Friday, September 21, 2012

Notre Dame Preview: Once Is A Mistake, Twice Is A Coincidence

After a brief hiatus--UMass being, you know, UMass--I'm back to the Friday morning previewin' game. Given that it is Notre Dame, most of this could probably be whittled down to "Denard Robinson needs to do Denard Robinson things", it is, anyway. 

Time: 7:30 ET (NBC)
Place: Notre Dame Stadium--South Bend, IN
Line: Notre Dame -5 1/2
Mood: Like someone at a craps table, hoping for one more run before retreating into the night. 
The Exposition 
Making an attempt to explain the last three games in this series is as useless as counting the stars in the sky or pondering the meaning of life: really, they happened and they're there, and that's all you need to know. That doesn't mean that we can't mythologize or look back through layers of intoxicating nostalgia, it's just that these three separate 3-hour events, twice in Ann Arbor and once in South Bend, defy any attempts at empirical or rational reckoning. Try to explain last year's Notre Dame game to a friend and all the clocks within a one mile radius will begin to melt and Salvador DalĂ­ will emerge from a wormhole to smack you across the face and say bastante. 

Sure, these past performances certainly will be hanging in the air over Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, a reminder to ND fans and players of how things can go so utterly wrong, of how deep the abyss is, as well as the concern that there might be even further depths which remain to be visited. Of course, on the Michigan side, it will all be a subtle nod to the power of magic. The power of Denard Robinson, like gravity, is unseen but knowable and therefore some sort of benevolent sorcery, kind of like having Gandalf on your side. You don't know where he will come from and at what point in the proceedings, but he eventually does, and with spectacular results, results that make you feel as if your cause is...invincible. 

With that said, the aforementioned is nice to talk about but not as important as many will have you believe. Past performance does not ensure future results, and magical coincidence is more often than not just magical coincidence. When Michigan and Notre Dame meet, especially in South Bend, all layers of reality and preconceived notions are stripped away, which is basically just a roundabout way of telling you to take them there record books and throw 'em out.

Like every Michigan-ND game, there's an unnerving anticipation in the buildup that is only intensified by the 7:30 start time. Although both teams have already faced big tests and marquee opponents, this is still the one of the primary forks in the road in each team's season. Lose and feel the expectations temper and languish. Win and, rightly or wrongly, watch the expectations soar.

Michigan Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense 
I know that the whole "just do what Alabama did" became somewhat of a meme this week, but there are some similarities between Alabama and ND: they both deploy the 3-4 defense that deploys a rush linebacker sort that goes by a special name. For Alabama, it was the "Jack" linebacker. For the Irish, the position is branded the "Cat" linebacker position, which doesn't seem very cool, creative, or in any topical but okay Notre Dame  coaches too busy thinking about football to come up with good gimmicky position names.

While I'm not sure just yet that Prince Shembo is as good as Courtney Upshaw was for Alabama at the JLB spot, he's pretty darn good (and also fantastically named). Shembo had his best game of the season last week against MSU, amassing 9 of his 15 total tackles on the year, including a sack (2 TFLs). At, 6'2'' 250 and sporting the #55, I'm kind of reminded of Brandon Graham, which probably isn't an accurate comparison but whatever. He is a terror, and Michael Schofield (and Vincent Smith) will need to be on their pass pro games if Denard is not going to be Shembo'd into oblivion.

I'm not positive that Diaco will release the hounds when it comes to the defensive ends, #89 Kapron Lewis-Moore and #7 Stephon Tuitt, but the linebackers have certainly been aggressive the last couple of seasons. This has allowed Denard to do Denardian things once he's gotten out to the second level. I think this will need to happen again, as I don't see Michigan's interior line having much success moving NT Louis Nix; again, I'm not sure that Nix=Jesse Williams, but he is definitely very good. As I read Ace's FFFF post yesterday, the section on Nix sort of reminded me of, yup...Jerel Worthy. That is not a very good thing of which to be reminded.

Quite frankly, Michigan will not have much reproducible success running the ball with Toussaint; if any back has success in this game, I have a strange hunch that that back is Vincent Smith. Michigan will find itself in passing situations fairly often, and Smith could prove useful swinging out to the flat and/or filling into the zones which blitzing, hyperactive linebackers have just vacated in the middle of the field. Of course, the only problem with that is that Smith is of course tiny--see: Denard's INT against Air Force--and Denard being who he is will probably lead to some more dangerously errant passes. Throw it high enough but low enough for it to hit Smith in the fingertips and you're looking at a basic tip drill for the D.

Al Borges made a nice point in one of this week's pressers about his confusion regarding the fans' strange insistence that rushing yards only "count" when they come from a running back; against Notre Dame, Michigan has gotten it done on the ground with Denard and Denard alone. Is that type of strategy sustainable? Well, you tell me, 2010 and 2011 scoreboards. However, can it happen again? I'm not so sure.

The only scenario in which I see Michigan having some success on the ground with somebody not named Denard is, you guessed it, by successfully attacking Notre Dame's vulnerable, depleted secondary. Andrew Maxwell and his receivers were not able to take advantage of ND's secondary despite having 8+ defenders in the box with regularity, but I'd like to think that Michigan's QB and receivers are significantly more dangerous than their Spartan counterparts.

In short, yes, I am unironically saying that Michigan should go with the Alabama gameplan this week. ND's defense is several degrees inferior to Alabama's but is also quite possibly the best defense left of Michigan's schedule. I'm definitely not saying that we shouldn't run Denard much for fear of injury or something (as was the theory behind that strategy on 9/1), but running Denard left and right right off the bat is something that ND will be ready for.

Michigan Defense vs. Notre Dame Offense 
Listening to the MGoPodcast this week, the consensus seems to be that Everett Golson is sort of in his ur-Denard (to borrow Matt Hinton's phraseology) stage as a quarterback: a not necessarily accurate guy who can make big plays but also mess up the basic ones. He is an exciting prospect, certainly more exciting than Rees and Dayne Crist were, but still very much in the inchoate stages of his development.

Like Denard, Golson is not exactly Cam Newton; at 6'0'' 185 (according to his official Notre Dame profile, at least), he's bound to be called things like "slight" and "willowy" and "probably-needs-to-eat-more". Regardless, he has flashed the playmaking ability that is giving me some bad flashbacks of the 2004 Ohio State game in which a young Troy Smith had himself a day against a favored Michigan team. Needless to say, we have to hope that when Notre Dame drops back to pass, Golson's arms turns into a Ramen noodle or something and that Michigan's can mitigate the lack of a formidable pass rush by keeping contain and not letting Golson run around a la Smith circa 2004.

In average passing situations--i.e. when Golson isn't just freestylin' and profilin'--Michigan should be okay. Notre Dame's receiving options don't really worry me, and I think our corners will be just fine. Tyler Eifert is the next guy in a long line of Notre Dame NFL quality tight ends, but Eifert seems to be more of the hyrbrid WR/TE Greg Olsen/Travis Beckum/etc. sort than a traditional pseudo-lineman with clubs for hands that only catch 1-yard play action passes in goal to go situations. Eifert can really play, and will be a matchup problem when going up against pretty much anybody in Michigan's back 7; strangely, however, Eifert did not record a reception against MSU last week.

Otherwise, there isn't a Michael Floyd in this group, although these are still ND recruits and thus capable of doing damage; after all, let's not forget that our starting corners are likely J.T. Floyd, a sometimes maligned former safety and Raymon Taylor, a still fairly green true sophomore. I have great faith in Taylor, and he's been my "guy who I'm irrationally excited about" since he got playing time early on in the 2011 season. Still, the thought of him playing the field corner spot on the road with a taller receiver like DaVaris Daniels across the way from him or a speedster like TJ Jones (who is most famous for doing this). He did also do this last year to make it 24-7, making the situation seem nearly hopeless for the Wolverines:

Similarly, Robby Toma is a tiny, white receiver and is therefore Wes Welker, so Michigan will need to keep an eye on him and Jones on screens and other slowly developing plays (e.g. the above drag route). 

Unfortunately, like on offense, Michigan is at a disadvantage up front. Notre Dame has an experienced line that will look to run the ball with multiple backs, with Cierre Wood being the headliner and Theo Riddick and George Atkinson providing quality depth. The Irish didn't have an extremely prolific day running the ball, but they were actually fairly effective, with 27 carries going for 129 yards (4.8 YPC, with Golson's sacks taken out). Two things: a) compare that to how Michigan did against MSU last season on the ground and b) remember that Michigan's defensive front is nowhere near as good as MSU's, and you have two fairly worrisome things going on. 

While Notre Dame's receiving corps doesn't necessarily have a star, it's not too difficult to imagine ND racking up a yardage total that equals or exceeds last year's 513. Unless the light suddenly turns on and Campbell, Washington, etc. can finally get any sort of push at the POA, Michigan is in for a long day. Even with a less refined passer in Golson in the game, Notre Dame will still threaten to drown Michigan in a tidal wave of yards and first downs. The Michigan defense's life preserver will once again have to be forced (and unforced) turnovers on ND's part. 

What Needs To Happen, Fergodsakes 
On offense:
  • The Rex Grossman philosophy of offense. I'm pretty sure Al Borges is secretly a big Rex Grossman fan, and that will hopefully show on Saturday by going deep early and often. Remember the Northwestern game last season? Michigan needs to attack downfield just like they did against the Wildcats. 
  • Please no I-form running. This goes without saying, but Michigan spent an inordinate amount of time during UTL last season plugging away from under center with no success. I'm pretty sure we've all learned our lesson at this point, and it's pretty apparent that Michigan's interior trio is not moving anybody in traditional running sets. 
  • Accurate Denard, don't be a mirage por favor. Fairly self-explanatory, but if Michigan is going to mitigate the disparity in respective line strength, Denard will need to complete some passes from the pocket early on at every level (dumpoffs, intermediate routes, and deep). Like many teams these days, I expect DC Bob Diaco to keep his ends mostly in contain mode, so rolling Denard out could be asking for a lot of balls harmlessly falling to the turf after Tuitt or Lewis-Moore do their best Dikembe Mutombo impression. 
On defense:
  • Like a broken record...say it with me: BEND BUT DON'T BREAK. This is just simply Michigan's calling card until Michigan's youngsters become upper classmen. ND will rack up yards, they will probably get at least one first down on a given drive more often that not, and they will probably score in or around their 2011 total. 
  • Show me time. With Desmond Morgan looking like he's back in the starting lineup, it's time for him and Kenny Demens to reassert themselves as the starters, especially on the heels of a recent charge by freshmen James Ross III and Joe Bolden. Morgan had a bit of a tough time against ND last season, and he's struggled to start the season and then had a "head problem" that kept him out last week. I would rather not have to see too much of Bolden and Ross on Saturday, and that means Morgan/Demens playing competently. Nobody's asking for big plays or anything--that's what Jake Ryan and Frank Clark are for--but not completely whiffing on the edge and being ready to take on blockers without getting engulfed would be nice things. 
  • BRING. THE. HEAT. Nobody needs to tell Mattison to be aggressive, but Michigan will need to bring the heat from time to time. Golson isn't actually end-of-2004-Troy-Smith yet, so Michigan can make some hay taking a page from MSU's playbook and bringing pressure through the middle, overwhelming ND's interior line, and allowing the secondary to handle their men in single coverage. Michigan will get beat from time to time, but I don't see any way around it: Michigan needs to force a turnover or two, and I don't see that happening without calling in an air strike or two. It is "unsound", sure, but desperate times and circumstances call for desperate measures. Hey, just remember that we were trying to do this with Greg Robinson not too long ago and you'll feel a bit better. 
Predictions of Negligible Worth 
I, like you, have that faint glimmering hope that Denard will finish his career as ND's ultimate kryponite, and that he has one more soul-crushing, virtuoso performance in store for the Irish. With that said, attempting to accomplish something a third time takes that thing from mere coincidence to trend, and I'm not entirely sure that what we have here is some sort of underlying, fundamental trend. That is, I'm not sure that Michigan can beat Notre Dame, no matter what, just because we have Denard Robinson.

This is essentially a greatly scaled down version of the Alabama game. Notre Dame is not Alabama by any means, but they do have strong defensive talent in the front 7 and they do have a solid offensive line and a deep group of talented tailbacks. They will try to enforce their will on Michigan's decidedly average front, and Michigan has no choice but to hope for mistakes on ND's part from time to time...which, to be fair, ND has been happy to oblige the Wolverines with of late.

I know I said this last year, and I have no idea what ND's final record will be this season, but I think this ND team is better than this Michigan team. The same thing could have been said leading up to the 2009, 2010, and 2011 matchups; of course, that did not stop Michigan from winning each of those games. Michigan has discovered the alchemic route to gold, that being a little bit of luck and a lot of Denard Robinson.

As always, a "prediction" is a defraying of the sum of all predictions. That is, which outcome is the "most likely" to take place? Saying that one thing will happen does not preclude the belief that any other option is also possible.

With that said, I think we are bound for a 3+ hour drive to anticlimax. I don't see Michigan generating enough offense to keep up, and I don't think we are in for Denard Eviscerates Notre Dame Part III. Likewise, I don't see where the playmaking will come from in the Michigan defense (outside of Jake Ryan, that is).

In the end, I think Michigan goes to South Bend and takes a loss in a game that will essentially reflect what probably should have happened last season: Notre Dame accumulates around 500 yards or so and generally controls the game from start to finish. Everett Golson hasn't been around long enough to convince anybody that he is or isn't prone to committing silly turnovers, but it's obvious that he isn't as careless with the ball as Tommy Rees. As such, I don't think that Michigan can expect to be kept in the game with unforced and untimely errors from the ND side. Michigan takes an ugly and only cosmetically close loss in South Bend, a game that will come to be seen as the Godfather III of the Denard vs. Notre Dame saga.

Score: Michigan 17, Notre Dame 27 

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