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Notre Dame vs. Michigan: Irish Look to Turn Around Season

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Denard Robinson had an efficient game against Western Michigan last Saturday.
Denard Robinson had an efficient game against Western Michigan last Saturday.

Notre Dame (-3.5) at Michigan

After a devastating loss to South Florida the Notre Dame season doesn't get any easier with a week two matchup against one of their biggest rivals.

This Saturday the Irish travel north to Ann Arbor for the first ever night game in Michigan Stadium history.

In order to turn around their season, Notre Dame may have to pull out a win in a very unfriendly environment and in front of perhaps the largest crowd in modern football history.

Are they up to the task?

Obviously two things have to happen if Notre Dame is to win this game: limit the turnovers and contain Denard Robinson.

Before the USF game I would have told you containing Robinson is much more important, but after the debacle inside Notre Dame Stadium last weekend, a major focus has to be on limiting turnovers on offense AND forcing some on defense.

With this short holiday week there wasn't a lot of time to scout Michigan, and it is never easy to always play the Wolverines so early in the season, but here is the breakdown:

Notre Dame Defense vs. Michigan Offense

Before the season even started, I was happy that Michigan moved away from the Rich Rodriguez spread offense. That was a system Denard Robinson was born to play in, and it maximized his talents and playmaking ability better than any other offense you can run.

After watching the Michigan offense against Western Michigan, my mind has not been changed on this matter.

That doesn't mean that Robinson isn't still a big threat, but even many Michigan fans would agree that this new Borges-led offense limits Shoelaces just a little bit in every facet of the game.

You can expect to see Michigan throw out some new wrinkles against Notre Dame, but here is the basics of what they ran in their opener and how the Irish will perform against such an attack:

First off, Michigan utilized a ton of 6 and 7-man fronts. This is the one difference with their new offense that jumps right out at you. It is obvious that with a switch to a more pro-style offense, the coaches want to get the tight end much more involved in run blocking and catching the ball.

Even with a lot of big bodies up front, Michigan is still running a lot of spread concepts. The majority of the snaps last Saturday against the Broncos were from the shotgun and they still ran their fair share of option read plays. In this way, the Michigan offense is very similar to Notre Dame's as they looked the most comfortable putting a tight end on the line, three receivers out wide, and a running back next to Robinson in shotgun.

The other major change for Michigan is utilizing the I-formation and putting Robinson under center. Also, in a lot of short yardage situations, Michigan went to a heavy set up front, Robinson under center, with a fullback directly behind the quarterback---that fullback being 200 pound running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.

How Will Notre Dame Defend This Attack?

The Michigan offense played well in their opener, especially given that it was the first game under a new coach and new schemes. However, I still think there will be some growing pains and the offense has lost a little bit of its explosiveness and big play ability. Therefore, things should be a little easier for the Irish defense on Saturday, but still difficult at times due to Robinson's natural running ability.

Here are a few reasons why:

1.) The Michigan offense has slowed down

There is still a little bit of a hurry up option available, but Michigan was much more content with dinking and dunking through the air, and slowly picking up three or four yards on the ground. Last year the Wolverine offense was played at hyper-speed and tried to pump out as many yards and points as possible, often ripping off long runs one second and connecting on a vertical route through the air the next second.


Perhaps Michigan will be able to run a very smooth and effecient clock-eating offense, but I think moving away from the hyper-speed scheme that used Denard heavily, and opened up huge passing lanes because of Robinson's running, makes things a little easier for the Notre Dame defense.

2.) The new Michigan offense places greater emphasis on the running backs

Less carries for Denard Robinson means a step back in production for Michigan, and although the Wolverines have a few good options at running back, I don't believe they have the perfect guy for their system nor any true difference makers.

If you look at the box score from their game against Western Michigan you see 190 yards at 7.3 per rush---both very good numbers for only three quarters of play.

However, for most of the game Michigan was not dominating on the ground like those numbers would suggest. Those stats were buoyed by a 43-yard scamper by Toussaint and a 44-yard touchdown run by Shaw, with some pretty awful defense displayed by Western on both runs. WIthout those runs, both running backs were under 4.0 YPC on the day.

Even Denard Robinson was almost a full yard under his average from last year gaining 5.8 per carry.

This is a big issue as far as I'm concerned, because Borges' offense really relies heavily on running backs and I'm not convinced Michigan has the horses there to make up for taking the ball out of Robinson's hands as much as they would like to.

3.) Is Robinson that comfortable in the passing game?

This isn't exactly rocket science. We've known for a long time that this new Borges offense would test Robinson's throwing accuracy and decision making, and after one opening game that was cut short there are still a lot of questions.

What we saw last weekend from Robinson is what we already knew about him in that he's got a strong arm and is generally pretty accurate with short-to-intermediate throws. He lives off of screens, slants, shallow crossing patterns, quick vertical routes, and a lot of throws (especially on the outside of the field) to stationary targets.

While Robinson was fairly crisp (9 of 13 for 98 yards) and certainly didn't look uncomfortable in the passing game, the vast majority of attempts and completions were very basic short throws. All but two or three were completed within roughly 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.

We should expect Robinson to be a little bit more aggressive in the passing game, but the jury is still out if he can be effective against a better defense, and if he will be able to move the ball through the air if the screens and short passes aren't getting the job done.

Look for Michigan to call a fair amount of play action passes that will gain some big yards, but also get the Wolverines into trouble.

Notre Dame Offense vs. Michigan Defense

If I am a Michigan fan I would be pretty satisfied with where the offense is after week one. Not so much with the defense.

Now, the Michigan defense did cause three turnovers and took two of them back for touchdowns, yet Western Michigan wasn't having many problems moving the ball and really looked like the better unit in the first half in comparison to the Wolverines.

Western nearly connected on third down with a touchdown pass* but then missed the subsequent field goal, while also driving right down inside the five yard line when the score was tied with 7 minutes left in the first half, ultimately surrendering a pick six the other way. That killed all of Western's momentum and turned the tables on the game, but the Broncos were picking up a lot of yards for the majority of the game.

*The Michigan defender had a hold of the Bronco receivers shoulder pad and jersey right by the collar, tugging it the whole way while the ball came down---no call. Western Michigan had 8 penalties to Michigan's 1...welcome to the Big House!!!

Michigan made some adjustments as the game went on, and started giving Western fits with aggressive blitz schemes, but Wolverine fans can't be too excited about giving up almost 300 yards in three quarters of play to a MAC team.

In short, Notre Dame should be able to move the ball.

Two keys to the game for the Irish offense will be to obviously protect the ball, and also to keep Cierre Wood healthy and ready to consistently carry the ball for four quarters. That might mean throwing the ball more often.

The Michigan defense may be improved, and they are returning a lot of players from last season---nevertheless I wasn't overly impressed with their play against Western Michigan. They are about where I thought they would be...slightly improved from the awful 2010 season, but still a mediocre as a whole and very weak outside of the front four.

They gave up 4.9 yards per play (which was under the 6.1 YPP they gave up last year), but they also gave up the same 4.9 YPP to the MAC's Bowling Green last year, and we know how that season turned out for the defense. Also, they gave up only four yards less against Western Michigan in only three quarters, in comparison to what the Falcons totaled in a full game in 2010.

Some Michigan fans may be excited by the pressure they eventually forced on Western, as well as the scores off of turnovers, but it was much of the same ineffective defense that we saw in 2010 too.

How Will the Notre Dame Offense Attack the Michigan Defense?

We would all like Brian Kelly to commit to a more run-oriented offense, but I'm not sure the horses are there to do that right now. At the pace the offense was running early on against USF last week, Cierre Wood was going to have over 30 carries and I don't think it's smart to wear out one of your teams best playmakers like that---as much as I wish he could have the ball in his hands that many times.

What's more, Michigan would probably be happy with Notre Dame running more and playing to the strengths of the Wolverine defensive line, instead of getting the ball out to Michael Floyd and the other Irish receivers in the under-performing UM secondary.

Maybe Jonas Gray comes alive and Notre Dame can run the ball a lot, but I will bet on Kelly exploiting the matchups through the air and moving the ball on the arm of Rees, and mixing in a few runs by Wood here and there looking to break off some long runs.

This is essentially what Western Michigan was doing and it worked really well. They were able to do most of their damage through the air, but also mix in some runs here and there that led to good yardage (16 non-QB carries for 96 yards).

No matter, Notre Dame should not have many problems moving the ball against Michigan. They have a very good offensive line, perhaps the best running back in a decade for the program, plus an All-American and a couple other good targets at wideout and tight end. Michigan might not be as terrible on this side of the ball as they were last year, but they still have a long ways to go before they are prepared to slow down an offense that should be as explosive as Notre Dame's in 2011.

Make no mistake about it, the Irish offense versus the Michigan defense should be a huge advantage for Notre Dame.

Prediction

I am oddly confident with this game, even though a lot of outsiders would think this is the last place Notre Dame wants to be in this weekend: first night game ever at Michigan, with a Heisman candidate and superstar Denard Robinson leading the Wolverines.

There should be plenty of worry about the Michigan offense and the damage that Denard Robinson can do, but the Irish set up fairly well to counter the new Wolverine offense. I look for the Irish to shut down the majority of the I-formation running plays and force Michigan to revert to the shotgun option read much more than they did against Western Michigan.

The Michigan coaching staff has been adamant about reducing Robinson's carries from last year, but you can throw those desires out the window this Saturday. Expect to see Robinson carrying the ball often with plenty of QB draws, especially if the Wolverine running backs aren't gaining much yardage in the pro-sets.

Much like the USF game, Notre Dame will focus on stopping the run, containing Robinson, and limiting the amount of damage Michigan can do through the air. That might mean playing off of the Wolverine receivers and giving up a ton of short passes, but it is clear that this is the strategy Bob Diaco favors.

I expect the Michigan offense to have more success than USF did, but another 500+ yard game like last year is probably unlikely, but the Irish will have a very good shot at racking up that many yards in the second year of Kelly's offense and with two quarterbacks ready to play this time.

Notre Dame will have its hands full with Michigan's defensive line, and it will be important to neutralize this unit---by far the best on the Michigan defense. If the Irish can win this battle, they will do some major damage to Michigan's defense because they do not have the weapons at linebacker or in the secondary to keep up with Notre Dame for four quarters.

Having Tommy Rees at quarterback is probably the smart move for this game because Michigan may be forced to blitz a lot (as they did against Western) in order to get pressure, and Rees' quick release and accuracy will be beneficial in order to counteract that defensive aggressiveness.

However, I do expect the Irish to turn the ball over a couple times and have everyone rolling their eyes and having flash backs to last weekend against South Florida.

In many ways, Notre Dame is a much better football team but we know the night game atmosphere and the history of the rivalry will make this much closer than perhaps it should be. So while Notre Dame may have the talent to really lay a good licking on Michigan at the Big House, we simply cannot expect that to happen.

I do like the Irish to come out fired up and play with much more focus than last week and I'm pretty confident in Notre Dame's ability to move the ball in this matchup. In a nut shell that is why I am confident: I like the bounce back feeling and the major advantage on offense.

As many have pointed out in the run-up to this weekend, Notre Dame hasn't lost three in a row to Michigan since 1908...so we've got that going for us!

Ultimately, Michigan's defense will ultimately let them down in this one, and Robinson won't be enough on offense.

Notre Dame 34

Michigan 26