Notre Dame and Michigan both got off to surprising starts to their 2009 seasons. The two schools combined to beat their week one opponents by a score of 66-7. Notre Dame shut out Nevada 35-0 and Michigan took care of business against Western Michigan in a 31-7 victory. In the pre-season this game didn’t look like it would be that interesting of a matchup, but due to the success of both schools in week one, the game has taken on some added significance – as if a Notre Dame-Michigan game needed any additional significance.
Notre Dame on Offense
Michigan held Western Michigan to just 7 points, but the lone Western touchdown came on a 73 yard pass from Tim Hiller to Juan Nunez. Western Michigan also had some other opportunities to make plays in the passing game but Hiller’s accuracy and his receivers hands were inconsistent throughout the game. Michigan doesn’t have a particularly strong secondary that Notre Dame should be able to take advantage of with the dynamic wide receiver duo of Michael Floyd and Golden Tate.
Donovan Warren and Boubacar Cissoko are certainly an upgrade over the corners that Notre Dame faced last week against Nevada, but both will have trouble manning up on Floyd and Tate and will likely need some safety help in order to prevent the long ball. Last year Charlie Weis came out with the philosophy of “bombs away” against Michigan in South Bend and I expect to see Weis take a similar approach this year with sunny skies forecaste for Saturday.
The key, as it will be every week for Notre Dame, will be protecting Jimmy Clausen. If the Irish offensive line can keep Brandon Graham, Craig Roh, and Mike Martin out of the backfield, Clausen has the ability to hurt Michigan through the air. Michigan is well aware of the skill the Notre Dame receivers have though and will look to put pressure on Clausen since up to this point in his career, Clausen hasn’t handled pressure –especially on the road – too well.
Notre Dame’s secret weapon this week could be tight end Mike Ragone. Kyle Rudolph is a NFL talent, but the key to this offense is having a reliable second option at tight end to open things up for the other receivers. We didn’t see any of Ragone in the passing game last week which most likely was by design. Look for Weis to have a few plays designed for Ragone with Michigan keying on Tate, Floyd, and Rudolph.
Notre Dame also didn’t show too much of their third and fourth options at wide receiver last week. Robby Parris was the third receiver to start the game but Duval Kamara was also mixed in as well. What we didn’t see until garbage time was Shaquelle Evans. Was Weis saving the freshman camp sensation for this week or does the staff really not think he is as effective as Kamara or Parris right now? We’ll find out this week, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Evans saw some action.
Notre Dame should be able to generate some success on the ground as well. Craig Roh weighs in at just under 240 pounds off the edge and Notre Dame should be able to run at him with some success. Obi Ezeh is a very good middle linebacker though and with Robert Hughes making his first career start at fullback in place of the injured James Aldridge, Notre Dame might have some trouble running up the middle.
Michigan’s linebackers are pretty small outside of Ezeh which could make Robert Hughes a factor in the running game if they can run away from Ezeh. It’s not clear how many touches he will get in his first start at fullback but if he can make the transition smoothly, he could be a factor. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see a fullback screen or two called for Hughes. Notre Dame hasn’t run many fullback screens since before Raeshon Powers-Neal’s suspension in 2005, but Hughes is a very good receiver out of the backfield.
Bottom line on offense will be protecting Clausen. If Clausen’s jersey is clean at the end of the game the Notre Dame offense will put up plenty of points.
Notre Dame on Defense
Notre Dame had a pretty nice preparation for Michigan’s spread attack by facing Nevada’s pistol offense last week. While the offensive systems have distinct fundamental differences, they are similar enough that there should be some carryover in Notre Dame’s defensive preparations.
Coming off of a shutout of one of the top offenses in the country last year should instill plenty of confidence in the defense, but when they went back and watched the game tape I’m sure the coaching staff hammered home all of the same concerns that have been expressed on the blogs and forums this week.
Nevada averaged over 5 yards a carry and created some nice running plays due to poor tackling from the Irish defense. Charlie Weis mentioned a couple times this week that the defense stunted themselves out of position multiple times against Nevada allowing for the long runs. If this happens again this week, Michigan certainly has the athletes at quarterback and running to make Notre Dame pay for their mistakes.
Working in Notre Dame’s favor this week, however, will be Michigan playing two true freshmen at quarterback – Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson. For more on their debuts last week check out our Michigan Scouting Report we posted Thursday. For a quick recap though, both played very well for true freshmen and both pose different threats to the defense. That said, both are still true freshman and Jon Tenuta has shown in his previous coaching stints that he can make life miserable on inexperienced quarterbacks – see the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech game in 2007.
The Notre Dame pass rush looked about as good as it’s been since Weis has been at Notre Dame last week. Had the defense been more disciplined in their tackling, theywould have registered five or six sacks. As is, Notre Dame sacked the big and mobile Colin Kaepernick twice for 10+ yard losses both times. Notre Dame will want to put as much pressure on Forcier and Robinson as they can and force them into mistakes. Both are capable runners and can avoid pressure, but neither have seen anything close to the kind of pressure that they will see this weekend up to this point in their careers.
It will be interesting to see who Notre Dame uses along the defensive line this week. Darius Fleming spent most of his time down on the line last week as the defensive end opposite Kerry Neal. Nevada recognized this and did most of their damage running off tackle right at the undersized defensive ends. If Notre Dame uses the same defensive line on running downs again this week, Michigan will likely look to exploit the same mismatch.
The x-factor for Notre Dame on defense is going to be Manti Te’o. The superstar freshman got his first taste of game action last week and did not disappoint in the limited action he saw. Toryan Smith did a very nice job starting last week but simply doesn’t have the same sideline to sideline speed as Te’o. That speed is going to be critical this week in stopping Michigan’s spread attack. Te’o should see more time this week and could be a big factor at linebacker.
Michigan has a solid group of wide receivers, but outside of Junior Hemingway (who is “doubtful “ for the game), they don’t have anyone who is going to put much fear into a secondary that should rank as one of the nation’s best this year. Notre Dame’s corners matchup well with the Michigan receivers and should allow Tenuta to dial up as many blitzes as he wants. If Hemingway is unable to play, the matchup of the Michigan receivers against the Irish secondary favors Notre Dame even more.
The key for Notre Dame is going to be creating confusion for the freshmen quarterbacks. This doesn’t necessarily have to be done with constant pressure. With how much Notre Dame likes to blitz, backing out of the blitz and dropping into coverage could cause just as much confusion.
Something else to watch out for is how much pressure Notre Dame can get without blitzing. The Irish were able to generate a little bit of a pass rush last week without blitzing for the first time in a while. If they can do this again this week and leave some help in the middle of the field to prevent long runs from the quarterbacks, the outcome should be very favorable for the Irish.
Notre Dame on Special Teams
The Notre Dame special teams units weren’t very busy last weekend. Notre Dame fielded just one kickoff, only punted a few times, didn’t attempt a field goal, and faced just one field goal attempt. Theo Riddick did look pretty good on the one kick off the Irish fielded, and Notre Dame has a history of big returns in the Big House so that is definitely something to keep an eye on. With Aldridge out of the game, Weis said he plans on putting Barry Gallup on the kick return unit to help the true freshman Riddick.
Freshman kicker Nick Tausch got his feet wet kicking five extra points last week, but didn’t attempt a field goal. This means that his first collegiate field goal attempt could come in front of 100,000+ fans on the road this weekend. That isn’t an ideal situation and could be a cause for concern.
Notre Dame’s kick coverage units look to be a strength again this year and should be able to contain the Michigan return game pretty well.
Notre Dame Players of the Game
If Notre Dame is going to go into the Big House and win this weekend, Jimmy Clausen is going to have to have a big game. Clausen’s road wins as the Irish quarterback the last two years include UCLA and Stanford in ’07 and Navy, Washington, and Hawaii in 2008 – not exactly hostile environments. A win in Ann Arbor, even if Michigan is still rebuilding would be another notch in his belt. Clausen will definitely have the weapons at his disposal to have another nice game this weekend. If the line gives Clausen time to pass – he’ll have that big game.
Other players to watch on offense outside of the obvious ones are Mike Ragone and Jonas Gray. I already mentioned Ragone. Gray, a Michigan native, has settled in as the backup running back behind Armando Allen and had a few nice runs to the outside last week.
Defensively, I’ll go out on a limb and predict a big game for Manti Te’o. The Irish linebackers are going to be busy this weekend and if Te’o sees some increased action, he’ll have a big game for the defense. With a couple freshmen at quarterback, look for someone in the secondary to come up with a big game as well – most likely Darrin Walls or Robert Blanton. Blanton is a very instinctual corner that excels at jumping routes. If the Notre Dame pass rush is getting to Forcier, he could come up with a big play or two.
I’ve gone back and forth all week on this game. One minute I look at this game on paper and ask myself how Notre Dame is only a three point favorite. The next I watch the Western Michigan game and ask myself how the Notre Dame defense will slow down the Michigan running game. At the end of the day, I think Michigan will rip off a few big plays on the Irish defense, but won’t be able to sustain offense throughout the game and will turn the ball over a couple times with the kind of pressure Tenuta is going to bring.
I think Notre Dame wins this one, but Michigan will make its fair share of plays and will be in the game most of the time. The Irish passing attack will just be too much for Michigan and will force the Wolverine offense to pass more than they’d like playing right into Notre Dame’s strength defensively.
Michigan is still a year a way from being a really dangerous team, but they have enough weapons in place to be a pretty solid team and definitely have the ability to upset the Irish if Notre Dame doesn’t bring it’s A game.
Notre Dame 34, Michigan 21
- Week 1 – Notre Dame 42, Nevada 21 (W, Notre Dame 35-0)