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Notre Dame vs. Michigan: Keys to an Irish Win

By · September 10th, 2009 · 0 Comments
Notre Dame vs. Michigan: Keys to an Irish Win

Notre Dame travels to Ann Arbor Saturday to face what appears to be a rejuvenated Michigan team under second year head coach Rich Rodriguez. Both teams easily dispatched their first opponents as the Irish scored a dominant win against Nevada and the Wolverines routed Western Michigan.

But convincing opening week wins are largely overshadowed by disappointing 2008 campaigns that leave both teams with much to prove. In other words, solid performances against inferior opponents like Nevada and Western Michigan mean little and the outcome Saturday could very well be decided by which squad plays with more toughness and emotion.

Michigan Version 2008

Michigan went 3-9 against the third most difficult AV Ranking strength of schedule last year, struggling to control the ball (over 4:30 time of possession deficit) and win the turnover battle (-10 turnover ratio, 108th regular season ranking).

The Wolverines return 10 starters on offense and five on the defensive side of the ball. This offensive continuity bodes well for Rodriguez as last year’s unit was woeful. Michigan’s defense was a mixed bag of good and bad but likely would have been much better had the offense been able to stay on the field and control the ball.

Both sides of the ball feature speed and athleticism.


Rather uncharacteristic of a Rodriguez-led offense, Michigan struggled last season as the spread attack produced only 20.2 points (98) and 290.8 yards per game (109). Perhaps not by design, the Wolverines featured a balanced attack that averaged 147.6 rushing yards per game (59) and 143.2 yards through the air (108).

Michigan’s quarterbacks completed less than 49 percent of their passes (113), threw 12 interceptions (71) to only 11 touchdowns (95), and averaged only 5.1 yards per attempt (115). The ground game accounted for 17 touchdowns (72) and averaged a measly 3.9 yards per attempt (72) to go along with 38 fumbles, 18 of which were lost.

But it is really the inefficiency of the offense that stands out. The Wolverines converted a paltry 27 percent of third down attempts (118) and scored on 77 percent of red zone tries (81), only 60 percent of which resulted in touchdowns (58).

Stiff defensive competition wasn’t to blame for these poor numbers as the Michigan offense had the 112th offensive TPR ranking (for reference the TPR is described here and here).


Michigan surrendered 28.9 points (80) and 366.9 yards (68) per game in 2008. Opponents completed almost 58 percent of their passes (56) for 230 yards (87) at a rate of 7.4 yards per attempt (88). Furthermore, the defense recorded only nine interceptions (92) and allowed 19 touchdowns through the air (79).

The run defense, however, was fairly solid. Opponents ran for just under 137 yards per game (48) at a very respectable 3.6 yards per attempt (29). About the only subpar aspect of the rushing defense was allowing 21 rushing touchdowns (86).

The defensive efficiency was a hit or miss. Opposing offenses converted 38.8 percent of third downs (61) and scored points on 80 percent of red zone tries (46) with 60 percent resulting in touchdowns (62).

Michigan Version 2009, Limited Edition

Last week’s offensive production against Western Michigan was markedly different.

The offense showed discernible improvement en route to scoring 31 points via 242 rushing yards (4.8 yards per attempt) and 197 yards passing  (53.6 completion percentage, 7 yards per attempt). Ball control was particularly impressive as the Wolverines held the ball for almost 10 minutes more than Western Michigan. Still a bit inefficient, the offense converted only 38 percent of third downs and scored on only one of three red zone tries.

Additionally, the defense continued to be stout against the run, allowing only 38 rushing yards at 1.6 yards per attempt. Michigan’s secondary, however, looked a bit vulnerable as they allowed 263 yards passing (6.7 yards per attempt) on 23 of 39 passing (59 completion percentage). The defense was also stingy on third down (36 percent efficiency) and in the red zone (zero scores on two appearances).

Obviously this is based on limited data against a weak opponent, but Rodriguez’s teams have a history of strong improvement in year two of his tenure so it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

So which Michigan team will take the field Saturday and what are the keys to an Irish victory?


  1. Be physical up front. Against a Nevada rushing defense that was tough in 2008 and returned eight starters the Irish showed improved run blocking. Michigan will be a stiffer challenge as the front seven are the strength of the defense. Brandon Graham, Mike Martin, Renaldo Sagesse and Ryan Van Bergen comprise an athletic and physical front four. The Irish offense must control the line of scrimmage and keep the defense honest with an efficient running attack to prevent defensive coordinator Greg Robinson from dropping seven and eight into coverage and dialing up blitzes on obvious passing downs. Moreover, it is critical that head coach Charlie Weis and the Notre Dame offense maintain the personnel flexibility they enjoyed against Nevada. The Irish cannot afford to telegraph the pass by spreading the field against a fast and athletic Robinson-coached defense.
  2. It’s a game of minimization. Against Nevada Notre Dame had very few negative plays, only three penalties and no turnovers. In a hostile environment like the Big House, error-free football becomes even more crucial. The Irish need to sustain drives and control the clock to keep a porous run defense fresh and off the field.
  3. Take selective advantage of the mismatch. Michigan’s secondary is athletic but measures just 6-0, 5-9, 5-11, and 6-0. Michael Floyd, Duval Kamara, Kyle Rudolph, Mike Ragone and Robby Parris are 6-3, 6-5, 6-6, 6-5, and 6-3 respectively. While the Wolverines may have an advantage in speed, the Irish receivers are more physically imposing and should generate good matchups in the red zone and down the field. Weis is a masterful play-caller, and must weigh the risk/reward to judiciously choose when to take advantage of these mismatches down the field. Getting behind the chains against an athletic defense tilts the advantage to that side of the ball.


  1. Open the tackle-box. Crisp tackling was absent from last week’s contest but becomes critical this Saturday. Rodriguez’s spread offense is predicated on even numbers in the box and getting the ball to players in space. Coupled with good team speed, this makes tackling difficult and puts pressure on the Irish defense. Notre Dame must play with discipline and tackle with good fundamentals to be successful.
  2. Sell out on first down. The gameplan must force freshman quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson to win the game throwing the ball. Rodriguez has a long resume of effective rushing teams so Notre Dame must win first down to force obvious passing situations for the inexperienced Wolverine quarterbacks.
  3. Contain the scramble. Both quarterbacks are mobile and athletic. Both are inexperienced freshmen. Both will likely choose to tuck and run rather than patiently read through progressions against a fierce pass rush. But both can extend drives with their feet. It is critical that the Irish defense contain the edge and prevent first down scrambles up the middle. This means sticking to gap football—both on run and pass blitzes—to prevent missed assignments and open running lanes.


For the second straight week the gameplan is relatively simple.

On offense the Irish must control the line of scrimmage, maintain balance, and minimize mistakes. This will allow quarterback Jimmy Clausen and company to sustain drives and control the clock. Becoming predictable in the passing game will likely be unforgiving against a strong Wolverine front seven.

On defense the name of the game is third down. As the game against Nevada proved, the Irish are built for success on third down with co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s pressure scheme, a talented and deep secondary, and an athletic front seven. Throw two inexperienced freshman quarterbacks in the mix and linebacker Brian Smith and company should be drooling.

But this is Michigan-Notre Dame. Stats, scheme and execution typically don’t determine the winner. Grit, attitude and desire will win the day.



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