In anticipation of Saturday's matchup of the nation's two winningest programs, Notre Dame writer Marc Halsted, and Michigan writer Justin Potts face off. Each presents his case for which team has the edge in each position battle and who will win the game.
Notre Dame pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Marc: The word on the street Monday was Mrs. Clausen overthrew son Rick in the fourth quarter of the family flag football game late Sunday afternoon. She was immediately pulled off to the field, reminded that Clausens don’t throw incomplete passes, and sent over to Ron Powlus to work on her mechanics.
Jimmy Clausen won’t miss much this coming Saturday. Michael Floyd is a big-time playmaker and Kyle Rudolph may be the most athletic tight end Michigan sees all season. Add in Golden Tate—a man who could outrun Desmond Howard wearing flip-flops and bloomers—and you have a frightening day for a Wolverine defensive backfield that gave up 263 yards to Western Michigan.
Justin: Led by junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen, and receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, Notre Dame has the talent to put up a lot of points.
However, Clausen’s numbers last season fell off considerably in the six losses. In those games, he completed just 57 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was also sacked 15 times. In seven wins, he completed 65.5 percent for 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while being sacked only six times.
Michigan has one of the best defensive ends in the Big Ten in senior Brandon Graham. Last season, Graham ranked second in the nation in tackles for loss (20), and seventh in sacks (10).
If Graham, Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen can pressure Clausen, it could be a long day for Notre Dame.
If Clausen has time to step up and throw, he can pick apart Michigan’s razor-thin secondary. Notre Dame has the advantage in this match-up because of Clausen's experience and the wealth of talent at his disposal.
Notre Dame rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
Marc: The Irish didn’t need to run when they had so many opportunities to throw against the vacant Nevada pass defense on opening day. The diversity of the ND offense will overwhelm the Wolverines, especially with Robert Hughes providing a new legitimate option at fullback on Saturday. Armando Allen hits it big for a 100-yard day and the human wrecking-ball on speed named Jonas Gray introduces himself to a national audience.
Justin: Last season, Notre Dame had one 100-yard rushing game, when Armando Allen rushed for 136 yards against Purdue. The Irish averaged just 135.7 yards per game on the ground, and a paltry 3.3 yards per carry.
The running game seems to be improved this season, lining up behind an experienced offensive line. In last week’s opener against Nevada, Allen averaged 4.8 yards per carry, running for 72 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.
Defensively, Michigan features a strong rush defense that allowed just 38 yards on 24 carries in last week’s 31-7 win over Western Michigan.
Sophomore nose tackle Mike Martin is a force in the middle, while junior linebackers Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton stop the run effectively, giving Michigan the advantage.
Michigan pass offense vs. Notre Dame pass defense
Marc: Kyle McCarthy hasn’t missed a tackle since his Pop Warner days in Youngstown. Harrison Smith starts hitting in the breakfast line and doesn’t stop until dinner. Sergio Brown hasn’t yet seen a Jon Tenuta blitz he didn’t like.
Junior Hemingway, Martavious Odoms, and Greg Mathews might want to pray that Darrin Walls or Robert Blanton interferes or intercepts. According to Kyle and Harrison, if the catch is made there will be hell to pay.
Justin: True freshman Tate Forcier stood out last week in his first college game, throwing for 179 yards and three touchdowns en route to 31-7 Michigan win.
His main target, junior receiver Junior Hemingway, caught five passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns, providing a glimpse of what Michigan fans have been waiting for since injuries forced him to take a medical redshirt last season.
Senior Greg Mathews gives Forcier a solid possession receiver, while sophomores Kelvin Grady and Martavious Odoms provide speedy weapons in the slot and tight end Kevin Koger hauls in anything thrown his way.
Notre Dame has a solid secondary in corners Robert Blanton and Raeshon McNeil, and safety Kyle McCarthy. The unit combined to intercept a pair of passes last week against Nevada.
Though the defense didn’t record a sack last week, it has the talent to wreak havoc on a young Forcier in his first true test, giving Notre Dame a slight advantage in this one.
Michigan rush offense vs. Notre Dame rush defense
Marc: Vai Taua gashed the ND run defense as Nevada racked up an impressive 117 yards and a 6.3 yards-per-rush average. Notre Dame must respect Carlos Brown, Denard Robinson, and the returning Brandon Minor.
If Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams, and Kapron Lewis-Moore start living up to their over-sized potential, it could be a long day for the Michigan run game. That’s a big “if,” though, and I’m losing sleep over it.
Justin: Michigan features one of the top rushing combinations in the Big Ten and will have senior Brandon Minor back in action this week. Minor sat out last week with an injured ankle, mostly to stay healthy for this week and the rest of the season.
In Minor’s absence, senior Carlos Brown stepped up, averaging 5.4 yards per carry on just 10 carries.
Senior Kevin Grady serves as a bruising goal-line back, while sophomore Michael Shaw and freshman Vincent Smith add some nice change-of-pace options.
The x-factor is the running of the quarterbacks. Freshman Denard Robinson led the team in rushing last week with 74 yards on 11 carries, including a highlight-reel 43-yard touchdown run on his first snap. Will that be able to carry over this week?
Notre Dame allowed 5.3 yards per carry last week against Nevada, and struggled against the run last season as well.
With all the talent Michigan has in the backfield it should win this matchup, using the running game to chew the clock and keep the Notre Dame offense off the field as much as possible.
Michigan vs. Notre Dame special teams
Marc: There’s no lost sleep here. We have Mike Anello and you don’t. Anello was a one-man Wolverine killer in ‘08. It’s time for another breakout game by the diminutive one. He’ll have five special teams tackles, draw three penalties, and force a big fourth-quarter fumble. Good luck stopping Rudy 2.0.
Justin: Both teams feature strong senior punters that averaged over 41 yards per punt last season, and first-year kickers.
For Notre Dame, Eric Maust averaged 41.1 yards per punt—landing 16 inside the 20-yard line—while true freshman kicker Nick Tausch converted five-of-five extra points last week. He has yet to attempt a field goal.
For Michigan, Zoltan Mesko ranked first in the Big Ten with 42.95 yards per punt last season, pinning 24 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, while senior Jason Olesnavage converted his first career field goal attempt last week with a 44-yarder.
In last season's game, Michigan’s return-men fumbled three times, allowing Notre Dame to pull away early. This season, securing the ball is a priority. Senior Greg Mathews handles the punt return duties, while sophomores Boubacar Cissoko and Martavious Odoms return the kicks.
Freshman running back Theo Riddick handles the kick return duties and sophomore wide receiver John Goodman the punt returns for the Irish. Both have the speed to take it all the way.
I see these two units virtually even, and whichever unit makes the big play could win the game.
Michigan coaching vs. Notre Dame coaching
Marc: Advantage: Notre Dame. I like my head coach to have a handful of Super Bowl rings. I like my head coach with a genuine Jersey attitude and a finely tuned ear for Bon Jovi and the Boss. I like my coach to have a great offensive mind. Most importantly, I like my coach to have the players in place to make that offense work.
Justin: Rich Rodriguez has faced a lot of scrutiny in the past 18 months since taking over from Lloyd Carr. His spread-option offense struggled to take hold last season, but now he has Forcier and Robinson to run the offense and more talent at the skills positions.
Rodriguez didn’t show much in last week’s opener, preferring to let Robinson and junior quarterback Nick Sheridan get some work in the second half. The playbook will be opened up this Saturday.
One thing not to overlook is Michigan’s new defensive coordinator, Greg Robinson. Robinson was head coach at Syracuse the past four seasons and beat Notre Dame last year. His experience and knowledge of the Notre Dame offense will allow him to formulate a game plan to attack Clausen.
Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis has also been on the hot seat the past couple years after following back-to-back BCS bowls with seasons of 3-9 and 7-6 records.
Weis, a former New England Patriots offensive coordinator, resumes the play-calling duties full-time this season, which should help with the cohesiveness on offense and the maturation of Clausen.
John Tenuta takes over as defensive coordinator after serving as linebackers coach last season. Tenuta is known for his blitz-happy schemes and figures to put plenty of pressure on Michigan’s young quarterbacks.
I don’t see either coaching staff having the advantage in this one.
Michigan will win if…
Marc: the wrong Jimmy shows up. If the Syracuse/North Carolina/Boston College Jimmy shows up, my television may not survive the afternoon. If the Hawaii/Nevada/All-WAC Jimmy shows up, my neighbors will hear the Notre Dame fight song until the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Justin: it is able to put constant pressure on Clausen and take care of the ball on offense. When given time, Clausen is a top-rate quarterback. When pressured, he makes mistakes.
If the defensive line can push into the backfield and allow the linebackers to help out in short coverage, Michigan’s safeties can help out over the top. That will go a long way toward preventing the big play and securing a Michigan win.
Additionally, Michigan must take care of the ball. Turnovers killed Michigan last season, especially against Notre Dame. The offense has to sustain drives without giving Clausen the ball with a short field.
Notre Dame will win if…
Marc: the defense plays ups to its physical potential. The offense is starting to look like a dependable force in college football, but mad scientist Jon Tenuta must point his defensive concoction in the right direction. If Ethan Johnson and Darius Fleming apply the pressure, and Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton, and Raeshon McNeil blanket the UM receivers like they should, it will be a decisive Irish victory and a twenty-point spread.
Justin: its offensive line protects Clausen. It’s as simple as that. If the line can keep Graham, Martin and Van Bergen from getting to Clausen, he will put up monster numbers. Michigan has talent in the secondary, but not the depth to cover all of Notre Dame’s weapons without help from the line.
Marc: Manti Teo gets angry, Brian Smith goes loco. By 6:30 p.m. Tate Forcier re-enrolls at his old high school, Denard Robinson fakes a hammy and begs for a medical redshirt, and Nick Sheridan texts Steven Threet to see if he needs a roommate at Arizona State.
Jimmy tops 300 yards, Golden steals the spotlight from Big Mike for the afternoon, and the Irish run game looks formidable, deep, and outrageously talented.
It all finally comes together for Coach Weis. Its all finally starts to fall apart for Coach Rodriguez.
Justin: At first glance, Notre Dame would seem to be the clear favorite, with an experienced quarterback and loads of talent to throw to.
However, Clausen struggles away from home. In five road games last season, he threw for just four touchdowns and 11 interceptions (compared to 16 touchdowns and six interceptions at home).
Michigan will provide enough pressure to keep Clausen off-balance. The secondary will prevent the big play, keeping the safeties back and forcing a lot of short passes.
Offensively, Michigan will pound the ball with Minor, Brown and Shaw, while using a lot of screens and roll-outs to mostly negate the blitz-happy defense of Tenuta.
This one will come down to the wire, and Michigan will win, 27-24.
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