Michigan's Road To Redemption: Week Two, Notre Dame
35-17...Need I say more?
That was the final score for the 2008 clash between college football's two historic giants.
Needless to say, neither played like the historic giants they once were thought of. Heck, they weren't even a shade of their former selves.
Michigan was playing their third game under Rich Rodriguez when the 1-1 Wolverines came into South Bend for a dreary day for football.
The game was miserable, even before kickoff, with pounding rain soaking the field, the fans, the players, the coaches, and Michigan's dreams of victory.
This was Michigan's road test of the Rodriguez era, and it couldn't have gone worse.
Michigan fumbled six times during the game (losing four of them), and gave up two interceptions. These turnovers resulted in 21 Notre Dame points. You do the math.
What made matters worse was the majority of the fumbles were unforced, as Brandon Minor and Michael Shaw both fumbled the ball within the Notre Dame red zone, setting up the Irish offense with great field position. Notre Dame score 14 points as a result.
A lot of people tend to have a sense that Notre Dame dominated Michigan in the 2008 game, when in fact they were far from it. Offensively, Michigan outgained Notre Dame in all categories...except the scoreboard (which is fairly important).
If not for Michigan turnovers in Notre Dame territory, the game most likely would have yielded a different result. Throughout four quarters Notre Dame put together only one scoring drive when starting on the other side of the 50. In fact, Notre Dame struggled to sustain a drive the majority of the game.
Which is why fans should expect a much closer game this fall in Ann Arbor...maybe one that swings in favor of the Wolverines.
Some good news for Notre Dame going into 2009 (bad news for Michigan) is that almost everyone on both sides returns to the lineup.
Offensively, junior quarterback Jimmy "Mullet Man" Clausen returns, along side standout receivers Golden "Boy" Tate and Michael Floyd.
Clausen had a much-improved sophomore season in 2009, passing for 3,172 yards on 268 completions in 440 attempts (60.9 percent). Clausen added 25 touchdowns through the air, but also found himself throwing to the other team on 17 occasions.
Clausen did also finished the season on a high note with a bowl win over Hawaii in the ever-popular Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, gaining co-MVP honors after a 22 of 26 (84.6 percent), 401 yard, and five touchdown performance.
The guys Clausen throws to are what really gets the offense going though, not Clausen.
Wide receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd turned into major weapons for the Irish last fall.
Tate wrapped up the 2008 season by leading the team in receptions (58), receiving yards (1,080), and receiving touchdowns (10). He finished strong in the Hawaii Bowl by racking in 177 receiving yards and three touchdowns on six receptions.
Floyd also had an impressive season, finishing second to only Tate in receiving yards (719) and touchdowns (seven).
The tight end Kyle Rudolph also developed into an important target for Clausen. Rudolph brought in 340 yards and two touchdowns on 29 catches for the Irish offense.
The running back unit is the one that has a big question mark. They have all their backs returning, but the question for them is will they be effective?
In 2008 the Irish used a running back by committee. Albeit it was a rather ineffective unit throughout the season.
The teams leading rusher was sophomore Armando Allen Jr. who had only 585 yards on 134 carries (4.4 ypc), and three rushing touchdowns (second-most on the team).
Robert Hughes, the teams No. 2 back, carried the ball an additional 112 times for only 382 yards (3.4 ypc), and a team-high four rushing touchdowns.
Notre Dame's No. 3 back, James Aldridge, added on another 91 carries for 357 yards (3.9 ypc) and three rushing touchdowns.
There is considerable experience returning for their the offensive line. Notre Dame will return every starter except for at left tackle, which is expected to be filled in by Matt Romine.
Right Guard will also see a new face with Trevor Robinson coming in to take over, but Robinson will not come in without some starting experience (he did start a few games in 2008 for the Irish).
The other three spots along the line will combine for 72 starts (38 of which will come from senior left tackle Sam Young).
The Irish line has been less than "average" the past two years, so if Notre Dame wants to improve at all they better hope that their offensive line starts getting things in gear. Allowing Clausen to continuously get pressured will not help, and not pushing the defensive line back during run-blocking won't improve the rushing game either.
So the offensive line will be a definite wait-and-see.
On the other side, the Fighting Irish will keep their 2008 defense intact for the most part. This is good news for Irish fans, as they will bring back a defense that ranked 39th in total defense in 2008. Expect this defense to improve a bit more for 2009.
Of those returning is the team leading-tackler, strong safety Kyle McCarthy, who tallied 110 tackles (64 solo) with two interceptions and 16 pass breakups in his 13 starts.
It is rather bad to have a safety leading the team in tackles though.
Also returning is defensive end Ethan Johnson who had 3.5 sacks and five tackles for losses as a freshman in 2008.
Both starting defensive tackles are returning, as well as three of their starting linebackers from 2008. OLB Harrison Smith, MLB Brian Smith, and OLB Kerry Neal all return at the linebacker position (MLB Toryan Smith also has a large amount of game experience. Notre Dame needs to get rid of Neal and go with the All-Smith unit).
In the secondary, things look solid with the aforementioned McCarthy returning. Joining him at free safety is returning starter Sergio Brown. In 2008, Brown tallied 28 tackles (21 solo) with a sack, a blocked kick, and six passes defended.
Over at cornerback, the Irish have senior Raeshon McNeil who had 11 pass breakups in 2008 along with two interceptions and 41 tackles (28 solo).
Opposite of him is expected-starter Darren Walls, who missed the 2008 season. If Wells doesn't start, expect sophomore Robert Blanton, who played in 12 games as a freshman.
In special teams, both of Notre Dame's kicking specialist return.
Matchups to Watch
Warren/Cissoko vs. Floyd/Tate:
This should be a great matchup to watch. Two of the Big Ten's best cornerbacks versus two of the countries most explosive receivers. Warren, if healthy, should hold his own against either of the wideouts he faces.
Cissoko will be interesting to watch as well. He is highly-talented and an excellent cover man, but he is young, and still lacks experience. It should be a great matchup, especially this early in the season.
Brandon Graham vs. Sam Young:
This may be even better than the WR vs. CB battle, as one of the countries best pass rushers will face off against one of the most experienced lineman in the country. Young is a highly talented offensive lineman, but Brandon Graham is a likely early first-round pick come draft time, so this could be a good one.
If Graham can do what he does best it could be a bad day for Clausen. As of right now, Graham has the advantage in this battle, but keep your eyes on this one.
Tate Forcier or Denard Robinson (or both) vs. Jimmy Clausen:
The freshman pups vs. the seasoned veteran. This duel has to go down as one of the more interesting matchups. Can the Wolverine duo outshine the former No. 1? That is the big question, and that is what everyone should be looking forward to finding out.
Clausen had a less-than-stellar showing vs. Michigan in 2008. If he doesn't improve upon that then the young Michigan duo may just come out on the winning end.
What to expect:
One thing not to expect is a game like last year's. Don't expect all the turnovers and miscues by Michigan, and don't expect easy points for Notre Dame. The Irish will have to work a little harder to get points on the board this year, and, being in Ann Arbor, the odds are a little more favorable for the young Wolverines.
However, this game is certainly not a lock for either team, and is one of the bigger toss up games Michigan will play. Being a rivalry game only makes it more of a toss up. It's anything goes next year.
All that needs to be said is that September 12th is a day Wolverine and Irish fans alike should look forward to with great anticipation.
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