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Head-to-Head: Notre Dame vs. Michigan

Observer Sports Writers | Thursday, September 20, 2012

It’s Denard. That’s probably all that needs to be said. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson has recorded 944 total yards and eight touchdowns against the Irish the last two years. Last week, Robinson threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns in a 63-13 win over former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar’s Massachusetts. It is pretty clear who Robinson’s favorite target is, as junior receiver Devin Gardner has scored a touchdown in every game this season and leads the Wolverines in receiving yards with 155. Gardner leads a receiving corps that averages 17 yards per catch.

In last season’s 35-31 victory over Notre Dame, Robinson threw for 338 yards and four touchdowns, which overshadowed his three interceptions. Robinson led the Wolverines in an improbable double-digit comeback mostly through the air, picking apart an experienced Irish secondary.

With the loss of senior safety Jamoris Slaughter for the year, Notre Dame will start only one returning starter in its secondary: senior safety Zeke Motta. Last week, the young secondary looked impressive in holding Michigan State to  187 yards on 23-for-45 passing. The Irish  defense also ranks seventh in the nation with 11 sacks, led by sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt’s five. Against this stingy defense, opponents are averaging 10 points per game. But based on what Robinson has done to the Irish secondary in the past, Michigan comes in with the definite advantage until proven otherwise.

It is not too much of a surprise as to who is leading the rushing category for the Wolverines. Robinson has four rushing touchdowns to go with his 351 rushing yards, good for 8.8 yards per carry. The next highest total for Michigan? Senior running back Fitzgerald Touissant’s 92 rushing yards.

The Irish defense has held strong against the run this season, only giving up 96.3 rushing yards per game. After putting a stop to Navy’s triple option in the 50-10 season-opening win on Sept. 1 in Dublin, the Irish defense shut down  Heisman contender and Michigan State junior running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell rushed for only 77 yards in Notre Dame’s 20-3 win Saturday, almost half of his season average of 140 yards per game.

But Robinson provides a much different rushing threat than Bell. All one has to do is look back at last year’s meeting, where Robinson quietly rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown. If that weren’t enough, Robinson rushed for 258 yards and two touchdowns in his last trip to Notre Dame. Robinson set the record for the longest run in Notre Dame Stadium history, with a weaving 87-yard touchdown run in the second quarter of the Wolverines’ 28-24 win Sept. 11, 2010.

Last week, the Wolverines displayed great distribution as eight different Michigan players scored a touchdown. But this is Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s third shot at cracking the Denard offense, and he showed last week that he can prepare his defense for the best of the best.

Michigan has yet to put up any glowing stats in the return category, but its kicking game has been superb. Senior kicker Brandon Gibbons has only kicked one field goal, but junior punter Will  Hagerup averages a whopping 48.5 yards per punt.

Notre Dame hasn’t needed sophomore quarterback Everett Golson to step up yet, but the first-time starter has done enough to keep the Irish competitive offensively. Golson has thrown for 611 yards and three touchdowns this season, while only throwing one interception in the season opener. Last week, Golson threw for 178 yards and a touchdown, but efficiently managed the  game while not allowing the Spartans back into the game with a bad decision or miscue.

Meanwhile, eight different Irish receivers have caught a reception of at 20 yards or more and Golson’s scrambling ability is surely one of the reasons why.

Notre Dame’s stable of veteran wide receivers have flown under the radar, but have come up big in recent weeks. Last week, senior receiver Robby Toma had five catches for 58 yards, while graduate student receiver John Goodman  pulled in a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch to start the scoring for the Irish.

Michigan comes into the game with senior safeties Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon leading the team in tackles. Even though the defense has yet to record an interception, the Wolverines only give up 157.7 passing yards per game. The defense hasn’t really pressured the quarterback too much with only three sacks and the defensive line is still trying to replace three graduated starters from last season.  But the secondary returns three starters and figures to be a solid defense against an offense that hasn’t been asked to do too much so far this season.

Once again, the Irish running game came up big when it needed to in the fourth quarter of the win over Michigan State. After returning from his two-game suspension, senior running back Cierre Wood 56 yards on 10 carries and will become a bigger part of the rushing game in his first home game this season.

Since returning from receiver to running back, senior Theo Riddick leads the Irish in rushing with 190 rushing yards and two touchdowns – the bulk of that coming against Navy. Sophomore running back George Atkinson rounds out the rushing attack with 142 rushing yards, nearly averaging a first down per carry and showing his big-run potential with an average of 9.5 yards per carry. Notre Dame averages 155.7 rushing yards per game and is going up agianst a Michgian defense that gives up 192.3 rushing yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry. Expect the offense to run the ball often against the Wolverine defense.

It will be a true battle of wits Saturday as Michigan coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will undoubtedly come prepared to face Irish coach Brian Kelly’s versatile attack.  May the best coach win.

Sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza has stepped up following senior Nick Tausch’s injury, going 2-for-2 last week against Michigan State and nailing the game-winner in the 20-17 win over Purdue on Sept. 8 in the home opener. Atkinson always remains a threat on kickoff return after his two touchdown returns last season. Senior punter Ben Turk is averaging a solid 41.5 yards per punt and came up huge last week in consistently pinning Michigan State deep in its own territory with eight punts.