes Michigan look like a bit like a bear without teeth, they’ve beat a top ranked Spartan team, and a Leaders Division darkhorse in Purdue.  After Michigan the Irish will go on to play at USC and Oklahoma, while playing Stanford at home.  If ND is looking for a nine win season, Michigan is the lowest ranked top team they’ll need to beat in addition to the four unranked opponents that fill out the rest of their schedule.

Notre Dame’s starting quarterback is only a sophomore, but he has been the one under center at the beginning of each of the three games. And while his passes completed is only at 58%, he played a tough Michigan State defense that dropped his stat from the first two weeks which hovered around 66%.  Really though, I should see this as a potential high note.  Denard’s passing stat is a lowly 55%, so if we can keep the youngster Golson to completing around half of his passes it would hopefully lighten the load on the defense which is facing two strong running backs in Theo Riddick, and Cierre Wood. However, Riddick so far has only 190 yards, 107 coming off a thrashing of Navy. As for Michigan, it’s pretty obvious who our leading rusher is. The only issue is that other than Robinson no other rusher has yet broke past the 100 yard mark.  In the receiving game Michigan is slightly ahead with four players over 100 yards, ND only has three.  So if Denard can hit the broad side of a barn Michigan should be able to put up more points that the Irish, but it will be difficult under the circumstances, a night game in South Bend.

On defense Michigan has twelve players that have made 5 or more solo tackles. The Irish defense in its most recent game had 6 tackles for a loss, they also had a forced fumble and a recovery. They have also given up only 30 points total this season, as compared to Michigan’s 79. Granted, Michigan did get trounced by ‘Bama, but one can’t very well throw out those 41 points, especially given that Notre Dame’s only real holes on defense are in its secondary. Manti Te’o is also healthy and determined, and could cause serious problems for Denard who is not a prolific passer, and is definitely not when on the run. I see this being a pretty even match up, with Michigan having the offensive advantage, and ND the defensive. How much sway the home field crowd will have I’m sure will be tangible rather than negligible. I envision a nail-biter, and most tentatively, a win.

Michigan 33 – Notre Dame 30

#18 Michigan vs #11 Notre Dame game preview

Friday, September 21st, 2012


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.
7:30pm EST  -  NBC
______________

Notre Dame Head Coach: Brian Kelly (3rd season)
Coaching Record: 16-10 (at ND), 69-32 (Overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Chuck Martin
Defensive Coordinator: Bob Diaco
Returning Starters: 13 (7 offense, 6 defense)
Last Season: 5-6 (3-5)
Last Meeting: Michigan 35 – Notre Dame 31 (2011)
All-time Series: Michigan leads 23-15-1
Michigan at Notre Dame: Michigan leads 9-8-1
Michigan at ND Stadium: Series tied 7-7-1
Current Streak: Michigan 3

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.

Everett Golson has been efficient for the Irish (Photo by Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

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.

Expect Michigan to challenge freshman KeiVarae Russell and the inexperienced secondary (photo by Al Goldis, AP)

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
Rushing Yards: 117 – Denard will pass Chris Perry for 6th in career rushing yards.
Rushing Touchdowns: 1 – Denard will pass Chris Perry for 4th in career rushing touchdowns. With 3 he will pass Mike Hart for 3rd.
100 rushing yards: Denard will pass Butch Woolfolk for 5th in career 100-yard rushing games.
Passing Attempts: 18 - Denard will pass Steve Smith for 6th in career passing attempts.
Pass Completions: 9 – Denard will pass Jim Harbaugh for 6th in career completions.
Passing yards: 229 – Denard will pass Todd Collins for 4th in career passing yards.
Passing Touchdowns: 3 – Denard will pass Rick Leach for 4th in career passing touchdowns.
Total Yards: 191 – Denard will pass Chad Henne to become the all-time leader in total yards in Michigan history.

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.

Prediction

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