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Football: Avoiding futility

Chris Hine | Friday, September 14, 2007

This was hardly the way they planned it.

Notre Dame and Michigan are 0-2 and have fallen, at least for now, from the elite. Irish fans and coaches scratched their heads trying to find ways to explain Notre Dame’s inefficiency on the offensive side of the ball. Michigan fans wanted to bury their heads following the Wolverines’ 34-32 loss to would-be-patsy Appalachian State on Sept. 1.

“Our players are cognizant of the fact that their players are going through the same thing we’re going through,” Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. “And I think that the team that stays together the best and doesn’t finger-point and accepts accountability and handles adversity will, in all likelihood, be one that plays the best on Saturday.”

For Michigan, the slow start came as a shock. The Wolverines began the year with national title hopes after compiling an 11-2 overall record last season. Ranked No. 5 in the polls to start the season, the Wolverines opened up at home against Appalachian State – a Football Championship Subdivision team (formerly known as Division I-AA), and a seemingly easy win for the Wolverines.

But the Mountaineers forgot they were supposed to lose. Appalachian State shocked the college football world with its defeat of Michigan on a blocked field goal. The win marked the first time a Div I-AA team defeated a ranked team in the Associated Press Poll. Michigan’s woes continued last week with a 39-7 thumping at the hands of Oregon. To add injury to insult, the Wolverines lost four-year starting quarterback Chad Henne to a lower-leg injury. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said Henne will not play Saturday against Notre Dame, and freshman Ryan Mallett will start in his place.

Michigan fans are in disarray. A season that looked so promising has quickly turned into a seemingly unsalvageable tailspin of uncertainty. The rest of the season appears bleak. The Wolverines have lost their starting quarterback and their first two games. All this has happened before Michigan has played a game in the Big-10.

In Notre Dame’s case, the slow start caused disappointment – not panic. After graduating most of its top offensive players from a year ago, Notre Dame entered 2007 without an offensive identity. Two weeks into the season, it is still searching for one. The offense has not scored a touchdown in Notre Dame’s first two games and has managed a net of negative-eight rushing yards. The lack of offensive efficiency has surprised many fans given Weis’ pedigree as an offensive coach.

Freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen will make his second start of his career Saturday against a Michigan defense that looks nothing like the top-rated defense of a year ago. Saturday’s game represents a chance to heal for both teams, but more importantly it will reveal a glimpse into the future of both squads.

Michigan blues

For Michigan, the questions about the future begin with its head coach.

Carr’s future at Michigan is up in the air because some have questioned his ability to win big games. The Wolverines have lost four straight bowl games and three straight to rival Ohio State – including a 42-39 loss last season with the Big Ten title and a berth in the BCS National Championship game on the line. While a win against 0-2 Notre Dame will not completely silence his critics, it would certainly help soften their harsh words – at least for a week.

“Those who do know me, friend and foe, I think would agree that I’m a tough-minded competitive guy and there isn’t anything that comes my way that I can’t handle professionally,” Carr said following Michigan’s loss to Oregon. “And there is nothing, there is nothing that can keep me down – not a loss to Appalachian State, not a loss to Oregon, not 100 losses – and not the loss of my job.”

In order to beat Notre Dame, Carr will turn to the arm of his backup quarterback. Mallett, who will make his first start as a Wolverine Saturday, was listed as the second-best quarterback in last year’s recruiting class behind Clausen.

“I can guarantee you, he’s not intimidated by anything,” Carr said. “I think that’s one of the things I like about him. He’s got a lot of confidence. He’s got a great arm, and yet he’s got to go into this week and play within himself and within the context of the game plan, because it’s really about winning. And it’s not about Ryan Mallett. It’s about doing the things that will help this team win.”

One thing Michigan has that can ease their new quarterback into the game that Notre Dame does not is a consistent rushing attack. Senior Mike Hart finished in the top five in the Heisman voting last season and has rushed for 315 yards and three touchdowns in two games this season. Hart made waves this week when he guaranteed that Michigan would defeat the Irish.

“I think Mike Hart is a fierce competitor, and I think he’s trying to fire up his team. And I think you take it in its proper perspective,” Weis said. “Will we bring it up to the team and say, ‘Hey, he guaranteed a win?’ Yeah, we’ll say that because anyone would. But in reality, I think that Mike Hart is trying to be a leader. I think that’s what he’s trying to do. So, I think Mike Hart is doing what any leader for a team would be saying.”

Michigan also has two experienced receivers in Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Manningham torched Notre Dame’s secondary last September for three touchdowns and 137 yards, and has 183 yards so far this season. But Carr expects more from his junior wideout.

“I don’t think he’s played as well as he can,” Carr said. “I think he’s done some very good things. I just think that he’s capable of playing better, and I’m confident that he will.”

Another question mark Michigan must address is the play of its defense, which is one of Michigan’s biggest liabilities this season. The Wolverines lost seven starters from a defense that was first against the run and tenth overall. In their first two games, the Wolverines had trouble defending against the spread offense that features a mobile quarterback. In two games, Michigan’s defense has allowed 491 yards on the ground and 520 yards through the air. The Wolverines probably will not see Notre Dame try to run the ball with Clausen as quarterback, but Carr is covering his bases anyway.

“I think it’s much different except they had a quarterback at the start of the season for them; they have some plays that we have to prepare for. I know I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of that,” Carr said.

“And yet, traditionally, their offense going back the last two years, there’s a lot of similarities in what we do offensively and what they do. And so that makes the preparation not easier, but certainly it enables us to work more against our own defense in practice this week.”

For Michigan, one of the problems that plagued their defense the past two weeks was an inability to tackle the ball carrier on the first hit.

“I mentioned this earlier, our basic inability to be a good tackling team has been because we have not leveraged the ball. Somebody in every defense is responsible for containing the ball,” Carr said. “If you contain the ball, now you’ve got more people to get in on the tackle. That’s what they call gang tackling. … Now, there were some missed tackles in there, and part of that is those were two outstanding backs [for Oregon.] But most of it was because we either didn’t get off our blocks or we left the ball outside.”

Searching for answers

While the present at Notre Dame is not as bleak as Michigan, the future is just as unpredictable.

The Irish returned just four starters on offense and have not scored a touchdown in two games. Weis has come under fire for his offense’s lackluster performance – most specifically the performance of the offensive line. So far, the line has allowed 15 sacks, which have contributed greatly to the negative rushing total. Weis said the problems with his line are not that easy to solve.

“There are some questions that are easier to fix, and some questions that are harder to fix. There are some things I don’t understand either,” Weis said. “But once again, it’s not all just the offensive line. What you end up doing, by qualifying that too much there, is you put the onus all on them. Have they played great? No, they haven’t played great. As a unit, they haven’t played great. So what my job then to do is to keep on working to find a way to fix it.”

Without an effective offensive line, it will be hard for the young talent Weis has at quarterback, running back and wide receiver to develop.

Notre Dame’s future on the other side of the ball looks brighter. The defense has been able to keep in its games so far. Cornerback Darrin Walls scored Notre Dame’s only touchdown on a 73-yard interception return against Penn State. The Irish have allowed fewer yards through the air (252) than they have thrown for this season (274), but have allowed 423 yards on the ground – though most of those yards came late in the games.

Despite the questions on both sides, one thing is for sure Saturday: Someone is finally going to win.