With the Irish sojourning to Ann Arbor, there will be several components to consider when discussing the best route for Notre Dame to ruin Michigan’s inaugural night game.
Before even going into the four prime points, let’s get one item into the clear. If Notre Dame plays undisciplined offensive football again, it’s going to be very difficult to win. With that said, a few ingredients to help the Irish stifle Michigan, starting with two defensive keys.
Limit Denard: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will likely gain a good amount of yardage, but how many carries Robinson needs to gain those yards will be most important. If Robinson eclipses 100 rushing yards during his first 10 to 12 carries, Notre Dame will be in big trouble. Notre Dame must keep Robinson shy of 100 rushing yards until at least his carries reach 17 or 18. More hits, more pounding, over and over and over. Every time he receives a hit from any one of Notre Dame’s 300-pound defensive linemen – Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore or Louis Nix – he will be more likely to off target as a passer, i.e. more of a propensity for interceptions as the game moves forward.
Further, Notre Dame needs to mitigate Robinson’s per carry average during first down runs. If Michigan gets “behind the sticks” as they say in the coaching fraternity, and it’s consistently second down and long for Michigan, Notre Dame will force Michigan into either throwing the football more than it desires, or at least making Robinson take more of a pounding when he scrambles after dropping back to pass or executing a designed running play.
Containment: It may not be the most exciting brand of defense, but playing gap responsibility and making Robinson use his arm to beat the Irish while his running backs continually earn mediocre gains will be vital for the Irish defense. With that comes very little blitzing and more bend but don’t break than Irish fans will probably desire to watch, but Michigan’s offense is extremely unique, as are its personnel’s speed.
While Robinson will be Michigan’s fastest offensive player, Michael Shaw can change a game with his foot speed as well. Realistically, Notre Dame needs to hold the combination of Michigan’s running backs and Robinson to less than three carries of 20 yards or more. If Notre Dame somehow holds Michigan to zero carries of 20 yards or more, the Irish vastly improve their chances of defeating the Wolverines.
To help Notre Dame mitigate big rushing plays, two specific points to consider. Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt will probably be susceptible to losing containment when Michigan utilizes option-based plays like the read option or faking a handoff and Robinson keeping the football. Therefore, less substituting for Notre Dame’s starting defensive ends should be expected during first and second downs. Second, by regularly placing Michigan in long yardage situations Notre Dame will able to place more of its pass rushers in the game. Look for third down passing situations to be plays where Lynch and Tuitt make impacts. No question they can rush the passer. Those will also be plays where Robinson will be more likely to throw the football up for grabs while he’s under duress.
By completing these two tasks, Notre Dame places itself in a positive scenario. Notre Dame simply needs to keep Robinson in front of them and makes him maneuver the Wolverines 70 to 80 yards by using 10-plus play drives, the odds of penalties and mental miscues causing Michigan to punt or kick a field goal will increase with each additional play during a given drive. It may not be the most exciting brand of defense, but playing gap responsibility and making Robinson use his arm to beat the Irish while his running backs continually earn mediocre gains will be vital for the Irish.
Punting will Benefit Notre Dame: Turning to the Irish offense, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly will inevitably be placed in several possible “Go for it!” situations during fourth downs. Resist the urge, especially before being in Michigan territory, will most likely be the best decision for coach Kelly. Notre Dame possesses far more defensive talent than Michigan. As long as Michigan continually begins its drives inside of its own territory, Notre Dame will be in good shape to win the game. Notre Dame can hold Michigan to twenty points or fewer with good game management, but coach Kelly long ago proved to be ultra-aggressive with his fourth down play calling. He needs to move away from that trend against Michigan due to their explosive offense.
To clarify, fourth down and five from midfield, punt. Fourth down and three from the Notre Dame’s own 45, punt the football. It might be boring, but effectiveness will be the more important factor. Fourth down and one scenarios are more of a flow of the game situation. Those situations will undoubtedly be evaluated differently, and a case-by-case basis.
Fewer Risky Throws Lead to Sustained Drives: Finally, evaluating the options for deep passes and passes into coverage will be critical for Tommy Rees. The over Notre Dame psyche does not need another offensive debacle. Hit the check downs, quick hitches, and quick slants and gash Michigan’s sub-par secondary. Against Western Michigan the Wolverines safeties were still playing six, seven, and eight yards off the ball while matched up against slot wide receivers during third down and short scenarios. Notre Dame must be patient, but it can score over thirty points by being smart during plays like that. Like Kelly, Rees will need to resist the urge to be aggressive from time to time.
By being patient, Rees will also allow running back Cierre Wood more of an opportunity to pop a big run himself. He’s an explosive player going up against a defense known for allowing big plays. Wood needs 18-20 touches against the Wolverines.
Overall, there’s truly no reason for Notre Dame to not win this game. Notre Dame holds more talent, and its best player, Michael Floyd, will be matched up with Michigan’s biggest weakness, its secondary. Look for Floyd to be the deciding factor for why the Irish spoil Michigan’s first night game.
Notre Dame 31 Michigan 20