Football is a game of numbers. And it’s not hard to look at a few of them and understand the difference between winning and losing.
When you check the stat sheet from last year’s 13-6 game, the Irish held Michigan’s offense to just 299 yards while forcing a whopping six turnovers in a hard-earned victory. Compare that to the game in ’11, when Michigan racked up 452 yards, while going +2 in the turnover differential in their furious comeback win. Turnovers and defense. Hold onto the football and limit yards. Just about any guy with a gas grill and a cable TV package can figure that one out.
That said, the key to the Irish’s defensive plan makes simple math look mighty complicated. Especially when facing a quarterback like the ones Michigan has had behind center the past few years. Gone is Denard Robinson, a quarterback Brian Kelly called the most dynamic and electric playmaker he’s ever seen at the position. But in his place is Devin Gardner, another dual threat player that also happens to throw the football with grace and accuracy.
Kelly talked about defending a guy like Gardner, who he compared to Randall Cunningham, and how it’ll be different than facing someone like Robinson.
“Gardner throws the ball with much more accuracy,” Kelly said. “He pushes the ball down the field very easily. And he certainly scrambles very well, keeps his eyes downfield and is not afraid to run. Another dual‑threat quarterback that is going to be very, very difficult to defend.”
As the Irish prepare to face yet another Wolverine quarterback that keeps defensive coordinators up at night, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges talked about the challenges that he faces in the Irish defense, a group that shut down his offense last season.
“They’re as good as anybody we’ll play I think, across the board,” Borges said. “A stout nose guard, two athletic defensive ends. They don’t have Te’o any more at linebacker, but they’re still pretty active kids. Solid cover guys on the back end.
“They know their system pretty well because they’ve been playing it for a while. They’ll be formidable. That’s a good defensive football team.”
Borges brings up what life is like for Notre Dame after Te’o. Kelly also talked about Michigan’s offense post-Robinson. That leaves a little bit of guessing for both teams, as tendencies and structure tends to change.
“We’ll have a little bit of a different plan,” Kelly said. “There’ll obviously be some similarities, but they’re different players.”
Borges conceded the same, though reserved the right to go back and use some things that have been successful.
“We’re different, but there’s still a little carry over here and there that you can steal from a year ago,” Borges said.
That carryover exists in the ability to scramble. Michigan coaches likely watched Temple quarterback Connor Reilly scrambling last Saturday and began licking their chops. That’s where Gardner is at his best — dangerous with his legs but deadly with his arm — and put together a few highlight reel plays against Central Michigan, extending plays until a receiver broke open. It’s something Borges and the Wolverines offense has worked hard at perfecting.
“You have to have some structure within your improv. What we practice, and talk about a lot, is how we are going to adjust when the pocket is broken,” Borges said.
Last year, that rarely happened. The Irish were able to pin Robinson in the pocket, using an overpowering front seven to keep Michigan’s quarterback hemmed in and hassled, forcing bad decisions by Robinson, which turned into four interceptions.
While Gardner sparkled over the weekend, he still threw two interceptions — one a very bad decision deep in his own territory and the other when he was under duress.
“I know one thing about Devin. If he uses good judgment, he’s a problem for the defense,” Borges said. “There’s some stuff you just don’t draw up on that board to account for. You’ve got to cover him and cover the receivers. And that’s not easy to do.”
Limit yardage and force turnovers. Play mistake free and get outside the pocket. Only one of these two objectives will be reached. And that team will likely be celebrating a hard fought victory Saturday night.