On the heels of a 3-9 season and after a couple weeks of off-field turmoil, Michigan started their season with a 31-7 victory at home over Western Michigan last week. Notre Dame will travel to Ann Arbor this weekend to take on the rival Wolverines. Here is a look at what the Wolverines bring to the table for this year’s showdown in the Big House.
Michigan is in the second year of the Rich Rodriguez spread offense and the early results from week one show a vast improvement. A season ago Michigan struggled to move the football with any sort of consistency and didn’t score more than 29 points in any one game. In their first game of year two under Rodriguez, the Wolverines bested their top output from a year ago with 31 points – all coming in the first half – against a Western Michigan defense that returned just three starters from a defense that ranked among the nation’s worst in 2008.
Still, it was hard to not be impressed with what Michigan was able to do offensively considering how poorly they executed Rodriguez’s spread attack last season. The difference for Michigan this season comes under center where a pair of talented freshmen will take the majority of the snaps. Tate Forcier, the most balanced quarterback on Michigan’s roster, is the starter with classmate Denard Robinson providing a change of pace as a dynamic running threat. A third quarterback, Nick Sheridan, will also see some snaps this weekend, but was clearly the least impressive Michigan quarterback last week.
Both Foricer and Robinson were impressive in their college debuts. Forcier completed 13 of 20 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns. Robinson only completed two of four passes for 18 yards, but was Michigan’s leading rusher with 74 yards on 11 carries. Robinson also has the unique trait of not tying his shoelaces thus giving him the nickname “shoelaces”. Get used to hearing that whenever he’s in the game because ABC won’t be able to help but mention it over and over and over again.
The two quarterbacks pose different threats for the Irish defense. While Charlie Weis would have you believe that Notre Dame is concerned with Robinson’s ability to hurt the Irish with his arm, Robinson has yet to show that sort of ability and reports out of Michigan’s training camp were that he really struggled throwing the football. Michigan may throw it a few times when he is in the game to keep Notre Dame honest, but if he is going to hurt the Irish this weekend it’ll most likely be on the ground.
Robinson is definitely faster than Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick, but isn’t nearly as big or strong. He won’t be able to shake off defenders like Kaepernick could, but he has the speed and athletic ability to make the Irish miss if they oversure as they did against Nevada last week. Robinson gained his team high 74 yards on 11 carries, but 43 came on one play where he took a bad snap to the house by out running the Western Michigan defense. He averaged just 3.3 yards per carry on his other 10 carries so the key to limiting his effectiveness will be to wrap up and preventing the big play.
Forcier is a much more balanced quarterback and could indeed hurt Notre Dame with his arm. Even if the defense he was facing last week wasn’t very good, three touchdowns in a first career start as a true freshman is impressive. He isn’t nearly as fast as Robinson, but he moves around pretty well in the pocket just like Kaepernick. Fortunately for Notre Dame Forcier is substantially smaller than Kaepernick. Forcier is listed at 6-1, 188, but that might be a tad generous.
When Forcier throws the ball, he’ll be looking for junior wide receiver Junior Hemmingway. Hemmingway had just six career receptions coming into the season, but caught five passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns highlighted by a 44 score last week.
Outside of Hemmingway, Michigan’s other receiving targets will be tight end Kevin Koger (3 catches for 32 yards), Greg Mathews (2 catches for 18 yards), and Martavious Odoms (1 catch for 6 yards). As the stats from last week show, Forcier spread the ball around pretty well but didn’t throw a whole lot as Rodriguez looked to ease him into the game. He and Robinson combined for 21 rushing attempts which Rodriguez admitted Monday was more than he’d normally like out of his quarterbacks.
Rodriguez said this week he planned to play all three quarterbacks, but last week Sheridan didn’t complete a pass in two attempts and was picked off near the goal line and probably won’t see as much time as the two freshmen.
Senior running back Carlos Brown started in place of the injured Brandon Minor last weekend and ran 10 times for 54 yards. Brown also added one catch for 14 yards. He’ll start again this week according to Rodriguez, but Minor should be back as well. Minor is Michigan’s bigger, power back while Brown is a smaller, quicker back.
Michigan is using a 3-4 defense this year under new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. That name should sound familiar to Notre Dame fans – Robinson was the head coach from Syracuse when the Orange came into South Bend last year and handed Notre Dame one of the more embarrassing losses in recent program history. Robinson came to Michigan in the off-season after being fired by Syracuse following a disappointing four stint.
Michigan is replacing seven starters on defense this season and despite being undersized and inexperienced, they held a decent Western Michigan offense in check. The Wolverines, however, were aided by some really poor execution and dropped passes from Western including one drop that resulted in an interception.
Up front Michigan is starting former Notre Dame recruit Mike Martin at nose tackle. Martin started all 12 games last year, and was very impressive again last week. He will be a handful for the interior Notre Dame offensive line. Lining up next to Martin is junior Ryan Van Bergen a 6’6”, 260 lb defensive tackle.
The star of the Michigan defensive line, however, is senior defensive end Brandon Graham. Graham recorded 10 sacks last year and was in the backfield all day last week against Western Michigan. As the strong side defensive end, he will probably matched up against Sam Young quite a bit. Young displayed more emotion and dare I say nastiness than we’ve seen out of him the past three years so this will be a great test for him.
Freshman Craig Roh will be the weakside defensive end/outside linebacker in their 3-4 alignment. Roh has received a lot of praise from the Michigan blogs and forums this week and even got some props from his head coach on Monday. The true freshman is listed at just under 240 lbs though and could be targeted by the Irish offense on running plays with fifth year senior Paul Duncan and junior Matt Romine both playing very well from the left tackle position last week.
Michigan’s other star defender is middle linebacker Obi Ezeh. The senior middle linebacker is Michigan’s biggest linebacker and the player they like to funnel plays to. Ezeh will be a factor in Michigan’s run defense and will be a challenge for fullback Robert Hughes if he gets through the line unaccounted for.
The Michigan front seven is largely undersized. Converted safety Steve Brown is playing the hybrid linebacker position at just 215 lbs (remember how that worked out for Notre Dame with Travis Thomas) and Michigan’s fourth linebacker, Jonas Mouton, is listed at just 218 lbs. They are very fast up front, but physically Notre Dame should be able to handle them and should be able to run on them. Notre Dame should also be able to take advantage of the undersized linebackers with the tight end duo of Kyle Rudolph and Mike Ragone.
Michigan could also be vulnerable in the secondary where Boubacar Cissoko and Donovan Warren are the starting cornerbacks. Cissoko played last year when Michigan came into South Bend as a kick returner but had some trouble handling the football. Cissoko has had trouble covering Michael Floyd in the past – see video below from the 2008 US Army All American Bowl – and Michigan doesn’t have anyone who can matchup and cover either Floyd or Golden Tate one on one.
Jason Olesnavage got off to a good start last week as Michigan’s kicker by connecting on his only field goal attempt – a 44 yarder and Zoltan Mesko is back for another season as the Michigan punter. Mesko is a very good punter and will be a factor in the field position battle.
Michigan has some dangerous returnmen with Greg Mathews handling punts and Darryl Stonum and Martvious Odoms handling kickoffs.