On Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor two of the most storied college football programs in history face off with a lot on the line. In years past this early season match up between the Michigan Wolverines and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish has almost always had National Championship implications. The winner would leave the game with a bump in the polls and their Championship dreams intact. The loser was left to pick up the pieces and revise their definition of "successful" for that season, still hoping to scrape together 10 wins and qualify for a BCS Bowl bid. This year is different. Neither of these teams is going to get a shot at a championship. Neither team is ranked in the polls. Neither of these teams has even won a football game, this being the first year EVER that both the Irish and Wolverines have started their seasons at 0-2.
Yet, this contest between two winless and heretofore hapless football teams is being played for very high stakes. Yes, the winner of the game will avoid going 0-3. They will garner some modest measure of pride and bragging rights for defeating their regional rival. But there is much more in play here for each team. These two teams are at a crossroads, and to be decided Saturday is which direction each team goes from here.
Michigan is in full crisis mode. Amid pre-season speculation that Coach Lloyd Carr might retire at the end of the season, the Wolverines were ranked in the Top 5 and expected to be in the hunt for a shot at the National Championship. With a veteran quarterback leading a potent offense, this was going to be their year. Then they stepped on the field and suffered one of the most embarrassing defeats in college football history at the hands of Division I-AA Appalachian State, followed by a whipping at the hands of the unranked Oregon Ducks, all in front of their home fans. There have been calls for Michigan to fire Coach Carr immediately, and many felt that the Michigan players quit playing hard midway through the game against Oregon. The question facing Michigan fans is: Has Coach Carr lost this team? If Michigan plays poorly and loses to winless Notre Dame, if the Boos rain down on the home team in the Big House, the calls for a coaching change in Ann Arbor may become too loud to ignore. The only question would be whether or not to change horses in mid-stream? In any event, a loss on Saturday probably sets the stage for a tumultuous coaching change at Michigan and would signal the transition to a new era of Wolverine football. How long would it take a new head coach to return the U of M football program to glory? Maybe Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weis can answer that question. On the other hand, a Michigan win probably stops the bleeding for now. Wins over Notre Dame tend to make Michigan fans feel all warm and fuzzy inside for a while. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, they won't be able to celebrate for long, because Penn State visits Ann Arbor next week. If Michigan doesn't wake up and play the Irish with their traditional fire, their season and the future of the program could spin wildly out of control in a hurry.
Notre Dame is not at a crisis stage. Irish fans know the team is young and the early schedule is brutal. But Notre Dame nation is uneasy. While it was expected that the Irish would struggle to beat Georgia Tech or Penn State, it was also expected that we would at least compete against them. Our passing game figured to flounder a bit with a new quarterback, but we certainly would be able to run the ball well enough to keep us in games. Nope. The Notre Dame offense has been a no-show. The running game has been absolutely AWOL, and the passing game ineffectual. Fans wonder: What exactly have the offensive linemen been doing for the past eight months? Building houses with Habitat for Humanity? Volunteering as crossing guards at the local elementary school? Because so far we have seen no evidence that they have been busting their asses in the weight room, or studying film, or working on footwork and technique. It would be one thing if we could point to one phase of the game or the other and say "well, the run blocking is solid, but they need work on pass protection." But we can't. They have been deplorable in all phases of the game. Coach Weis' credentials as something of an offensive savant are being questioned. Haters in the media gleefully point out that the Washington Huskies are 2-0 and that Coach Willingham's record at Notre Dame was almost identical to Coach Weis' career record through the same number of games. The Fighting Irish need a shot of confidence, the type of confidence that can only come from victory on the field. It's been written that Coach Weis still lacks a "signature" win. Who would have guessed that the most important win of his tenure could come over a pathetic 0-2 Michigan team? But a win for the Irish tomorrow would be absolutely huge. It would be a signature win, because I believe it would signal that this team has turned the corner. It would signal a changing of the guard from the Willingham/Quinn era to the Weis/Clausen era. It would signal that the young guys Coach Weis has brought into the program really can play. Confidence is critical to a young team. Earned confidence can take potential and turn it into performance. A win tomorrow on the road against a team, 0-2 or not, that whipped the Irish last season at home would give Notre Dame a shot of confidence that would greatly accelerate the development of this team. There is no question that Coach Weis still has the confidence of his team, but a loss tomorrow would increase the criticism of Coach Weis in the press. It would increase the pressure on the players and the coaches. Doubt might start to creep in and the development of the team will continue to occur in baby steps rather than in great strides.
Two teams at the crossroads. So which path do they take?
It's crazy, but after getting our asses handed to us two weeks in a row, I am actually more optimistic about the Irish chances against the Wolverines than I was two weeks ago. Two weeks ago I thought Notre Dame was rebuilding and that Michigan was a great team. Today, the Irish are rebuilding and struggling mightily, but Michigan is an absolute mess. Here's how I see the match up:
At first glance, the game looks like one of strength-on-strength and weak-on-weak. It looks like the weak Irish offense versus the weak Michigan defense, and the credible Irish defense versus the decent Michigan offense. But when you break it down further it isn't that simple.
Notre Dame Offense versus Michigan Defense. Both these units have had horrible seasons to date, but they haven't been uniformly bad. UM has been slightly credible against the run, allowing 3.9 yards per rushing attempt against Appalachian State and 6.5 yards per rush against Oregon. Not great by any stretch. But their pass defense in both games was even worse. App. St. threw the ball for 227 yards (3 TD, 2 INT) against UM, but had an average of 9.9 yards per pass attempt and a whopping 13.4 yards per completion. Oregon had 292 passing yards (3 TD, 0 INT) with 11.3 yards per pass attempt and 17.2 yards per pass completion. Notre Dame has had "zero" net rushing yards through two games , but we have garnered 137 passing yards per game, with 5.1 yards per attempt and 8.6 yards per completion. The result is that our offensive weakness (running game) is matched up against UM's defensive strength (rushing defense), while our offensive strength (passing) is matched against UM's defensive soft spot (pass defense). The good news is that no matter how you slice it, Michigan's defense is nowhere near as effective or disruptive as those of Georgia Tech or Penn State. I expect to see Notre Dame move the ball better on offense this week, with more success in the passing game than the running game. Coach Weis will likely spread the field since that has been so effective against the Wolverines, and we could very well see Demetrius Jones at quarterback in spot duty running our West Virginia spread package, possibly in the red zone. Advantage: Irish.
Notre Dame Defense versus Michigan Offense. Playing on a short field most of the first two games with no support from the offense, the Notre Dame defense has actually played well. We have given up yardage in the running game, but have been pretty solid in pass defense. Our pass rush is improved over previous years, putting some pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Michigan's offense features running back Mike Hart running behind a big offensive line. Against Oregon Hart carried the ball 25 times for 127 net yards (5.1 yards per rush). The Irish should expect more of the same, and will probably yield similar numbers, hopefully limiting the big play. Michigan will trot out in his first start true freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett. Mallett entered the game last week when Chad Henne went down with an unspecified leg injury. The game had long been decided by then, but Mallett went 6 of 17 for 49 yards and 1 INT. Thus, the match up between these units figures to be ND's defensive weakness (rush defense) versus UM's offensive strength (rushing), and ND's defensive strength (pass defense) against UM's offensive weakness (passing with a freshman QB). If Henne were still at QB, I would favor the Wolverines in this match up, but I think Corwin Brown will make life very interesting for Ryan Mallett and thus neutralize Michigan's big receiving threats, Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Expect more bending but not breaking from the Notre Dame defense in the running game, and some big plays (sacks, interceptions) for the Irish in the passing game. Advantage: Irish.
Special Teams. Michigan is very proud of their punter, and he has been better (40 yards net average) than Notre Dame's Geoff Price (35.2 yards net average) this season. On average, Michigan has been better both covering and returning punts and kicks. We have one long punt return (Zibby for 47 yards) and Michigan has no big returns, while we have allowed two long returns (one punt, one kick). Michigan is 2 of 5 on field goal attempts, while Notre Dame is 2 of 3 (with the lone miss being a very long attempt). Because the Irish have shown some sloppiness on kick/punt coverage, Advantage: Michigan.
Coaching/Intangibles. On the surface both teams look alike - two disappointing losses each. But Notre Dame's defeats have come at the hands of two ranked opponents, and the Irish played hard for 60 minutes and kept both games competitive into the second half, despite their offensive woes. Michigan, on the other hand, suffered inexplicable, shocking losses to what were considered to be inferior opponents, and there are questions about whether the team has quit on Coach Carr. These two teams are moving in different directions. Notre Dame's players believe they are about to turn the corner to a very bright future. The Wolverines are wondering if they have hit bottom yet. Add in the revenge factor from last year's defeat at the hands of the Wolverines, and you have Advantage: Irish.
Bottom Line. I can't believe I'm typing this, but my own analysis compels me to conclude that Notre Dame wins this game. It will probably be an ugly game marred by turnovers and mediocre offenses. Games between these two teams are usually close, as 16 of 23 games played since the series resumed in 1978 have been decided by fewer than 10 points. Notre Dame wins by a touchdown, 24-17.