Notre Dame Football: Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Michigan
We begin our pre-spring previews of 2014 Notre Dame opponents with Michigan, which is the first Irish foe to begin spring practice.
It was a tale of two seasons for the 2013 Wolverines, who saw a 5-0 start spiral into a 7-6 finish. As good as the Michigan offense looked in its two spotlight games against Notre Dame and Ohio State (41 points in each), that’s how bad it was in losses to Michigan State (23-6), Nebraska (17-14) and Kansas State (31-13).
After a surprising 11-2 debut, the honeymoon is over for fourth-year head coach Brady Hoke. Saying he’s on the hot seat is a bit premature, but 2014 is undoubtedly a critical season for Hoke, who is just 10-9 after going 16-4 in his first 20 games.
Michigan shifts to the new Big Ten East Division, the seemingly stronger of the two divisions, but the Wolverines do avoid Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Before the Week 2 trip to Notre Dame, they’ll open with Appalachian State, which pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in college football history seven years ago in Ann Arbor.
The Maize and Blue hit the practice field Monday, with the spring game coming on Apr. 5. Let’s take an early look at the 2014 Wolverines.
Date: Sept. 6 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Site: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, Ind.)
Last Meeting: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30 (2013)
Last Meeting at Notre Dame: Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6 (2012)
Current Win Streak: Michigan—1
Record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)
Bowl: Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (lost to Kansas State, 31-14)
Leading Passer: Devin Gardner (Jr.)—208-of-345, 2,960 yards, 21 TD, 11 INT
Leading Rusher: Fitz Toussaint (Sr.)—185 carries, 648 yards, 13 TD
Leading Passer: Jeremy Gallon (Sr.)—89 receptions, 1,373 yards, 9 TD
Stats That Matter
Yards Per Play: Michigan—6.35 (23rd nationally, fourth in Big Ten); Opponents—5.05 (29th nationally, fifth in Big Ten)
Turnover Margin: plus-five (33rd nationally, second in Big Ten)
Red-Zone Touchdown Percentage: Michigan—66.07 percent (39th nationally, sixth in Big Ten); Opponents—54.30 percent (30th nationally, fifth in Big Ten)
Third-Down Conversions: Michigan—39.07 percent (75th nationally, 10th in Big Ten); Opponents—39.79 percent (66th nationally, ninth in Big Ten)
Explosive Plays*: Michigan—60 (56th nationally, sixth in Big Ten); Opponents—52 (42nd nationally, sixth in Big Ten)
*Explosive plays are plays in which a team gained 20-plus yards.
Notre Dame had little success with Gardner last year in Ann Arbor, as the junior completed 21 of 33 passes for four touchdowns in the 41-30 Michigan victory.
Despite having gaudy numbers against Indiana and Ohio State (503 and 451 yards, respectively), the remainder of Gardner’s 2013 season was a disappointment. The Wolverines lost four of five games in November before a foot injury sidelined Gardner for the bowl game.
With Gardner out, prized freshman Shane Morris was tabbed to start the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The 6’3” southpaw threw two interceptions in the 31-14 loss but did complete 29 of 47 passes. Gardner has a slight edge entering the spring, but don’t be surprised if Morris is the starter come August.
New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier arrives from Alabama to help revive an inconsistent offense. The Wolverines won’t look much different than a year ago schematically, but Gardner is more of a running threat than Morris. AJ McCarron took great steps forward upon Nussmeier’s arrival in Tuscaloosa in 2012. It will be interesting to see whether either or both Gardner and Morris can do the same.
It’s been widely reported that Hoke cried upon receiving a commitment from Virginia running back Derrick Green for the 2013 class. Green’s 3.25 yards per carry as a freshman may also have made Hoke want to cry. The 240-pound sophomore is now the man after the departure of Toussaint and will have to make his productivity match his hype.
De'Veon Smith had a respectable debut as well, earning 26 touches, just 16 fewer than Green, despite arriving at Michigan with far less hype. Senior Thomas Rawls and sophomore Justice Hayes, a one-time Notre Dame commit whose career has yet to really get going, provide depth for the Wolverines.
Ultimately, the running game will go as far as Green can carry it. After some struggles adapting to the college game, expect a giant step forward from Green as the Wolverines finally establish the power running game that Hoke envisioned when he first arrived in Ann Arbor.
Fighting Irish fans will be thrilled to see Gallon depart. His memorable 64-yard catch helped set up Michigan’s improbable victory over the Irish in 2011. Last year, Gallon, with the help of some shoddy tackling, turned an intermediate pass into a 61-yard first-quarter touchdown, his first of three scores on the night.
Slot receiver Drew Dileo also must be replaced, but second-team All-Big Ten tight end Devin Funchess returns. The Wolverines also get back Amara Darboh, who missed the 2013 season with a knee injury. Darboh and sophomore Jehu Chesson are the top threats on the outside. At 5’7”, speedster Dennis Norfleet could be a wild card depending on how he is used.
No. 2 tight end Jake Butt’s status for the season is now up in the air after the sophomore tore his ACL earlier this month. A normal recovery should allow him to play this fall, but being ready for the Aug. 30 opener, or even the Sept. 6 trip to South Bend, is probably a stretch. The receiving corps may be the biggest question mark on the roster.
It’s hard to justify calling a unit improved when it loses a likely first-round draft pick, in this case left tackle Taylor Lewan, but the Wolverines front can’t be much worse than the one that allowed 36 sacks in 2013. Right tackle Michael Schofield is also gone, but the three interior positions should be much more effective.
The Wolverines used five different combinations at the center and two guards' positions last year.
Three of those players were either freshmen or redshirt freshmen, so youth can be blamed for much of the group’s failure. Sophomores Kyle Bosch and Kyle Kalis were both among the top 10 at their position coming out of high school, so there is potential. Juniors Graham Glasgow and Jack Miller should again battle for the center position.
Replacing Lewan will be junior and Michigan native Ben Braden. At 6’6” and 318 pounds, size isn’t a concern for Braden, but experience is. The competition for Schofield’s replacement at right tackle is wide-open and dependent on the battle at the interior positions. The pieces are there to have a solid offensive line, but finding how they best fit together is the goal for the offseason.
393. This is the number of rushing yards Michigan allowed to archrival Ohio State will serve as motivation for the 2014 Wolverines. That was the worst of a terrible close to the season for the Michigan run defense, as the Wolverines allowed at least 128 yards on the ground in each of their final seven games.
There is some retooling to do in the middle, but most of the 2013 production returns. Second-team All-Big Ten defensive end Frank Clark is back, along with seniors Brennan Beyer and Keith Heitzman who shared the starting role opposite Clark last year. An infusion of youth should come by way of Taco Charlton and Mario Ojemudia.
The tackle positions are a bit unsettled, with two starters gone and Ondre Pipkins recovering from a midseason knee injury. Junior Chris Wormley could shift inside to team with promising junior Willie Henry, who started the final six games of 2013. The best player returns (Clark), but this unit finished the year fledgling. There is work to be done.
There is quite a bit of optimism about the 2014 Wolverines linebacking corps, and rightly so. All three primary starters from a year ago are back, including strong-side linebacker Jake Ryan, who missed half the season recovering from a spring knee injury. Ryan had a breakout performance against Notre Dame in 2011.
Desmond Morgan and James Ross III return at the weak-side and middle positions, respectively. The two trailed only cornerback Ramon Taylor in tackles last season (the fact that a cornerback led in tackles is a problem in and of itself). Morgan has the most starts (31) among any current player. The only significant loss is part-time starter Cam Gordon.
Notre Dame ran the ball just 19 times against Michigan last year, and that was with Ryan out. Falling behind early is partially to blame, but the loss to the Wolverines was one of many games last year where Brian Kelly’s affinity for the pass came under fire. This is an athletic group that can cover but is still a bit undersized and may struggle against good rushing attacks.
Michigan may have the best defensive recruit in the nation on his way to Ann Arbor. Cornerback Jabrill Peppers, whom Notre Dame pursued but showed little interest in the Irish, was the prize of the Wolverines' 2014 class. He’s listed as a cornerback, but the most immediate need for Michigan is at safety.
Both Thomas Gordon and Courtney Avery have moved on. Junior Jarrod Wilson started seven games last season before Avery surpassed him. Peppers could challenge for an immediate starting role but could also remain at cornerback where he could take over for Taylor in 2015. Either way, he’ll be on the field early and often.
Taylor is joined by Blake Countess as returning starters at cornerback. Countess missed 2012 with an ACL injury. The second year off of an ACL injury is normally when a player returns to pre-injury form, so expect an even better Countess after a six-interception, All-Big Ten 2013 season.
Brendan Gibbons’ career came to a disappointing ending, after he was dismissed from school late in the season for an incident that occurred in 2009. The quirky kicker, who made four of five field-goal attempts the last two seasons against Notre Dame, was replaced by punter Matt Wile.
Wile could serve in all three kicking roles this season—placekicker, punter and kickoff specialist. He averaged just under 41 yards per punt last season.
Norfleet, whose role in the offense remains uncertain, will handle the kickoff-return duties and could assume Dileo’s rule as punt returner. The junior has averaged 28 yards per kick return in six attempts against Notre Dame in 2012 and 2013.
The Brady Hoke era is at a crossroads. The 8-5 2012 season can be blamed mostly on a daunting schedule in which every big game was on the road. That’s not the case for last year’s 7-6 campaign, as the Wolverines were simply overmatched in the second half of the season.
Settling the quarterback situation is the primary goal for the spring, but with Nussmeier a new coordinator, it could drag well into August. It may not matter who comes out on top, however, if the offensive-line problems aren’t corrected.
Notre Dame probably should be 4-1 in its last five games against the Wolverines but, instead, sit at 1-4 heading into the teams’ final meeting before the rivalry goes on hiatus for a while at least. Being at night in South Bend, this isn’t a game the Fighting Irish should lose, but it’s a game they’ve lost far too often in the past.