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 ESPN.com’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.
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.