OFD Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. Michigan

Michigan has a baby Eifert on their team now. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
Michigan (+4.5) at Notre Dame

Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana

Kickoff: 7:30 PM ET

Television: NBC

Last Meeting: 35-31 Michigan

For the second straight season Notre Dame will be hosting a night game. Last year the Irish were punched in the mouth early by USC under the lights in South Bend, recovered to make it a game, but were ultimately buried after some crucial mistakes and turnovers.

Hopefully, this one goes a little better and the team and coaching staff does a better job handling all the pressure and hype surrounding this rivalry.

Here is the One Foot Down preview for this Saturday night's game against the Wolverines.

5 Factoids

11

That is the AP ranking of Notre Dame coming into this game, the highest the Irish have been against Michigan since 2006 when all the fuzzy feelings of the Weis era were obliterated in a 47-21 loss for then No. 2 ND. Surprisingly, this is the first game in which Michigan comes into the matchup with Notre Dame ranked since 2006, as the Wolverines are No. 18 right now.

4-5-1

This is Notre Dame's record against Michigan when they come into the game against the Wolverines as the higher ranked team. For sure, this series has always been kind to the underdog. With the current spread you can bet that many people are going to take Michigan based solely on the tradition of this series.

398 & 132

Those are the yardage totals for Notre Dame and Michigan respectively, following a touchdown that put the Irish up 24-7 with 2:13 left in the third quarter in last year's meeting in Ann Arbor. Notre Dame would add a respectable 115 more yards to go over 500 for the game, but the Wolverines exploded for 320 yards on just 20 plays over their final 5 series' to complete the shocking comeback.

20120915_jrc_bc2_331_extra_large_medium

GA3 may see more carries if ND attempts to wear down Michigan. Matt Cashore/US Presswire

4

Four is the amount of completions through three quarters for Denard Robinson against Notre Dame in 2011. He would go on to reach a career high in passing yards off just 7 more completions in the fourth quarter. Robinson threw 3 interceptions, 10 incompletions, and connected on passes of 5, 43, 11, 77, 15, 14, 45, 27, 21, 64, and 16 yards to reach his best-to-date 338 yards.

6.0

This is the yards-per-carry average for Notre Dame last year against Michigan, the third best average for a single game out of the 2011 season for the Irish. The 198 rushing yards was the fourth best output for Notre Dame in 2011 and 84 yards better than the Wolverines in last year's game.

4 Players to Watch

WR Devin Gardner

The junior from Detroit was once the heir-apparent to Robinson at the quarterback position, but a lack of playmaking ability at receiver prompted a switch to wideout for Gardner this fall. So far, he's been playing very well as he's tied for the team-lead with 8 catches and outright leads the Wolverines with 155 yards and 3 touchdowns.

At 6'4" he brings much needed size to Michigan's receiving corps, and he's very athletic to boot. Gardner is averaging nearly 20 yards per catch and he's been a main target for Denard Robinson in the passing game, so this isn't a position switch to ignore.

TE Devin Funchess

Michigan has 5th year senior Mike Kwiatkowski taking on more of a blocking role, while true freshman Devin Funchess has carved out a pass-catching role similar to Tyler Eifert.

The highly regarded recruit is quite big (6'5" 229) and further adds much needed size to the Michigan receivers. He'll be moved around a lot like Eifert but probably won't be placed on the line in many blocking roles this Saturday. After not getting time against Alabama, Funchess has come down with 6 catches for 140 yards and a touchdown in each of the last two Wolverine games.

OLB Jake Ryan

Michigan's starting trio of linebackers are highly regarded but not great, however sophomore Jake Ryan is the most productive and explosive of the bunch. Playing on the strong-side, he turned in a quality redshirt freshman season in 2011 and is off to a good start this season.

With 57 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 2 pass break-ups, 2 quarterback hurries, and 1 forced fumble in his young career, Ryan is definitely someone to watch in the middle of the UM defense. He will also occasionally line up on the line as a pass-rusher as well.

Football Outsiders' Advanced Stats for 2012

STATISTIC NOTRE DAME MICHIGAN
FEI 6 49
Game Efficiency 15 49
Offensive Efficiency 32 16
Defensive Efficiency 14 69

S Jordan Kovacs

There was a time when Notre Dame fans laughed at the fact that Michigan was starting a walk-on at safety in their depleted secondary of 2009. Irish fans are laughing no longer as Kovacs has been one of the best safeties in the Big Ten.

In the three seasons from 2009 to 2011 he was 2nd on the team in total tackles and he comes into this game as Michigan's leading tackler with 23 stops through 3 games. Kovacks isn't much of a ball-hawk type of safety (4 INT's for his career) but he's a great tackler and loves to make plays near the line of scrimmage---considering his 22 career tackles for loss.

3 Concerns

Staying Focused

I think we can all agree that last year's night game against USC wasn't handled very well by many people at Notre Dame. We can argue how much time was spent on non-football activities, but the new helmets, piped in music, color of the towels, the extra media spotlight, and the un-godly amount of recruits in attendance surely distracted the Irish football team.

This time around there are still a lot of recruits (but fewer than last year, especially non-committed kids) and hopefully Kelly has learned how to get the players and coaches to focus on the true task at hand this time around. Something tells me being undefeated and welcoming Michigan to Rock's House will make the team plenty focused.

Turnovers

So far this year has been a great one for Notre Dame in regards to turnovers with just one interception and one fumble through three games. Last year was quite different, and now the tables may have turned a little bit in this rivalry.

Michigan gained an absurd 20 fumbles last year on their way to an impressive +7 turnover margin a year after Rich Rodriguez' final team in Ann Arbor finished with a -10 margin. Now, Michigan is sitting at -3 and Notre Dame is at +5 after the Irish posted a dismal -15 margin last year.

Of course turnovers will be key in this game---the Irish gave up the ball up 8 times over the last two meetings against the Wolverines and were -5 in just those two games alone. Keep that margin at 2 or fewer and Notre Dame has a great chance this Saturday.

Denard Robinson

No introduction is needed for Denard Robinson. He rumbled for a Notre Dame Stadium-record 258 rushing yards in 2010 and turned right around with a miraculous passing performance last year in Ann Arbor.

Through 3-plus seasons of work he has accounted for 5,630 passing yards and 3,580 rushing yards, totaling 85 touchdowns. That's elite of elite production, folks. Of course Notre Dame will surely attempt to bottle up Robinson when he runs, but that's easier said than done. We'll see if the reports of improved passing accuracy are true in a couple days.

2 Sides of the Line

Michigan lost three starters out of their 4-3 defensive front and it's had a negative impact so far this year as senior Craig Roh is the only returning starter. There is some good talent on the edge in junior Jabreel Black and Frank Clark, but neither player is terribly experienced. On the interior, Michigan deeply misses NFL draft pick Mike Martin and they've been getting sub-par play from senior Will Campbell and senior Quinton Washington.

Due to inexperience and ineffectiveness, Michigan has been rotating bodies on the defensive line (including true freshman Mario Ojemudia and Ondre Pipkins) and they have even tinkered with some small fronts by taking a true tackle off the field as well and utilizing some speed instead.

The results have not been very positive and that in turn is impacting the effectiveness of the linebackers. With a grain of salt in already playing Alabama and Air Force, Michigan is still giving up over 200 yards a game on the ground---third worst among BCS teams. Also, their defense has only totaled 3 sacks this season, and just 1.5 from the defensive line.

The point of view is pretty much the same from most Michigan experts: This is the weakest defensive line in 3 or 4 years (if not longer) and although there's some talent, the production and level of physicality is not getting it done. In other words, Notre Dame has quite the advantage in comparison with their defensive line which is playing like one of the nation's elite.

20120915_jrc_aa1_151_extra_large_medium

Will Denard Robinson be as effective through the air this time? Rick Osentoski/US Presswire

Michigan lost 2 starters on the offensive line, same as Notre Dame, but they are struggling a little bit without a great center in David Molk anchoring the interior. However, they do have one of the country's best tackles in senior Taylor Lewan and they've only given up 2 sacks this year. They should be competent to good in pass protection and a definite upgrade in comparison to Michigan State's offensive line.

Nevertheless, like their defensive line Michigan has not been getting a good push up front in the running game. This was supposed to be the year that the Wolverine running backs broke out in the offense and right now their top three runners are only averaging 3.84 yards per carry---whereas Notre Dame's running backs are averaging 5.5 yards per carry.

Notre Dame has had its own troubles on the right side of their line, and Michigan has the best overall lineman in Lewan, but I'd say Notre Dame's battle tested and productive center-left guard-left tackle combo gives the Irish a slight edge on the offensive line, but it's probably very close.

1 Prediction

There are many factors favoring Notre Dame in this game, but I can think of 3 that are hanging over the heads of Irish fans everywhere:

1. Mattison's aggressive defense

2. Denard Robinson

3. ND imploding again

The first isn't really that Michigan's defense is uber-talented, but rather somehow Mattinson's exotic blitzes could confuse the Irish offense and QB Everett Golson in particular. Even though Michigan's defense has had some problems this year, they have not picked off a pass yet and only recovered two fumbles, there's still a chance their aggressiveness creates three turnovers or more.

Further, what more needs to be said about Denard Robinson? Maize 'n' Brew's Zach Travis wrapped it up rather succinctly in his Notre Dame preview:

Some of the signs don't look good for Michigan, but with Denard Robinson on the field, in this game, there is always a chance.

I can't disagree with that.

Obviously the sense that there's some sort of curse---or that Notre Dame WILL mess up in this game--- has lingered in the air since 2009. In the world of college football, that's an awfully long time to live with those feelings. The last three meetings between these schools have been like terrible dreams for Irish fans, and only a victory can wipe those tears away.

There's this thought that Robinson is going to torch Notre Dame's poor secondary, but that seems as foolish to me as Irish fans thinking Michigan doesn't have any good receivers.

This will be the best offense that Notre Dame has faced this season---and it's being led by the most explosive player in college football. There should be plenty of trepidation here.

I expect Notre Dame to shut down the Michigan running backs and for their offensive line to struggle in this game, but Robinson does have a nice collection of receivers to throw to in Roundtree, Gardner, Gallon, and Dileo. There will always be inconsistency with Robinson's arm, but his legs can buy him time and I guarantee that Michigan takes a lot of shots down field and connects on a couple of them.

Notre Dame won't be as effective, but they will follow essentially the same script that Alabama used to open the season against Michigan: Rarely blitz, build a wall up front and seal the edges, press the receivers, and force Robinson to consistently beat you with intermediate to deep throws. Denard couldn't do it against the Tide, and I'm sure he'll be a little more success against Notre Dame, but will it be enough?

On defense, Michigan should do reasonably well containing the edge and having sure-tackler Jordan Kovacs come down from his safety spot and stopping some 7-yard runs turning into 25 yard runs will be important as well. Add in some timely blitzes, a couple sacks and some forced turnovers, and Michigan's defense could keep pace with the Irish.

However, Notre Dame should be able to run right at Michigan and pick up yardage on the ground. Last year the Irish ran for almost 200 yards at a 6-yard clip and they should be able to come close to that mark again if they stick to pounding the weaker Wolverine interior. If Golson can protect the ball and continue feeding the Irish playmakers, then the Irish are going to be very successful against Michigan's defense, or at least, successful enough.

Before the season I believed Notre Dame would split the Michigan games, and I mentioned that as much last week in predicting a loss to the Spartans. It seems unwise to anger whatever football gods that have been supporting Michigan in this series lately, but I'm buying in that Notre Dame is the better team, it's a home game, the defense has been playing great, and Golson adds a tremendous combination of playmaking ability and ball protection.

History suggests that Michigan covers this spread, but I think Notre Dame finally gets this Michigan monkey off their back and heads into a bye week with a ton of mojo. Tempting the football gods or not, the Fighting Irish are due.

Notre Dame 35

Michigan 31

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