The Irish walked into Spartan stadium Saturday night and did what most people thought they could not; win against a #10 ranked Michigan State. The week leading up to this game had a large majority of big time analysts picking Michigan State to overpower the Irish and do so without much trouble. As the clock ticked zero though, it was the Irish who walked away with the win after putting together four quarters of solid play on the field and strong coaching decisions on the sideline. If Irish fans have learned anything this season, that lesson would be to take one game at a time and not get over excited or too negative. This team is a blank canvas, and fans are just starting to see a faint image of what may come. The Irish are loaded with young talent who happen to be learning on job, and it will take the whole season to truly appreciate and understand what these kids are capable of.
Another Saturday night and another high-pressure atmosphere as Notre Dame welcomes one of their greatest rivals into town, the Michigan Wolverines. This is a Wolverine team that has beaten the Irish three times in a row, and five out of the last six. The Irish have been extremely competitive in the three consecutive losses, and in at least one case found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Brady Hoke led squad walks into Notre Dame Stadium with a 2-1 record, but with a less than impressive win over the Air Force Academy, and were also absolutely embarrassed on national TV by the Alabama Crimson Tide. This Michigan squad has talent and is coached well, but is also replacing three defensive linemen from last year’s squad and have struggled with consistency on both sides of the ball early on in this young 2012 college football season.
As both teams take the field this weekend, both will have questions that still need to answered and pretty quickly if they intend to win. The Wolverines have struggled throwing the ball with positive results, and have been equally inconsistent on the defensive side of the ball especially in stopping the running game. The Wolverine defense is currently giving up over twenty six points a game, and currently ranks 104th in the nation in rushing yards allowed on defense. What’s even scarier for Michigan is that they are facing an Irish squad who currently sits at 23rd in the nation in rushing yards allowed, and that’s where Michigan’s real strength is on offense.
The Irish on the other hand took another blow to an already thin secondary, as they lost 5 th year senior Jamoris Slaughter for the rest of the season with an Achilles injury. This will put even more pressure on Zeke Motta to hold a very young group together, and find a way to play above their experience level. If Denard Robinson and Co. can find a way to consistently throw the ball against a depleted Irish secondary, that could force the Notre Dame to drop a linebacker into coverage, and open up the running lanes for him and their very talented running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. While the Irish still hold the advantage here, it could make things a little more interesting than they probably should be.
For either team to be successful they are going to have to rely on key individuals to come through big. Let’s take a look at three players on each squad that could determine who might walk away with the win this Saturday night.
On the Irish side of the ball
The Irish will heavily rely on their All-American linebacker to spy on Denard all night long, and cover both sides of the field. He will be forced to keep one eye on the Michigan backfield and the other on crossing routes, post patterns and curls from the Michigan wideouts and tight ends. Te’o will also be responsible to help cover and track down Michigan running-back Fitzgerald Toussaint. This is no easy task, as Fitz has speed to burn and can stretch a play from sideline to sideline. If Michigan has early success throwing the ball it could make for one long and tiring night for the Irish defensive star.
As mentioned before, the ever so thinning secondary of Notre Dame is going to need everything Motta can offer this Saturday night. Not only will he be asked to be the leader of this young group, but will also be asked to help in run support which thankfully for Notre Dame, is his strongest attribute. Zeke has shown improvement every week, and Irish fans are hoping this week is no different.
Most Irish fans would agree that Golson has exceeded early expectations. His level headed play, ability to throw deep and pull the ball down and takeoff has made him a crowd favorite. He will need to continue to limit his turnovers, make smart decisions, and stay within his game to help lead the Irish to a 4th straight victory. If he starts to press and turn the ball over, it could truly have a devastating effect on the outcome of the game.
On the Wolverine side of the ball
Michigan’s success at Notre Dame this weekend will ultimately fall in the hands and feet of Mr. Robinson. If he struggles once again to throw an accurate mid to deep ball and connect consistently with his offensive weapons, it could be another very long night for the Wolverine offense. The Irish defensive front seven will take ownership of the box and force Denard to prove he can beat them with more than just his feet. There is no doubt that both he and Coach Hoke will want to take advantage of young Irish secondary, but lack of execution at the quarterback position could be a huge liability for the Michigan offense and the ultimate reason they leave South Bend with a loss.
If there is one person who will be as important to the Michigan offense as Denard Robinson, it could be Fitz Toussaint. He has speed and agility but has yet to bust through in 2012. His suspension for the Alabama game surely hurt their chances, and he hardly had an impact against Air Force. He only has 1 catch on the year for 17 yards and 23 carries for a less than impressive 93 yards. If Toussaint picks the Notre Dame game to breakout it could give the Irish defense a bit of trouble and a dynamic they were not necessarily counting on to defend. He would give Robinson another weapon to utilize by handing off to in the backfield, a read-option weapon, and a dump off possibility in the flats and underneath. Without a strong game from Toussaint, the chances of victory in Notre Dame stadium for the Wolverines declines drastically.
From a walk-on to one of the best secondary players in the Big 10, Kovacs leads the team in tackles and just has a nose for the ball. He struggles a bit in man coverage, but more than makes up for that in his run support and ability to make plays on the ball. If Jordan can handle the Irish receivers in coverage and provide the run support he is more than capable of, he could be a huge fly in the ointment type player for the Irish offense. Surely Michigan will utilize him to help control Golson’s ability to go deep, and press the line and cause havoc in the run game. While Kovac may not be a superstar, he is very capable of providing some consistency to a Michigan defensive squad that is sorely lacking that right now.
Of course there are many other players that may have a huge role in this weekend’s clash, but these are just some of the names to keep an eye on. It is still very early in the season, and to believe that what both Michigan and Irish fans have seen of the field so far is a final product would be very unfair. It’s very apparent that Michigan has more questions than answers, and the Irish on the other hand are starting to find those answers a bit quicker than some had anticipated. As in most cases though when these two teams meet it should be a very physical affair and will probably come down to the 4th quarter in 2013 again.
Notre Dame – 27
Michigan – 17