There’s kind of a big game in South Bend this Saturday.
For a second week matchup between two programs who have won a total of 21 games combined over the past two years, it probably can’t get any bigger.
No doubt the contest in Columbus between Ohio State and Miami will be the most talked about and most watched game of the afternoon, followed up by the highly anticipated contest between the defending national champions and Penn State with their freshman quarterback.
But the Notre Dame-Michigan game has a ton of implications riding on its outcome.
First, let’s look at Michigan.
They finished last in the Big Ten in 2009 and had a fairly large storm of controversy sweep over their campus with head coach Rich Rodriguez’s violations and self-imposed sanctions.
Coming into this season, there were so many questions in Ann Arbor that it seemed certain that this would be Rodriguez’s last season as head coach of the Wolverines.
Then Denard Robinson took the field against UConn last week and suddenly the script has been flipped.
For Notre Dame, one terrible season in 2007 was followed by two very mediocre and disappointing seasons ultimately leading to the firing of Charlie Weis.
In comes Brian Kelly and his “undefeated in so many straight months I’ve lost track” resume and experience.
The Irish didn’t win as convincingly last week, but the team still looked pretty good in game one of a new system.
Both teams come in unranked (although both are knocking at the door to the polls) and neither is a serious national contender at this point. Yet, a loss for either team could be absolutely devastating.
That is why this has to be one of the most important games of the season for Notre Dame and one of the biggest games in the recent history of this epic rivalry.
A loss by Michigan and suddenly Denard Robinson won’t be able to will his team to victory every week. Suddenly, Rodriguez is back on the hottest of hot seats and the masses could be talking about how you can’t win at Michigan without a strong defense.
A loss by Michigan could send the team into a tail spin and serve as a reminder that they are still quite far away from being a legit Big Ten contender again.
And it then becomes much more likely that Michigan will be looking for a new coach and going through another year or two of transition and lowered expectations on the field.
On the other hand, a loss by Notre Dame might not shake the program as much as it would in Ann Arbor, but it could be potentially demoralizing nonetheless.
The thought by many Irish fans was that Notre Dame is on the way up and Michigan is barely treading water as we move into the 2010 season. Losing to Michigan at home, ending Brian Kelly’s winning streak and tasting defeat at the hands of what looks to be a very average BCS defense would be such profound heartache so early in this new coaching staff’s tenure.
The loss last year for the Irish was pretty bad, but another this year would be much worse in my opinion. We still have a decent-sized advantage in skill and experience all over the field (especially on defense) in comparison to Michigan, our coach is better and it is a home game.
No, Notre Dame cannot lose this game.
Why So Nervous?
Why am I so nervous when so many factors point to Notre Dame simply being the better team?
Well, there’s last year’s aforementioned outcome for one.
We were saying a lot of the same things in 2009 as we are saying today, minus the coaching change that has now brought Notre Dame its first real college coach in a decade and a half.
But it should come as no surprise that I am so nervous because of one player.
If you weren’t impressed with his performance last weekend, then you need to check your pulse because he tore the crap out of UConn’s defense.
Before the season started I had told some people that if Michigan was going to beat Notre Dame this year that they would need their quarterback (presumably Robinson) to put up at least 350 yards of offense on his own.
In other words, Michigan’s quarterback would have to have a better day than Tate Forcier did last year putting on the performance of his life against Notre Dame in the Big House.
And then Denard Robinson went out and did exactly that against UConn.
That puts me a little uneasy when I’ve been screaming all off-season that “Pat White isn’t walking through that door, Rich Rodriguez!” and then Robinson busts that door down while looking like the old West Virginia quarterback in his prime.
But Robinson Is Still One-Dimensional Isn’t He?
I didn’t believe a word out of Ann Arbor this off-season that Robinson looked markedly improved as a passer and decision maker. He didn’t throw the ball very often last year, but when he did, he looked like a receiver who’s rushing a throw after taking the ball on a reverse and has two linebackers ready to run him over.
He just looked bad.
But he sure didn’t against Connecticut.
Now he didn’t look like Dan Marino and he wasn’t firing rockets into the tiniest of windows, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a dangerous thrower.
What I wanted to know is if he was accurate, had good velocity, and made good decisions.
And the answers are yes, yes, and yes.
The Michigan offense isn’t going to force Robinson to drop back and throw a 20-yard out route over a corner and underneath a safety. In fact, none of Robinson's throws against UConn were really all that impressive, but the mere fact that he can combine his running skills with a strong and accurate arm that is able to get the ball to players relatively quickly should be a huge concern for Irish fans.
How Good is UConn Really?
I think a lot of people are wrestling with this question, particularly Husky fans that probably had really high hopes coming into this season.
I’m not about to jump all over UConn because there was some (I repeat some) talk that they would win the Big East this year and they ended up losing by 20 points. As Notre Dame fans we can’t really talk bad about UConn since it wasn’t too long ago that they walked into our house and beat us.
There’s no question that Randy Edsall has done wonders and built that program into a formidable opponent and a consistent player in the Big East.
As someone who thought last week’s game would be very close and gave Connecticut a slight edge, a big Michigan victory has to be respected.
Still, even with the amount of returning players coming back this year for UConn and raised expectations from 16 wins over the past two seasons, I’d have to question just how good the Huskies really are.
Take a look at the top UConn victories over the past two years and their opponents’ final records:
Ohio (9-5), USF (8-5), South Carolina (7-6)
Cincinnati (11-3), Buffalo (8-6)
The Huskies' shellacking of Brian Kelly’s Cincinnati team two years ago was a huge win, but this isn’t the most impressive by any means.
Maybe UConn shrugs off the season opening loss and ends up reaching new heights in 2010 or even wins the Big East, but I’d bet the Huskies are looking at another very nice eight-win season with wins over a bunch of four-, five-, and six-win teams.
Why Did UConn Lose?
This is the most important question to answer in regards to how Notre Dame will fare against Michigan this weekend.
Here are some general observations:
UConn looked and played really tight
This kind of goes back to the lack of really big wins by Connecticut over the past couple years. There’s a difference between beating Louisville and Syracuse on a consistent basis and going into the biggest and loudest stadiums in the country and taking away victories.
By all accounts, the re-dedication of Michigan Stadium and the excitement of the first game of the season made the Big House one intimidating place to play, and UConn did not handle that kind of pressure very well.
UConn got pushed around by the Michigan offensive line
This was probably the most noticeable reason why Denard Robinson played so well. UConn was missing some players and lacked the size to push around a Wolverine offensive line that isn’t even as big as they traditionally are in Ann Arbor.
Essentially, Michigan ran a very Tim-Tebow like offense with Robinson simply taking the snap and running through holes in the middle of the field, and UConn could do nothing about it.
I’m not so sure Michigan will be able to just push Notre Dame around in the same way though.
UConn lacked the ability to make plays
The Huskies moved the ball but just could not step up and make a big play when they needed to. Time and again, UConn receivers did not haul in balls that should have been caught and quarterback Zach Frazer seemed to be rattled by the pressure on many occasions.
UConn also failed to put points on the board when they had the chance to cut the lead to a small margin and never put the pressure back on Michigan in what was a little bit of a closer game than the score suggests.
What Does Michigan Bring to the Table?
Without Denard Robinson, the offense is still pretty dangerous.
Michigan has a very good offensive line and one of the things to keep an eye on will be whether the Irish defensive line can physically overpower the Wolverines at the line of scrimmage.
There aren’t any All-American wide receivers in the mix for Michigan, but there are still a couple really dangerous speedsters who can take a bubble screen to the house.
The key for Michigan will be to get some quality production out of their running backs who looked decent last weekend but are not on the same level of explosiveness as Denard Robinson.
A few experts have noted that UConn seemed to key on the running backs more so than the quarterback, so it will be interesting to see if Notre Dame does the opposite and if that opens up some lanes for the Wolverine backs.
On defense, I was fairly impressed with Michigan’s front seven, or six, or whatever formation they are using this year. Besides nose tackle Mike Martin (who looks really good) there isn’t a whole lot of power up front, but there is plenty of speed.
Given their lack of experience and talent in the secondary, I would bet Michigan drops back in coverage, defends against the pass, and tries to use their speed to stop the Irish running game from moving the ball down field.
But, that secondary is an Achilles heel of major consequence and is by far the weakest link for either team on either side of the ball. At some point that has to come back and bite Michigan.
Almost 24 Hours Away, Where’s Your Comfort Level?
After watching Denard Robinson’s performance last week, my comfort level for this game shot down like a kamikaze pilot during World War II.
There’s really nothing more terrifying in college than a running quarterback who can make plays with his feet all day long. Even if Notre Dame has better talent at 18 or 19 of the 22 positions on the field, even if the Irish have the better coach and even if the game is in South Bend, a highly athletic quarterback can overcome all of that.
As amazing as Robinson’s numbers were last week, the biggest stat line that jumped out at me was the third down conversions for Michigan which finished at a ridiculous 14 for 19.
Only one third down conversion came from a running play by someone not named Denard Robinson and that was Michael Shaw’s 3rd-and-1 movement of the chains on Michigan’s first series.
Other than that, Robinson threw for five first downs and rushed for an additional eight first downs (plus one fourth down conversion on the ground). If Michigan is consistently in 3rd-and-short, Robinson is going to pick up the first down more often than not.
Yet, it’s really hard to imagine that Robinson will play as good as he did last week or that one player can simply win a game all by himself. Either way, Notre Dame has to contain the shifty quarterback and force the passing game or other running backs to beat them.
Is Notre Dame Going to Win?
Notre Dame just has to.
As scary as Denard Robinson looked last week, Michigan still has a lot more question marks than Notre Dame and the Irish have better talent and experience across the board.
Moreover, these are the type of games that Brian Kelly has won in the past.
As much of a nightmare as Robinson may be, I keep coming back to the notion that Notre Dame has never played such a weak Michigan defense ever in the history of this rivalry.
A weak defense versus Brian Kelly should equal a victory for the latter.
Michigan has to do something to protect their secondary and they’ll be playing with fire if they choose to be aggressive and leave the likes of Floyd, Rudolph, and Jones alone and free to roam down field.
At the same time, if Michigan is going to play like Purdue and prevent the deep ball and drop back in coverage, Notre Dame will pound the ball on the ground and be successful at it too.
No matter what though, this game has suddenly taken on a ton of importance and Notre Dame desperately needs to knock Michigan off of their opening victory high horse.
There’s just no other way around it. Sure, it’s the infant stages of a new coaching tenure in South Bend and a loss wouldn’t be catastrophic, but it’s more about what a win could do for Notre Dame.
First, a win and a subsequent 2-0 start to the season could give the team a ton of confidence heading into the next four rivalry games. It would also be a significant turning point in the wiping away of the underachievement that has plagued Notre Dame in years past.
This game could also illustrate very early in the season if Notre Dame has 10-win potential or if it is destined for another four or five losses and whether or not the Irish can handle a team with a bunch of speed at the skill positions.
Maybe just as important, a win over Michigan has the potential to drive a nail into the coffin of the Rich Rodriguez era in Ann Arbor. Sure, the zombie poked its head out of the wooden box last week, but a sound defeat of the Wolverines shoves the dead right back in and takes a few really big shovels of dirt out of the ground.
As the Biscuit mentioned over at Her Loyal Sons a couple days ago, Notre Dame has the opportunity to not only defeat its enemy, but inflict some serious damage and pain on the entire Michigan program.
It doesn’t matter if this is the third game in four years where neither team is ranked, this is a bitter rivalry and there are a ton of repercussions riding on this game.
It’s early in Brian Kelly’s first term at Notre Dame, but he has the chance to make a huge statement to the Irish fan base and to the rest of the country. He has the chance to raise Notre Dame’s stock and build upon a bright future and solid start to the season.
But he also has the chance to deliver an early round knockdown of a rival that, if it loses, will surely be knocked down again by the better teams in the Big Ten.
Tune in Saturday at 3:30 on NBC to see if Notre Dame can deliver that painful blow.
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