This remains an enigma after an abbreviated, well-in-hand game against a MAC opponent. Michigan mixed a bunch of different formations and blocking schemes—minus the stretch—en route to 7.3 YPC.
What they'll do when a rivalry game is on the line bears little relation to what they were running out with a two-score-or-better lead against Western Michigan. But if I had to guess, and I do, it will look more like Michigan's first possession than the rest of the game. When they got the ball for the first time they were down a touchdown and there was no guarantee the defense wasn't still a flaming tire fire.
On that drive Michigan operated exclusively from the shotgun and ran Robinson four times. When they were nervous, they went back to the well. In a huge, meme-establishing matchup for Brady Hoke's career he might as well run those power plays with 1) his best running back, 2) an extra blocker, and 3) the possibility of QB Draw Oh Noes.
In addition to a wide array of QB power, look for the zone read. Michigan ran it to good success late and Notre Dame was irresponsible on the zone read against USF. Three times in the first half they let the outside guy in the zone read break contain. Once it was an inverted veer on which both the give and take would have picked up eight or so. While USF's overall stats were bleah, they moved the ball fairly well in the first half despite having absolutely no hope of completing a pass longer than zero yards. In the second half they were content to run the ball into stacked lines.
[SIDE NOTE: One reason the zone read was successful may have been a USF tweak to it: running it out of the pistol. Michigan's current setup isn't far off. After the QB steps forward, he's almost at pistol depth. The difference is the positioning of the running back. In the pistol he gives nothing away because he can head to either side of the QB. In the traditional shotgun the zone read is on one side or the other. You can flip this assumption with speed options and other plays that make the optioned-off guy a playside defender, but Michigan hasn't done this and the pistol seems like a cheap way to sow uncertainty in the defense. I don't expect to see it against ND, or ever, since Borges is focused on other things.]
As for the rest of Notre Dame's run defense, it remains largely the same. They've got a bad situation at ILB next to Te'o, where Carlo Calabrese lost his job to Dan Fox… and then Fox was pulled for Calabrese midway through the USF game. The outside linebackers seem a bit confused. The ends are good, though—I can see Lewan handling Ethan Johnson but on the other side of the line Michigan might want to option off Kapron Lewis-Moore. That's a matchup that does not favor Huyge. Michigan will remain left-sided.
I hesitate to offer much in the way of predictions given the uncertainty here—I think Michigan will struggle to move the ball on the ground from under center, but there are opportunities to get a defense that seemed vulnerable to confusion last week out of position.
Key Matchup: Molk/Omameh/Barnum against NTs Cwynar and Nix. If Michigan is going to run power they're going to have to blow the NT off the ball in the 3-4. That will be much easier when the relatively slight Cwynar (6'4", 285) is in. Nix is a 340 pound hambeast who, while only a redshirt freshman, may be able to stand up to double teams.
But can he deal with Molk reaching him? I'll be watching ND's substitution on the nose and how Michigan reacts to it. I'm hoping they make Nix move laterally while pounding Cwynar.
Pass Offense vs. Notre Dame
This is also almost totally unknown. BJ Daniels is awful. In the first half when USF racked up 16 of their 23 points, Daniels completed zero (0!) passes past the LOS. The only thing we can take from the USF game is that Notre Dame has trouble defending bubble screens. The Bulls consistently racked up 5-10 yards despite the wholesale suck of Daniels. Chalk up some free yards on the outside.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame's late-season defensive surge came against Utah, Army, and the backup quarterbacks at USC and Miami. The former was passing in a driving rain storm; the latter had 282 yards on 33 attempts and a passer efficiency rating of 152.
What data we have on Notre Dame's pass defense leans towards not so good, but it's mostly "ask again later." Denard Robinson got thirteen dodgy attempts against Western. A lot of different things are within the realm of possibility.
These are basically the same teams as last year, when Denard went 24 of 40 for 244 yards and a touchdown, but extrapolating from that is dangerous. Michigan debuted QB Draw Oh Noes for a 30 yard touchdown, got something similar for another seam throw down the sidelines to Odoms, could have had a couple more to Roundtree, etc. Michigan's snag package was new, too. All the things Denard could do were new. Not so much anymore. He'll will have to do new things against a veteran secondary. Every starter is a senior. They remember what happened to them last year.
Meanwhile, Michigan has a new offensive coordinator with a totally different passing game that he has already installed. We did see a QB Oh Noes or two against Western and a lot of familiar things, though, and it's not like Borges can't dial up a high-low read of a cornerback. The issue will not be slants and flares and various underneath passes but the mid-level stuff and beyond, particularly getting the same results out of Denard without getting him killed or asking him to fit it in a tiny window.
So who knows?
Key Matchup: Borges vs Acquisition Of The Big Easy Play. Even assuming that Denard just had an off day and is about as accurate as he was last year, Michigan's not going to go up and down the field just based on his arm. The omnipresent threat of the run and the lack of safeties that implies will be critical. I think Borges knows this and will take advantage, but to do that he's got to force those safeties into the box with Denard's feet, or at least the zone read.
Run Defense vs. Notre Dame
Against USF, Notre Dame's rushing offense looked a lot like Michigan's might over the course of the season. They operated from the shotgun and ran tons of power from it. They didn't use the quarterback on these things, but they still go good yardage. Starting tailback Cierre Wood is a talent. I've hardly seen Toussaint run so this might sound dumb, but the two backs are carbon copies: fast, agile, bouncy, with an inside edge. Wood might be a bit more athletic but it's hard to tell given the limited evidence available.
Wood averaged 5 YPC on the day. While he was less than explosive against a USF team that lost three starters off its line, the Bulls were a solid defensive team last year and project to be one again. Backup power back Jonas Gray did 4.3 but also lost a back-breaking fumble that was returned 98 yards for a touchdown; he's a guy who just runs straight ahead and gets what he can. Wood is the threat.
Notre Dame's line is powerful—virtually every guy on it was recruited by Michigan. On short yardage their ability to cave in the center of the USF line was impressive. Often backs had to do little other than run up the backs of their offensive linemen to pick up a good gain. When Notre Dame pulls they often pull two linemen because center Braxton Cave is agile enough to get outside. He and a backside tackle will frequently show up at the point of attack—don't think Notre Dame can't put MANBALL yards on your face because there isn't an H-back on the field.
As for Michigan, they brought on a 220 pound true freshman to play DE in their passing spread and got burned for it. Other than that the Broncos didn't pick up much. At night in temperate conditionsexpect much more from the starters than we saw in week one. Brennen Beyer will be relegated to the bench and hypothetical extra DE will be Jake Ryan, who was an impact pass rusher last week. The rest of the line should be able to hold up on the interior, and Kenny Demens will be hard to run past.
Unfortunately, it's not hard to envision Wood exploiting Michigan's weak edges with his ability to bounce outside. It will be easy to lose contain against him; Michigan's outside linebackers were thoroughly bleah against Western; Michigan will lose contain. If Wood doesn't go over 100 yards that will be a surprise. Holding him to 4 YPC instead of the 5 and getting Kovacs to slice him down to live another down will be keys. They'll get yards. Michigan has to make them earn touchdowns.
Key Matchup: Mike Martin vs Cave, etc. Martin is supposed to be banged up. If he's ineffective that takes a major source of the zero-yard plays Michigan needs to kick ND off the field out of play. This is the time to Make A Statement.
Pass Defense vs. Notre Dame
Last year this was either walk-ons at QB for the Irish or DOOM. This year the guy who got yanked in favor of that walk-on after doing this…
…is in charge. Unfortunately, he's not fresh off the pickle farm anymore. Now a sophomore, Tommy Rees came in at halftime after Crist had bombed himself down the depth chart and lit up the USF secondary to the tune of 296 yards on 34 attempts. He was victimized by drops, one of which led to a crippling interception. (The other INT was Rees's brain going "FLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYD" despite Floyd being double covered.)
Rees's situation was a major factor in those numbers. South Florida entered the second half up 16 and played to not give up the big play. Almost a third of Rees's yards came on an all-but-meaningless drive that started on the ND 11 with two minutes left and USF leading by ten. Before that he was playing strictly against a GERG-style three man rush that never got home. He was able to leisurely survey the defense and grind down the field as USF gambled that playing like idiots wouldn't catch up to them before the end of the game*. He was really good at this.
And then there's Michael Floyd (@ right), who I don't have to describe to you. ND's other receivers are just all right. Theo Riddick might be good if he learns to catch. TJ Jones is currently holding his binky tight and sucking his thumb in case the bad man yells at him again. Tight end Tyler Eifert isn't Rudolph, but he is pretty good. He'll be a source of frustration.
Michigan's situation here is far less doom-ridden than last year. Woolfolk should return. I'm betting they put him over the top of Floyd in the hopes that his speed and height can break up some of the deep stuff. Avery and Floyd both had their moments against Western and will put the theory that Tony Gibson's real name is Debbie and real profession is pop start to the test. Kovacs seems like he's moving to genuinely good. The main issue is the situation at non-Kovacs safety. In the nickel Michigan figures to be running much of the day that was Carvin Johnson or Marvin Robinson, neither of whom seems ready for primetime. I wonder if Michigan will roll out Avery as that nickel corner—something he played last year—and move Gordon back to the safety spot.
Meanwhile up front, Michigan used an array of blitzes to freak Alex Carder out. They didn't get much pass rush from the front four save freshman Jake Ryan, but the starters were sat for much of the game due to punishing heat. I don't think that override what we've seen for the careers of Martin and Roh and Van Bergen. They'll get to the QB whether by blitzing or not. Rees will probably get a read first.
Key Matchup: Mattison's zone blitzing against Rees's ability to react quickly. Some of the blitzes won't get home and Michigan will give up chunks. What happens when Michigan's blitzes do slip guys through unblocked will decide the game. Does Rees panic and throw balls up for grabs? Does he shut down like a deer in the headlights as Kovacs bears down and he can't find a receiver? Or does he zing evil passes to evil Mike Floyd for evil yardage that makes us lose?
*[Seriously: Skip Holtz went full Lloyd in this one. It was a little repulsive to watch. If ND didn't have the worst case of butterfingers they would have blown the lead, deservedly. The only thing I thought during the second half was "I hate football coaches."]
You'd think this would be a huge advantage for Notre Dame but last week David Ruffer missed a chip shot field goal, Ben Turk averaged 34 yards on five shankalicious punts, and USF ripped off a 34-yard punt return—their only opportunity of the game. Notre Dame's got problems, too.
It's still a Notre Dame advantage because Ruffer has an excellent track record; Gibbons does not.
Key Matchup: GIBBONS YOU PUT IT THROUGH THE UPRIGHTS AAAAAA
I call him "Brian Kitty"
The extreme efficacy of Mattison's blitzes turns out to be playing against a crappy WMU line and those four-man zone blitzes aren't getting home.
Uncertainty at the safety spot opposite Kovacs bites Michigan in the ass like it did last year.
Denard is operating from under center.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
Rees starts chucking it off his back foot because his ribsies are hurty.
Nix == zone stretch == Omameh-Te'o reunion
Brian Kelly's head turns mauve.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 (Baseline 5; –1 Home night game with frickin' firewurks, +1 for Mike Floyd aaaiaigh, –1 for Mike Floyd didn't do crap last year…, +1 for Because of Walk-on Stuff And Cam Gordon Making Him Irrelevant, +1 for Ugh More Freshmen DL, +1 for Denard's Not Getting 500 Yards This Time, –1 for True Sophomore With Scant Experience Against Mad Mattison)
Desperate need to win level: 8 (Baseline 5; +1 for Let's Get This Party Started Right, +1 for The Sky's A Different Color And It's On Another Channel, +1 for It's Notre Dame And They Are Very Annoying, +1 for A Win Probably Means Borges Is The Platonic Ideal Of Borges, –1 for It's Not Like We're Playing For A National Title This Year)
Loss will cause me to... make even more insufferable comments about the stupidity of MANBALL
Win will cause me to... WOO SHOTGUN MANBALL
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
I always hate this section because predictions are stupid. I hate it even more now because predictions in this specific case are even stupider than stupid. There's all the uncertainty above and then the possibility of yet more pounding rain. So, like, I don't know, man.
But strictures and conventions. After watching the ND game I'm a lot less worried about the yardage disparity against USF. Skip Holtz went into full turtle mode at halftime(!) of a game he led by two scores. It was gross. In the first half USF moved the ball pretty well but had fewer opportunities to rack up yards because of a defensive TD and terrible, terrible punting by ND.
USF ranked 112th in returning starters according to Phil Steele and still features terrible BJ Daniels, who is terrible, as their quarterback. Under the circumstances I might have pulled the Holtz there too. And when they finally got scared after ND missed a chip-shot FG to bring them within a score, they took the offense out of the garage for an 80-yard, 14-play touchdown march.
So… don't put too much stock into Rees's performance. He was allowed a ton of easy underneath throws with no pressure at all. He's a true sophomore who was a generic three-star out of high school. Severe meltdown is possible. Unfortunately, that goes both ways since Rees is throwing to Michael Floyd.
Michigan is almost totally unknown. We got some encouraging notes from Al Borges in a brief window and we saw some sexy NFL style zone blitz packages that promise to rattle quarterbacks all year. Mattison will have more in the drawer. And then there's last year and Denard running forever and ever amen.
I think it comes down to turnovers. Given what we saw last week, the relative abilities of the opposing teams to get pressure on the quarterbacks, and an admittedly hypothetical improvement in Denard Robinson's ball security, that slightly favors Michigan.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
Michigan's shotgun breakdown is approximately what it was last week and Robinson nears 20 carries out of necessity.
Borges brings back the stretch when Nix gets in and Molk kills him to the point where Nix ain't in no more.
Michael Floyd destroys M to the tune of 150 yards and two TDs. Many of these will be on Rees panic bombs as Michigan rushes him.
I have is that this is just the stage to turn an unknown 3-star QB into the savior of the Irish. After all the top recruits ND has had (Quinn, Crist, etc.) it would be fitting that a kid who lives a town over from me, who I never heard of, upsets us at home.
That being said, you can be sure that if we are up two scores at halftime, GMAT won't let up off the gas by orders from Hoke. We're going to keep coming until Rees is a fine paste with Kovacs being the pestle.
Remember Denard was fully unleashed against Mississippi State, Penn State, Iowa, State, Wisconsin and Ohio last year. None of those games were really close. That track record makes for a pretty weak (to put it nicely) case that he must be operate much like he did last year for Michigan to win.
“First, understanding what their intent is, what our team’s intent is going to be. You’ve got to be willing to work for that. You’ve got to be willing to earn that..." 12-30-2014