Still feeling my way on this game preview thing. Format suggestions appreciated.
Run Offense vs. ND
Don't even start on last year. Michigan's interior line is entirely different. It's stable. Two fifth year seniors with a ton of experience flank Adam Kraus, who's new but played well in his first game. More importantly, neither David Underwood nor anyone of his ilk will even approach receiving a handoff this year. Mike Hart, Kevin Grady, and Max Martin are night and day from last year's motley collection of pre-Hart misfits. Michigan will have an effective running game against an Irish front seven that looks good... but not that good.
I would have felt much better about this without the Long injury, but I still think that Michigan has a major advantage here. Notre Dame has a good starting four on the defensive line but you usually need more than that in today's game. Michigan's methodical disassembly of NIU--8/10 on third down in the first half--leads me to believe that they can sustain long, grinding drives against the Irish defense. That'll will pay dividends in the fourth quarter, especially if the Wolverines bring their tailback depth to bear.
Key Matchup: Mike Hart versus Possible Mysterious Injury. Further word on the little ball of wonder indicates that Hart is "dinged." As excited as I am about Grady and Martin, Hart and his never-fumble, always-positive ways would be a great deal of help against the Irish. A Grady/Martin coming out party would set nerves aflame given Grady's fumble in his first game and persistent reports that Martin has ball security issues.
Pass Offense vs. ND
The question here is going to be how brutally Henne dissects a fragile and inexperienced Notre Dame secondary. The answer will depend heavily on how much pressure Notre Dame gets on him. If he gets hit exactly once like he did against NIU, expect similar results: 66% on completions, a few touchdowns, and no interceptions. While Notre Dame did hold Greg Lee pretty well in check after an early 39 yard touchdown, the guy starting opposite Lee is a 5'7" walkon--Pitt has zero or perhaps negative depth at WR. Notre Dame could afford to roll coverage towards Lee all day.
Even without Adrian Arrington and Tim Massaquoi, the Irish will have no such luxury against Michigan. Jason Avant emerged as the Braylon-apparent last week and though Steve Breaston only caught 3 passes for 22 yards (a slip screen was lateral an therefore labelled a run) last week he was mere inches away from three long touchdown receptions where he had beaten his man by two to three yards. Any questions about the explosion that was absent for most of last year were answered. Tyler Ecker is almost as good as Massaquoi and Carl Tabb, Doug Dutch, and Mario Manningham will all get opportunities. Michigan probably has six guys better than Pitt's #2. If Henne is as poised, intelligence, and decisive as he was against NIU--two bad reads all day--ND will be on their heels from the get go.
Key Matchup: RT Mike Kolodziej versus DE Victor Abiamiri. Abiamiri is the best pass rusher the Irish have; Kolodziej is the man thrust into the departed shoes of Jake Long, a very good pass blocker (if somewhat lacking with the run-mauling thing). If Kolo can keep Abiamiri away from Henne on his own, his linemates can pick up blitzes and Henne can play surgeon all day.
Run Defense Vs ND
A strong point a year ago (in general, not the ND game specifically) now looks tenuous given the 200+ rushing yards given up to NIU and Carr's fiery reaction in the aftermath. The starting NT is now Gabe Watson OR Will Johnson. Lord only knows who the free safety is after those Yards After Mundy last week, though Brandent Engelmon was quietly effective at SS. The linebackers are questionable.
Notre Dame absolutely crushed the Pitt defensive line en route to 275 yards rushing, but there's a night and day difference between the fancy-dressed rodeo clowns the Panthers were forced to resort to and Gabe Watson and company. Er, as long as they don't play like they did against NIU. Which they shouldn't. One bad game should not override the fact that this is a potentially great run-defense DL. The problems are in the linebacking corps. ND has a road-grading FB or two and Scott McClintock is not the kind of guy who can take a guy like that on and win. David Harris has little experience but keeps 'winning' the MLB job and getting injured--he's listed #1 on the depth chart. He or John Thompson need to step up and stop Walker when holes emerge on the line. While Chris Graham had a good day against NIU Burgess lost contain on a regular basis, letting the speedy Wolfe hit the outside with regularity.
Key Matchup: Burgess & Graham versus RB Darius Walker. Walker has good vision and some shiftiness in his game. Last week Michigan lost contain on a regular basis. If they do that again Walker will crack 100 yards with ease, especially given the terrific run blockers they have on the edge in RT Mark Levoir and TE Anthony Fasano.
Pass Defense vs. ND
I have little idea what to expect here. It's safe to say that the Notre Dame passing game should be improved from last year--every relevant player returns--and there's no Marlin Jackson in the secondary for Michigan. Notre Dame has three or four (potentially) good receivers and Michigan has major questions at cornerback. The decision to stay in a base defense the entire game and not rotate the corners at all looks especially strange in light of the fact that Michigan is definitely going to have to play redshirt freshmen Morgan Trent and Charles Stewart against a veteran offense. Blooding them against NIU would have made sense, but Trent was in for only a few plays at the very end of the game and I didn't see Stewart at all.
Brady Quinn started the season well but had an easy time of it against Pittsburgh's defense, wretched last year and looking possibly worse this year. Michigan will provide a stiffer challenge, one that Quinn will probably meet quite well. He is talented, very experienced, and comfortable with his options, especially Fasano. Michigan will need to get heat on him to keep him in check--and watch out for 53 yard screen touchdowns.
Key Matchup: Pierre Woods/Tim Jamison/Shawn Crable/Jeremy Van Alstyne vs RT Mark Levoir. Pressure from the spot opposite Woodley will be key.
Michigan is one proven returner up on the Irish. Whenever Breaston is healthy and given opportunities, he takes games and OMG BREAKS THEM. He was not given much opportunity against NIU--returning on kickoff and no punts--but as mentioned before, he looks to be Backstreet's back and all that stuff. Rivas is Rivas. Ross Ryan is an improvement on Neinberg and had one very nice 41 yard punt with good hangtime. If he can keep that up (and given the fact that I saw Zoltan The Inconceivable freaking murdering several balls pregame, I think that's likely) ND's return game will be largely neutralized.
However, you can make the same case for the Irish. Punter DJ Fitzpatrick is one of the nation's best and probably won't serve up any balls that have Michigan Stadium cheering a touchdown before it even wobbles its way into Breaston's arms. Still, given the track record of Stevie Wonder, there's a good chance Michigan wins the special teams battle.
Key Matchup: DJ Fitzpatrick versus Hang Time. Fitzpatrick is one of the nation's best punters and can keep Breaston in check as long has he stays away from nasty line drives.
I don't believe in them, if you must know.
- Abiamiri starts dominating Kolodziej.
- Similar gashes start opening up in the defensive line.
- Henne's deep ball is off.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
Fear/Paranoia Level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +2 for defensive performance against NIU, +1 for ND-Pitt game, +1 for injury rumors flying around, -1 for home game, -1 for general lack of Irish depth.)
Desperate need to win level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for It's ND, +2 for Stop Him Now, +1 for What the Hell Was That Last Year, +1 for Three Home OOC Games We Better Make Good.)
Loss will cause me to... break out in hives that spell out "OH NO WHAT IF HE IS A GOD AMONGST MEN"; start carving blowdarts for use on Jim Herrmann.
Win will cause me to... immediately start wishing a two-week injury on Brian Calhoun.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: That Michigan wins. After last week's display I'd be surprised to see Walker under 100 yards, but that goes for Hart, too, and Michigan should have an easier time defending the Notre Dame passing attack than vice versa--Hall and Woodley are better options on the Michigan D than any the Irish have--plus a decided special teams advantage in the personage of one Steve Breaston, as long as we force a punt or two (five turnovers again would also be acceptable).
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Notre Dame will not crack 400 yards offense.
- Steve Breaston catches something and runs a long way to a happy place.
- 38-24, good guys. Subtract 4 points each for no Hart/no Kolo.