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Head-to-Head: Michigan vs. Notre Dame

Observer Staff | Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Senior quarterback Tommy Rees was impressive in Notre Dame’s season opener, throwing for 346 yards, three touchdowns and – most importantly – zero interceptions. The Irish showed an ability to stretch the field for long gainers, with Rees lobbing throws down the sidelines to let his receivers make plays on the ball. Senior TJ Jones has been praised by Irish coach Brian Kelly as one of the best receivers in the college game, and he has showed early signs of being a potential go-to guy for Notre Dame on offense.
The Wolverines secondary is much younger after losing four-year starter Jordan Kovacs at safety, and senior safety and captain Courtney Avery is questionable for Saturday as he tries to return from knee surgery. Redshirt sophomore safety Blake Countess is also returning from a knee surgery that cost him all of last season, and will face his first real test on Saturday. Michigan’s corners average 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, which could open opportunities for Rees to let Irish receivers Daniel Smith and Corey Robinson – both of whom are 6-foot-4 – win jump-ball battles outside.

Notre Dame has already trotted out five viable running backs this season, and a balanced workload resulted in nearly 200 yards rushing last week against Temple. George Atkinson is a threat to break free on every play, and Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel showed they can take some of the workload as well. The most important man in the run game may be left tackle Zack Martin, who along with left guard and fellow senior Chris Watt can be expected to clear a path on nearly every play.
Michigan held Notre Dame to 94 yards on 31 carries last season, and allowed the Irish just one rush over 10 yards. Linebacker Jake Ryan was huge in that effort, and led the team in tackles last season, but will miss the first half of the 2013 season with an ACL tear. The Wolverines will attempt to make up for that loss with an improved front line that includes senior defensive tackle Jibreel Black – whom Kelly tried to recruit at Cincinnati – and junior Frank Clark, a former safety who bulked up and moved down to play defensive end.
No matter how prepared Michigan is for the Irish run game, Notre Dame’s ability to put in fresh legs in the fourth quarter (and thanks to their new pistol formation, have them run downhill more than ever) should be a huge advantage late in the game.

Last week, for the first time in his career, Brian Kelly did not call his offense’s plays. That task was delegated to offensive coordinator Chuck Martin and the transistion was seamless, as the Irish gained over 350 yards in the first half alone. Notre Dame’s foray into the pistol offense looked to be an early success, as well.
However, Wolverines defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is a former coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens famed defense, and engineered a unit that allowed the Irish just 13 points after six Michigan turnovers last year.

The Irish entered the season with an open kicking competition between Nick Tausch and Kyle Brindza, only to have both placekickers miss their attempts last week. Kelly has yet to declare a winner, leaving doubt around the position that could decide Saturday’s game. Brindza has taken over punting duties as well this season, and has shown off his strong leg but not much control as of yet. George Atkinson is dangerous on every kickoff return, and TJ Jones has brought a previously unheard of spark to punt returns.

Denard is gone. But Devin is in.
Irish fans may be rejoicing that Denard Robinson, their scrambling, shoelaceless nemesis for so many years, has finally moved on to torment someone else. Redshirt junior Devin Gardner isn’t the same runner Robinson was – few in the history of the game ever have been. But the former wide receiver can move just fine, and has an arm to go with it, as well. Notre Dame was able to solve the Robinson dilemma last fall, but Michigan is moving to the pro-style offense under Gardner, which will pose a whole new slate of problems to the Irish secondary.
That Notre Dame secondary comes in with another year under its collective belt, and has transitioned from a liability to a weapon. The Irish did a good job of keeping receivers in front of them in their opener, and should be well equipped to deal with veteran Wolverine receivers Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Dynamic sophomore tight end Devin Funchess could present some issues as well, and will test Notre Dame’s rangy outside linebackers.

Once again, this would seem to be an area where Michigan will miss Robinson. But Gardner’s arm should keep the Irish from stacking the box like they did against Denard, which will allow Gardner to pick his spots and break it big. That seems especially likely after watching Notre Dame defend against Temple’s pro-style offense last week. Owls quarterback Connor Reilly is nowhere near as athletic as Gardner but still ran for 77 yards on 12 carries. Add in sturdy fifth-year running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and future first-round pick Taylor Lewan at left guard, and the Irish will have their hands full in gameplanning for Saturday.
If there’s anyone that can get the job done, it’s the dynamite front seven of Notre Dame, featuring names like Nix, Tuitt, and Shembo. But just like when they faced off with Shoelaces, stopping Michigan’s run game may just be a case of limiting the damage.

Wolverines offensive coordinator Al Borges has averaged nearly 400 yards per game in his two years at Michigan, and is in the process of retooling his offense around a more traditional quarterback.
His counterpart on Saturday will be Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who bottled the Wolverines and held them to just six points last season. Diaco’s defense was exposed by Temple, and now he’ll have a week to figure out the issues and deliver the message. After watching Notre Dame’s historic defense dominate last year under his schemes, it’d be hard to imagine the Irish being beaten in the same fashion in consecutive weeks.

At 5-foot-7, Wolverines sophomore return man Dennis Norfleet can get lost in a crowd extremely easily – and show up again 50 yards downfield. Fifth-year senior Brendan Gibbons made his last 13 kicks last season, and is still perfect early on in the 2014 campaign.
Notre Dame’s kick coverage teams have been very strong of late, and will hope to keep Michigan from getting a big momentum play on returns. But at the end of the game, Michigan can turn to an all-senior battery of snapper, holder, and kicker – which might just be the difference in front of another world record crowd.