Notre Dame travels to Ann Arbor to take on the hated Michigan Wolverines this weekend. Here’s a guide of what to watch for and a couple matchups to keep an eye on this weekend.
We will be posting a “What to Watch For” article every Thursday during the season on weeks that Notre Dame is playing.
Robert Hughes at Fullback – With James Aldridge out this week, Robert Hughes will get his first taste of game action at fullback. While I’m not sure what to expect from Hughes as a lead blocker, I would expect Charlie Weis to have a few plays designed for Hughes to keep the Michigan defense honest. Hughes can be a big weapon for Notre Dame as a receiver out of the backfield. In 2005 Weis called a few screens for Raeshon Powers-Neal before his suspension. We haven’t seen a lot of that since, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fullback screen or two called for Hughes this weekend.
The Notre Dame Offensive Line – The line did a very good job last week, but they will be facing a tougher challenge this weekend. Greg Robinson’s Syracuse defense was able to get good pressure on Clausen last year and he will be looking to do the same this year. Notre Dame will be facing a smaller, faster defensive line and will need to be aggressive in engaging the Michigan pass rushers this weekend. Brandon Graham vs. Sam Young is going to be one of the key individual battles in the game. If Young can hold his own against Michigan’s top pass rusher, Michigan will have trouble getting pressure on Clausen.
Manti Te’o – We got a glimpse of what Te’o is capable of last week and I suspect we’ll get an even bigger glimpse this weekend. He already looks like the fastest and hardest hitting linebacker on the Irish defense. Against a faster offense this weekend, Te’o will hopefully see the field early and often. Toryan Smith played well last week, but speed is not his forte and speed is what will be needed this weekend. Te’o is a special player – hopefully he has his first big Notre Dame moments this weekend.
Notre Dame’s Tackling – Notre Dame’s tackling was one of the few disappointing aspects of last weekend’s season opening shutout of Nevada. Notre Dame didn’t wrap up and let Nevada ball carriers – specifically quarterback Colin Kaepernick – get away multiple times. Both Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are capable of hurting the Notre Dame defense with their legs if the Irish fail to wrap up this weekend. Notre Dame missed four sacks by Charlie Weis’s count because they didn’t wrap and let Kaepernick escape. While neither Tate or Robinson has Kaepernick’s size, but both are capable of moving around in the pocket. Robinson specifically has great speed and showed last week that he can break long runs on busted plays.
Notre Dame’s Gap Assignments – Charlie Weis mentioned multiple times following the win over Nevada that the defense stunted themselves out of plays on Saturday. Nevada was able to break off a bunch of long runs when huge holes opened up as a result of the defense not sticking to their gap assignments. Michigan’s backs present a combination of speed – Carlos Brown – and power – Brandon Minor – so Notre Dame will need to be disciplined in their gap assignments to prevent them from breaking off long runs all game. With two freshmen under center, Notre Dame’s best chance to win this weekend will be to force Forcier and Robinson to pass the ball which makes stopping the run key to Notre Dame’s success.
Michigan linebackers against Notre Dame tight ends – After reviewing the game tape from last year’s Notre Dame-Michigan game in South Bend and seeing Golden Tate run wild on the Michigan defense and watching the Nevada game tape and seeing Michael Floyd run all over the field, Greg Robinson is probably going to try to prevent both big play receivers from doing too much damage. If Robinson gives his corners extra help in covering Floyd and Tate, the middle of the field should be open for Notre Dame’s tight end duo of Kyle Rudolph and Mike Ragone. Rudolph is going to be a nightmare for any defense to account for – Michigan included.
The Notre Dame Blitz – With the two freshmen at quarterback for Michigan look for Notre Dame to send a lot of pressure their way to try and confuse them. The pass rush last weekend was as good as its been since Jon Tenuta joined the staff and will need to be good again this weekend for Notre Dame to leave Ann Arbor victorious. Where the Notre Dame blitz might really be able to confuse the Michigan quarterbacks though is by backing out of it. Michigan is going to prepare Forcier and Robinson for a lot of pressure this week. Showing blitz and backing out of it could cause just as much confusion for a true freshman quarterback.
Michael Floyd and Golden Tate vs the Michigan Defensive Backs – Michigan’s defensive backs are a large upgrade over Nevada’s, but Michigan doesn’t have the corners who can cover Golden Tate and Michael Floyd one on one – no one really does. As I said earlier, Robinson will likely try to give his corners some safety help to prevent the kind of big plays that Notre Dame hit on Michigan last year and again last week. Floyd and Tate will have to take advantage of whatever one on one situations that they get. If Floyd ends up lined up one on one with Boubacar Cissoko, he’ll have a substantial height advantage and should be able to win any jump situation. If Michigan backs off of the Irish wide receivers and tries to keep them in front of them, watch for Tate on slant patterns. Tate nearly took a quick slant from Clausen to the house against Michigan last year.