ND/Michigan Preview

Before I start on this preview, I wouldn’t feel right completing this blog entry today without at least giving a short bit of space to the victims and heroes of 9/11. It is hard to believe that the Towers fell eight years ago. Every time this date rolls around, my memory jogs back like it was yesterday — I indeed will never forget.

Now I go from somber remembrance, to insulting Michigan and previewing the game…what a switch to say the least.

I often get asked by friends not associated with ND which rival is the biggest. The answer is always USC — if we can take them down, it can redeem even the worst season; however, despite my hatred for SC, there is still a slight amount of respect for what they can do on the field. There is a level of respect between the two to a point and both teams realize the historical impact of the game.

Michigan, however, gains nothing but intense hatred from me. There is a good reason I own only a single shirt that has the colors of Maize and Blue — with the words Muck Fichigan proudly displayed on the front. There is a reason losing to them infuriates me more than a loss to USC. I can’t stand Michigan — period. The Blue-Gray Sky probably has the best run down of why:

Interestingly enough, despite the proximity — Ann Arbor is just a scant 175 miles from South Bend — Notre Dame and Michigan aren’t really the dominant rivals in each other’s worldview. Notre Dame has its traditional, and longer-running rivalry with Southern Cal, and Michigan’s stalking horse has always been Ohio State. That’s not to say ND-Michigan is taken any more lightly by its fans; on the contrary, the emotions run just as high. But the matchup is special: I would say that Michigan and Notre Dame are less rivals and more Enemies. Bitter, bitter enemies.

A quick look at the history books reminds us why the Skunkbears have a wing unto themselves in our Hall of Shame. Shortly after the halcyon days of 1887, when players shared the game in a collegial competition, you tried to kill us. Once Notre Dame beat Fielding Yost’s “point-a-minute” champions (after 8 consecutive losses to the Wolverines), Yost took the fledgling Irish program off Michigan’s schedule. The humiliation ran deep; as if simply dropping the Irish wasn’t enough, Yost fought tooth and nail to keep the burgeoning ND program out of the powerful Western Conference, worried that the upstart immigrant school would damage the reputation of what is now the Big Ten. Yost blackballed us, and encouraged others to do the same; for 34 years, his cowardice was enshrined in UM’s schedule for all to see. Like a deranged, Munchausen-by-proxy mother (look it up), you tried to smother us in the crib when our program was in its infancy. Fear of Notre Dame was a powerful talisman, institutionalized by Yost, and the cowardice and consternation towards Notre Dame oozes out of Ann Arbor even to this day.

Yost was but the first in a litany of men of low character to hold the reins at UM. Fritz Crisler’s “bias” (ahem) toward ND is well-known, and, like his predecessor, again dropped the Irish from his schedule for thirty years after a loss. Bo Schembechler sat idly by, for years, as three different Irish coaches won National Championships, while he was busy losing Rose Bowls; Bo was driven crazy with the notion that ND might enter the Big 10 and end his biannual trips to Pasadena. Gary Moeller was frustrated that he couldn’t pick Notre Dame up, drink it, and then drive into a ditch. These also-rans were over-shadowed by true coaching legends just down the road from them: legends like Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, and Holtz, who racked up championship upon championship as Ann Arbor stewed.

In the end, perhaps we do owe the Skunkbears a few more tokens of thanks. If Yost hadn’t taken his ball and gone home, perhaps we would now be in the Big Ten, and our idea of football excellence would entail two or three losses per year and a trip to the Rose Bowl twice a decade. But instead, you blackballed us, and tried to choke us out of existence. You should have finished the job. We survived, and because too many teams were under Michigan’s villainous spell in the Midwest, we were forced to look elsewhere to find quality opponents. And we did. We scheduled and played the nationwide champions of the day: Army, Southern Cal, Georgia Tech, Stanford, and many others. We criss-crossed the country, we were Rockne’s Ramblers, taking on all comers, what tho’ the odds. In doing so, we won national acclaim, respect, and the hearts of countless Americans. It was Michigan’s attempt to stamp out a budding rival that created the nation’s most popular and successful football program, the University of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish.

This is why we don’t approach the Michigan game with the same tradition-laden respect, the pomp and circumstance, or the “contest of equals” honor reserved for the Southern Cal game. Rather, like Inigo Montoya closing in on the six-fingered man, we come with a singular focus. We are Notre Dame Football. You tried to kill us. Prepare to die.

And it isn’t like that line of thought has died either. Michigan and most of its fans seem to have this idea that ND needs Michigan more than Michigan needs us (neither school “needs” either). They wonder why we play them season after season, and try to make loads of excuses for how they should “better” their schedule by playing someone else. It even got to the point were a Michigan fan, at the ND/USC game — in full Michigan gear no less (I have NO idea why), said the following in an argument to a ND fan when academics and a woeful graduation rate of the Michigan football team was brought up (especially amongst African-Americans, it hasn’t gotten much better either): “I have no idea what you are talking about. Michigan is by far a tougher institution to get into than Notre Dame.”

Nope, I was not drunk and I didn’t mishear it. It was actually the one time that I agreed with a USC fan as he popped off immediately afterward that the Michigan fan had clearly lost his mind. Now I know Michigan is far from an academic slouch for the normal student, but to say being admitted to ND is easier just blows my mind (and that of a USC fan too).

The point is, finding respect around Ann Arbor or Michigan fans for ND is like finding a needle in a haystack. Irish fans have traveled to the Big House to be greeted with such original taunts as “F*#k the Irish”, “Shove those Lucky Charms up your ass”, and “Rudy sucks” (the last of which I responded to a Michigan fan “That’s the point you idiot” and got the most priceless look on his face in response). I also can’t fail to mention having friends being bombarded with empty beer bottles while tailgating peacefully in Ann Arbor as well.

Classy folk, lemme tell ya — there is a good reason I sing a ever so slightly edited version of “Hail to the Victors” whenever I hear their fight song played.

So why bring this all up in a preview for tomorrow’s game? Because if you don’t think both teams bring said chip on their collective shoulders, you are missing a major aspect of this game. The very nature of the hatred between the two teams has led to some rather unpredictable outcomes. Despite a woeful season in 2004, the Irish, fueled by a 38-0 loss to Michigan in 2003, upset the Skunkbears in South Bend. Likewise, in 2006, Michigan put to rest any talks of a national title by coming into South Bend and beating the crap out of the heavily favored Irish.

You never know what will happen in this game, and that is the most important thing that should come out of any preview of this early-season grudge match.

However, it seems Michigan is rather confident that their beating of Western Michigan has them well prepared for the Irish:

So Warren’s day was… interesting. Argh Michael Floyd?

Short of being totally awesome in all ways I thought Warren’s day was as encouraging as it could be given the three penalties and a couple plays that came at his expense. His game looked like that montage in a superhero movie where the hero performs a slapstick routine of smashing cars, punching through walls, and burning innocent pedestrians to death before he gets a handle on his newfound powers. Warren was hyper-aggressive in his first game free from bone chip soup in his ankle; the results were mixed-to-encouraging.

Plays marked “Warren” above:

  • Busts up long route with bump; has better position than the receiver.
  • Good position on a third and four slant that was fired too high and hard.
  • Thumps ball loose on a hitch. (Or, at least, helps a receiver who was already dropping the ball finish dropping the ball.)
  • Leaves two hitches open on Michigan’s soft pre-half drive.
  • Immediate tackle on hitch.
  • Running a guy’s route for him and going to be in position to intercept when receiver trips him (not in a penalty sort of way).
  • Running almost inside a guy’s jersey and gets called for interference, which I think is a crappy call.
  • Gets deserved PI on a slant he was too aggressive on.

So… yeah, Warren had a couple incidents where Michigan gave up yards but the bulk of his day was running Juan Nunez’s routes for him. Sometimes this got flagged and once he got tripped. But I’ll take that sort of aggressive clamp-down coverage any day when the opponent is Michael Floyd. If Warren ends up a yard in front of Floyd the three to thirty times Notre Dame attempts to hit him deep, Michigan’s going to be in good shape.

What happens when Notre Dame goes to three-wide?

Nothing. Michigan spent the entire day its base set and has no corner depth. They do have guys on the edge who can cover Robby “That’s Racist” Parris or whoever; it’s not like Notre Dame’s backup WRs are speed demons.

What does it mean for Notre Dame?

I’ve sort of gone from thinking this is a bad matchup for Michigan to thinking it’s an okay one or even good. Stick Warren on Floyd and Cissoko on Tate, give them deep halves help, spare the blitzing and let Michigan’s diverse and sundry rushers attack the Notre Dame defensive line… I can see this working out. The prospect of a max-protect bomb still worries given what happened against Western, but if Warren’s as ready to live up to the five-star hype—and he looked far more likely to in the Western game than any other to date—and Michigan can get away with shifting the coverage over to Tate and pulling up a safety into a robber zone to bracket Rudolph, I like Michigan’s chances to hold Notre Dame into that 20-24 point range where victory seems a strong possibility. Notre Dame’s run game has always been a finesse sort of thing heavy on screens and draws, which plays into the hypothetical strengths of Michigan’s slimfast defense

I watched the Nevada game and a lot of ND’s first half production was based on exploiting Nevada’s “explosive pass rushers” at defensive end, which rushers also happened to be completely irresponsible. Graham isn’t likely to be as exploitable, but Roh or Herron might be. I’d line up Graham on the strongside, which might induce ND to have Rudolph stay in to block, as they’re going to double him lots anyway.

The key will be the safeties. Woolfolk is going to have to think deep first and not get caught flat-footed like he did on the Western touchdown; if Michigan loses to Notre Dame because of ND’s ground game, well… that will be a surprise.

(Note: Bold emphasis is not mine, it is that of the original author)

I post that little breakdown because I find it rather humorous that Michigan staying in a base set will be sufficient to cover our passing attack, no less by saying that a young corner should be able to shutdown Floyd based on his Western Michigan performance (which, honestly didn’t seem that great from the breakdown). It isn’t like Floyd proved he could preform against pretty much every secondary he faced last year, nope, not at all. Also humorous is that the author here is so confident in Warren’s play that he can easily see Warren taking Floyd on by himself, a safety being used to cover Rudolph, slide double coverage to Tate, and still stay in the base formation and have a LB cover Karma/Parris.

I sure hope Rich Rod believes this as well because I can’t for the life of me see that working at all. Even if Michigan must stay in their base defense, Michigan will be dependent on strong safety play to contain the Irish passing attack. Tate burned their secondary last year on a couple different occasions and Floyd, is…well just Floyd and is in some other world right now.

I also have issue with the view of the running game. While we do employ draws and screens, I saw a lot more of a straight up running attack against Nevada and I can’t see why we’d abandon that against Michigan. While I agree that ND won’t be able to beat Michigan on the run alone, I don’t think it should be as easily shaken off as in years past. I will say though that I do fear the Michigan front seven much more than Nevada, so the running game will indeed have to step up, especially considering Hughes is now taking over for an injured Aldridge and playing FB for the first time in his career.

Enough about the offensive side of the Irish, what about the defense?

First off, we are facing a similar style of offense as we did against Nevada, and this time with much more speed. Rich Rod’s teams have a habit of clicking in his second season, and it looks like that may indeed be happening again. Simply put, this isn’t the pistol offense we saw last week nor is it the spread option we saw last year.

If there was one weakness in the Irish defense last week, it was on the ground. While there weren’t any huge plays given up by the Irish, I do have some concern of what Michigan will be able to do with an offense that I believe has more speed than Nevada overall. Blitzes are going to have to hit home hard and quick or said blitzers may soon see the back of a Michigan jersey going the other way.

The Irish need a big road win, something that really hasn’t happened since the Irish last won in the Big House in 2005. This game will set the pace for the season, and the Irish simply cannot afford to lose this game as I think the deflation could end up being catastrophic for the season. The Irish still need to pay the Skunkbears back for the trashing they got in the Big House in 2007 — the win in 2008 was nice, but let’s be honest, Michigan handed the Irish that game on a silver platter. This is a game where the Irish need to make a statement.

In the end, I think Michigan’s weak secondary will eventually be their undoing. The seemingly improved ND O-Line should be able to hold off the initial pass rush, and I think Jimmy finally has the presence of mind to find the hot route on any blitzes Michigan may through at him. While Michigan will score against the Irish defense, I just can’t see it being enough. While the Skunkbears’ offense might be improved, it is still a young offense that has not yet faced a good defense, and make no doubt, ND proved their defense does indeed have something these season after blanking Nevada.

Final Prediction: ND 28 – Michigan 20

Go Irish! Beat Michigan!