Growing up as a Catholic in Indiana, there was no more obvious choice than to follow and cheer for good ol' Notre Dame. My first real memory of the Notre Dame-Michigan matchup was the ’89 game and Rocket Ismail.
As a 10-year-old, I couldn’t believe that Bo kicked the ball to him the second time. No one in their right mind kicks it to a guy who already returned one to pay dirt.
You see, this matchup has become a bit more personal for me over the past six years or so. I had the chance to go to ND for a graduate degree, but instead chose to go to (gulp) Michigan because they offered a unique program.
Because of that, I can honestly say that I have a career I truly enjoy today. That is also the reason that I won’t get upset or badmouth a recruit that chooses another school over ND because they feel it is a better fit for them. I did the same thing.
You see, I was at the ’03 game in the Big House as a student with allegiances to the other school. I can honestly say that I think that was the beginning of the end of the Ty Willingham era in South Bend.
They looked absolutely awful and U of M looked like a team destined to win it all. That is what this game has always been about. To the victor goes the spoils (and the accolades and bragging rights), while the other is forced to continue its season with hopes of a national title gone.
Granted, both programs have been through rough seasons recently and some of the luster is gone from two of the greatest programs in college football.
Notre Dame enters Saturday’s contest ranked in the Top 20 and looking to build on last week’s win, and keep the momentum going for what could be (and should be) a special season. But something is different about this team- there is an energy and a confidence I don’t remember seeing in an Irish squad since the days of Lou.
Michigan is trying to regain some national respect after disposing of an average (at best) Western Michigan team. After a 2008 season filled with lows, the team (and more vocally the fans) is trying to ride this wave to a second victory and one that puts them back in the spotlight.
The thing that makes this game personal for me is that during my time in Ann Arbor, I just happened to meet a girl. Long story short, she is now my wife. And she is from Michigan. Which means, you guessed it, I married into a bunch of Michigan fans. What makes it even worse is that her brother went to Michigan State. I have to face them two straight weeks.
Last weekend, while visiting her family, I was relegated to watching ND dismantle Nevada on a 17” TV in the kitchen while the rest of the family watched Michigan-Western Michigan on the 50” plasma in the living room.
Needless to say, her grandfather and uncle both offered me bets on the game during a Sunday afternoon barbeque.
Conventional wisdom says that Michigan is a year away and Notre Dame, coming off a shutout victory over a similar offense, should be a heavy favorite.
Except this is a rivalry game, so you can throw that right out the window.
After reading several posts on the upcoming game, here are a few thoughts I have on Saturday afternoon’s matchup:
Turnovers will be key. They always are, but in a rivalry game, they mean just a little bit more.
Last year, Michigan turned it over six times during Hurricane Holtz. If Notre Dame is positive to neutral in the TO margin (they were +3 last week), they will win. If not, then they're in for a dog fight.
The Michigan front seven is their defensive strength. The Wolverines move to a hybrid 3-4 defense this year. I remembered when ND tried that in ’07.
Basically, if you don’t have the personnel, it won’t work. If they can get pressure on Jimmy Clausen without blitzing, they have a chance. If not, and they have to bring additional people and leave their secondary in man coverage, well…
The Michigan secondary could be in for a long day. I think just about every team in the country would have trouble trying to contain Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. Then you throw in Kyle Rudolph at TE and the slot receiver (Robby Parris/Duval Kamara), and it’s a matter of pick your poison.
Look for Michigan to try to pressure Jimmy Clausen in order to force throws before he is ready and lots of safety help over the top. Others have proposed that Michigan will run a base Cover 2.
If that is the case, look for Rudolph, the slot guy, and Allen to have huge days catching the football. Also, the Wolverine secondary is a bit thin. Look for CW to exploit this with four-WR sets and some occasional no-huddle.
Notre Dame needs to stop the inside run. There have been plenty of people commenting that Nevada’s most successful play was running inside last week and express concern over the DL.
You have to take into account that Tenuta was bringing pressure from the edge constantly last week with LBs blitzing in order to contain Kaepernick and the pistol offense. By bringing pressure on the edges, you take guys out of position to stop the inside run.
I think they will do a much better job this week and force Michigan to throw the ball much more than Rich Rod would like. Keep in mind, that Michigan uses a zone blocking scheme on offense, which should make DL penetration a bit easier.
Which Tenuta blitzkrieg package will we see this week? I think there will be more CB and S pressure to further confuse the inexperienced Michigan QBs. Make no mistake, the blitzing will come from everywhere and will force mistakes by the young signal callers. I expect plenty of poorly thrown passes which should lead to INTs.
Ø Robert Hughes should play a key role in ND’s offensive success. With James Aldridge out a few weeks with a bruised shoulder, Hughes steps into what should be an ideal role for him. Listed at 5’11” and 234 lbs, he's a bruiser. While not as great at catching the ball as Aldridge, the defense still has to account for him as a ball carrier.
Bottom line, I think the game will be relatively close at halftime. If ND is successful at stopping the Michigan ground game and forces them into second- and third-and-long situations, the Irish will come out on top.
When you force a spread offense to be one dimensional, they become pretty ordinary and that plays well into the strength of the Irish secondary.
While there will be a house divided for three and half hours on Saturday afternoon in central Indiana (including the dog sporting maize and blue if the wife gets her way), I believe the Golden Domers walk away with the victory and continue on their season-long quest to silence the doubters.