Friday, September 11, 2009

It's Michigan

As a Domer from California, I have always considered USC to be the true arch nemesis of the Fighting Irish. I always get really jacked up for the games against Michigan, and I think it's a great rivalry that produces excellent football games, but for me USC has always been "the enemy."

For Notre Dame folks from the Midwest, however, it is Michigan. Irish fans from Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois seem to feel about U of M the way I have always felt about the Trojans. Legions of Notre Dame supporters from that area of the country can't even utter the word "Michigan" without the word "sucks" right behind it. And they absolutely mean it every time they say it.

Whether you just love a great rivalry and a great game among two of the perennial powers of college football, or whether you're a hater, tomorrow's game in the Big House is big. You've heard the story line: Two programs teetering on the brink of redemption. One of the programs will use a victory on Saturday as proof that they're "back" as a player on the national stage. The other will suffer a bitter defeat and face the reality that there is still a long road ahead of them on the way back to legitimacy. It sounds a bit contrived, and there's some truth in it. But really, this game is big for each program, although for different reasons.

Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez needs to beat Notre Dame to prove that last year's debacle was an anomaly, that he really can coach football, and that the team is heading in the right direction. Beating Notre Dame would quiet the many of the doubters who have looked at last season's record and the current scandals surrounding the team and have begun to seriously wonder if Dick Rod is he right man for the job. In other words, beating Notre Dame would be an important positive step that would buy Rodriguez a little more good will and a little more time to put his system in place. Losing tomorrow would embolden the critics, and crank up the heat on the hot seat a little, but it wouldn't put Rodriguez in a drastically different spot than he was a week ago. In other words, for Michigan a win would be a big boost for the program while a loss would essentially leave them at status quo.

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis needs to beat Michigan to show that the dramatic improvement in the way his team has played in Hawaii and against Nevada is not a fluke but rather is an accurate indication of how good this football team is. The Fighting Irish have big goals this year, and a win over Michigan is fully expected to be one more step on the path to playing in a BCS Bowl game this season. A nice win tomorrow would be some validation that this program is, in fact, heading in the right direction. Losing tomorrow, on the other hand, would be a big blow. It would likely let the air out of the BCS balloon. Losing to this Michigan team would be a clear sign that either (1) Weis isn't bringing athletes into the program that can compete against elite teams, or (2) he can't coach them up to an elite level. Making WAC teams look bad is all well and good, but it's meaningless if you can't run with the big dogs. If coach Weis in his 5th season, with this roster, can't beat Dick Rod in his 2nd season, with a depleted roster, playing a true freshman at QB, then folks are going to decide that he's not the right guy for the job. If not now, when? So Notre Dame is in the inverse of the position Michigan is in. For the Irish, a win is good, but really keeps the program at status quo. But a loss tomorrow would be a huge setback.

So is this game "bigger" for Notre Dame or for Michigan? Hard to say. Michigan has more to win, but Notre Dame clearly has more to lose. Unfortunately, this means Michigan is in the position of the underdog with nothing to lose and no pressure, while Notre Dame is the favorite with all the expectations on them and more at stake in the outcome. I expect the Michigan players to feel good about playing at home, and to be "loose" heading into the game. I am a little concerned that the Irish players could feel some of the pressure of a big game on the road as the favorites, and might be a little tight. There haven't been any signs of "tight" play the last two times out, but Coach Weis' teams have exhibited some "tight" play in the past. Hopefully the last two wins have instilled real confidence in the team, and not just fragile bravado. If the confidence is real, then they'll be fine.

Last year the Irish used six Wolverine turnovers and general disarray in the Michigan program to whip U of M 35-17. You have to expect a closer game this season. While Notre Dame is returning essentially the same cast of characters as last year, Michigan is a different team. Judging from last week's game against Western Michigan, it's clear that Coach Rodriguez has finally installed his offense in Ann Arbor. And although Tate Forcier is just a freshman, the highlights from last week demonstrate that he has at least a basic grasp of the offense and the right skill set to run it. On the other side of the ball, Michigan's new defensive coordinator is Greg Robinson, who was last seen coaching Syracuse to a 24-23 win over Notre Dame last season in what I consider to be the worst loss suffered in the Weis era. In that game the Orange held the Fighting Irish to just 41 net rushing yards and an average of 1.5 yards per carry. Notre Dame converted just 4 of 16 third down opportunities in that game.

Clearly, Michigan will be better on both sides of the ball than the team we saw last September. The Irish are going to have to show up expecting a tough game. Given the focus we saw from the team in the opener last week, I expect them to be ready to go.

While I do anticipate the Michigan defense to be improved from last season, I think the Irish offense is also better and will do fine as long as Clausen doesn't turn the ball over.

The key to the game will be how the defense handles Michigan's shiny new spread offense. I watched the key bits of the Wolverines' game against the Broncos, and it's clear that Tate Forcier is more mature and polished than the typical freshman. He doesn't have a rocket arm, but he is very accurate, both from the pocket and while on the move, and he seems to make very good decisions about where to go with the ball. The Notre Dame defense will have to be very disciplined to be successful.

First, the defensive backs are going to have to stay disciplined in covering receivers down field, and not coming off them too soon to defend what looks like a run by the QB. A high percentage of Michigan's offense starts from the play action, followed by the QB rolling out with a run-pass option. If the Irish DBs bite on the play action, or come up to stop Forcier running, he will throw the ball over their heads to wide open receivers running free down field. The defensive backfield has to understand that it is not a running play until Forcier actually crosses the line of scrimmage. A corollary of this is that the Irish front seven have to be able to handle the running game and pressure Forcier without secondary help. The safeties are going to be busy in coverage, so the defensive line and the linebackers are on their own in the run game.

Second, the front seven have to pressure Forcier, but they have to do so without letting him break contain. Forcier is okay from the pocket, but he really makes the big plays on the rollout after he has escaped the pocket. If the defense allows him to get outside, he will do a lot of damage with his arm or with his feet, especially since the defensive backs will be downfield in coverage rather than supporting run defense. Coach Tenuta's defense has to pressure the young quarterback and get in his face, but it is equally important to cut off his avenues of escape. If they can keep up both pressure and contain, they will have success. If they can't, it will be a long day.

Third, the defense has to make the first tackle count. Irish tackling was poor last week, and while it cost a few yards, it didn't cost us on the scoreboard. Against Michigan missed tackles will hurt. Forcier will escape and complete a long pass. Michigan's other quarterback, Denard Robinson, will turn a missed tackle into a long speedy touchdown. Although he's not real big, he is scary fast. I am hoping that he will spend some quality time with Manti Te'o tomorrow. I think Manti can slow him down a bit.

Robinson seems to be the designated "wilcat" QB for Michigan, and so far hasn't shown himself to be a real threat in the passing game. If the defense keeps contain on him and doesn't miss any tackles, he shouldn't pose as many problems as Forcier over the course of the full game.

Are they up to it? You bet they are. I believe Coach Tenuta's blitzing schemes, and the depth to keep the defense fresh, will have Tate Forcier's head spinning. I believe they'll play with the necessary discipline and they will slow the Wolverine attack more than enough to enable Notre Dame to win the game comfortably.

Notre Dame 31, Michigan 20.

Go Irish! Beat Wolverines!


Whiskey said...

OC very well said as per usual. Having lived in Pac-10 country from 2000-2008 myself I feel the exact same way about USC. That said Michigan is a close second and this game is a huge stepping stone for this team. The Coach (my Dad) and I had a long conversation about this team and the importance of this game last night. He summed it up nicely. "Michigan is better and facing them at the Big House is as it should be. Tomorrow will be a glorious day."

Threehills said...

Kinda off topic, but getting down the wire and can't find an answer. Will there be a way to watch a replay of Today's game? I have a wedding to go to and looks like espn360 will not be hosting the game. Any other ideas of how to watch it tonight when I get home if I don't have a tivo?