||Michigan vs #18 Notre Dame
||Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI
||3:30 EST, September 12th, 2008
||Notre Dame -3
||Nationwide on ABC
That's from Chesterton Lep, by the way, who is far more insane than even our recent influx of MS Paint Van Goghs. Insane doesn't actually do it justice.
Run Offense vs. Notre Dame
This has to be crushing victory for Michigan, for now, and for the season. Irish beatwriter Brian Hamilton:
"The defensive line just has question marks all over, whether it's because of youth or that they're generally unproven as performers. And since the Irish haven't been particularly stellar at stopping the run the past couple seasons as it is, it's a concern."
Though Brian Stouffer suggested that Ethan Johnson was a hybrid DE/OLB, that's apparently a matter of some debate. What isn't up for debate is that the Notre Dame front four is way smaller than even Michigan's, and probably about as young. This is from the Irish Eyes publisher:
Junior Ian Williams and sophomore Ethan Johnson are a talented pair, but both struggled vs. the Wolf Pack’s veteran front line. Irish defensive ends Kerry Neal and John Ryan are undersized on the right side (quality pass rushers that can struggle at the point of attack) and Notre Dame features a redshirt freshman at left defensive end who played in his first collegiate game last Saturday.
So that's a guy largely responsible for McGuffie mania, a guy I saw on skates against Nevada, and then small, production-free defensive ends. So maybe it's not a surprise that Notre Dame's tackle distribution is extremely encouraging for a team that seeks to pound the ball. It mirrors what happened last year, and last year the Michigan ground game had perhaps the easiest time they'd had against any opponent in South Bend:
After week 1, just as in 2008, the leading tacklers for the Notre Dame fighting Irish are both safeties: Kyle McCarthy with 7 and Harrison Smith with 5. DE Kerry Neal isn’t even on the stat sheet, Brian Smith, while making 2 very big plays, didn’t make a single other tackle, and Ethan Johnson had 1 tackle all game. Convince me that Michigan (sucks!) wont just run a “9 yards and a cloud of dust” offense against ND all freaking game.
Sorry to link to the short-bus section of the Notre Dame blogosphere, but the tackle distribution is a point of interest.
Notre Dame folk are pointing to Nevada's raw rushing numbers and avoiding the big flashing item of concern: in the limited attempts offered Nevada's clunky tailback he averaged 6.3 YPC. Wolfpack QB Colin Kaepernick averaged 7.5 yards per carry (sacks removed). Total YPC: 6.4. #2 rushing offense of last year, sure, but also a WAC team. In three games against BCS opposition (Texas Tech, Maryland, and Missouri, last year's #61, #71, and #31 rushing defenses) the 2008 Wolfpack averaged 5 YPC (again, sacks removed). Notre Dame's defense was way, way worse than a motley collection of basically meh BCS run defenses. And this was not an artifact of a big lead. Nevada gashed Notre Dame time and again in the first half.
Couple that with last year's Michigan game, which featured virtually the same lines on both sides of the ball and one tailback that proved considerably less effective than the guy Michigan will deploy with gusto on Saturday, and you have a strong argument for Michigan to crush Notre Dame on the ground. This, by all appearances, is not a good run defense.
On the other side of the ball it's mildly concerning that against Western Michigan, a team replacing almost the entirety of its defense and three-quarters of its defensive line, Michigan bogged down a bit. There were numerous holding calls and they could not break any long runs aside from Denard Robinson's moment of magic—not exactly something the coaches drew up. Michigan's offensive line was missing the form they had late in 2008, but that may be an artifact of Western's aggressive scraping. If Notre Dame tries the same thing Michigan will be more likely to take the obvious countermeasures that were wide open against the Broncos.
The mostly healthy return of Brandon Minor will help, and Notre Dame doesn't have anyone as fast as Denard Robinson. This should be a huge advantage for Michigan; if it's not it's hard to see a Michigan win.
Key Matchup: Molk and guards versus Ian Williams and Ethan Johnson. Molk cannot have another game where he struggles and ends up with a couple holding calls. Ethan Johnson was on skates against Nevada and Ian Williams spent last year's Michigan game watching McGuffie run by him from the ground. Michigan needs to dominate this matchup.
Pass Offense vs. Notre Dame
There appears to be one, which is a nice change from last season. Tate Forcier was deadly accurate in his first game as a Michigan quarterback, and that should prove no fluke going forward. The downside of the freshman was entirely in missed reads against both run and pass and a couple of runs that were not as first-down oriented as they should have been.
So it sort of sucks that TAH-NOO-TAH has bumped aside Judas/mole Corwin Brown. Brown spent the last two games against Michigan in a cover-two umbrella and hardly ever blitzed or even put a seventh guy in the box. If Michigan hadn't fumbled six times in last year's game, boy howdy, we might have come within 18 points thanks to Brown's never-ending ability to sit back and calmly consider a situation for three or even four quarters. Tenuta just blitzes from everywhere.
This could go either way. Nevada took a couple of huge sacks and suffered a lot of QB pressure when they went to play action. Play action is an awkward thing in the pistol that requires the quarterback to turn his back away from the line of scrimmage and then end up sucking linebacker if they blitz right. Michigan won't let that happen; their offense never has the quarterback turn away from the line of scrimmage and bases its play action on the zone read, which necessarily occupies one of the defensive ends. But Nevada's passing game had a lot of experience. Michigan has little, and the guy who made the big plays last week is probably on the shelf. One way it could go is Forcier getting buried.
The other way mostly relies on excellent pickups from the backs—Carlos Brown had a couple crushing pickups last week and Brandon Minor is a fine blocker in his own right—and the idea that Forcier is, yes, Drew Tate, a guy extremely comfortable moving around and finding people downfield when the play breaks down. It's dangerous to blitz Pat White and it might be dangerous to blitz Forcier, albeit in a totally different way. If he evades the wave of defenders and breaks out to one side, we've already seen he can direct traffic to good effect.
Notre Dame's secondary is supposed to be pretty good. Safety Kyle McCarthy was the perfect idea of consistency in last year's Michigan game and returns; David Bruton, who was even better, is gone. He's replaced by Harrison Smith. (Notre Dame's version of "Robinson" is "Smith".) Darrin Walls returns from "personal issues" (read: academic issues) and Notre Dame has a stable of highly rated recruits with good experience plus senior Raeshon MacNeil. Unless Darryl Stonum—who was ranked one spot behind Mike Floyd by Rivals—suddenly lives up to the hype, Michigan's not going to get deep much unless it's Kevin Koger or one of the slots on a wheel route.
Those guys will be the key, IME: with Notre Dame blitzing its ass off Michigan will have opportunities underneath and down the seam. A couple of deep Koger completions can turn drives into points.
Key Matchup: Forcier versus his Self-Conception. Tenuta is going to send the kitchen sink and several times Forcier will be forced to scramble out or take a hot read or just do something smart. He did a lot of smart against Western; in high school, though, he responded with a bunch of picks when his offensive line fell off the map.
Run Defense vs. Notre Dame
The Notre Dame run offense exists as a sidelight to the passing game. Against Nevada, Notre Dame had two sorts of plays on the ground:
- Successful runs that exploited Nevada's "explosive" (read: irresponsible) defensive ends and got Allen or Gray in vacated space.
- Things that went about two yards.
That's something of an exaggeration, but… eh… not a huge one. Notre Dame's starting fullback is out and their backup is a converted tailback. As mentioned this morning, Notre Dame plans on rotating through the left side of its line, which is… um… bats, isn't it? Who does that?
As far as the rest of the line, realistic expectations are modest. Hamilton again:
I refuse to believe that offensive linemen who have been around for four or five years suddenly, all at once, in one offseason, go from mediocre to great. It just doesn't work that way. If the offensive line is consistently average, at least it's consistent. If it backslides to the way it's played at times last year and two years ago, it's going to cost Notre Dame a game it shouldn't lose.
It'll be up to Michigan's defensive line to actuate that backslide. That defensive line is not deep, but the first-line guys they run out are all seemingly competent, though Craig Roh remains a wiry true freshman and could find himself targeted when Notre Dame brings in more than one tight end. Which will probably be lots, more on that later.
Notre Dame had an even breakdown of draws, the inside zone, a counter, and an outside toss before they went zone nuts in garbage time. I know Weis will probably pull out 1,000 elephants and a dancing bear against Michigan, but Notre Dame's basic array of running plays won't be anything Michigan hasn't seen. You can put your practice time into one thing or the other and it's clear which phase Weis favors. With Aldridge out and Rudolph putting in a poor blocking display in the first game, Michigan should be able to handle Notre Dame's ground game without committing an extra man. Maybe.
Key Matchup: Obi Ezeh versus Armando Allen. Unless something funky's happened with Notre Dame's offensive line they aren't going to do a whole lot of crushing run blocks, but they will use a ton of misdirection, play action, and draws in an attempt to free up their bombs and exploit opponents set on stopping them. Ezeh displayed several instances of unnecessary hesitancy against Western and could be ripe for exploitation. In space, he must tackle.
Pass Defense vs. Notre Dame
Mmmmm. WAC snacks:
You've probably heard the obvious counterpunch to that re: Nevada, which finished 119th of 119 in I-A pass defense by a landslide last year and then lost two starters from the secondary. Clausen's day wasn't exactly unprecedented. Chase Daniel went 23 of 28 for 405 yards and four touchdowns. And, okay, Chase Daniel is pretty good. But when Louisiana Tech and UNLV combine to average 8.5 YPA and have five touchdowns to no interceptions… well… you're bad. Hawaii wasn't much competition, either. So the jury remains out for a guy whose four games before the WAC parade looked like this:
It is hereby stipulated that if Michigan gives up a 70-yard bubble screen and an awful underthrown bomb that features Purdue-level tackling, Michigan loses. Those things are in some doubt. I assume it's also stipulated that if Clausen throws two picks and half a touchdown, Notre Dame loses, and that's the average there in Notre Dame's last four games against plausible competition (and Syracuse).
If the Nevada game is an indication, Michigan's inability to go to a nickel package isn't likely to be much of the factor. The Notre Dame opener saw a severe reduction in three-wide sets:
In their place were a ton of standard I-form packages and 2TE ace sets. With Aldridge out, expect ace sets to be even more prevalent. Michigan should be able to match up pretty well against Notre Dame's big two receivers without dipping into the nonexistent corner depth. Not that they'd go to said nonexistent depth anyway: with Stevie Brown at strongside linebacker, the threat of a Robby Parris or Duval Kamara—both ponderous possession sorts—isn't the sort that demands a zippy cornerback. Any personnel grouping other than the base is unlikely.
Okay: base personnel versus base personnel. Advantage: hell if I know. Before the season I was seriously down on this matchup but after watching four different members of Michigan's defensive line tear through the Western offensive line—a veteran unit extremely well-versed in pass blocking—and Donovan Warren try to get a grip on his new super powers, I actually think this tilts more towards neutral.
The main concern is when Notre Dame does something like, oh, I don't know, keep nine guys in to block and run a one-man route with Golden Tate. Everything was going swimmingly in the Western game until they pulled a similar stunt and though the burned corner doesn't figure to play on Saturday unless disaster befalls the secondary, free safety Troy Woolfolk also picked up an ugly –3 in UFR for his part in the play.
Michigan need pressure from the front four against regular (non max-pro) sets, and eventual pressure against the max pro. All of Michigan's guys this year are high motor sorts who will get after the ball; no Terrance Taylors or Will Johnsons who aren't much use against the pass. When the starters are in, Michigan should get pressure, and Clausen still hasn't proven he can deal with pressure.
Key Matchup: God, I've waffled on this a thousand times. I'll settle with Corners Man Up Against Floyd And Tate, as Notre Dame will attempt to take the Michigan defensive line out of the game with max protect a lot and in those instances it will be up to Warren and Cissoko to not get burnt toasty.
This is a virtual unknown for both teams except when Zoltan rolls onto the field ready to shoot lightning bolts down the opponent's face. So… advantage Michigan there. Both kickers are almost totally untested. Jason Olesnavage does have a pretty 44-yard field goal to his credit, and it sounds like Michigan's kickoff guy is considerably better than Notre Dame's. Slight advantage here to Michigan.
Key Matchup: HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL.
- Receivers are shaking free from the cornerbacks even a little.
- Rodriguez doesn't have a TAH-NOO-TAH counterpunch.
- Notre Dame's offensive line looks competently coached for a change.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Notre Dame's defensive line is just as prone to skate backwards as they were last year.
- Rodriguez has a package that neutralizes the blitz.
- They don't double Brandon Graham.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 out of 10. (Baseline 5, +1 Hey That Touchdown Last Week Looked Familiar, +1 for And Wow We Are Going Up A Team That Would Win The WAC, –1 for …But Is Still Coached By Charlie Weis, –1 for …And I Can't Emphasize This Enough, –1 for… Seriously, +1 for …Okay Maybe That One Was Excessive, +1 for Major Quarterback Experience Deficiency, –1 for But Our Defensive Line Should Consume Their Souls, –1 for And I Know We Worked Harder, Apparently, You Dolphin Puncher, +1 for It Takes Time To Dig Out From 3-9.).
Desperate need to win level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5, –1 Sort Of Playing With House Money, Right?, +1 for Yeah, Sort Of Not, +1 for Boy All That Hot Seat Talk Would Go From Frustrating To Entertaining, +1 for I Love Me Some This Week In Notredamenfreude Fodder, –1 for Home Dog And Close Loss Is Understandable, +1 for This Week Always Reminds Me That Internet Notre Dame Fans Should Be Shot Into Space.)
Loss will cause me to... probably curse Angry Michigan Safety-Hating God.
Win will cause me to... start thinking New Year's Day.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
I think I changed my mind from earlier in the week, when I predicted Notre Dame victories a couple of times. The main reasons for this reversal:
observation of the ND DL against Nevada coupled with a closer look at the stats and the words out there.
minute UFR evaluations of Donovan Warren.
minute UFR evaluations of Michigan's starting DL and the pass rush that comes from everywhere.
Given the data the biggest mismatch in this game is not the Notre Dame passing offense against the Michigan secondary, but the Michigan ground game against Notre Dame's defensive line. I think Forcier can make the blitz backfire just enough and Michigan will pop more guys free than Notre Dame. Clausen's potential improvement is the wildcard. If he's actually as good as he's looked against the WAC, Michigan loses. I don't think he is.
In a game where both teams figure to get to the quarterback a lot, it's about coping with that. Michigan's run game is better prepared to do that than Notre Dame's, and Tate Forcier might not be too far off Clausen with his "scrambling" and "playing for a high school that did something other than win 63-7."
I reserve the right to change my opinion ten minutes into tomorrow's game. I've already waffled once this week, and I have almost no faith in the predictions I'm about to put on the line. But I do have a little.
Finally, opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Michigan does some crazy trick play stuff.
- Michigan tailbacks crack into the secondary lots, with Minor, Shaw, and Brown getting a near-equal distribution of the carries. Quarterback runs are down considerably.
- Notre Dame gets a bomb to Tate; Floyd is contained by Warren.
- Brandon Graham gets two sacks.
- Michigan, 27-23.