Sept. 10, 2009
|By Tim Prister ’82|
Game 2: Michigan (Sept. 12)
Conference: Big Ten
2008 record: 3-9, including a 35-17 loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 13
2009 record: 1-0; 31-7 victory over Western Michigan on Sept. 5
Location: Michigan Stadium
Kickoff: 3:36 p.m. ET
TV Coverage: ESPN on ABC
Michigan head coach: Rich Rodriguez arrived in Ann Arbor in ’08 after a successful stint at his alma mater, West Virginia, where he was 61-26 in seven years, including an impressive 33-5 over the last three seasons. Rodriguez took over the Mountaineer program in ’01 and went 3-8. From that point on under Rodriguez, West Virginia was 58-18 with victories over No. 8 Georgia (by 3) in the Sugar Bowl and Georgia Tech (by 3) in the Gator Bowl.
Like his first season in Morgantown, Rodriguez struggled in his transition year in Ann Arbor as Michigan tumbled to 3-9. But the Wolverines opened with an impressive 31-7 victory over an above-average Western Michigan team last week that was led by quarterback Tim Hiller, who passed for 3,725 yards and 36 touchdowns in ’08.
Series history: Michigan leads the series, 20-15-1, but the Wolverines won the first eight from 1887-1908 when Notre Dame was just learning the game. Since the series resumed in 1978, the Irish are 13-11-1 against Michigan, including last season’s 35-17 victory in which the Irish capitalized on six turnovers to build a 21-0 first-quarter lead. Michigan defeated Notre Dame 38-0 in 2003 and 2007.
Charlie Weis and the Irish defeated No. 3 Michigan, 17-10, in his second game at his alma mater in 2005. Lou Holtz was 3-1 in Michigan Stadium, including a 24-19 victory in 1989 in a battle between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan. Raghib “Rocket” Ismail returned 89- and 92-yard kickoffs for touchdowns to lead the Irish to victory.
Beware the underdog: The favored team in the Notre Dame-Michigan series hasn’t followed form on several occasions throughout the current decade, although in those instances, Notre Dame was the underdog.
Two-point favorite Michigan lost by 18 last year. Seven-point favorite Michigan lost by a touchdown in ’05. Twelve-point favorite Michigan lost 28-20 in ’04. Five-point underdog Notre Dame defeated Michigan 25-23 in ’02.
The Big House: Despite Notre Dame’s success through the years in Michigan Stadium, The Big House – so named by legendary college football broadcaster Keith Jackson – remains one of the most difficult places in the country for an opponent to win. The Wolverines have drawn in excess of 100,000 fans for 216 straight games (since 1975). Michigan Stadium officially seats 106,201. But in 2003, 112,118 fans saw Michigan defeat Ohio State, 35-21.
The Wolverines own a 376-114-15 record at Michigan Stadium, although the Wolverines lost five times at home in ’08, three times in ’07 and three times in ’05. Notre Dame is 5-7 in Michigan Stadium since 1979.
Three-headed monster: Rodriguez used three quarterbacks in the season-opening victory over Western Michigan–freshmen Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, and junior Nick Sheridan, who started four games and played in eight in ’08. Sheridan completed just 46 percent of his passes and had a 2-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year. He was 0-for-2 with an interception last week against the Broncos.
Forcier will start against the Irish after completing 13-of-20 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another 37 yards. Robinson completed 2-of-4 for 18 yards, and rushed for a team-leading 74 yards on 11 carries, including an impressive 43-yard sprint for a touchdown.
Rodriguez’s spread option attack is a diverse, problematic offense. Although the Irish easily defeated the Wolverines last year, Michigan out-gained the Irish, 388-260, as Sam McGuffie (who has since transferred) rushed for 131 yards on 25 carries.
Michigan’s spread option attack is much more dangerous with tailor-made quarterbacks Forcier and Robinson at the helm.
“I saw some poise, I saw some play-making ability, and I saw a couple of guys that probably are further along than most freshmen,” remarked Irish co-defensive coordinator Corwin Brown of Forcier and Robinson after reviewing the Michigan-Western Michigan game.
“They have the ability to make a lot of plays. You don’t really expect that from freshmen. We really don’t look at them as freshmen.
“Forcier can throw the ball anywhere. He knows where to go with it. He really knows coverages. (Robinson) is a blur. He can run. You lose sight of the fact that he can throw because he’s so fast. But he’s a good quarterback. Both of these guys can move and both of them can throw, so really, they’re almost the same.”
Facing freshmen: Despite the poise they showed in the victory over Western Michigan, Michigan’s young quarterbacks likely will see a battery of blitzes from the Irish defense.
“Obviously, pressure is our package,” said Notre Dame defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. “Do we dial a couple of different ones up? Sure we do. Either quarterback that’s in the game, or anybody that we play, we’ll have a couple of good things for them.”
Sack master: The Irish pitched a shutout against Nevada pass rushers Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch last week, but they’ll face another challenge from Michigan senior defensive end Brandon Graham, who had 10 sacks and 20 tackles for lost yardage last season. Graham was limited to one pass broken up and one tackle against Western Michigan. But the 2008 Michigan MVP is a force to be reckoned with any time he takes the field. Graham has 19 career sacks, which ties him for eighth in Michigan history.
“He has a tremendous body of work,” said Irish offensive line coach Frank Verducci of Graham. “He presents a great combination of physical strength and speed. He’s a good combination of being a great football player against the run while also presenting the challenge of a great pass rusher.
“It’s another interesting match-up for our senior tackles (Sam Young and Paul Duncan).”
Golden Tate and his fellow receivers will be going up against an inexperienced, but talented, Michigan defensive back group.
Rodriguez on Jimmy Clausen, Irish passing attack: “I thought (Clausen) looked pretty good last year, and the last couple of games, he’s been extremely sharp. He’s a very talented young man, he understands the offense now in his third year as the starter, and he has skilled guys around him. They’ve got a lot of experience up front on the O-line, and he’s playing at a high level.”
Rodriguez on how to slow down Notre Dame’s attack: “Certainly you’ve got to try to make them one-dimensional if you can. You can’t let them run the football and be in short-yardage situations because they’re very good at play-action. You know they’re going to take deep-ball shots on you. If they get one-on-one match-ups, they love to throw it deep to their wide receivers and let them make a play. If you play soft, they’ll take hitches and slants underneath. So we’ve got to break on the ball and try to do some things to create some pressure and not let (Clausen) be comfortable.”
Key match-ups: In addition to Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham against Irish offensive tackles Sam Young and Paul Duncan, the Irish receivers will be going up against a relatively inexperienced set of defensive backs. Junior Donovan Warren is the only true returning starter in the secondary. Free safety Stevie Brown has moved to an outside linebacker spot for the Wolverines, which has thrust sophomore Mike Williams into the starting lineup. Sophomore Boubacar Cissoko, who started just two games last year and snagged an interception against Western Michigan, reportedly is a bit banged up heading into the Notre Dame game. Junior strong safety Troy Woolfolk made his first career start against Western Michigan.
Michigan rushed for 242 yards on 50 carries (4.8-yard average) against Western Michigan while the Irish allowed 153 yards on 29 carries (5.3-yard average) against Nevada. The Wolverines aren’t at full strength at running back, however, with last year’s leading rusher – Brandon Minor (533 yards, nine touchdowns, 5.2 avg.) – still sidelined after missing the Western Michigan game (editor note: Minor did practice this week and might see some game action on Saturday). Senior Carlos Brown, who carried 10 times for 54 yards last week, will start against the Irish.
Fighting Irish facts: Notre Dame was one of only two FBS schools last week that did not commit a turnover and had three or fewer penalties. UNLV was the only other team in action on Sept. 5 to join the Irish in that category … Sophomore wide receiver Michael Floyd ranks first in the nation in receiving yards (189) while junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen ranks first in the country in efficiency rating (303.7) … Notre Dame would like to reverse a recent trend in road openers. The Irish are just 3-9 in the last 12 years, including a 31-10 loss to Penn State in 2007 and a 23-7 loss at Michigan State in 2008. Charlie Weis won his road opener against Pittsburgh in 2005 (42-21) and at Georgia Tech in 2006 (14-10) … This marks the first time since 2006 that Notre Dame and/or Michigan is ranked at the time of the game. The Irish enter Saturday’s contest ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press poll. Prior to 2007, at least one of the two teams was ranked in the previous 25 confrontations. Both teams were ranked in 21 of those 25 games.
Tim Prister – Notre Dame’s starting third baseman in 1981-82 – is an `82 graduate in his 28th year covering Notre Dame football. He is the senior editor of IrishIllustrated.com after serving 20 years as editor of Blue & Gold Illustrated. Entering the 2009 season, he has attended and reported on 279 straight Notre Dame football games–every one since Lou Holtz’s first in 1986.