Head to head: Michigan
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, August 31, 2018
The passing game seems to be the big question mark surrounding Notre Dame’s season. It’s no secret that senior Brandon Wimbush has a history of struggling in the pocket, and the Irish did lose two huge playmakers on the receiving end in Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson. Junior Chase Claypool and senior Miles Boykin are clearly solid options, and sophomore Michael Young is a promising young talent. Still, the impetus falls on Wimbush. Can he truly prove himself to be a comfortable pocket passer? Can he turn Claypool or Boykin into the same threat St. Brown was? There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the passing game on all fronts. The Irish have a ton of potential, but things could go wrong quite easily. If Wimbush proves himself, Notre Dame could take the edge, but with a lot of unanswered questions against a top 10 defense, things don’t bode well for the Irish.
It’s unclear whether or not senior running back Dexter Williams will take the field on Saturday, so Notre Dame will need to primarily rely on junior Tony Jones Jr. and sophomore Jafar Armstrong in the backfield.
Last year, Jones rushed for 232 yards on 44 carries, averaging 5.3 yards per carry, an acceptable stat line for his team role, but significantly shy of the production put up by past starters like Josh Adams. Jones will need to take on a larger role amidst the potential absence of Williams, and there is no reason he can’t do so. Coaches have spoke highly of him in the offseason, and he already has a decent amount of field experience. All of this, combined with what seems to be a clean bill of health after an injury plagues freshman season indicates that Jones should be ready to step up.
Plus, the offense can always look to Jafar Armstrong, who poses a unique receiving threat as well. And of course, Wimbush can burn any defense on the ground when he needs to.
Still, despite the all of this hope amidst Williams’ potential absence, Michigan’s defense is stellar. The Wolverines’ defensive coordinator Don Brown is known for his aggressive defensive schemes and a menacing front line. Plus, junior linebacker Khaleke Hudson is a huge threat coming off a season in which he topped Jabrill Peppers’ 2016 Heisman-level play. It’ll be tough for the Irish to trump such a solid defense amidst the uncertainty of new rushers.
Irish Offensive Coaching
In his first year as offensive coordinator, Chip Long elevated the Irish offense on a number of levels. Under Long, the Irish offense rose to fifth in overall rushing in the S&P+ and the unit’s overall tempo improved considerably. The offense still struggled however — largely on the passing front — a problem which probably places more blame on Wimbush than Long, but a problem nonetheless. Nevertheless, Long managing to improve the offense to such a degree is a significantly good sign, and with a year under his belt at the helm, there’s no reason why 2018 shouldn’t prove even better, especially if Wimbush stays comfortable in the pocket.
Long finds himself up against a very stellar defense in the Wolverines, led by a well respected defensive coordinator in Don Brown. Brown and Long are both excellent coordinators, and they’re both relatively new. It’ll be interesting to see what each staff comes up with in what is sure to be a tough battle.
Irish Special Teams
The Irish special teams unit has a lot of room for improvement. Although senior Justin Yoon improved his place kicking significantly last season, the Irish performed quite poorly across most special teams metrics last season. Finishing the season 117th in kickoff success rate, the Irish still have a lot of vulnerabilities that a good opposing unit could exploit.
Michigan’s principal kick returner is back in Donovan Peoples-Jones, and while he returned a punt for a touchdown against Air Force, the Wolverines managed meager 85th and 109th rankings on yardage return for punts and kickoffs, respectfully.
Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson will enter his first start at Michigan with undeniable talent but also a host of question marks. In his first start, on the road, under the bright lights of Notre Dame stadium in the biggest game of the week, how will he handle the pressure? How much will Michigan elect to open up the playbook? Patterson is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback who has the potential to hurt the Irish in multiple ways, but his inexperience at Michigan may hamper his effectiveness Saturday night.
Michigan’s receiving corps also maintain some question marks, especially after the Wolverines announced Sunday that projected starting wide receiver Tarik Black will miss significant time after sustaining a broken foot. While Patterson will still have talented options to throw to in sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones and senior Grant Perry, the Wolverine’s passing game will not be at full strength against the Irish.
Notre Dame’s defensive backfield has improved in talent and depth this season, especially with the additions of junior safety Alohi Gilman and freshman cornerback Houston Griffith. If an improving defensive line can consistently get after Patterson for four quarters, the Irish secondary should fare well.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Senior Karan Higdon and junior Chris Evans both return at running back for the Wolverines. The two backs have combined for 27 touchdowns and 2,718 yards in the last two years, averaging a combined 5.9 yards per carry. Michigan’s core of running backs is actually more promising than last year’s. That being said, the Wolverines lose their four star tackle Mason Cole, as he was selected 97th overall in the 2018 NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals. Plus, all signs indicate that the Wolverines will be relying on Shea Patterson’s impressive passing abilities to attack the Irish defense, and it is surely reasonable to expect a few glitches in the ground game with a new quarterback and an unclear situation at offensive coordinator.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Wolverines Offensive Coaching
Jim Harbaugh has yet to officially name an offensive coordinator, and by the looks of things, it is unlikely he will name one at all. Harbaugh has spoken about collaboration between himself, offensive line coach Ed Warinner, passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton, and new wide receivers coach Jim McElwain — former Alabama offensive coordinator and Florida head coach — in calling plays. It seems like an odd idea, but who knows what Harbaugh is actually thinking. It’s certainly a strong slate of individual offensive coaches, including Harbaugh himself, but it’s hard to imagine how the absence of a single offensive coordinator would be a positive when up against a stingy Notre Dame defense.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Wolverines Special Teams
The Wolverines’ primary place kicker, senior Quinn Nordin, is powerful, but he’s also unpredictable, missing 3 PATs last season and particularly struggling as the season progressed. On kickoffs, however, Michigan topped the country with only allowing 15 yards per return. Punter Brad Robbins does his job well, averaging over 40 yards per kick.
In the return game, the Irish weren’t a factor last year, instead sticking with the safe hands of senior Chris Finke on punts and electing to utilize C.J. Sanders primarily on kickoffs, which came back to bite Brian Kelly in Stanford.