Don't adjust your TV tint. [Eric Upchurch]
|WHAT||Michigan vs Notre Dame|
|WHERE||Notre Dame Stadium
South Bend, IN
|WHEN||7:30 PM EDT|
|THE LINE||Notre Dame -1|
|WEATHER||low 70s, 50% chance of T-storms|
[Above: @phillykelly via OneFootDown]
Overview: It's Not Madness, It's Meat
In 1887 the Michigan football team, on their way to Chicago for the big Thanksgiving Game, stopped in South Bend to see some buddies, and taught their friends this game they were about. The Wolverines' 1942 visit had more fanfare, bumping the turning point of WWII to a corner of the front page. In 1989 Michigan kicked to Rocket Ismail. In 1991 Grbac threw a diving fade to Desmond on 4th and 1. In 2010 we got Denard in the pose and all the blood trying to escape through the purpled face of Brian Kelly. And if not by that point, certainly after 2011, any heart with a shred of college football in it could not imagine a world where Michigan doesn't play Notre Dame.
But minutes before the 2012 match, ND athletic director slash litigious orangutan Jack Swarbrick exercised a three-game opt-out clause inserted into the last re-up. It was meticulously timed to give Notre Dame one more home game than Michigan, and to give Michigan the minimal opportunity to react.
After the contractual games played out Michigan made a run on successful NFL Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, and because Mr. Harbaugh's heart has more college football in it than four Iron Bowls and a trombonist, one of his stipulations for returning was that Michigan play Notre Dame.
Swarbrick had what corporate lawyers call a Favorable Negotiating Position, but since everybody stood to win from this he had to get creative to avoid the appearance of a deal that any great ape of average intelligence could handle. Michigan would have to cancel its upcoming Arkansas series. It would have to start in South Bend again. It would have to put Notre Dame on the same home-away schedule as Ohio State and Michigan State, and play its home game in the middle of the Big Ten season. Also Warde Manuel must bend over a table at midfield during halftime and perform the caning scene from Oliver Twist while people in punctilious legal circles across the nation say "That Swarbrick: what a primate!"
So the last time these schools met was 2014, the all-time winning percentage was on the line, and Michigan got both Devins injured long after there was any point. It was a thing from the before-time, a game only the grad students remember. "Old Mone, he could run down a deer back then," says Grandpa Winovich. "I was just a wee, short-haired linebacker on a redshirt, but I remember that night. We outgained them, you know. That's what we told ourselves. We weren't supposed to look at the scoreboard. But I was a kid. I didn't know better. I glanced up. I shouldn't have.
"I told myself I'd never feel that way again."
In the interim Notre Dame went 2-5 to close 2014, went to a Fiesta Bowl by beating Temple and zero other ranked teams in 2015, then plummeted to 4-8 (Michigan quietly took back the "Winningest" lapel pin) in a fluky 2016 in which they lost seven of eight game decided by a single score.
That 4-8 mark also changed the direction of the program. Kelly scrapped the dink-and-dunk spread passing that defined his offenses for two decades, imported Chip Long from Memphis, and leaned on a rushing offense that maximized the legs of athletic giant Brandon Wimbush. Defensively they did the same, shelving the 3-4 under/Cover 2 that served them so well in 2012 for a blitz-you 4-2-5 under new DC Mike Elko. A rainy Citrus Bowl win over LSU capped a young team's bona fide comeback season that also featured stompings of USC, MSU, and NC State, a one-point early loss to Georgia, and an offseason having to defend their shiny new coordinators from SEC poachers.
OC Chip Long turned down an overture from Alabama, but Elko was lured to College Station. In his stead ND promoted Elko understudy Clark Lea, who gets 10/11 starters back from a top five outfit. Long meanwhile has to replace two of his best three receivers, both running backs, and the two best offensive linemen in the country.
After our three-year hiatus, Michigan and Notre Dame meet again, two great defenses, two tough running games, two fanbases greeting like old college buddies who went into the same business but haven't had talked in ages, two open roads to the promised land with matching precipices should something fall the wrong way. Michigan's got to wonder if their whole passing game can stay upright this time, while there's really only one question standing between the Irish and a playoff run. That is:
Where the hell is Wimbush aiming?
[Hit THE JUMP for a mini-FFFF and the preview]
Abbreviated Fee Fi Foe Film
It's week one so there's only last year's film and spring practice but I had a few bits I put together.
- Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Brian Kelly is one of the ur spread coaches, though until last year he was the spread's resident passing specialist.
- Basketball on Grass or MANBALL?: Again this went from extreme zone to a mix last year. This year that pendulum begins its swing back to BoG.
- Hurry it up or grind it out? OC Chip Long brought a high tempo to South Bend last year as the Irish leapt to 17th in Adjusted Pace.
- Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Brandon Wimbush isn't Devin Gardner but he's what jerko fans who hate on Devin Gardner thought Devin Gardner was. 9. Book is more of a 5: he can move around but that's not his game.
- Zook Factor: When we created the Zook factor it was because coaches like Brian Kelly were making correct 4th down decisions.
- Dangerman: Myles Boykin can Braylon a game the Irish shouldn't be in, Blake Bars's little brother is a top 10 OG.
- Base Set? 4-2-5 with a standup linebacker like the "BUCK" from D.J. Durkin's defenses
- Man or zone coverage? They're a Cover 2 team but these days that means Quarters. They can and do play a lot of man though.
- Pressure: GERG or Greg? Greg. Last year was a 180-degree philosophical change to something close to Don Brown's, and they'll keep it.
- Dangerman: The linebackers and cornerbacks are going right around Michigan's 2019 draft, and the world still can't understand why 6-7 DT Jerry Tillery isn't a first round offensive tackle out of LSU but we're coming around on the idea of him as a defensive lineman.
Run Offense vs Notre Dame
They're not quite Michigan's run defense but they'll be in range. Notre Dame remains one of those teams who can recruit superb athletes for their defenses and replace a few each year with the next row of shark teeth. The transition from a 3-4 to a 4-2-5 that blitzes its middle linebackers a ton coincided with a larger-than-normal turnover last year, which means this year they're returning a bunch of juniors and seniors. They were 13th against the run last year to S&P+ (their lowest ranking of Bill C's six tracking stats).
The entire DT rotation is back but the deck chairs were rearranged, and not in the way I wanted to hear. DT Jerry Tillery is a scary-looking human: he's 6-7, a 5-star athlete, and escaped from Louisiana only because LSU was sure he'd see he was an NFL offensive tackle and he preferred to crush. They moved him this summer to the off-tackle (3-tech) position where he'll get more one-on-one matchups. Given his height always made him awkward against double-teaming centers and guards this move could presage a blowup. The reason Tillery could move over is NT Jonathan Bonner is finally bulked up enough to handle nose after moving steadily down the line over his long career. He's 295 now, in his last year of eligibility, so he might still be movable. Backup DTs Myron Tagavailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are true sophomores and weren't bad when getting blooded last year. Michigan's huge interior line can probably have some success moving these three guys off the ball; they should avoid whatever side Tillery's on.
I listed their DEs as returning starters even though the two technical starters graduated because onetime Bama commit SDE Khalid Kareem and borderline top-100 Ann Arbor (Skyline) defector DE/LB Daelin Hayes both rotated in a ton last year as true sophomores—as you might imagine they were both more liable to get too far upfield while the nominal starters were less pass-rushy but more responsible. They're both pretty strong guys who'll try a bull rush as soon as whoop past a guy, but I like the Runyan matchup versus a tallish DL who's charging upfield more than the right side, because Kareem seems too slippery for JBB to be effective.
I was close to putting shields on both linebackers and one of the corners. WLB Drue Tranquil is a Khaleke Hudson type player who chose to move to WLB from his hybrid spot instead of entering the draft. MLB Te'Von Coney is one of the surest tacklers in college football, which is scary because his athleticism is up there with Devin Bush's. Like their Ann Arbor comps, if Michigan's line can get to these guys they're going for a ride—when they're knifing past those blocks it's TFL city. This is one of those days where the running game is mostly getting stuffed but occasionally gashes the defense for 20 yards a pop.
KEY MATCHUP: Ruiz and Onwenu versus getting their hands on Tranquil and Coney.
Pass Offense vs Notre Dame
ND's statistical profile look more like a soft Cover 2. What's really going on are the cornerbacks are lights out and the LB blitzes make underneath stuff the only option, while the DL's pass rush is average enough that there's time to dump it.
Last year this was a top 10 secondary and the only new guy this year among the starters was a too-good-for-a-service-academy starter for Navy as a true freshman who would have started last year if he'd rolled a little better on NCAA eligibility roulette. As high-academic football schools are wont to do, their fanbase grumbles about the one guy featuring in other peoples' good plays. As is usual in those cases, the guy they're complaining about is just not as world-beating as everyone else.
The Navy transfer is FS Alohi Gilman, and he's been getting a ton of hype. That showed in a monster spring game when Gilman was coming up regularly from his weakside safety position to hew down bubbles and outside runs. The redshirt sophomore does still look like a service academy player—Jordan Kovacs as a comparison is dodgy because peoples' memories slide toward extremes, but they're similar players: heady, smallish, and ready to stick their heads into your run game. He's not going to be a land-covering gazelle, but in Notre Dame's Cover 2/Quarters system he's more than plus, and bordering on a star.
Notre Dame's two starting cornerbacks would be among the best pair in the country, and on film I'd agree that #27 Julian Love is up there with Hill and Long, while #5 Troy Pride would start on an any other Big Ten team. They had a third in onetime Michigan commit/nickelback Shaun Crawford, but Crawford tore his ACL yesterday. I though Crawford, who rotated last year with Pride, was the weakest of the trio, but there's a big drop from there.
If the starters can't go all day things get interesting, since ND really has more backup safeties than true CB options. True freshman Houston Griffith, an IMG product, was expected to find his way onto the field this year at safety sooner or later; when Notre Dame goes to the nickel, Griffith will come in for starting SS Nick Coleman, who'll move down to play the slot. The next actual cornerback on the roster is another true freshman, DJ Brown, a tall three-star they signed off Virginia—Michigan freshman Vincent Gray was the next guy on their list at the time if that helps.
Michigan's passing game is coming out of a dumpster fire that was 70% quarterbacking, but the 30% that was pass protection is still an issue, and ND's sub-elite pass rush can turn it on against lower competition. Their pass rush got a turbo boost whenever the true sophomore ends were in, and those guys are now the starters. I don't want to test the tackles against that. The linebacker blitzes are frequent but they're more geared toward jamming up the run and protecting the tiny LBs from big ol' lineman blocks; the true trio and running backs will have to be in mid-season form to keep up because they come in hot, but there's a lot of opportunity behind them for Shea to exploit one-one-one matchups between the widdle guys and Grant Perry or the tight ends.
If Michigan can sustain a drive and get the backups on the field we can talk about long passes.
KEY MATCHUP: Shea Patterson versus Getting the Ball Out Quickly.
Run Defense vs Notre Dame
The result of Brian Kelly hiring Memphis OC and runny-ball guru Chip Long wasn't quite a Chip Kelly offense, but it ran about as often as one, a huge departure from the 50+ percent passing offenses Brian Kelly rode out of Grand Valley State. This decision wasn't philosophical: they just had some dang good players. Fortunately for us, most of them are either in the NFL or Netflix.
ND's excellent rushing game last year was very left-side heavy, running behind LG Quenton Nelson (drafted 6th overall), and LT Mike McGlinchey (9th overall). RB Josh Adams (UDFA) and primary RB backup Deon McIntosh, who'll be on the next season of Last Chance U, are no longer around either. This year—and it already evident in spring—they'll be more middle-oriented. RG Tommy Kraemer split time at right tackle last year with a true freshman, and 2017 RG Alex Bars was moved to the left to balance out experience. Bars and returning center Sam Mustipher are draft prospects who appear in scattered PFF lists.
Tackle is a question mark and could be a weakness. New starter Liam Eichenberg will probably be good in the future but he was the guy getting torn up when the DEs had their hype-inducing spring game. Robert Hainsey was the true freshman who earned half the snaps at right tackle last year and was a top recruit, but he was also projected at guard then, and has been dealing with a calf injury for all of fall camp:
“The inflammation now fully is out of the joint, so we want to be smart and careful,” Kelly said. “We have limited his pitch count, just to make sure that we don’t have anything flare up. But he’s good to go.” Is a pitcher ever really “good to go” when he’s on a pitch count? That might show Saturday night. Having Hainsey back is critical. Having Hainsey at 100 percent would be better.
Rashan Gary will be…a test.
The main concern in Irish circles right now, other than Wimbush's erratic arm, is running back: Dexter Williams, who averaged 9.2 YPC last year as Adams's backup, is "dressed and on the sidelines" but closer to getting kicked off the team than playing. The coaches are not being shy about how non-enamored they are with the backups. Burly Tony Jones isn't the kind of guy you march down the field with, and his primary backup looks like it's going to be redshirt freshman Jafar Armstrong, who's more of a Steve Breaston-type. If Christian Turner had chosen ND over Michigan he'd probably be starting right now.
The main concern for Michigan is quarterback Brandon Wimbush. The reason Wimbush wasn't benched (until he was) despite completing less than half of his passes last year is his legs are a major threat. The Gardner is strong.
Notre Dame likes to chuck it deep to get your safeties fearful of those wide-radius receivers so they're not coming down on Wimbush before he's got a head of steam. Once he does, physics and his ability to defy it a little bit become real problems. Without removing sacks he had 803 yards at 5 YPC and 14 TDs last year (FoxSports usually has sack stats we can remove but their database has been down all summer). He's a handful.
KEY MATCHUP: Kinnel vs Tackling Wimbush in space. Michigan should dominate the rest.
Pass Defense vs Notre Dame
And here we come to it: Brandon Wimbush can't throw a slant. They gave him last year's best offensive line, a fantastic running game, and a fleet of receivers over 6-4 and the standard Irish Flex Tight Ends who can murderate an unchecked seam, and still he couldn't complete half of his passes. A rain-soaked Citrus Bowl versus LSU proved the last straw: Wimbush was benched for more stable/less exciting Ian Book, who was solid and unexciting, and thus began an offseason of Quarterback Controversy.
Kelly has denied there is one since spring, and NBC's slappy announcers were duly dispatched to bullocks all summer about Wimbush's improved understanding of the game and footwork. But that hasn't stopped a slew of worried folk who cover Notre Dame from spilling the practice reports of continued erratic throws. Nobody doubts Wimbush's arm—the first pass of the Citrus Bowl was a 60-yard sideline rope to (6th round pick) Equanimeous St. Brown. Nobody questions whether his legs bring an irreplaceable aspect to the offense. Nobody in the know seems to think he's going to make it through the whole season without more benchings. When that happens, Book is around, and gets the ball out very quickly, but Book has his own issues, namely he throws bubble passes like Steven Threet, i.e. less accurately than Wimbush. In Goldeneye terms, Wimbush is the Cougar Magnum, Book is the Klobb.
The fleet of 6-4 receivers is a bit different but still features the monster Myles Boykin, who's more than fast enough to require a real cornerback, and way too huge for any real cornerback to cover all day. Boykin will do things like one-hand a bad ball (in the rain) in double coverage, and knows how to use his size to get away with a little late interference when making Wimbush's throws look good. And that's not the returning starter. Chase Claypool is the same size (there's a 1-pound difference on the roster) as Boykin, and caught 64 percent of passes in his direction—remember Wimbush's average. He's more reliable, less highlight-y than Boykin. Freshman Kevin Austin will rotate in some and is the same kind of player. The good news is Michigan's got four cornerbacks who can stick to these guys downfield; the bad news is that being in one of these guys' chests when the ball arrives is only half the battle.
They also have a Dileo in slot receiver Chris Finke, who's usually open, but being 5-10 he's too small of a target for Wimbush's spray chart. They graduated the old Flex TE Durham Smythe (he went in the 4th round) but they've got a new one in slick true sophomore Cole Kmet, who recently distanced himself from last year's backup Alizé Mack. Kmet is silky smooth in his breaks and did a lot of damage to ND's first team defense by turning dumpoffs in the flat into chunk gainers.
KEY MATCHUP: Long and Hill versus Look at the Size of Those Things!
- A Michigan skill position player is being looked at on the sidelines
- NBC announcers are raving over Wimbush's improved accuracy
- Offensive pass interference isn't a point of emphasis this year
Cackle with knowing glee if…
- Notre Dame has more passing attempts than rushing yards at the half
- Michigan's gets a second-level block
- An Irish cornerback comes off the field
Fear/Paranoia Level: 8 (Baseline: 5; +1 for On the Road at Night; –1 for Their Pass Rush Only Works on Mediocre OTs; +1 for We've Got One of Those; +1 for *SIGH* Okay Two of Those; +1 for Alas, Poor Tarik. I Knew Him, Horatio; +1 for Ole Miss QB's First Start in a Harbaugh System; +1 for Versus a Top 10 Pass Defense; –1 for ND's linebackers are safeties; –1 for Their Quarterback Has Accuracy Issues, Messirs Hill and Long Say Hi)
Desperate need to win level: 9 (Baseline: 5; +1 for Playoff Implications, Yessiree; +1 for Michigan Wouldn't Let Them in the Big Ten a Century Ago and They're Still Bitter About It; –1 for If We Had, They'd Be Purdue; +1 for Rivalry; +1 for And They Canceled It in the Most Dickishly Coward Way Possible; +1 for And We Had to Let Litigious Orangutan Jack Swarbrick Believe He's a Big Sapien Negotiator to Bring It Back; –1 for This is the One Rival We Allow Near the Children; +1 for 2017 Wasn't Fun and Neither Was This Offseason; +1 for Just Imagine the TAEKS; +1 for All-Time Winning % on the Line; –1 Still Not in the Big Ten; –1 for Everything's Still on the Table)
Loss will cause me to… Bring up Rudock vs Utah as if I didn't spend a summer buying the Shea hype.
Win will cause me to… Neck Sharpie my favorite Uche thing just to spend more time with it.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
A slog in the rain (hope you didn't pay $500 for tickets because I couldn't get to a Ticket Watch this week) and I'm not happy with myself for feeling as confident as I do right now. Granted, Notre Dame's back seven that can man-out DPJ and slice through your slide protections is not how you want to test drive this jalopy passing game Michigan's trying to construct out of an Ole Miss escapee and a bunch of tight ends and guards. But Michigan's meatball offense in turn is hardly ideal for a Notre Dame run D that's first, second, and fourthmost (Tillery's still in there) built to defend spreads.
Meanwhile Michigan has the athletes on defense to contain Wimbush long enough for Wimbush to three-and-out himself, and if Kelly's lizard brain takes him back to his Spread Coast safe space things could get pick-sixy really fast. It comes down to I think Michigan can get a few good gashes in on the ground, and use the space evacuated by a blitzing LB to put together a few drives. ND will take some chances downfield, press the patience of the stripes, and come up Irish a few times, but they lack any good way to move the ball with consistency. Toss in Don Brown and Jim Harbaugh with an entire offseason to gameplan, and I think it might finally be time for Michigan fans to have a nice thing.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- The RBs have miserable YPCs until Higdon breaks a 40-yarder
- Lavert Hill pick six from a trap coverage
- Michigan, 19-11