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Opponent preview: Michigan Wolverines

Aug 18, 2010, 1:46 PM EDT

This is the second of many opponent previews, leading us into the opening week of the season. Suggestions and comments are welcome. For part one, please check out the Purdue preview.

The Overview:

While there’s obvious anticipation for the opening game against Purdue, there’s no game that the Irish should look forward to more than the September 11th date with Michigan. Entering his third season in Ann Arbor, head coach Rich Rodriguez is a woeful 8-16 coaching the Wolverines, whose faithful have become largely split on the future of the head coach. While last season started with a perfect September and a national ranking, the Wolverines won only once after September 26th, beating Delaware State in mid-October for their fifth and final win, finishing 1-7 in conference and without a bowl bid for the second straight season.

Last time against the Irish:

There is no loss that eats at the stomach of Notre Dame fans more than the 38-34 defeat at the hands of the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. With just over three minutes left, and clinging to a 34-31 lead, the Irish opted to throw the ball on second and third down, missing on both attempts and allowing Michigan to preserve two timeouts and precious time on the clock. After a 29 yard Eric Maust punt, freshman Tate Forcier drove nine plays, using both timeouts before throwing the winning touchdown pass with 11 seconds left to bury the 18th ranked Irish.

Irish fans will point to a controversial overturn on an Armando Allen touchdown and some off-balanced Big Ten officiating, but even 490 yards of offense, 100 yard days for Allen, Michael Floyd, and Golden Tate, and 336 yards of passing from Jimmy Clausen couldn’t keep the Irish from giving away the football game, thanks to anemic defense and mediocre special teams.

Said head coach Charlie Weis after the game:

“I watched that tape a hundred times this morning, okay?
Just like when I watched it when it happened, just like their two guys
that were standing right on top of the play when it happened. From what
I understand, the TV copy on top of it, I still haven’t heard anyone
tell me there’s any evidence of Armando stepping out of bounds.
The way I thought the rule is supposed to be, it’s supposed to be
conclusive evidence. I’m perturbed at that call.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank  Michigan as the fourth most difficult on the schedule. I could make the argument that they’re anywhere from the second toughest to the eighth toughest, but there’s an aura attached to the maize and blue, and after last season’s upset defeat, you never know what might happen.

The Match-up:

It’s tough to gauge what’s coming out of the opposing locker room when the Wolverines face-off with the Irish on September 11. Michigan played horrific football down the stretch, free-falling after a promising 4-0 start. Offensively, Michigan returns just about every contributor from 2009, on a team that racked up 430 yards against the Irish defense. Whether or not last year’s hero, quarterback Tate Forcier plays over Denard Robinson is likely the major question for the Wolverines offensively, with the dynamic Robinson making strides in his passing game this offseason. Rodriguez has endured growing pains through two years as he has worked to recruit more speed onto his roster. Whether or not those players flourish in year three will likely determine his fate.

On defense, the Wolverines lose their best player in Brandon Graham, the disruptive pass rusher that went in the first round of the NFL draft. They look to freshman All-American Craig Roh to potentially fill his spot at DE, shifting down from outside linebacker. There is promise along the front line for the Wolverines in former blue-chipper Will Campbell and one-time Irish recruiting target Mike Martin, but the learning curve is steep for this group. Of real concern is the shaky Wolverine secondary, that’s been bludgeoned recently by transfer (J.T. Turner) and injury (Troy Woolfolk). If Michigan plans on stopping Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph, they’ll do so with untested underclassmen and DBs that struggled mightily last season. 

How the Irish will win:

With a front-seven that graduated its best pass rushers and a secondary that belongs on the back of a milk carton, the Irish should have a field day throwing all over a Wolverine defense that can do little to slow Notre Dame’s numerous offensive weapons. The transition back to a 3-4 defense, along with a quick start for the Irish offense, will force Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson into throwing almost exclusively, a bad recipe for success with Bob Diaco’s pressure system confusing an offensive line that struggled last season. 

How the Wolverines will win:

If the Irish did anything well last year on defense, it was making opposing offenses look good. And after a third year learning Rich Rodriguez’s system, the Wolverines won’t need nearly as much help. Tackling mobile quarterbacks in space will once again be the Irish’s achilles heel, and both Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson will make big plays, getting the Irish to play another shoot out that’s decided down the stretch. While Michigan’s defensive coordinator Greg Robinson has been chastised, he’s beaten Notre Dame the past two times he faced them — once as the head coach of Syracuse in 2008, and running the Wolverines defense in 2009. The 80,000-plus that showed up to watch the Irish avenge last season’s mind-blowing loss will feel more of the same if the Irish can’t solve Michigan’s spread attack.

Gut Feeling:

There was nobody more surprised than I was last year when Michigan escaped the Big House with a 38-34 victory. While everybody in the locker room’s focus is on Purdue, there’s no doubt that the game against Michigan is the biggest for the Irish this season. With the advantage of practicing every day against an offense that’s similar to the one directed by Rich Rodriguez, and Michigan’s desperate situation in the secondary, I expect the Irish to exorcise some demons.

  1. piratey - Aug 18, 2010 at 5:47 PM

    Keith, my man… Simply stating their secondary belongs on a milk carton as an understatement. You could argue they have the WORST secondary of any BCS conference team and even UofM fans would have no problems with that statement.
    The loss of Troy Woolfolk is massive. For a team that is going to a 3-3-5, that had lost 2 incoming players expected to start…that lost Boubacar Cissoko and Donovan Warren. Did you know they have just THREE kids who are listed as cornerbacks? We thought our secondary was in bad shape at least we are returning starters…
    Never mind the fact they are screwed if a DB tweaks an ankle, they aren’t going to have any fresh bodies to throw out there after we 4 WR sets and RB’s moving to the slot. The name Theo Riddick will be a household name by September 12th….
    Losing Woolfolk was the worst possible injury and basically killed Michigan and Rich Rod’s career.

  2. jarious - Aug 18, 2010 at 6:04 PM

    Dang, Keith — talk about upping the tempo. You are running the spread no-huddle of blogging in the last few days.
    I would not rank Michigan as high in terms of difficulty, putting them somewhere after U$C, Utah, @Sparty, Pitt, @BC, and Navy. But that’s me.
    If Michigan stumbles out of the gate against UConn, this one could be RichRod’s early knockout punch. While I expect a grind against Purdue, this game looks like a repeat of the last Michigan visit (minus the monsoon, hopefully).

  3. NJBaseball - Aug 19, 2010 at 1:33 AM

    I am loving these frequent posts and early, quick-hit previews. While I am trying to temper my expectations for the season, I do feel that I sensed a bit of an effort to make this preview more balanced than it could have been. Personally, I do put stock in teams getting psyched for rivalry games and playing above their heads (except, it seems, for the Irish, of course), I’m not sure Michigan will be able to do it again — and on the road — this year. As a fan, Purdue worries me more simply because they’ve had all offseason and camp to prepare for ND. Michigan has a tough opener first, then one week to get ready for the new-look Irish.

  4. baIrish - Aug 19, 2010 at 11:35 AM

    I think that was a pretty fair take on it, b/c while we know Michigan was very poor down the stretch last year, they were also young and they return a lot of now-more-experienced players. 3rd year in a “new” system means it’s not new any more, and something tells me Rich-Rod, who had great success at WVU, hasn’t just forgotten how to coach. On top of UM’s big potential for improvement overall, this is a BIG rivalry game, and more often than not in college football, that tends to throw all predictions & logic out the window… anything can happen.
    That said, we still don’t know what to expect out of the Irish – almost as many question marks as UM. I do think the passing game will have success against the Skunk-bears depleted secondary, and I expect that the running backs to have a surprisingly good outing as a result, w/ LB’s dropping to try to help the CB’s. What it will likely come down to is how well ND’s defense can limit Michigan’s offense. Keith, what kind of experiense does UM return along their O-Line? That’ll be an interesting match-up w/ our “nowhere to go but up,” new-but-not-completely-new 3-4 alignment in the front 7.
    Go Irish!

  5. Ted Kazmar - Aug 19, 2010 at 2:51 PM

    The ND-Mich contract calls for Big 10 officials on the field and in the replay booth for games at Mich (last year). Today there is so much money and power at stake in college football, it is easy to understand the pressure ND’s opponent’s officials are under to make sure their team wins the game. The officials from last year’s ND-Mich game are probably still receiving pats on the back and high fives for their excellent performance last year. The ND community should be making sure that Jack Swarbrick’s number one priority is to renegotiate all contracts to obtain completely neutral officials both on the field and in the booth for all ND games. Even ND’s opponents should want to remove this pressure on their officials.

  6. valpodoc - Aug 19, 2010 at 4:03 PM

    I would love a turn around 38-0 thrashing to avenge prior insults!

  7. tom - Aug 20, 2010 at 10:38 AM

    I appriciate where I am posting this but underestimating UM would be a big mistake. UM will have a very good OL (experienced, deep, and bigger than last year), experienced QB’s, solid RB, very good slots, and solid to very good WR. This offence should be respected by ANY team. They scored 33 points a game with a true freshman QB. They will be very tough. Defence is the key. I think they have a chance to be better. DL has experience and talent, LB’s and safties will have to step it up to have a good season but fall reports are that they really have. The Secondary is a question but not an absolute. They have young talent. Freshman can come in and play the corner easier than some other positions. It is tragic the losses UM has had at that one position(Warren, Wolfolk, Cisoco, Dorsey, etc) but they do still have talent there.I respect ND but I also know transitioning to a spread from a pro set is a big challange. I would rather play ND early in the season than late because of that. You better pray that your QB stays healthy or game over for the season. JMO

  8. Alan - Sep 6, 2010 at 11:05 PM

    I am amazed at the arrogance of Irish fans. For 20 years you have been returning to the top of CFB. Granted, CFB is better when you are better along with Michigan also. But the Irish have more to be concerned about than they think. This OL of Michigan is big, fast, mean, nasty and more powerful than any OL they have and or will experience this season.
    The Irish are a formidable opponent for Michigan and will no doubt be a thorn in the Wolverines sides all day long. But, I am afraid the Irish will experience speed, power and talent to which they are not use to or have seen or experienced.
    Michigan’s OL this first game were 15 yards down field beating people up leading their rushing attack, in the 4th quarter and the were not winded whatsoever.
    I predict this is going to be a back yard brawl, where it is going to be a nasty, hard hitting grudge match. This game in my opinion regardless of who wins will become the game of the week. This game will make the nation see two giants reawaken and protrude a strength, power and determination that will cause CFB to tremble as they realize the 2 premier programs in CFB will again be fighting for supremacy.

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