Hail, hail! Rich Rodriguez, Denard Robinson and the rest of the Wolverines opened the season with an impressive win over the UConn Huskies. Big Blue finally started to resemble the type of team that many of us believe RR will be able to deliver. However, that was last week, and what appears to be a much improved Notre Dame team is waiting for Michigan in South Bend.
Although UConn was no cupcake, the Irish have better athletes across the board. The athleticism and talent level at Michigan and ND is on a similar level. The Wolverines will have to play an excellent ball game in order to pick up the program’s first signature road win under RichRod.
It’s hard to believe, but the last time Michigan won a road game was Nov. 8, 2008. That game was against a Minnesota team in the midst of a five-game losing streak to end the season. Pulling out a big win in one of the most mystical rivalries in all of sports will be no small feat in front of 80,000 Irish fanatics in South Bend.
None other than the legendary Bo Schembechler used to say a team improves the most between the first and second games of the season. This needs to hold true for the Wolverines if they expect to go across state lines and beat their biggest non-conference rival, the hated Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
In my opinion, there are five key issues that will determine the winner of this game. Check out the slide show to see what Michigan will have to do to pull of the win in South Bend.
Turnovers are always huge. I love the way Rich Rod explains it to the players: The ball is the program.
In a surprise to no one, the weather is supposed to be wet in South Bend on Saturday. The last time Michigan went down to there in RR’s first year at the helm, Michigan had a horrifying SIX turnovers. We couldn’t even catch kickoffs. No surprise, we got smoked.
Regardless of the weather, the Wolverines MUST protect the ball much better than the last trip in order for the program to take the next step back to prominence. I believe the 2010 squad has almost nothing in common with the '08 team and Michigan will win the turnover battle 2-1 or 3-1 by causing QB Dayne Crist to make a couple of big mistakes.
Most of the talk about the Michigan D vs. the ND offense has revolved around how to slow down potential All-American wide receiver Michael Floyd. We’ll talk about Floyd later, but I have a completely different take on the key to this game for the D. The way I see it, Michigan’s most critical challenge on defense will be to stop the Irish running game.
The Irish have an outstanding running back in senior Armando Allen. Last year, he ripped the Wolverines for 139 yards on 21 carries and one TD. That’s a nasty 6.6 yards per carry despite a long run of only 24 yards.
Last week, UConn’s featured rusher, Jordan Todman, was able to find running room to the tune of 105 yards on 20 carries and one TD. Although Todman is a solid back, he is nowhere near as physical as Allen. Yet Todman was able to find running room to the tune of 105 yards on 20 carries and one TD. The No. 1 priority for Michigan’s D has to be stopping Allen.
Another advantage that ND has over UConn’s running game is that ND has an excellent second, change-of-pace runner in Cierre Wood. Wood is a sophomore who was rated as the No. 6 running back in the country coming out of high school. Although Allen gets the vast majority of the carries, Wood was able to gash the Boilermakers for almost nine yards a carry last week.
Although Allen and Wood are both extremely dangerous backs, the key to any running game is the battle in the trenches. Make no mistake, ND has some big-time linemen who can really move. Pretty much their whole line is made up of 4-star recruits who are huge and can move extremely well.
In particular, Notre Dame has a double-wide mobile home disguised as their starting left guard. Senior Chris Stewart is a monstrous 6'5", 350+ pounds. Wow. On top of that, he has great mobility for a guy his size. On running plays, I’m not sure how Greg Banks can stand his ground when Stewart gets to rolling.
As such, look for Adam Patterson or big Will Campbell to see more playing time this week. If so, I believe they are likely to play the nose and Mike Martin may battle Stewart (which would be some kind of power matchup!). This is one of those times when DC Greg Robinson's 30+ years coaching experience needs to come through with exactly the right schematic formula.
If Michigan is playing four down linemen, then Banks would be able to slide over to a more favorable matchup with sophomore left tackle Zack Martin. Martin was 260 pounds one year ago and the Irish now list him at 290. I like Banks’ chances a LOT better if the fifth-year senior is matched up against the sophomore instead of the house known as Chris Stewart.
The rest of ND’s linemen are all around 300 pounds and move very well. They opened up huge holes against Purdue, so Kelly and the Irish definitely believe they can run against Big Blue after watching the UConn tape.
Don’t be surprised if Michigan plays four big bodies on first down to slow down the Irish. Frankly, I don’t see how three down linemen will do anything to slow down the Irish running attack that repeatedly opened gaping holes against Purdue.
Michigan absolutely has to find a way to contain the Irish running attack. If the Irish can simply mash it down Michigan’s throats, we’re in trouble.
This is going to be a HUGE test for the Wolverines D. While a lot has been made about the Wolverines lack of experience in the secondary, my biggest question is how the D will match up against the run when facing a huge and talented offensive line? We’re about to find out.
Last year, Floyd tore up the Michigan defense to the tune of seven catches for 131 yards and a TD. The 131 yards are the most ever for an Irish receiver against the Wolverines. If Floyd wasn’t injured on a freak play in the second half of last year’s game, he would have racked up even gaudier numbers, and quite possibly altered the final (beautiful) outcome.
One advantage the D has this year is that Golden Tate has gone to the NFL. Freshman T.J. Jones and sophomore Theo Riddick are charged with trying to replace Tate’s 93 catches, 1496 yards and 15 big TDs from last year. One guy to watch out for in the red zone is 6’4” senior Duval Kamara.
Look for Michigan to double team Floyd all day long to force the youngsters to try and make plays. I expect the D will show Floyd and QB Dayne Crist a variety of different looks to try and keep them off balance and under control.
Despite Floyd’s prowess, I still believe the key to the defense will be the ability to control the run. If the Irish can run the ball at will, Michigan will be forced to bring safeties up to the line of scrimmage. This would leave Floyd more room to operate deep.
However they do it, the Michigan defense must improve upon the numbers they gave up to Floyd last year.
When you have two teams that are evenly matched, special teams can often provide the difference in the game. Last year, Darryl Stonum had a huge play in the first half when he returned a kickoff 94 yards for a huge touchdown.
I still bitterly remember Rocket Ismail burning Michigan for two kick returns for touchdowns in 1989. A more fond memory was 1994 when Remy Hamilton knocked home a 42-yard field goal and all the Michigan students stormed the Notre Dame field (one of my favorite sports memories ever).
Last week, Michigan missed a field goal and an extra point. I actually don't think either one was Brendan Gibbons' fault. One field goal got smacked down by the wind and the other one had a bad snap. As an overall team, the Wolverines need to improve on special teams this week.
Whichever team is able to deliver the biggest play on special teams will have a great shot at pulling out a close victory.
Shoelace’s exploits against UConn are well documented. Denard’s numbers were off the charts for a first time starter going against a respectable team: 383 total yards, 2 TDs and no turnovers (albeit one careless fumble). College Football's National Player of the Week!
However, no one else was able to really chew up much yardage. Vincent Smith and Mike Shaw both ran hard and combined for about 100 yards and two rushing TDs (Smith added another one on a screen pass). However, they averaged a pedestrian 3.4 yards per carry.
Now that Notre Dame has game film on Shoelace, the running backs will really have to step it up. Both guys ran hard and broke some tackles, but neither had a run longer than 15 yards. With ND sure to focus on stopping Denard, one of these backs needs to step up and deliver.
Also, what is the deal with Michael Cox? Cox, who seems to have excellent physical tools, didn’t play against UConn at all. I’m curious: What is he doing in practice that’s keeping him off the field at this point?
What about the receivers? With only one exception, a 43-yard connection to Terrance Robinson, no Michigan receiver had a play over 16 yards. With winds swirling last week, pretty much everything was short underneath routes and bubble screens.
If the weather is nasty this week, it won’t make sense to try and throw deep too often. However, the receivers have to start making some big plays. These guys have been in the Barwis system for three years now, so it’s time for them to make some big blocks on bubble screens and break some tackles for big gainers. The receivers are a very talented group and need to perform better this week.
Unlike last week, where it was reasonably easy to predict that Michigan should beat UConn, this is a really tough game to pick. Notre Dame has a lot going for them.
Possibly the biggest obstacle in Michigan's way is that the game is in South Bend. Michigan is looking for the first big road win of the Rich Rodriguez era.
Although the Irish are a veteran team, they are in a brand new system. They also have a talented but very green (no pun intended) starting QB running their brand new offense.
I think Michigan will do just enough to marginally slow down the Irish ground game here and there and then force Crist into a couple of big turnovers on 3rd-and-long.
All signs point to a shootout with two potent offenses. For whatever reason, I don't think the shootout will totally develop and Michigan pulls out a win 27-24 in a game that will be remembered for a long time.