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ND vs. UM: Final questions with Michael Rothstein


It’s not just another Saturday. It’s Notre Dame-Michigan Saturday, with both fans waiting about four hours longer than they’re used to for this game, now kicking off under the lights of Michigan Stadium. With early photos streaming in on Twitter from ESPN’s College GameDay set, tonight has all the ingredients to be one for the ages in a series that’s been remarkably close the past thirty-plus years.

With kickoff a few hours away, I had a chance to run down’s Michael Rothstein, one of the fine writers of Wolverine Nation. Mike is no stranger to this rivalry, having covered it from Notre Dame’s side when he wrote for the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette.

Mike was kind enough to take time away from writing massive features on guys like Al Borges and Greg Mattison to answer a few final questions before the big game.

Inside the Irish: What do you take from Michigan’s opener. Did the Wolverine’s staff go vanilla on purpose?

Michael Rothstein: I take three things from it. First, Michigan’s defense is better — if for no other reason than they are mixing up defenses and blitz packages better than they ever did under Greg Robinson. Second, Denard Robinson at least showed he has the capability of staying in the pocket and making progression reads. The throwing is still a work-in-progress on mid-to-deep routes but that’ll come. Third, this team is going to be well coached. You just saw it.

As far as going vanilla, I don’t think they did that offensively or defensively. Offensively you saw some of what Al Borges can call and a bunch of shotgun — more than I was expecting. Defensively, Michigan was anything but vanilla. The Wolverines blitzed a lot, disguised and mixed up coverages and were fairly aggressive.

ITI: You’ve said the Michigan defense is trending upwards. That said, it looked like the Broncos had plenty of early success moving the football. What do you see out of that unit on Saturday?

MR: Western had early success while Michigan wasn’t blitzing. The Wolverines were hoping to get more out of their front four when it came to rushing — one of the things Michigan should be concerned about Saturday. Notre Dame is a tougher test because it has an NFL-caliber running back in Cierre Wood, one of the best wide receivers in college football in Michael Floyd, a massive pass-catching tight end in Fort Wayne’s Tyler Eifert and a capable quarterback in Tommy Rees. Western had a good quarterback, Alex Carder, and a good wide receiver. That’s about it.

I think Michigan’s defense will struggle a bit Saturday because it’ll have to account for all of those weapons. If the front four, which I pegged as the strongest unit on the team in the preseason, can get some pressure it’ll alleviate a lot for the corners and safeties. If they can’t, Michigan could be in trouble.

ITI: You had plenty of interesting things to say about Al Borges in a recent feature you wrote. Can he keep the offense playing at the same level it did last season? 

MR: I think it is going to be at a different level. Denard Robinson is still a special talent, no one questions that. But I think he’ll be used in a more balanced setting now. You saw that against Western when he was Michigan’s third-leading rusher.

So I think it’ll still be a very progressive offense — just a more balanced one.

ITI: Finish these sentences:

Michigan will win this game if their defense can: 

MR: Michigan will win this game if their defense can properly pressure Tommy Rees and not give him 4-7 seconds to find Michael Floyd every passing play.

Michigan will win this game if their offense can:

MR: Michigan will win this game if their offense can get off to a quick start, get a lead and let Denard Robinson make 5-6 plays with his feet.

ITI: Night game. Big House. Desmond Howard being honored. The Big House has a reputation for being quieter than 100,000-plus people should be. How hostile of an environment will this be?

MR: I think it’s going to be loud and crazy. There’s never been anything like this before and the fans are very excited. When Dave Brandon says he can sell 150,000 tickets for this, I think he is being conservative. I think if they could seat 200,000 in the stadium for this, they would sell those tickets. It is going to be a very loud, very crazy atmosphere — and the towers on each side of the stadium have done a good job of keeping sound in anyway. I’m expecting it to be the loudest crowd I’ve seen in my eight years covering college football.

ITI: Brian Kelly is 3-0 against Brady Hoke. Do you get the feeling that these coaching staffs know what to expect from each other? 

MR: Yes and no. I think Brady Hoke’s defensive philosophy and Brian Kelly’s offensive philosophy has largely remained the same. But that was a long time ago and things can change. Borges and Mattison are very skilled coordinators and both teams have more talent than they did in the MAC. I think they know each other and can predict some things — but I think there’s going to be a lot of things that are still unfamiliar to both coaches when it comes to playing each other.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”