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Q&A with Maize N Brew

We sit down with Zach Travis from Michigan's SB Nation blog Maize N Brew to discuss Saturday's matchup. What insight can he provide on the Wolverines?

Gregory Shamus

I answered Zach's question's HERE on Maize N Brew yesterday. Please give Zach a follow @Zach_Travis and the whole crew over at Maize N Brew @MaizenBrew. Let's jump right in to the information gleaned from a week's long session of waterboarding answers Zach was so kind to give:

1. Obviously the biggest change for Michigan this season, like Notre Dame, is the change at QB. Going from an all-world athlete with a questionable arm, to a still-very-good athlete with a much better arm, what can we expect from Devin Gardner in Saturday's game? Do the two INTs against Central Michigan have root in something exploitable by opposing defenses, or were they just freak INTs?

Even after five games last season and one game this season, I'm still not really sure what to think of Devin Gardner. The things we know: he is a very impressive athlete that can extend plays and absolutely kill a defense that gets out of position trying to rush the passer. His arm is also better than Robinson's and he has shown an ability to vary speed and trajectory on passes that is necessary for Al Borges's down field passing offense. Somewhat surprisingly, he is worlds better as a scrambling quarterback, where Robinson was always hesitant to take off and try and pick up yards.

That is all a lot of physical potential and the kind of measurable stuff that has scouts and draftniks fawning over Gardner's potential. The issue is that for a couple reasons he still isn't consistent. Last year he had problems with footwork, and he still seems to have happy feet in the pocket when the rush gets after him. He has a tendency to throw passes he shouldn't, and as evidenced by his interceptions last week, reading the defense can still be an issue.

Given all that, I'm still not sure what to think. There are times that Gardner will look legitimately like Vince Young, and then the next play he could throw a Robinson-esque pass into the ground when trying to hit an open receiver 15 yards down the field. The bright side is that with all of his athleticism, he is capable of finding ways to extend plays and force the defense to overreact, which opens up other opportunities (the early long pass to Drew Dileo against Central is a prime example). I think this game is the true test of where Gardner is after a full off season. He will get pressured and the secondary won't give him much room to throw. If he locks on to Jeremy Gallon - an unfortunate habit - and lets the pressure get to his footwork and pocket presence, he could have a rough day. If he keeps his head and uses the threat of a scramble to keep the defense on its heels, he could have a big day.

Gun to my head, I think he has a really good game. Last week was a small sample size, and both interceptions came early.

2. Something that has been pointed out on many Notre Dame sites is the perceived weakness of Michigan's interior offensive line. Will this be a big area of concern against Louis Nix III, or do you think they'll rise to the occasion? If Irish Chocolate is having his way, how will Michigan adjust?

Wait, you got that from Notre Dame message boards? I would have figured that all came from Michigan folk. There was much hand wringing this off season as Michigan was looking at a situation where it was replacing three already shaky fifth-year seniors with a handful of guys that never played before. We all tried to talk ourselves into it by saying things like "they were recruited for the system" and "there is a lot more depth and competition than before", but really nobody had any clue other than the mostly positive but somewhat misleading practice rumors.

Funny thing is, after the first game it looks like we might have all been right. Michigan's interior line looked much better against Central. Sure, the level of competition plays a role in it, but regardless of how these guys were doing with their actual blocks, they were doing the right things and not blowing assignments. One of the big problems last year was line calls, and that led to what was ultimately the biggest harbinger of doom: a last minute switch between LG and C. This year, Michigan's interior linemen spent the first game getting out of their stance quickly and getting to the right spot. What's more, Michigan couldn't pull guards to save its life last year, and already Graham Glasgow has shown better pulling technique than anyone at any point in 2012.

This could all get blown up against Notre Dame, and I don't expect Michigan to have a ton of success going inside. Tuesday, MGoBlog did a great breakdown of Michigan using a lot of zone-stretch run plays, and hypothesizing that this is going to be a major weapon against Notre Dame to try and get Nix and Tuitt moving laterally while allowing Taylor Lewan to work his magic sealing the end. I think that's as good a strategy as you can come up with to try and run on this front seven. The interior line will likely struggle at points Saturday, but I think the unit will fare better than last year.

3. One of the biggest losses from the Michigan was super walk on Jordan Kovacs. How do you think Michigan's secondary lines up against ND's multi-headed passing attack? What do you think is the weakest area of the secondary; the strongest?

Jordan Kovacs is a huge loss and Michigan still doesn't really have any idea how to replace him. Thomas Gordon returns at the other safety spot and should be solid (although he sat out the first game because of a suspension). However, Michigan coaches spent fall camp talking about how the heir apparent to Kovacs, sophomore Jarrod Wilson, had yet to separate himself, and then they moved a 5'10 corner to practice at the spot, tentatively naming him the starter before he was sidelined with a mild knee injury.

The corners should be fine. Blake Countess looks to be back to 100% and should be back on the stardom track after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. Opposite him is Raymon Taylor, who stepped up admirably last year once Countess went down and played solid throughout the year. Behind them Michigan has some decent depth and is getting surprising contributions from a true freshman.

The issue is going to be at safety. I would guess that Wilson will start again, and while he supposedly finished fall camp on a high note, and even played a good game against Central Michigan, he is facing a much better offense that will presumably have its first stringers at running back and quarterback for the whole game. I had high hopes for Wilson as a recruit and he showed some of that potential last week, but I think Notre Dame would be wise to go at him early and often.

4. Who is the player that we may not have heard of that will make the biggest impact on the game for Michigan come Saturday?

I'm going to go a different direction on this one. It isn't the one you haven't heard of, but the one you probably forgot about. If we take the Wayback Machine to the year 2010, most Notre Dame fans that haven't blocked out the memory of that loss likely remember the long touchdown pass late in the fourth that put the Irish back on top. The blown coverage on that was starting free safety Cam Gordon, a redshirt freshman that came to Michigan to play receiver and ended up as Rich Rodriguez's next-to-last best hope of safety competency. It didn't work out, Gordon was moved down to SAM linebacker and largely sat on the bench because of injury and the existence of Jake Ryan.

In the meantime, Gordon kept getting unsolicited mentions from the coaching staff to the point where they were actively scheming ways to get him on the field with Jake Ryan. Well, now that Ryan is injured, Gordon has stepped up at SAM and looks to be a strong replacement for Michigan's best linebacker. Gordon was all over the field last week, racking up sacks (2.0 for 11 yards), TFLs (another .5 on top of those sacks), a batted pass he nearly intercepted in the end zone, and generally looked like the havoc-wreaking SAM that Michigan needs with Ryan out of the lineup.

5. In looking at how Michigan matches up with Notre Dame, what do you think Michigan's biggest matchup advantage is? Notre Dame's biggest matchup advantage?

I think Michigan's biggest advantage is Gardner. Just like so many recent games fell onto the shoulders of the quarterbacks, I think in this one the better quarterback could be the difference when two strong defensive teams with potential-laden but still not totally proven offenses match up. Gardner has shown flashes in his career of being the kind of player that can, as the kids say, "put the team on his back, dawg" (does anyone remember that video anymore? Has the internet made stale every meme older than two weeks?). I think if he comes out focused he could be the difference in the game. At the same time, a bad game from him could mean Michigan falls apart a la last year's debacle.

Notre Dame's biggest advantage should once again be controlling the run game. I think the Irish front seven will make life hard on Michigan's running game, and that will put more pressure on Gardner while taking away the efficacy of play action passes - an Al Borges specialty. On the other side of the ball, the Irish line is more of a proven commodity across the board, and the running backs are just as good if not better than what Michigan has.

6. Obviously, the last time Notre Dame visited the Big House, it was an electric atmosphere, which will assuredly be matched this weekend for UTL2. With Michigan entering the game as a 3 point favorite, we at OFD have said we think the UTL advantage for Michigan is as high as 6 points. What do you think the UTL setting is worth? What would you put the point spread at on a neutral field in midseason?

I wasn't at the first UTL game and I won't be at this one either (one of the downsides of living on the east coast), but from everything I've heard it was basically the best, most awesome game ever and if you know anyone that went they will repeat this to you until you want to strangle them.

I think both teams will definitely come out fired up, and if I were a betting man I would think it would swing things in Michigan's favor another point or so. I don't think it quite pushes the game that close to a touchdown. If it were a neutral field game I really feel like Notre Dame is favored by one or two points.

7. Given that this is one of the last meetings Michigan and Notre Dame will have for the near future, give me your thoughts on the rivalry, both historically, and in the recent past. What is your favorite/worst moment?

This rivalry is a weird one for me personally because it took a two year break in 2000 and 2001, which was right in the middle of high school for me - the time my interest in football really took off from watching the games with my dad because he really cared and they were cool to watch when I was younger, and turned into watching the games with a deeper interest and really getting into Michigan football for myself. I also grew up very close to East Lansing, so that skewed things in terms of how I perceived the rivalries before I got to Michigan. That is when I really began to understand the importance of this game.

As for best and worst moments, it is hard to settle on one particularly stand out moment in losses that hurt more than the others. The game comes so early in the season and has no conference implications, so it isn't the kind to derail everything like a loss to a lesser Big Ten rival might. I do remember really hating the 2004 loss, which is strange because I don't remember much about it other than watching it with my friends and then walking dejectedly to Wendy's with my roommate who then ordered 15 dollars worth of food and proceeded to eat all of it, which says something about the human mind after a crushing loss, I guess.

While the highs from the last few years are great, I keep going back to the 2006 game when Michigan went into South Bend and destroyed Brady Quinn's Heisman hopes. I watched that game in East Lansing with my then-girlfriend. By "with" her, I mean I sat in front of her TV rolling around like a kid and cackling with delight while she studied in the other room and probably reevaluated what she thought of me. That season means a lot to me, and that game was the launching point. Losing this rivalry hurts because it is one of the few games capable of being huge on its own. Even when both teams were awful in the Rodriguez/Weis days, it was a huge game. Not many match ups between eventual .500 or below teams can feel that big.

8. How do you see this game playing out, and what is your prediction for the final score?

I really don't have any idea how this one plays out. I go back and forth between Michigan's offense either hitting a wall where it can't run and Gardner tries and fails to carry the team by passing against a waiting secondary, or Michigan's interior line doing enough to keep the backs clean and the chains moving, which opens things up for Gardner to attack the defense vertically and create some big plays.

I do think that this one is higher scoring than last year. I think both offenses are a little more well rounded than they were a year ago, and I think both teams score in the 20s. In the end, I think the game is within one score late, and while I don't know if we will get the same fireworks as 2009-11, I think there will be plenty of drama until very late in the game.

My totally random and not prepared at all prediction: Michigan 24 - Notre Dame 21. Don't ask me how they get there.