Notre Dame blockaded Michigan State’s vaunted rushing attack this past Saturday night en route to an impressive victory. Now, will the Irish defense finally be able to corral Michigan’s breakaway threat at quarterback?
To begin, considering the following statistics as evidence that Notre Dame’s defense deserves kudos:
The Spartans managed just fifty yards rushing from twenty-five carries (2.0 yards per carry); Michigan State converted just five of seventeen third downs; Michigan State signal caller Andrew Maxwell averaged a mere 4.16 yards per passing attempt (ideally a target number would be 8.0 or more yards per attempt); Michigan State never took a snap inside Notre Dame’s twenty yard line; finally, Notre Dame held soon to be NFL running back Le’veon Bell to seventy-seven yards from nineteen carries (4.1 per carry). With those facts under consideration, it’s time to get down to the next task at hand.
With Notre Dame’s dominance of the Spartans, my confidence that Notre Dame’s defense will play well against Michigan increased. There’s much to consider, however, when assessing Notre Dame’s defense while facing a dynamic quarterback.
Michigan’s Offensive Line
Will Notre Dame finally derail Denard Robinson from a miracle comeback? Will the Irish defense be able to curtail his penchant for the miraculous play? To answer those questions, evaluating Michigan’s offensive line performance to date should be a prime factor.
Michigan’s running game did not show the propensity to allow its tailbacks room to run versus Alabama, it’s only true test thus far this season. I assume that Fitz Toussaint will struggle to find running lanes based on how Notre Dame contained Michigan State’s rushing attack. That means that Michigan’s primary offensive talent, no. 16, will once again be the main ball carrier versus the Irish. Michigan's front will need to be ready versus Notre Dame's front seven.
Notre Dame’s defensive front seven should not yet be confused with Alabama’s defensive front seven depth, but the style of play and talent level of the Irish starters do prove to be quite similar. Alabama’s front four rotates many talented players with sophomore Xzavier Dickson (‘Bama’s version of the CAT linebacker) and 320-pound nose guard Jesse Williams providing many big plays. Those two players appear to be eerily similar to how Notre Dame’s Prince Shembo and Louis Nix wreaked havoc versus the Spartans. Look for Nix, in particular, to cause Michigan problems. He's too big and strong for Michigan's interior offensive line. There's a reason I make such a prediction for Nix. He's receiving quite a bit of help, much like Williams received help from his teammates.
Alabama’s plethora of talented defensive ends help push the pocket and get to the quarterback. No question that Stephon Tuitt, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Sheldon Day rush the passer well, and while not quite as deep a defensive line as Alabama, is an impressive trio of defensive ends. In fact, Tuitt would probably be Alabama’s most talented down lineman, as he’s proved to be one of college football’s most dominant defenders so far this season. If Michigan double teams Nix, what about Tuitt? What about Lewis-Moore? Sheldon Day one-on-one in a pass rush situation? Advantage Day. Advantage Notre Dame.
So, will Michigan’s offensive line hold up versus Notre Dame’s front four? I say no. Michigan’s offensive line is not as talented or physical as Notre Dame’s front four (Shembo and Ishaq Williams being essentially splitting the position that’s the fourth defensive linemen by manning the CAT position). I foresee Michigan needing trick plays and Denard's feet to do their bidding (more on that in a moment). Notre Dame’s linebackers will be the beneficiaries of the defensive line’s presence and performance. They’ll clean up because Michigan’s offensive line will not be able to block Notre Dame’s front one-on-one. Overall, that’s why I believe Robinson will be forced into many second down and third down and long situations. What does that mean? Long yardage situations for Michigan. The Wolverines best option will be for Robinson to keep plays alive, and to be able to throw the football down the field.
Michigan’s Passing Game Versus The Irish Pass Rush And Coverage
When sitting in the pocket and reading a defense, Robinson did not yet prove he’s an accurate or dependable passer. Regardless, Irish defenders will need to be prepared every play because of what else Robinson might do. Notre Dame will need to mitigate broken plays where Robinson either runs or throws for big yardage after appearing to be surrounded by Irish defenders. Once he escapes the pocket, he’s deadly. To combat Robinson’s incredible escape artist skills, the Irish pass rushers must bring their A-Game.
Notre Dame’s pass rush improved dramatically since last season, and even improved as this season progressed. Notre Dame’s pass rush finished plays by getting to Maxwell four times. Not only did the Irish sack Maxwell four times, the Irish defenders harassed Maxwell time and time again. Part of the reason the pressure worked comes from how well the linebackers performed in coverage.
We all know about no. 5 doing his thing in coverage. He’s special. The bigger news comes from the much improved pass coverage from Dan Fox and Danny Spond that helped to greatly diminish Michigan State’s underneath passing game. The play where Fox knocked away a pass during a crossing pattern was an NFL-level play. Spond defended the flat pretty well for a guy that played his first game of the year. If Notre Dame takes away some of Robinson’s check downs or at least tackle pass catchers immediately, Michigan will probably struggle to consistently move the football. With the underneath coverage appearing strong, do not forget that the deep ball killed Notre Dame last year.
The secondary, while inexperienced, did well versus Michigan State. I did not expect Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell to develop as quickly as they did. Navy showed some serious concerns for the cornerbacks. Perhaps the more conventional offenses of Purdue and Michigan State allowed Notre Dame’s young cornerbacks more of a comfort zone. They will face a big challenge this week. Oh yes, Michigan’s receivers continue to improve. With Michigan’s wide receiver core being a combination of a few experienced players and the emergence of freshman Devin Funchess and junior converted quarterback turned wide receiver Devin Gardner, it’s hard to project exactly which Michigan wide receiver will challenge Notre Dame’s secondary. Or is it? Michigan’s coaching staff must know by now that the running game will be at best mediocre against Notre Dame. That’s why the deep ball will be an important factor, and the two aforementioned Wolverines will likely be the intended targets. Michigan needs the big play, and Funchess and Gardner provide size and speed on the perimeter. Double moves, a flea-flicker, fade patterns, deep posts, and any other form of a deep pass that Michigan could gain big yardage will be used versus Notre Dame. Look for Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to mix up the coverage in an attempt to protect his inexperienced secondary and also bait 'Shoelace' into interceptions. The biggest concern, however, comes from defending Robinson when he tucks the football and runs.
Denard After The Play Breaks Down
Just because Robinson drops back to pass does not mean he will throw the football. He’s adept at making plays after the rush comes oh-so-close to sacking him. Then, poof! He’s gone down the sideline! Notre Dame will be better equipped to stop Robinson this year because of its size, speed, and depth. The X-Factor comes from Notre Dame’s best defender.
Manti Te’o versus Le’veon Bell turned out to be a decisive win for the Flyin’ Hawaiian. Now onto the matchup for Te’o versus a speedster instead of a bruiser. My gut tells me that Te’o will be spying on Robinson quite often. That will lead to some great moments for fans. Two truly superior athletes matching wits and athleticism, over and over. Te’o will be aided by the talented and experienced defensive line and linebackers that surround him. Thus, Robinson’s running lanes will not be large nor will they be open for long. Prediction: there will be at least one epic collision where Te’o says aloha to Mr. Robinson with no kindness intended. Still, Robinson will be hard to contain during each play.
I do not, and Notre Dame fans should not, expect Te’o to just pummel Robinson play after play. He’s an incredible athlete that’s sure to make at least a few plays with his feet. Containing him and not allowing the big running play should be the goal. Five yard run, fine. Fifty yard scramble, unacceptable. I do expect the Notre Dame defense to blitz more frequently versus Michigan, much like Michigan State did versus Michigan last season, and to some degree how Alabama did this year. Remember that for obvious passing downs. It could be Zeke Motta, or it could be Te’o, or it could be Fox. Notre Dame will bring pressure. The same could be said for when Notre Dame feels Michigan will run Denard during designed quarterback running plays.
Running Plays For Denard
This area comes down to who wants it more, physically and mentally. Notre Dame and Michigan know each other well. The formations combined with down and distance will provide clues to when Robinson will take a snap and run. Will Michigan’s offensive line man-up and do the job versus Notre Dame’s humungous front? Probably not, or at least not consistently. Denard is still Denard. Wrap up, do not go for the kill shot and miss. Wrap up, wait for the calvary, and finish taking Denard to the Notre Dame Stadium turf. Sounds good, but Notre Dame failed to do this the past two seasons.
Notre Dame’s ability to stay balanced versus various formations and pre-snap motion will be paramount. The Wolverines will certainly attempt to out-flank the Irish which allows Denard to break the first level of the defense. From there we all know what he can do. He’s also going to run option at least a handful of times during the game. That means assignment football, which every defender hates, whether he admits it or not. The read option might even be Michigan’s first play from scrimmage to test Notre Dame’s defensive integrity. Do the Irish stay gap-sound? Will the Irish over pursue?
Notre Dame’s ability to stay sound will greatly impact the game. If each Notre Dame defender stays focused on his assignment, the Irish should be fine. Notre Dame simply must play inspired football while not going over the top with emotion. Keep an eye on this area. If the Irish start over pursuing, Denard will start scoring.
It's time. Notre Dame is better. More depth. More athleticism. More speed. Notre Dame will also score more points.
Notre Dame 27 Michigan 13