Senior Notre Dame wide receiver and captain T.J. Jones made a sharp and sudden cut, executing a flawless curl route and shaking his defender with its fluidity. As promptly as Jones was able to turn and raise his hands a football awaited him, striking his gloves and cradling yet another reception that would ultimately propel him over the 100-yard receiving mark for the first time in his four year career. The play’s precision and productivity is exactly what experts opined Notre Dame lacked on the offensive side of the football. In one seamless motion the questions surrounding starting quarterback Everett Golson’s departure and the loss of John Mackey Award winning tight end Tyler Eifert became a little harder to hear.
The Tommy Rees led Notre Dame offense piled up 543 total yards against Temple. How good was the showing against the Owls? It was efficient enough to earn 131 yards more than the average per game yardage total the Fighting Irish managed in their undefeated regular season in 2012, as well as the 5th highest yardage output in Brian Kelly’s 40 game tenure in South Bend. It was tough enough to amass a 5.4 yards per carry average on the ground, a feat that was accomplished in less than 50% of Notre Dame’s games the previous year. And it was explosive enough that redshirt sophomore wide receiver DaVaris Daniels scored 2 touchdowns on only 3 receptions, and, had a groin tweak not forced him to pull up on a deep route where he had beaten his man, would have mustered a mind-blowing 4 receptions for 115 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first six minutes of the 1st quarter.
Questions regarding the Notre Dame offense?
Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin made sure the only question left standing from preseason speculation is why they were doubted in the first place. As unfounded preseason skepticism about Notre Dame’s talent and ability on offense begins to wane, current season questions begin to appear on the horizon. Mainly, can that same offensive firepower overcome a Michigan defensive unit playing at a very high level?
While Notre Dame worked off the rust of seven idle months against Temple, roughly two hundred miles away in Ann Arbor the Michigan Wolverines were swarming an overmatched Central Michigan Chippewa squad, holding CMU to a paltry 210 total yards. The defensive effort from Michigan was the 3rd lowest total yards allowed of the 27 games of head coach Brady Hoke’s Michigan career, only being topped by the 177 yards surrendered against Minnesota in Michigan’s 58-0 win in 2011 and the 134 yards given up in a 2012 blowout of Illinois, 45-0. Hoke’s maize and blue defensive unit stonewalled Central Michigan’s rushing attack to the tune of 66 total yards and 2.3 yards per carry, a significant downgrade for a CMU team that averaged 150 yards on the ground per game in 2012.
With Notre Dame’s offense and Michigan’s defense playing some of its best football under the Kelly and Hoke regimes, which unit will reign supreme this Saturday? While the answer is unknowable, several factors will likely influence the outcome of the question.
Will redshirt freshman right tackle Ronnie Stanley rise to the occasion?
Ronnie Stanley impressed the Irish coaching staff so much during the offseason that former starting right tackle Christian Lombard was moved to guard in order to get the best five offensive linemen on the field. Stanley played valiantly against Temple and confirmed Kelly’s confidence in him, opening up massive holes that earned on the air praise from NBC commentator Mike Mayock. Will Stanley be able to continue his high level of play on the road in primetime at the Big House?
Will Michigan’s secondary be able to handle Notre Dame’s emerging wide receiver corp?
Tommy Rees completed 69.5% of his passes for 346 yards and 3 touchdowns against Temple, with wide receiver DaVaris Daniels nearly catching 3 touchdowns of 30 yards or more within the first 6 minutes of kickoff. These numbers should be familiar to the Michigan Wolverines, with Rees having completed 69% of his passes for over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns in his last trip to Ann Arbor. The potential for a strong Irish passing attack is increased with injury questions within Michigan’s secondary.
Will injuries hamper Michigan’s defense?
The Wolverines posted one of their best defensive contests in the Hoke era without two defensive captains in linebacker Jake Ryan and free safety Courtney Avery. Is that trend sustainable against the likes of Notre Dame? Ryan is lost until at least October from an ACL tear and Avery was originally ruled out for the first two weeks of the season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, though Brady Hoke has officially listed Avery as questionable for this Saturday.
Will the loss of two defensive captains be too much for Michigan to overcome? Will Courtney Avery be able to cover effectively on a shaky knee if he does indeed suit up against Notre Dame?
All will be made clear on Saturday night in the makings of a classic matchup that will very likely dictate the course of each team’s season.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles as well as co-founded a nationally-featured non-profit organization. In his spare time he takes his NCAA Football ’13 online dynasty way too seriously and alienates those around him by discussing football 24 hours a day. Scott can be reached at [email protected].