Notre Dame-Michigan: Five Key Battles to Watch for Irish Against Wolverines
The Irish and Wolverines are set for a showdown in Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday.
For the third time in four years, each team enters the contest unranked, though that won't mean the venom between these two rivals will be any less than if they were both in the top 10.
On one side is Notre Dame, still riding the honeymoon wave of good feeling from the dawn of the Brian Kelly era. On the other side is Michigan, whose honeymoon period with Rich Rodriguez ended about a half hour into his opening season.
An Irish victory could help propel them to a great season and signal the beginning of the end for Rodriguez's tenure in Ann Arbor. A victory for the Wolverines may mean that they've turned a corner and are poised to bounce back from the pair of disastrous seasons in '08 and '09.
Today we break down the five key battles that will go a long way in determining who comes out on top.
No. 5: Time of Possession
This is something worth watching closely. Purdue held the ball 10 more minutes than Notre Dame in their game last Saturday (35:05 to 24:55), while Michigan dominated time of possession against Connecticut (36:52 to 23:08).
Michigan has such a glaring weakness in the secondary that they're going to do everything they can to control the ball and limit Notre Dame's offensive possessions.
The Irish are very thin along the defensive line, which is a problem that could rear its ugly head late in the game if Notre Dame's offense only has the ball for 23 to 26 minutes over the course of the contest.
The Wolverines' offense hinges 100 percent on Denard Robinson running, passing, and running some more. Chasing around the shifty, fast quarterback on 63 percent of the snaps (which is the percentage of plays Robinson either ran or passed the ball against UConn) will take its toll.
If Notre Dame allows Robinson to grind out first downs and long drives, then it will force Brian Kelly to be even more aggressive than he initially planned on the offensive side of the ball—something he may not be comfortable with just yet. But should the Irish effectively contain Robinson on the ground and make him pass, it greatly lessens the chance of Michigan being able to control the clock the way it did last week.
No. 4: Braxston Cave Vs. Mike Martin
Braxston Cave performed admirably in the first start of his career at center against Purdue. He flashed surprising mobility, doing a phenomenal job of getting to the second level and flattening linebackers on a couple of big runs by Cierre Wood.
Center was a huge question mark for the Irish going into the season, so to see Cave show up and play so well was somewhat of a relief.
This week he will face a much sterner test though. Michigan sophomore Mike Martin is one of the best defensive tackles Cave will face all season—in fact, there's a reasonable chance Martin ends up on the All-Big Ten team by year's end.
He's a very physical, disruptive, high-motor player who comes from a wrestling background in high school (think Trevor Laws, only much further along than Laws was at this point in his career).
Michigan's base defense consists of three down linemen with Martin lining up at nose tackle, meaning Cave will be meeting him head-on most plays.
If the Irish hope to exploit the weakness in Michigan's secondary, then they'll need to provide Dayne Crist with adequate time to distribute the ball. Martin is capable of collapsing the pocket by himself, so how Cave handles him will play a huge role in whether that happens or not. Consistent pressure up the middle will clog the running lanes and won't allow Crist to get comfortable when he drops back.
In order for the Irish to fully take advantage of the gaping hole in the back of the Wolverines' defense, Cave must step up and keep Martin from making too much noise in the backfield.
No. 3: Dayne Crist Vs. the Michigan Secondary
Michigan's secondary has been absolutely gutted by graduation, transfers, and injuries. Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, TJ Jones, and company all have to be licking their chops thinking of the opportunity that awaits them Saturday.
The question is whether Dayne Crist will effectively be able to get them the ball.
Crist consistently erred on the side of caution last week against the Boilers, choosing to throw balls away rather than attempt to fit them into tight windows. He also checked down a lot, whether it be to a dragging receiver or Rudolph as opposed to taking chances down the field.
The former was a product of first game jitters that made him play in a way that avoided mistakes at all cost; the latter was just the most effective way to exploit the soft two-deep shell Purdue employed most of the day.
Now that he has his feet wet, it's time to let loose. Brian Kelly will likely test the back four of the Michigan defense early and often. There will be ample opportunities deep—especially with Michael Floyd, who has the ability to physically dominate every player the Wolverines could trot out to defend him.
Dayne missed Floyd on a couple potential touchdowns in the second half because he overthrew him out of bounds. If he keeps it in the field of play and gives No. 3 a legitimate chance to come down with the catch, more times than not Floyd will.
Dayne struggles with accuracy at times, so this will be a good test for him. The Michigan secondary is ripe for the picking and provides a perfect opportunity to gain confidence by shredding a rival squad early in the season. If he's unable to exploit the clear weakness that is in front of him and the Wolverines force him into mistakes, then momentum could get going in the wrong direction quickly for the Irish.
No. 2: Brian Kelly Vs. Rich Rodriguez
Brian Kelly is a rising star in the college football ranks, the newest coach at the most storied program in college football history. Rich Rodriguez is arguably the most embattled coach in the land, captaining a ship that's seemingly been taking on water since the day he arrived on campus.
Both of these squads have weaknesses, but they also have the talent to exploit their opponent's weakness. Michigan has Denard Robinson to wear down a thin Irish defensive line. Notre Dame has an entire stable of wide receivers that should be able to light up a decimated Wolverine secondary.
The key to the game will be how well each coach is able to execute a game plan that highlights and takes advantage of the opportunities the opponent presents.
Rodriguez is approaching a land of desperation and needs this win badly to keep the vultures at bay (at least for the time being). Will that have an effect on how he calls the game? Will he play a cautious game of ball control or roll the dice in an attempt to make Notre Dame chase?
Kelly hasn't lost a regular season game since George Bush was in office and is the embodiment of confidence. Will he be able to sniff out the desperation and attack the vulnerabilities Rich Rod can't mask? Does he have enough confidence in his new quarterback to really unleash the passing attack?
It will be interesting to see if Rodriguez makes a couple decisions that make the viewer think, "Oh man, he's pushing all-in!" Smart money says there's a good chance that happens; whether or not those moves pay off will determine just how close the vultures are to his office on Monday.
No. 1: Denard Robinson Vs. the Irish Linebackers
Listening to Michigan fans talk about Robinson makes you think they've stumbled upon the reincarnation of Michael Vick. If you saw the highlights of the Wolverines' victory over UConn last weekend, then you may tend to agree.
Everyone knew he was capable of posting big numbers with his feet (to the tune of 197 yards against the Huskies), but suddenly it appears he's figured out the passing game as well (19-of-22 for 186 yards and a TD).
Tasked with containing the christened savior of the Rich Rod regime is the Irish linebacker squad. Last year Tate Forcier's mobility gave this unit fits. All day he dodged Jon Tenuta's avalanche of blitzes and found holes in the secondary while making plays with his feet when the opportunity presented itself (his ankle-breaking move on Darius Fleming on his 4th-and-1 touchdown run is forever ingrained in the mind of every Irish fan).
Robinson is far more athletic and mobile than Forcier, which means Fleming, Manti Te'o, and company must kick their game up to a whole new level.
It will be interesting to see if Notre Dame decides to go with a spy to lock Robinson down. It's highly unlikely that they'd dedicate their star Te'o to the job, so the candidates are Fleming, Anthony McDonald (if he's healthy enough), and Steven Filer.
Regardless of whether someone is assigned to him or not, the goal of the linebackers will be twofold.
First, they must contain Robinson and limit his big plays on the ground. The Wolverines thrive on Robinson breaking off big chunks of yardage, and it seems to energize the entire offense. If Notre Dame can cut his average yards per carry down to around three or four, that will force him to beat the Irish with his arm.
He passed the ball well against UConn, but no one is claiming he's a finished product ready to handle airing it out in his first start in a hostile environment. Last year the coaching staff had so little confidence in his passing ability that his highest number of attempts was five. The Irish will be more than happy to give him a crack at throwing the ball.
Second, they need to hit Robinson hard every time they get the chance. He's a fast kid who has that innate ability to only take glancing blows, but he's listed at just 6'0", 188 lbs. If Notre Dame is able to rattle his cage a couple times with some direct, big hits from Te'o and Fleming, then he'll start to run a little tentatively and look to throw more (which is exactly what ND wants).
Michigan fans claim he's tough and can handle the beating, but someone of that stature is always one "Welcome to College Football" hit away from an extended stay on the sideline (see: John Beck, '04 ND-BYU).