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Notre Dame vs. Michigan: Keys to an Irish Win

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Notre Dame vs. Michigan: Keys to an Irish Win

Notre Dame faces long-time rival Michigan Saturday, the second of three consecutive Big Ten opponents. Even as the game looms, last year’s frustrating loss is still fresh in the mind of many Irish fans.

Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez enters his third year at the helm having presided over arguably the worst stretch of Wolverine football in the program’s illustrious history. Rodriguez is 8-16 (0.333) over the past two seasons—the 16 losses the most in any two-year span for Michigan. The Wolverines started last year strong with four consecutive victories, but faltered down the stretch, losing seven of their last eight by an average margin of 13.1 points. If the poor on-field performance wasn’t enough, off-the-field issues and the departure from several longstanding traditions haven’t won over many fans. In all likelihood, Rodriguez is staring at now or never.

And there are few excuses left. Rodriguez recruited the majority of the players on the current Wolverine roster, has dramatically upgraded the team speed, and has the majority of last year’s starters back. In many ways this season sets up as the most favorable since he arrived in Ann Arbor, but the success of the team will likely depend on defensive improvement and how the players rally around their head coach.

Michigan, Version 2009 and Beyond

Rodriguez has largely attempted to follow his blueprint from West Virginia. Michigan operates out of a run-first spread offense while the defense employs the 3-3-5. The former takes advantage of the aforementioned team speed while the latter is a somewhat puzzling choice given the number of conventional, physical rushing offenses in the Big Ten. The results have been mixed, and 2009 was no exception.

Last year Michigan failed to protect the ball (ranked 102nd in turnovers lost) or generate turnovers (108th in turnovers gained), posting a 115th ranking in turnover margin. The Wolverines also struggled controlling the game with under 27 minutes of possession per outing (116). In contrast, Michigan did play with discipline, averaging 4.8 penalties (10) and only 43.1 penalty yards per game (16).

Offense

Rodriguez calls the plays and serves as the de facto offensive coordinator for the Wolverines although Calvin Magee officially holds the title. Magee and Rodriguez developed their version of the spread at West Virginia and enjoyed great success in the Big East, but the production in Ann Arbor hasn’t been as prolific.

The 2009 Wolverine offense had a few bright spots, but was mistake-prone and largely inconsistent. Last year Michigan ranked in the top half of the FBS in points per game, plays per game, yards per game, and yards per play, but struggled on third down, in the red zone, with negative plays, and throwing the ball.

The Wolverines converted less than 40 percent of third down opportunities and ranked 116th in red zone efficiency and 89th in red zone touchdown efficiency. The unit also allowed 7.7 tackles for a loss per game (114), one sack per 11.8 pass attempts (97), and the pass offense ranked 55th or worse in all but one category (yards per completion). Throwing the ball certainly isn’t the offensive focus, but an effective running game usually produces much more efficiency through the air.

Similar to Rodriguez’s teams in Morgantown, the strength of last year’s unit was running the ball. The Wolverines ranked 24th in rush attempts per game (compared to 84th in pass attempts per game), averaged 186.2 yards per outing (25), 4.5 yards per attempt (38), and 2.3 rushing touchdowns per game (12).

The production on the ground should continue in 2010 as most of the offensive personnel returns intact. But, if their first game against Connecticut is any indication, the efficiency throwing the ball has also improved.

Michigan’s home opener against the Huskies was the Denard Robinson show. The former backup quarterback jumped incumbent Tate Forcier during the off-season and posted 392 yards of total offense (206 rushing, 186 passing) against a Connecticut defense that performed well in 2009 and returned a host of starters. Robinson averaged a gaudy 6.8 yards per carry and completed over 86 percent of his pass attempts (8.5 yards per attempt), and is sure to be a focus of Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.

Much of Robinson’s success against Connecticut was the result of his exceptional running ability, but four veteran offensive linemen certainly did their part. Guard Stephen Schilling, tackles Mark Huyge and Perry Dorrestein, and center David Molk all started at least four games in 2009 and combine for 77 career starts. Dorrestein and Molk enter their third season as a starter, Schilling enters his fourth, Huyge is a two-year starter, and all four are seniors or fifth-year seniors. These four headline a front five that should be one of the top three units Notre Dame faces all season.

Michigan’s receiver corps is also deep and experienced. The Wolverine’s lost Greg Matthews, the recipient of the winning touchdown pass in last year’s meeting, but return six players with 58 combined starts. Tight end Kevin Koger is also a solid option who presents matchup problems with his size and speed.

About the only unproven offensive unit is the running backs. Michigan lost the top two rushers from 2009, Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown, but junior Michael Shaw and sophomore Vincent Smith both have experience (90 carries, 568 yards, 6.3 yards per carry, 3 touchdowns in 2009). Shaw and Smith shared the load against the Huskies with mixed results—29 carries, 99 yards, 3.4 yards per carry, two touchdowns—but lacked the explosiveness of Robinson who attempted as many rushes as Shaw and Smith combined.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2009 Wolverine offense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Michigan’s 2009 opponents).

2009 Michigan Offensive Efficiency
StatisticMichiganMichigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency39.76039.365
4th down efficiency36.89755.475
Red zone appearances/game4363.253
Red zone efficiency6711679.847
Red zone TD efficiency528957.463
2009 Michigan Total Offense
StatisticMichiganMichigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game29.54124.459
Touchdowns/game3.831358
Plays/game68.6466647
Yards/game384.559356.860
1st downs/game19.66018.556
Yards/play5.6585.461
2009 Michigan Rushing Offense
StatisticMichiganMichigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game41.22435.956
Yards/game186.225147.157
Yards/attempt4.538457
Fumbles13941050
Attempts/fumble38844452
TFL allowed/game7.7114653
1st downs/game1021857
Touchdowns/game2.3121.452
2009 Michigan Passing Offense
StatisticMichiganMichigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game27.48430.155
Completions/game15.88317.248
Yards/game198.381209.755
Yards/attempt7.255764
Yards/completion12.64812.369
Interceptions15841350
Attempts/interception21.910934.946
Sacks allowed/game2.3832.250
Attempts/sack allowed11.89714.645
1st downs/game8.9799.454
Touchdowns/game1.3711.454
Completion %57.47556.948
Pass efficiency124.155123.864

Defense

Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson returns for his second season but continuity is not something Michigan has enjoyed on the defensive side of the ball. Robinson marks the third different defensive coordinator in four seasons and the off-season transition from a 3-4 to a 3-3-5 is the fourth new scheme in as many years. As Irish fans can attest, constantly changing defensive philosophies can significantly thwart player development.

The 2009 Wolverine defense played fairly well on third down (37.2 percent conversion rate, 40th ranking) and were able to get upfield against the rush (seven tackles for a loss per game, 20th ranking), but ranked in the bottom half of the country in nearly every other meaningful defensive metric.

Michigan allowed 27.5 points and 393.3 yards per game at a clip of 5.6 yards per play, and the yards and scores came on the ground and through the air. The Wolverines surrendered almost 172 yards and 1.7 touchdowns per game on the ground, and allowed 4.4 yards per carry. The pass defense also gave up 221.4 yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game at a clip of 7.3 yards per attempt, ranking 73rd in completion percentage and 70th in pass efficiency.

Marked improvement may prove difficult in 2010. In addition to teaching a new defense, Robinson must also replace the three best defenders—defensive end Brandon Graham, linebacker Stevie Brown, and corner Donovan Warren—from last year’s unit. Graham led the country in tackles for a loss and was 14th in sacks, Brown posted a team-high 80 tackles, and Warren led the team in interceptions and pass breakups.

The defensive line returns end Ryan Van Bergen and tackle Mike Martin who combined for 91 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, and seven sacks in 2009, but replacing Graham’s production will be no small task.

Apart from Warren the secondary also suffered from an injury to returning starter Troy Woolfolk and the dismissal of Boubacar Cissoko. The latter didn’t necessarily inspire with his play, but both gained valuable experience in 2009 and were needed to offset an otherwise extremely young and green secondary. Safety Jordan Kovacs is back after a solid campaign, but the remaining starters are very young and/or inexperienced and their backups have even less playing time.

The linebacker corps, which returns three active and athletic players with plenty of game experience, should be the strength of the 2010 defense and will be counted on to provide strong run support in the new three-man front. Sophomore Craig Roh and seniors Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton all started at least nine games in 2009 and combined for 172 tackles and 15.5 tackles for a loss. The trend continued last week as the Roh, Ezeh and Mouton posted 22 stops and 2.5 tackles for a loss.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2009 Wolverine defense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Michigan’s 2009 opponents).

2009 Michigan Defensive Efficiency
StatisticMichiganMichigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency37.14041.250
4th down efficiency505649.158
Red zone appearances/game3.6703.564
Red zone efficiency889882.654
Red zone TD efficiency55.85259.258
2009 Michigan Total Defense
StatisticMichiganMichigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game27.57726.363
Touchdowns/game3.3703.265
Plays/game69.88267.956
Yards/game393.382382.156
1st downs/game19.46719.757
Yards/play5.6765.656
2009 Michigan Rushing Defense
StatisticMichiganMichigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game39.59835.768
Yards/game171.991149.164
Yards/attempt4.4844.161
Fumbles51141045
Attempts/fumble98.811750.654
TFL/game7205.552
1st downs/game9.6978.165
Touchdowns/game1.7791.472
2009 Michigan Passing Defense
StatisticMichiganMichigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game30.34832.256
Completions/game18.36319.255
Yards/game221.46723353
Yards/attempt7.3757.357
Yards/completion12.16912.258
Interceptions11661362
Attempts/interception33.15935.367
Sacks/game1.8681.855
Attempts/sack16.57018.953
1st downs/game8.62710.452
Touchdowns/game1.5691.648
Completion %60.17359.354
Pass efficiency131.870130.558

What Does It Mean for 2010?

The Wolverine offense has the pieces to be explosive in 2010. Robinson appears to be the centerpiece of the unit, and his success in the season opener shows why. The turnovers, negative plays, and efficiency problems of 2009 were largely indicative of poor execution, but continuity along the offensive line and in the receiving corps, along with Robinson’s solidified role, may solve this issue. If the Wolverines limit mistakes and continue to keep defenses honest throwing the ball, the offense could enjoy the same success Rodriguez had at West Virginia.

The other side of the ball is a different story as the opener against Connecticut provided few answers to the questions facing Michigan’s defense. The unit continued the strong third down play from 2009, allowing the Huskies to convert on only 26.7 percent of their third downs. But this, coupled with a ball control offense (almost 14-minute time of possession and 15 play advantage), certainly limited the exposure of the Wolverine defense. The secondary appeared to be improved, particularly from a pass efficiency perspective, but playing from behind the entire game forced Connecticut to abandon a running game that averaged 4.6 yards per carry for a pass attack that isn’t the strength of the Husky offense.

Keys to Winning

Offense

  1. Where’s that red zone efficiency we were promised? Last year’s Irish red zone performance was hardly inspiring while Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike led the country with his red zone play. It was expected that head coach Brian Kelly would bring the latter to South Bend but last week’s contest was a far cry from what Pike and the Bearcats accomplished in 2009. The Irish crossed the Boilermaker 20-yard line four times with poor results—one touchdown, two field goals, and one turnover. The offense must take better advantage of these high probability scoring opportunities against the Wolverines.
  2. Consistency, consistency, consistency. Against Purdue, the Irish offense had only one three-and-out, averaged 4.3 yards per rush, completed 73.1 percent of pass attempts, and converted on 50 percent of third downs. But much of this was despite inconsistent play. Of the 62 plays, 27 (43.5 percent ) went for five or more yards but 28 (45.2 percent) resulted in two or fewer yards (including seven negative rushes and two sacks). The explosive running game was a nice change from the Weis’ era, but consistent production is also needed.
  3. Stay on the field. This doesn’t mean scrap Kelly’s uptempo, no-huddle offense, but it does mean efficient (consistent) execution is critical. Michigan chewed the clock last week and will likely aim to do the same Saturday. The Wolverine defense is Michigan’s weaker unit and Rodriguez will likely use a potent rushing offense to minimize the time they are on the field. It will be important for the Irish to limit three-and-out’s, extend drives, and possess the ball.

Defense

  1. Contain Robinson. If last week was any indication, the Wolverine offense goes through Denard Robinson. His elite speed makes him a threat to score on every run, and his improvement as a passer prevented the offense from being one-dimensional. The Irish will need to continue to play stout rush defense in the middle and control the edge much better than they did against Purdue.
  2. Force the pass. Robinson may be improved as a passer, but he hasn’t proven capable of winning a game throwing the ball. Michigan averaged a respectable 8.5 yards per pass attempt last week, but only 9.8 yards per completion with one gain of more than 20 yards. In other words, most of the passes were easy, underneath throws designed to keep the Connecticut defense off-balance. Putting Robinson in obvious passing situations forces him to complete much more difficult throws.
  3. Continue the third down trend. Against the Boilermakers, the Irish reversed their third down performance from last year. Of Purdue’s 17 third downs, 12 (70.6 percent) required more than three yards to move the chains. The Irish allowed a conversion rate of only 16.7 percent in these favorable situations, a performance that largely contributed to the overall third down efficiency of 29.4 percent. Replicating this performance against Michigan will not only force Robinson into obvious passing situations, it will also get a ball controlling Wolverine offense off the field.

Prediction

For the Irish offense, the keys to this game are as much about improving on the deficient areas from last week as constructing and executing a new game plan. Michigan and Purdue have very similar defensive units—strength in the front, weak/inexperienced secondary—and the Irish simply need more consistency and better efficiency in the red zone. Kelly may go choose to throw the ball downfield more this week than last, but, if the success on the ground continues, it may not be necessary.

The defensive game plan appears to largely revolve around Robinson. Prevent big runs, limit his overall production on the ground, and force him to win the game with his arm. Like last week, good first down defense is important to force one-dimensional play-calling. If the Irish defense can replicate the situational defense they played against Purdue, Notre Dame has a good chance of emerging with a victory.

As a team, Notre Dame can’t afford a large time of possession deficit like they had last week. The Irish defense rallied to overcome a 7:32 third quarter deficit but two lengthy Purdue drives sandwiched between a safety allowed the Boilermakers to climb back into the game. Michigan boasts a far more explosive offense than Purdue, and giving them additional scoring opportunities is ill-advised.

Notre Dame 34, Michigan 31

Furthermore

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