A buddy of mine asked me why it is I seem to hate Michigan, but not USC. I live in Southern California after all, I have a lot more exposure to USC types, and in the bad years I had to put up with a lot of junk. I suppose that makes sense in theory, and while I have those rivalry type feelings towards them, it never rises to the level of vitriol I have toward Michigan.
I’m not sure what it is, I have a hard time putting my finger on it, or something specifically. Maybe it’s because of the history and how much they hated us, going back to Fielding Yost. Maybe it’s because of the proximity to South Bend, even though it means nothing to me since I live far away from both. It feels very Boston and New York that way. Whatever it is, it’s very easy to dislike everything about them. The fight song, the colors, their fans, their players, the fact that their coach is one of these “whole milk and steak” guys who also spends a ton of time whining about calls. It’s very unbecoming.
Long story short, I really want Notre Dame to win this game.
The Offensive Line
Since the game against New Mexico when Notre Dame had trouble running the ball and protecting quarterback Ian Book, the offensive line has been on a really good run against some strong opponents in Georgia, Virginia, and USC. They’ve protected the passer really well, especially so against an athletic Georgia front, and took over the game against Virginia in the 4th quarter on the ground, while completely dominating USC’s front four in route to 308 yards rushing, largely without their starting running back Jafar Armstrong.
The assumption since Armstrong went out with his abdominal injury was that the Irish would have to rely on the passing game because the line and/or their running backs weren’t good enough to carry the offense on the ground. The implication being a more dynamic back was needed for the line to excel. That has not been the case.
A player no one would describe as explosive in Tony Jones Jr. is now averaging seven yards per carry for the season, which if it carries on throughout the season would put him above Dexter Williams from last year, a pretty astonishing stat. While Jones Jr. is running well, this couldn’t happen with a subpar line unit.
If they are able to run the ball this coming weekend, and control the game the way they did against USC, this will put Notre Dame in an extremely advantageous position to defeat the Skunk Bears. It takes the pressure off of Ian Book–who has not looked good against a Power 5 team this season (more on that later)–opens up the play action game, and forces the hand of Michigan defensively. There is a reason good line play is the key to football and has been since the game was invented. It’s the biggest deal.
This has been a bit of a season long trend for Book, and this is probably his last chance to snap out of it in a game that is meaningful. In a way it has been very much in the mold of the man he replaced, Brandon Wimbush, in that he’s been inconsistent passing the ball, but he’s also been a gamer who has made plays with his legs. But, as a passer, he hasn’t really played a good game against a Power 5 team this season.
In the four games against Power 5 opponents in 2019, Book has a 61% completion percentage, is averaging 6.3 yards per attempt, 199 yards per game, with four touchdowns and two interceptions. Those are not strong numbers, just objectively without any context, and when watching the games the missed opportunities stand out. This isn’t to say Ian Book is missing passes and he’s the only one in college football and they need to replace him. But, against Power 5 teams last season, Book completed 67% of his passes, averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, had 17 touchdowns to six interceptions, and 229 yards per game. Book isn’t living up to the standard he set last season.
Michigan is tough test, but it’s also an opportunity to raise his game. They take lots of chances and create a lot of opportunities for big plays through the air. If Book can pick out the right matchup and then deliver the ball accurately, a huge game is out there for him. We know it’s in there, we saw it last season. Brandon Wimbush raised his game against Michigan last season, let’s hope Ian can do the same.
For whatever criticism there was for Clark Lea about his game plan against USC, the Trojans definitely seemed to figure something out in the second half when they got to the Irish secondary pretty good. Michigan has not a great running team, just like USC, and the strength of their offense is their receiving corps, just like USC. If Michigan is to move the ball on the Irish, it will have to be through the air. That includes the wide receiver screen game, something the Wolverines are very adept at, and matched up with a corner back group that isn’t the best tacklers, easy yards could be available for the home team.
This is a matchup that will define the efficacy of this group; if they play well, they’ll be seen as a great success. If they do not, it doesn’t much matter what they’ve gone or will do otherwise. They’ll have given up the game to Michigan. This is the one matchup that is fairly neutral and even, and which ever groups wins it will have a tremendous opportunity to be victorious.