Friday, September 11, 2009

Game Preview: Notre Dame @ Michigan


Last year, I suggested that the Notre-Michigan rivalry was far from dead, which was received about as well as a wet ball on a punt return for the Wolverines. But here we are, looking at this year’s match-up as a tell-all for who might be in BCS contention this year. Has the hype begun to over-inflate worse than the American dollar? Obviously, yes…but even if it is after only one game, both teams look like they are ready to put on perhaps the best, or at least most intriguing, show of the week.

When Notre Dame has the ball

Being on this side of the rivalry, it’s very hard to ignore the potential this year’s Fighting Irish has heaving the ball down the field. Albeit against WAC opponents and reaching back to last year’s Hawaii Bowl, Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen has combined for 37-for-44 passing (84 percent), 716 yards, nine touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last two starts. The bread and butter for Clausen and company is stretching the field vertically with Michael Floyd (last week averaged 47.3 yards/catch and scored three times) and Golden Tate (19.7 yards/catch last week). Look for them to match up with Michigan’s heralded junior cornerback Donovan Warren and upcoming sophomore Boubacar Cissoko. Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, who's Orange upset the Irish in South Bend last season, is installing an attacking approach on all levels of the defense, demonstrated nicely in the Wolverines lock down of Western Michigan’s NFL prospect Tim Hiller, who finished 22-for-38 for 258 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. This newfound aggression, however, led to several Michigan mistakes in the secondary last week, including multiple pass interference calls on Warren, and a horrible bite from the secondary on a long play-action pass, leading to the Broncos only score. Michigan faces a serious upgrade in Notre Dame’s receiving corps, which also includes five-star tight end Kyle Rudolph (6-6, 260). Rudolph finished last week as the second-leading receiver with four grabs and a touchdown. Expect him to be matched up against an undersized opponent in Stevie Brown (6-0, 211), now playing the hybrid linebacker/safety position.

If I were calling the shots for Notre Dame, that is, if I were to score a coaching internship, I would line up in 11 formations (one running back, one tight end, three receivers). Michigan showed a lack of depth in their cornerbacks–when Cissoko went down with an injury last week, Hiller had success passing. Cissoko’s replacement, red-shirt sophomore J.T. Floyd, did not have a good opening day, looking lost in coverage. I would then stretch the field on the outside and counter Michigan’s aggressiveness with double moves and play-action. With the defense stretched, Rudolph and their third receiver (possibly Deion Walker?) should be open all day and in mismatches. Michigan’s safety position has not been solid since Ernie Shazor in 2004, and Michigan is working with inexperience back there with Troy Woolfolk and Michael Williams.

When Michigan has the ball

I think the two people who forgot that true freshmen were starting for the Wolverines were the freshmen themselves–Dernard “Shoelaces” Robinson and Tate Forcier. They played about as well as anyone could have asked, combining for 197 yards passing, 111 yards rushing and four touchdowns. The positive signs after week one were 1) surpassing their game-high rushing total of 2008 on opening day with 242 yards and 2) winning the turnover battle with a +two margin. Expect Michigan to continue to shuffle in speed and playmakers, especially with wide receiver Junior Hemmingway (five receptions, 103 yards, two touchdowns) listed as questionable. Greg Mathews must step up at the X on the outside if Hemmingway is unavailable. If Brandon Minor can return to the backfield, he will only add to a stable of backs loaded with game-breaking potential. I would expect Michigan to establish the run with a mixture of Carlos Brown, Minor, and Kevin Grady between the tackles, complemented by Michael Shaw, Vincent Smith, the slots and the quarterbacks stretching the field horizontally. Notre Dame wreaked havoc on a Nevada offense that is traditionally solid, limiting them to 149 yards passing and two interceptions. The advantage Michigan would seem to have would be their speed and playmaking ability on the ground. I don’t suspect a repeat performance by Forcier with the aerial attack, as Notre Dame’s secondary is solid and augmented by the zone blitzing scheme of a John Tenuta defense.

Prediction The keys to the game for Michigan are to contain Notre Dame’s passing game, to control the offense on the ground and limit quarterback mistakes. This will be a fun one for everyone to watch, but in the end, not so fun for those pulling for the maize and blue.
Notre Dame 41, Michigan 35