This is the second of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. The first installment was on South Florida.
When Michigan failed to woo favorite son Jim Harbaugh to Ann Arbor after waiting far too long to let go of Rich Rodriguez, athletic director Dave Brandon reached out to San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke, selling the former Michigan assistant’s work as a rebuilder to the Wolverine faithful that bristled at bringing in a coach with a record hovering just below .500.
But Hoke has struck the right chord with those that love the maize and blue, harkening on the days of yesteryear where the Wolverines were known for their smash-mouth football and blue-collar roots, all while scoffing at the idea of rebuilding at his first Big Ten media day. “I don’t think we’re rebuilding. Period. I mean, we’re Michigan.”
While a hot start recruiting has got Michigan fans at a fevered pitch, Hoke’s true test will come when he takes to the field with a team that struggled to stop anyone under Rich Rodriguez, even when a high octane offense powered by Denard Robinson. Hoke has brought in two coaching veterans, Al Borges with him from San Diego and Greg Mattison back from the NFL, to try and install systems that erase the memory of the Rodriguez era. How quickly those changes can take hold on a roster talented but thin will be the running theme of Brady Hoke’s first season.
Last time against the Irish:
In a game that featured three Irish interceptions, three Irish quarterbacks, and a heroic effort by Denard Robinson, the Wolverines withstood a second half comeback by the Irish to beat Notre Dame 28-24. After jumping out of the gates with a picture perfect opening drive, the Irish lost Dayne Crist to blurred vision, and were stuck in neutral on offense for the rest of the first half, save a 37 yard completion in the final seconds of the half. With a first and goal from inside the Michigan five and only three seconds left before halftime, head coach Brian Kelly gambled for the first time as an Irish head coach. His bet backfired, with Nate Montana airmailing his throw into the seats, and the Irish walked into halftime down 21-7, getting nothing from the scoring opportunity.
With Crist back in command after halftime, the Irish scored ten third quarter points to bring the game within a score and with under four minutes to go, Crist hit Kyle Rudolph for a thrilling 95 yard touchdown pass. With the Irish defense needing to get one more stop and escape with a win, they couldn’t do it. Robinson ran and threw the Wolverines down the field on a 12 play drive that ended with a two yard quarterback keeper for the game’s winning touchdown with just under thirty seconds remaining. For the second year in a row, the Irish gave up a game-winning touchdown to a Michigan quarterback.
Degree of Difficulty:
Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Michigan as the third toughest opponent on the 2011 schedule.
7. South Florida
After being named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year, Denard Robinson is capable of challenging a defense maybe better than any other player in college football. Robinson threw for over 2,500 yards last season while running for an additional 1,702, carrying the ball 256 times, an incredible amount of wear and tear on a quarterback that’s barely six-feet tall and weighs less than 200 pounds.
While Borges’ pro-style system will keep Robinson in the pocket more than in the past, he’ll likely still be the Wolverine’s most dangerous offensive player. The top three runners on the Michigan roster return and there’s depth along the offensive line as well, led by David Molk. In the passing game, Robinson won’t have Darryl Stonum, who is redshirting this season after the second DUI arrest of his college career, but will have Roy Roundtree, Martavious Odoms and Junior Hemingway returning.
If Hoke’s squad is successful, it’ll be because he and Greg Mattison turn around a defense that returns eight starters. The strength of that unit is along the defensive line, where seniors Mike Martin and Ryan van Bergen lead the front four. The Wolverines will have to replace Jonas Mouton, but they welcome back Kenny Demens at middle linebacker and converted wide receiver Cam Gordon hopes to infuse some athleticism into the linebacking corps.
The real key to the Michigan defense will be solidfying the secondary, a unit that was 112th nationally in 2010. The return of Troy Woolfolk will help, and J.T. Floyd can only play better this season. Anchoring the secondary is Jordan Kovacs, who made 116 tackles last season, not necessarily a good thing. There’s still not a lot of depth here, but at least there’s some experience returning.
How the Irish will win:
Watching this match-up last September, it was clear that Notre Dame’s Achilles heel came back to bite them as soon as Dayne Crist was injured at the end of the first drive. Without Crist, the Irish offense was lost. That doesn’t make up for the dreadful work the Irish did against Denard Robinson in the first half, but even with everything that went wrong, the Irish just needed to stop the Wolverines one last time to pull out a tremendous comeback victory.
As the team’s enter 2011, it feels like the teams are in opposite places. It’s Michigan that’s starting anew, learning new systems and transitioning styles on the fly. With the Irish winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, they’re able to keep Robinson at bay while limiting the Michigan offense’s ability to make big plays through the air.
Also unlike last season, Brian Kelly will get Michael Floyd involved early and often. After being nearly unstoppable against the Wolverines as a sophomore, the Irish failed to get Floyd involved in the game, as the Irish’s best offensive player only touched the ball five times, with two receptions and the bulk of his yards coming on the game’s final drive.
With a crowd that’ll be electric, Notre Dame will do their best to grab the momentum early, and after two years of coming up short, the Irish should have a relative easy time dispatching a Michigan team a year behind the Irish in their renaissance and far less talented. Don’t be surprised if the Irish keep their foot on the gas, taking advantage of a national spotlight to make a statement.
How the Irish will lose:
For all that Rich Rodriguez didn’t do in Ann Arbor, he still beat two Irish teams that were probably better on paper in soul-crushing fashion. In Al Borges and Greg Mattison, Brady Hoke is bringing in two coordinators that’ll take the finesse out of Michigan’s team, while still allowing the athletes they have to make plays. In front of a jacked-up crowd, Michigan will get a few big plays from Robinson early and mix a capable running and passing attack, keeping the Irish off balance and unable to get to Robinson without bringing pressure.
Behind an exotic mix of pressures from Mattison, the Irish offense is kept off balance, with the running game struggling to get on track and the Irish passing attack failing to find any secondary targets after Michigan decides to take away Michael Floyd. In a victory that’ll likely have Desmond Howard, in town for both ESPN’s Game Day and university honors, crowing, Brady Hoke will upset the Irish for his first “signature win.”
I have a hard time seeing the Irish losing this game, even though they’ve managed to do it each of the last two seasons. While Michigan’s offense has some dangerous weapons, I just don’t think the Wolverines will be far enough along to beat Notre Dame, even if it is the first time under the lights in the Big House.