Sunday, September 16, 2012

Michigan-Notre Dame preview: Michigan’s best test

Michigan gets the test of all tests this Saturday in South Bend against an undefeated Notre Dame squad, seeking immense revenge for three straight losses to the Wolverines.
The Irish tossed the previously 10th-ranked Spartans off their own high horse in East Lansing, exploiting the MSU offense as totally one-dimensional and defendable. That should provide UM with high hopes come Oct. 20.
Michigan still has lots of work to do to improve. There remains little progress in running the ball between the tackles; most of the rushing yardage by actual running backs went to the wings, particularly running to the left side when junior tackle Taylor Lewan played one of his better games against UMass.
Defensively, UMass, at times, was able to rush the ball effectively, also going wide of the main UM down defenders. However, there were actual signs of a pass rush against UMass, which must be ramped up 10 fold against Notre Dame.
Notre Dame is NOT without defects; its young secondary has yet to be tested by a good quarterback, and Saturday will be the biggest game of redshirt freshman Everett Golston’s life. Michigan must concentrate of stopping senior Cierre Wood, who had burned Michigan for the past two years. There is no Michael Floyd to torment the Michigan secondary and Golson is no Tommy Rees as a passer (Rees remains a prisoner of head coach Brian Kelly’s doghouse).
The key to the game will NOT come on defense; it will happen when Michigan HAS the ball. To win the game, Denard Robinson MUST be given the freedom to do his thing; against Alabama, that did not happen.
In the past two encounters with Notre Dame, Robinson has beaten the Irish in the final seconds with his arm and feet. In those two games, he has rushed for 366 yards on 44 carries while completing 35 of 64 passes for 582 yards. Thus far this season, he has accounted for a high percentage of the entire offensive output (probably too high of a percentage requiring someone else to step up and carry the load … literally).
One can assume the job of controlling Robinson, keeping him trapped in the pocket where he is not as effective, will fall upon linebacker Manti Te’o, one of the nation’s best players. He’s been more than a thorn in the side of the Michigan coaches for three seasons and how the UM staff plans to control Te’o (through blocking schemes, etc.) will tell the tale.
If Robinson can operate the zone read offense properly, and if one of the UM running backs can provide an alternative weapon on the ground, it will free Denard to lose his shoes on long runs deep in Irish territory.
One emerging factor can make Michigan fans smile – the number of receivers for Robinson to find in opposition secondaries. The ND defenders don’t have the height to cover the likes of TE Devin Funchess or WR Devin Gardner. When properly positioned, Michigan has enough slot receivers (like Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon) to gain first downs, or as was the case Saturday, break plays for lengthy gains (66 yards by Delio). It’s harder to plan your defense to cover 4-5 players on each snap, often giving you one-on-one favorable offensive opportunities.
The Irish could be this week’s overrated top 20 team; they beat one of the worst Navy teams in half a century and barely slipped past Purdue in overtime. As exposed, Michigan State was not as good as its players had been tweeting about.
Kelly might have been known as an offensive genius at Cincinnati, but hasn’t shown THAT much in South Bend. And come Saturday, the pressure will be squarely on the Irish shoulders to prove that the program has returned to its “glory” days. But they are facing a team who has found ways to win, even when playing lousy football over the past three seasons (hell, even Tate Forcier engineered a winning score with 9 seconds left).
Michigan gets a bye week after Saturday so the pressure shouldn’t be on those players as much. As the Big 10 is appearing, it is a championship for the taking by almost anyone; there is NO team head-and-shoulder above all others. If you look at UM’s schedule, aside from the MSU game, there’s nothing but easily winnable matchups (yes, including an over-egoed 3-0 Ohio State).
Michigan can decide, starting this Saturday, it wants to achieve its most important goal – to win the Big 10 title. The Notre Dame game will point in which direction Michigan football is headed.

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