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Why Notre Dame Really Needs to Beat Michigan in 2011

It’s been almost four full months since Brady Hoke was hired at Michigan, allowing that program to swiftly change course from the Rich Rodriguez era in this new year.

A while back I put some thoughts out there on the Hoke hiring in Ann Arbor and I still feel the same way today as I did then. You could make the case (as many UM fans most certainly will) that Hoke has already made significant strides in turning the program around, but we’re still a long ways away from taking that temperature.

Let’s see what things are like in October.

I usually proceed with caution when talking about Michigan mainly because it is beyond embarrassing that we’ve lost the last two matchups and also four out of the last five games against the Wolverines.

Say what you want about the losses to Navy and Tulsa, but losing to Michigan is a major thorn in my side (especially when you combine how the past two losses have occurred). And yes, I think both Navy and Tulsa beat Michigan if they played last year.

Some people might recoil in horror and exclaim, "How can you say that?"

Well, look at it this way: We’ve struggled against Navy in recent years when their program and talent level has been as high as it’s ever been since the post-Vietnam era. Moreover, we lost to a 10-win Tulsa team and a program that (except for 2009) has been one of the best non-AQ schools in the country winning 53 games since 2005.

On the other hand, Michigan has suffered what is likely the three worst years their storied program has ever endured. Their overall talent level (particularly on defense) is as low as it has probably ever been in mine or your lifetime.

And yet we still lose.

Oh, we’ve had our own struggles to be sure, but I think it’s been pretty clear Notre Dame has been the better team and program over the past couple seasons.

Yet we haven’t proved it on the scoreboard, and that is what is so frustrating.

So while I’d like to stay humble and not write a check I can’t cash, I think it’s important to note that once again Notre Dame will be the more talented team in 2011, and that we simply must beat Michigan.

What’s so Scary about Michigan? (Says all other Top 25 teams)

There are three issues that Notre Dame fans have to worry about for the upcoming 2011 game in September.

1.) There’s Some Sort of Curse

I have no other way of explaining the past two losses to Michigan than to say the football god’s simply did not want the Irish winning those games.

Of course I take those losses and try to make the best out of them, convincing myself that in the long run it will only make the players and program stronger for battling back and overcoming the adversity in lieu of some greener pastures in the near future.

But then I wonder, is the curse over now?

In 2009 we played what was likely one of the best offensive performances of the Charlie Weis era and perhaps Jimmy Clausen’s finest game on a big stage against a close rival. Our defense wasn’t great and Michigan played competently, but Notre Dame was simply better.

The officiating was as bad as I’ve ever seen, there was an untimely fumble deep in our own territory, Golden Tate dropped two crucial passes (probably the only significant drops he had over three years), Floyd gets hurt, and of course Shaq Evans ran the wrong route on third down…the football god’s made sure of that one!

Moreover, last year’s loss defies explanation in a lot of respects.

Have you tried recapping that game to someone who didn’t watch it? It contained some of the most ridiculous events in school history, you know, like our quarterback inexplicably losing sight in one eye and missing half the game.

It’s not important to relive the events of the past two meetings between Notre Dame and Michigan, but what is relevant is that there must be some sort of curse in play here.

Not that I’m 100% serious about that, but a win in 2011 would do a lot to disprove me, while another loss seriously makes it a harsh reality.

2.) Denard Robinson

There are a couple players on Michigan’s roster that you could debate might start over someone at Notre Dame (Mike Martin comes to mind), but Denard Robinson is the only player you can honestly say is flat out better than anyone the Irish have.

Just think about that for a moment.

I wouldn’t say we’re better at every single 22 positions on each side of the ball, but it’s pretty damn close.

Yet the specter of Shoelaces looms large indeed.

But what is Robinson’s productivity going to look like in a new offense?

I still think he’ll be a good quarterback, but count me as one of the people who thinks he’s not going to be as big of a threat as he was last year.

There’s a lot of talk in the Michigan quarters that this new offense is going to be more productive at scoring and despite some gaudy yardage totals under Rich Rod, this Hoke-led team is going to make plays when it matters with toughness up front.

I’d be very skeptical of this working in the first season.

Here’s what we know: Michigan has a good offensive line. They aren’t great but they are going to be one of the better units in the Big Ten. That’s a plus for them and a major reason why a lot of people have high hopes for the offense.

Yet, the running backs are not that impressive and this is a HUGE problem.

You can’t really out-physical teams on offense with a collection of backs that are either small or simply not that talented. These running backs should have been flourishing in Rodriguez’ offensive system (even more so with teams keying in on Robinson) and yet they did not.

In Rodriguez’ last season at West Virginia he had seven players get at least 10 carries (not including starting QB Pat White) and those players racked up rushing averages of 5.0, 8.6, 6.7, 5.8, 6.6, 9.4 and 5.9.

Last year Michigan runners put up 4.4, 5.4 and 4.1.

Not that a 4.65 average is terrible, but it's certainly not that good in a run-based offense with an All-American/Heisman-like/History-esque performance from the QB running the show.

And it certainly shouldn't scare too many teams that Michigan is going to line up in I-formation or heavy sets and suddenly over power teams or run the ball at will.

The Wolverines are going to still maintain some aspects of the spread offense (we’ll still see plenty shotgun and option play from the QB), but it’s not very realistic to think that this group is going to flourish, which is exactly what will need to happen to ease the transition to a new offense and help Denard out.

I look at Michigan’s offense and I can’t help but think they are making everything harder on Denard Robinson, and that is a huge positive for Notre Dame and any other teams that face the Wolverines.

Of course he’s still going to be a playmaker, but those huge passing lanes are going to be minimized, his running skills won’t be as dynamic, and there’s very little evidence to suggest he’ll get a lot of help from the rest of the offense in this transition period.

Over the long run Michigan is probably better off returning to a more traditional pro-style offense (or something along those lines depending on what Borges actually does), but it would be shocking if their offense didn’t have big problems adjusting in 2011.

Then again, Robinson might only complete 3 balls into the fourth quarter and then go 6 for 6 on a game-winning drive to seal the victory against Notre Dame (see issue No. 1 above).

3.) It’s a Night Game on the Road

If you’re scoring at home there’s only one topic that has to deal with actual on-field issues and even then it’s simply one player (good as he may be).

We’re 1-5 in our last six games inside the Big House and it’s going to be a mad scene in the first ever night game in Ann Arbor.

As long as Michigan doesn’t completely fall apart in the first game with a new system, they should dispatch Western Michigan in their opener and come in with a lot of confidence.

Unless we absolutely demolish USF in our opener we can’t really be too confident that we’re going to take a trip north and lay down a beating or even come away with an easy win.

It’s just that simple.

You’ve Spoken about their Offense---What about their Defense?

They’re going to be better because that’s the only route they can take.

If I’m being kind I’d say they are pretty good up front, but there’s certainly not a lot to be scared about. The secondary per recent Michigan custom is not good at all.

Brady Hoke has been recruiting very hard right now and is experiencing some success already. With new DC Greg Mattison coming over from the Ravens and likely whispering in every recruit’s ear, "I coached Ray Lewis," it’s no surprise that UM has reeled in four quality linebackers for the 2012 class.

I’m expecting their defense to improve and for the offense to take a step back from last year. I’m not really sure that combination is going to result in many wins for Michigan in 2011, mostly because they are still leaps and bounds away from having a defense with talented, experienced, and quality players across the two-deep.

This means Notre Dame absolutely must go to Ann Arbor this September and take home a victory.

We just have to!

I’m inclined to believe that Notre Dame is on track to have a really good season in 2011 and losing the second game of the season desperately needs to be avoided.

It’s talked about often and is very true: Notre Dame will never be "back" as a real player on the national scene until they start taking care of business against Michigan and Michigan State early in the season.

We need one of those hot starts (an undefeated September and/or a nice 6-0 start) that isn’t hollow like the 2002 one, and beating Michigan is the major part of that equation and something that has to start becoming a common occurrence as long as that program remains stuck in neutral.

This will likely be the fifth straight year that Michigan comes into this contest against Notre Dame unranked. In all of the games between the schools stretching back to 1942, Michigan came in unranked exactly once.

If we are ever to regain our dignity at a national level we will need to start beating really good Michigan teams, and stop losing to very mediocre ones.

Hopefully, a renewed effort to bolster the Fighting Irish defense will help and I think those efforts are finally going to start paying off in the next year or two especially.

In Notre Dame’s last four losses to Michigan, the Irish have given up an average of almost 38(!) points per game.

Yeah, that needs to stop.

It’s not like I’m explaining the secret code of the universe or delivering some groundbreaking idea here, but in Notre Dame’s last three victories over Michigan, the Irish have given up an average of just under 16 points per game.

Play well on defense, contain Denard Robinson, and Notre Dame likely wins the ball game.

This program needs a big win over Michigan really bad.

Is there any other team we need to exercise demons against more than the Wolverines? Perhaps Michigan State, or Navy?

What do you say?