Pregame Six Pack: War with the Wolverines


An all important snapshot will be taken of Brian Kelly’s football program on Saturday night. Tasked with their first big challenge of the season, we’ll see how quickly the Irish have turned the page from their historic ’12 season, building on the sizable momentum the program has quietly established over the past two-plus years.

Nobody has beaten Brady Hoke in the Big House. Brian Kelly and his team had that chance, only to squander a 24-7 fourth-quarter lead that’ll surely be mentioned a few dozen times this weekend.

But the Irish program is on solid footing, perhaps more so than most recognize. In the Irish’s last 25 games, Notre Dame has won 21 of them, good for a .840 winning percentage, bettered only by Oregon and Alabama among BCS schools. With a five-year extension for Kelly and a long range plan for the program coming into focus, it appears the Irish have finally found their place among college football’s elite programs, after struggling through four head coaches trying to find it.

Yet that assumption will need to be affirmed on Saturday night, with Kelly’s Irish team needing an impressive performance against the Wolverines to erase some of the skepticism that’s carried over from the BCS National Championship game.

This Irish team believes they’ve turned the page, leaving last season behind and forging a new trail. But a victory will go a long way towards helping everybody else understand that, likely pushing the Notre Dame into the top ten of the major polls, and getting by one of the major hurdles in a difficult schedule that stands between the Irish and another BCS appearance.

With Notre Dame and Michigan set to play in primetime on Saturday night, let’s dig into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Irish and Wolverines go to battle.


Not Rocket Science: When the Irish play turnover free, they’re unbeaten under Brian Kelly. 

After watching a promising ’11 season derailed after turnovers decimated the team’s offensive productivity, Brian Kelly and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin set out to correct the fatal flaws that sunk a talented and explosive offense.

We saw the fruits of those labors last season, when the Irish chopped their turnovers impressively, even while breaking in a new quarterback and restructuring an offense that had relied on wide receiver Michael Floyd to power the engine.

For all the complaints and supposed limitations in Tommy Rees’ game, the Irish offense hasn’t lacked punch with Rees in charge. But the key to escaping Ann Arbor with a win is playing a clean game in the turnovers column.

No stat crystalizes the Irish’s fortunes more than this one. Notre Dame is undefeated under Brian Kelly when they don’t turn the football over. So while we can talk about special teams worries or containing Devin Gardner, the Irish have won their last eleven games when they put a goose egg up in the turnover column.

The last game Notre Dame lost without a turnover was a 34-27 loss to Southern Cal in 2009.


After being damned by September failures, Notre Dame has turned it around under Brian Kelly’s watch. 

For much of the past decade, Notre Dame’s BCS aspirations were dead before the season’s first month finished. Dating back to 2002, the Irish had not gotten out of September clean since Ty Willingham’s first season in South Bend. Even at Charlie Weis’ best, the Irish loss a September game in both ’05 and ’06.

That trend continued with Brian Kelly. Kelly’s teams stumbled early out of the gates, losing five of their first six games in September. But since that fateful evening in the Big House in ’11, Notre Dame has won every September game on their calendar, winning seven straight, including last week’s 28-6 victory over Temple.

In the past five September games, the Irish have dominated the turnover battle, winning the margin 13-3. (The Irish pulled off victories against Michigan State and Pitt in ’11 even while losing the turnover battle in both games).

A season after making it to the final game of the college football season, the goals have not changed for Brian Kelly’s squad. But to have a realistic shot at forging another BCS run, they’ll need to get out of September alive, no easy task considering dates with Purdue, Michigan State and Oklahoma still await the Irish after Michigan.


With an offensive trying to get back to its roots, can Michigan actually run the ball against Notre Dame’s defensive front? 

Denard Robinson is gone. It’s worth a sigh of relief for Irish fans, but also an encouraging sign for the Michigan faithful that has been waiting patiently for the Wolverines to get back to their blue-collar roots of running the ball and playing power football.

That will certainly be an emphasis for the Wolverines on Saturday night, but the big question is will the rebuilt offensive line be able to win the battle up front against a stout Irish front. Bookend tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield return, with Lewan turning down a first-round NFL grade to come back for a fifth year in Ann Arbor. But the interior of the Michigan line is still a big question mark, with coordinator Al Borges admitting the depth chart is still very much in pencil.

In Michigan’s first game explosion, the Wolverines ran for 242 yards on the ground en route to putting up 59 points against Central Michigan, averaging a healthy 5.1 yards-per-carry. But parsing those numbers a bit, the productivity is a bit misleading. Take away a 38-yard gain by Dennis Norfleet on a reverse, and Devin Gardner’s highlight reel scramble for a touchdown, and Michigan averaged an ordinary 3.9 yards a carry against a rush defense that finished 91st in the country last season.

Fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint is still the starting running back, but freshman Derrick Green has ascended to No. 2 thanks to some attrition at the position. Green came into camp with about 20 pounds on him that the coaching staff wasn’t happy about, but at 240-plus pounds, he’ll be a physical load to take on.

After being bottled up and held to just 161 yards on 41 carries last year, Lewan acknowledged how important the play up front with be for Michigan.

“We didn’t play well,” Lewan said earlier this week, when thinking back to last year’s 13-6 loss. “None of us did. So that’s unfortunate.”


In the pre-snap chess match, can Greg Mattison beat Tommy Rees and the Notre Dame offense? 

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is known for his impressive scheme, with the ability to confuse a quarterback with multiple looks and apply pressure by any means necessary. Never will that be more important than on Saturday night, when the Wolverines will need to pressure and confuse quarterback Tommy Rees to limit the Irish offense and force some much needed mistakes. The senior quarterback feels prepared for the unexpected, and knows much of his job will take place presnap.

“They do that all the time, where they’re showing one thing and play something else,” Rees said Thursday. “For us, we’ve just got to be prepared and focus in on what they’re trying to do to us.”

How the Wolverines plan on getting after Rees remains the big question. While Michigan picked up four sacks last Saturday against CMU, they only had 22 sacks all of last season (77th in the country), and lost their best playmaker behind the line of scrimmage when Jake Ryan went down with a knee injury last spring.

Overall, Michigan’s two-deep front seven accounted for just 9.5 sacks last season, with Jibreel Black (3) and Frank Clark (2) the only players to register multiple sacks. Mattison rotated an incredible 14 linemen through the Wolverine front against CMU, getting just about everybody on the roster some reps before the Irish head to town. While it’s easy to keep everybody fresh up front when you’re winning by a quarter-century, how Michigan distributes reps up front — and manages to get to Rees — will be a key in this game.

Whoever’s on the field for Michigan, Brian Kelly feels confident that Rees is ready to to respond accordingly.

“You’re going to see somebody who is so much more proactive in the game,” Kelly said of Rees. “He’s going to see it before it happens. He did a very good job in that game. He’ll do a better job taking care of the football.

“I think you’ll see that on Saturday. I hope you see it. I expect to see it.”


After last season’s disappointing performance up front, Notre Dame needs to control the line of scrimmage with improved offensive line play. 

While most look at Notre Dame’s success limiting Denard Robinson and Michigan’s offense, there was a whole lot of ugly coming out of the Irish offense last year as well. Michigan’s defense shut down the Irish running game during the Irish’s 13-6 win, holding Notre Dame to under 100 yards of rushing on 3.1 yards-per-carry.

The interior of Michigan’s defensive line is stout, with Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington anchoring the front four. But the Irish need to impose their will against a front seven that’s replacing a lot of experience.

The challenge will be playing their best in one of college football’s least friendly environments, with the Big House expected to be rocking for another game under the lights. Harry Hiestand’s crew is ready for the challenge, as Zack Martin talked a bit about the prep that goes into a big night game.

“We rep all week of practice with loud music. We’re lucky that we’ve played together for all of camp, all of spring,” Martin said Thursday. “Me and Chris have played for the past few years together, so we just get used to how we play.”

One element that also needs to be ironed out is finding a running back that’s going to carry the load for the Irish. It’s easy to get all five backs reps when you’re playing Temple. But Kelly and the Notre Dame offense will need to find someone on Saturday night to turn to that can move the chains, make big plays, and convert yards to points.


While the last visit to Ann Arbor still spooks Irish fans, there’s nothing haunting Brian Kelly and the Irish. 

Just about every Notre Dame fan that I’ve spoken with isn’t heading to Ann Arbor. It just hasn’t been a friendly place to Notre Dame, with each loss seemingly more cruel than the next. That’s especially true if you made it to Ann Arbor in ’11, experiencing first hand one of the more shocking and gut-wrenching finishes in the history of the ND-UM rivalry. But if you expect that game to resonate in this team’s minds, you’re discounting the mental toughness Kelly’s squad has developed over the past two seasons.

The game isn’t something that the team is likely to forget, but it’s also something that won’t hang over the heads of the guys playing Saturday night.

“Anybody who was there will certainly remember it, but it doesn’t do anything to affect the outcome of the game,” Kelly said. “I mean, the game will be affected by how you prepare this week and how you play on Saturday, so if that’s motivation for them to prepare better, that’s great.  If that’s going to help them play better, that’s great.”

Even more interestingly, Kelly’s walking into this weekend’s game with an underdog mentality. And it appears Las Vegas agrees with him, giving the Wolverines a four-point advantage Saturday night in a game where 20 of the past 24 underdogs have covered the spread.

“I mean, the pressure’s on Michigan. They’re at home. They’ve got to win at home,” Kelly said. “For us, we’re going to go up there swinging. Go on the road, we’re going to have to play well. It’s a very good football team. We can’t go up there and turn the ball over like we did a couple years ago. We understand that.

“Nobody’s been able to do that now under Brady Hoke, at Michigan, you better go up there with an attitude to be aggressive and go play the game. You can’t sit back and wait and hope, because if you do, you’re not going to win the game.”

Kelly confident Robinson will rebound

Notre Dame v Florida State

Corey Robinson‘s season was already off to a slow start. And that was before a difficult night at Clemson. The junior receiver came into last weekend with only four catches, held out against UMass after a pregame tweak of his knee put a scare into the Irish.

Robinson’s knee checked out fine. But mentally, it appears that the sure-handed junior is struggling.

Just before halftime against the Tigers, Robinson failed to reel in a long catch that would’ve given the Irish a much-needed touchdown heading into half. Early in the fourth quarter, a high throw from DeShone Kizer on the Irish’s first failed two-point conversion play slid through Robinson’s hands. Made worse was a mental mistake by Robinson, the Irish needing to use one of their second half timeouts when the junior wasn’t on the field.

Coached hard on the sideline by Brian Kelly and coached up by his position coach Mike Denbrock (as we saw on both Showtime and Fighting Irish Media’s ICON), the staff is doing it’s best to get Robinson’s confidence back.

With some wondering if Robinson’s struggles should open the door for talented freshman Equanimeous St. Brown, Kelly talked about their belief that the junior will return to form.

“Corey Robinson is going to get the job done. I had a very lengthy conversation with him yesterday,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I believe in Corey. Corey’s got to believe in himself, and he will. He’s got to go attack the football. He’s letting the football come to him. He’s letting it eat him up a little bit, but I believe in Corey.”

There’s no better place to showcase that belief than against Navy. The Midshipmen don’t have a defender physically capable of matching up with the 6-foot-5 Robinson, who will likely face his share of single coverage with Will Fuller likely demanding safety help.

Then it’s just a matter of Robinson showing the hands and confidence that made him one of last year’s most consistent performers.

“Once he starts attacking the football, I think we’re going to see somebody that can make the plays that we expect him to make,” Kelly said. “So I’m optimistic that we’re going to see the guy that we need to see on Saturday.”

And in that corner… The Navy Midshipmen

Keenan Reynolds, Jamar Summers

The theme of this week’s game might very well be mutual respect. But if Notre Dame is going to get their season back on track, they’ll need to very quickly get past any sort of reverence they have for Ken Niumatalolo and the Navy Midshipmen and look for any way to beat them.

Sandwiched between showdowns against Clemson and USC, Navy comes to town, one of the below-the-radar unbeaten teams in the country. With option superstar Keenan Reynolds in the final year of a career that is already one of the most prolific in college football history, the Irish defense goes into triple-option mode for the second time in this young season, asked to once again find an answer for an attack that not many people have solved.

Helping us to prepare for the Midshipmen is the play-by-play voice of Navy athletics, Pete Medhurst. Covering Navy football since 1997, Pete was kind enough to get us ready for the 89th meeting between Notre Dame and the Naval Academy.

Hope you enjoy.


Lost in the misery Notre Dame fans feel after the Irish’s undefeated hopes washed away in Clemson last weekend, is that the Navy team coming to South Bend is really, really good. I know it’s early, but you’ve been covering the Midshipmen for a long time. Can you rank where this team stacks up compared to some of the others you’ve seen?

I think its the best overall Navy team, considering the play of both units right now and special teams as well. The defense is giving up  just 15 points a game, and based on the prowess of the offense, that’s going to lead to a lot of victories if you play at that level.


Is Keenan Reynolds the best triple-option QB in Navy history? As someone who has watched his career evolve, can you speak to his improvements as a quarterback and a player? How important has he been to the evolution of this program?

I believe production speaks for itself. Good health could make him the leading touchdown scorer of all-time in the sport. He’s a coach on the field. Speaks like a coach, has a want to get better. Each day is a mission for him and the unit to get better and they hold themselves to a high standard to meet each day, he’s the leader of that group.



Joining the American Conference was a huge decision, but one that looks to be paying dividends. Have you noticed a difference in the program now that they’re chasing a conference title?

Coaches say it is. They have been met with quality response on the road recruiting. We get to states that are important footprints for us and just adds another goal where our players can be rewarded for their hard work. The conference has been very, very, good so far this year.


Defensively, this game should stress Navy. Notre Dame’s big-play potential is the best of the Brian Kelly era. (The Irish already have more 50-plus yard touchdowns than they’ve had in any other season under Kelly.)

Takeaways and preventing big plays seem to be a tenet of a Buddy Green defense. Are those the big keys for the Midshipmen defensively?

No question this is by far the fastest team Notre Dame has ever had. I go all the way back to the great Lindsay Nelson days when I used to watch the Notre Dame football report every Sunday morning. They can attack you anywhere at anytime with several people. Double cover one, they have three others in the formation who can beat you any play. Brian has put together a great plan and his coaches have delivered great recruits to the program. Many teams can’t survive an injury to the QB, but they have.

Mids have turned teams over this year and that’s a huge key for any defense. With Dale Pehrson taking over the defense (note: Green is taking a sabbatical to recover from major neck surgery this season) those goals have not changed. Eleven guys getting to the football, ball comes out, you have a great chance to get it!


Notre Dame had success earlier this season against Georgia Tech, and Brian Kelly spent a gigantic portion of his offseason preparing for the triple-option, going as far as recruiting a walk-on option quarterback who runs an option-specific scout team.

Do you think the success the Irish defense had against Paul Johnson’s triple-option will help this weekend? Or do you see subtle, but important differences between what Ken Niumatalolo does than his predecessor?

Coach Kelly is a good football coach. After we beat them at the Meadowlands, 35-17, you sensed, he was going to work hard to find a solution because for them to achieve their goals, they have to beat us.

Im not sure how many huge differences their are in our two offenses, one though is the QB. His ability to get Navy into the right play is huge no matter how a team lines up. Defensive personnel has improved in a huge way for Notre Dame too. They have quality people who can run and get to the ball. Last couple have been barn burners. Hopefully Saturday can be the same.