(1) How have ND defenses fared recently against spread offenses?
Last week, the Irish defense held Nevada’s “Pistol” spread-option attack to 153 yards on 29 carries and allowed nothing tangible through the air (vs. a poor passing game) yielding just 154 yards, a sub-.500 completion percentage, while securing two interceptions in the 35-0 shutout. The Irish defense was hurt by running back Vai Taua with inside and off-tackle runs, as the junior finished with 114 yards on 18 carries.
Notre Dame limited the Wolf Pack on the perimeter with a concerted effort to stop junior quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who rushed for more than 1,100 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2008. The Irish held Kaepernick to 39 net rushing yards on 10 carries.
Last season, Notre Dame faced one true spread option offense (Michigan) and three teams with a passing-game emphasis in their spread attack: San Diego State; Purdue; and Hawaii, none of which possessed similar athletic skill to that of the Wolverines.
The current defensive staff’s best case-study vs. the spread-option offense is last week’s matchup with Nevada: a run-heavy team that finished third in the nation in rushing last season. Though Forcier appears to be a more talented natural passer than was Kaepernick last week, the Irish defense was nonetheless able to use August training camp to prepare for similar, though not identical offensive attacks for the season’s first two weeks.
(2) What's the biggest matchup worry for ND? What's their biggest matchup advantage?
Notre Dame’s biggest matchup advantage this Saturday is likely the same advantage the team will possess in 10 of its next 11 games: its outside wide receivers vs. the opponent’s cornerbacks.
Junior Golden Tate and sophomore Michael Floyd combined for 1,799 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, despite the absence of Floyd for the better part of three contests (due to a knee injury). Tate was nominated to the Biletnikoff Watch List and multiple pre-season All American teams. Though Floyd was excluded from most pre-season honors, many Irish observers consider Floyd not only to be the team’s top future NFL prospect, but also the team’s best football player for 2009.
There will be precious few college cornerback tandems capable of shutting down Tate and Floyd if the Irish offensive line is able to protect Clausen in the pocket.
Notre Dame’s biggest matchup worry vs. the Wolverine’s stems from the fact that the team’s chief off-season concern, its defensive line, was predictably (and notably) the team’s worst major position unit vs. Nevada in the opener.
Junior Ian Williams and sophomore Ethan Johnson are a talented pair, but both struggled vs. the Wolf Pack’s veteran front line. Irish defensive ends Kerry Neal and John Ryan are undersized on the right side (quality pass rushers that can struggle at the point of attack) and Notre Dame features a redshirt freshman at left defensive end who played in his first collegiate game last Saturday.
The Irish will certainly favor a nickel defense again Saturday in Ann Arbor, an alignment that drops SAM linebacker Darius Fleming to left defensive end and inserts S Sergio Brown as the team’s nickel back. While this lineup is exceptionally quick it is susceptible to a committed north/south running back and physical offensive line.
(3) Is ND concerned about the Michigan D coached by Greg Robinson, last year's Syracuse coach that beat them in South Bend? And who are the guys to watch on the defensive side of the ball for ND?
Irish Defenders to Watch:
5th-year SS Kyle McCarthy: The team’s best open-field tackler and its defensive captain. McCarthy is the least likely Irish defensive player to struggle Saturday and represents a rare commodity as a Notre Dame Football player: he’s actually underrated.
WILL LB Brian Smith: The junior is the defense’s emotional leader and best playmaker. Smith made two key tackles-for-loss early last week and scored a touchdown last season vs. the Wolverines. Smith and McCarthy are the two Irish defenders most likely able to handle Forcier in space outside the pocket.
CB Darrin Walls: The senior returned to the team this season after missing 2008 for personal reasons. Walls is the team’s best overall cornerback; its best cover man; and its fastest defender (at least on the football field).
LB/DE Darius Fleming: A sophomore hybrid pass-rusher (his best role) and strong side linebacker (still learning) will see increased playing time this week to counter Michigan’s ability on the perimeter.
Nickel back Sergio Brown: The senior will play more than 50 percent of the snaps and is considered one of the two best athletes on the team (along with free safety Harrison Smith). Brown is notable as he can wreak havoc near the line of scrimmage but has shown a propensity for poor tackling form – an issue when facing elusive quarterbacks such as Forcier and Denard Robinson.
(4) Greg Robinson laid a loss on ND, in South Bend, last season as the Head Coach of Syracuse … does G-Rob’s presence as U-M DC worry the Irish?
Coach Weis acknowledged Robinson’s presence in his Tuesday press conference, noting that Michigan’s defense is now “Coach Robinson’s” in other words: last year’s UM defensive tapes are worthless to the Irish other than to scout the Wolverines personnel.
While I’m not sure Irish fans are overly concerned with Robinson’s presence, the Irish staff, team and local media is certainly aware of his acumen as a defensive mind.
Coach Weis also noted that Robinson excels as a week-to-week game planner.
Nevada didn't get a ton of pressure on Jimmy Clausen. How confident is ND about hiss ability to make the big throws, even if U-M manages to get the pressure.
The key to disrupting any passing offense, especially one that features a standard drop-back passer, is consistent pressure. Clausen spent his first season getting hit in the mouth - questions about his toughness are no longer a concern.
But Clausen threw 13 interceptions on the road last season. Eight of those occurred vs. Michigan State, North Carolina, and Boston College – three teams that applied consistent pressure on the sophomore signal-caller.
If the Irish are unable to run Saturday, the threat of play-action diminishes and the Irish offense devolves from potentially great to one-dimensional. Any semblance of an Irish running attack would help Clausen and the Irish passing game move the chains on a consistent basis.
(5) Although, the ND offense had a very good day against Nevada, the running game still struggled. Is there any concern if ND continues to struggle in the running game? IN other words, talk about the ND running attack.
The majority of Irish followers fall into two camps regarding the running game:
Camp A: Bring back Lou Holtz
Camp B: The Irish need to run successfully enough to compliment what should be an explosive passing attack.
Notre Dame ran for 178 yards last week. They’re 16-0 under Weis when outrushing an opponent. If Notre Dame outrushes Michigan (including its quarterbacks’ yards gained via the ground) they’ll beat the Wolverines, and handily. If the Irish can again rush for 150-175 yards, they’ll likely come away with a close victory in Ann Arbor, even if UM has consistent offensive success, as the Irish will certainly move the ball through the air.
If Michigan can limit the Irish to the 125-yard range or below (a number the Irish failed tor reach more often than not over the previous two seasons) there’s a good chance Michigan will pull out a victory on Saturday. If Michigan simply stops the Irish up front with its base defense it will be another long day for Clausen in The Big House.