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Friday, September 14, 2007

Run Offense vs. SSONIINI

Notre Dame has battled valiantly against the pounding rushing games of Georgia Tech and Penn State but a lack of depth and talent has told late:
rushing average against, by quarter
3.74 yards per carry
Those numbers are not great even in the first half; in the second half they are deplorable. Notre Dame bloggers have chalked this up to an excessively bleah offense stranding their warrior-poets on the field too long and project this will not happen against a Michigan defense that's much kinder, to say the least, than either Georgia Tech or Penn State. I don't know if that's true, though:

ND PlaysOpp Plays

Neither of these is a huge discrepancy, and 68 defensive plays is not out of the ordinary. Notre Dame's offense has been so awful that many of the scores against the defense have been on short fields...
41% of all points scored against ND so far this season have occurred on drives of 36 yards or less.
...which holds down both yards ceded and plays dealt with. While ND's scoring defense (93rd) is an artifact of its tougher than average start and the crappy offense, there's no reason to believe that even if said offense does improve there will be any corresponding bump from the defense, currently ranked 100th against the run and yielding 4.82 yards per carry. The evidence shows that they tire; they should against Michigan.

Meanwhile, the lone bright spot in the first two Michigan games has been the run offense. Mike Hart rolled up 188 yards at 8.2 YPC against Appalachian State and 127 at 5.1 YPC against Oregon. While neither defense is exactly Penn State, neither is Notre Dame. Continued success is probable.

Key Matchup: Mike Hart versus his own damn body. He's limped off and missed portions of Michigan's first two games; Michigan's running game drops off dramatically when he's not in the game: Primary backup Brandon Minor is only averaging 3.8 YPC.

Pass Offense vs. SSONIINI

Ryan Mallett's debut was less than scintillating --6-17, 49 yards, and one interception -- but he was victimized by a few drops and some horrendous babying that asked him to throw a lot of hopeless bombs on third and forever. He was obviously a step down from even a Henne in full on Hennebriation mode and will remain so this week; better numbers are a definite.

How much better is in question. Carr called out Manningham's effort this week and praised Adrian Arrington; Mallett is going to need some help from wide receivers that were unprepared to catch the rockets he was slinging out there. You'd hope that a week of nothing but Mallett zingers would help matters; there will still be a drop here or there and Mallett goes all Jacob Silj on people.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame's beleagured secondary has put up good numbers so far. Taylor Bennett was 11 for 23 for 121 yards; Anthony Morelli was 12 for 22 for 131 yards and one pick six into excellent coverage. Never change, Anthony. The mere idea of "excellent coverage" as applies to the Notre Dame secondary is mindblowing and worth examining. In this instance it was provided by sophomore cornerback Darrin Walls, not the cast of Manningham torchees that still hovers in the general vicinity of receivers without actually bothering to cover them. He's grabbed a starting spot and may be headed towards competence or better. The rest of it, though, is the same cast of characters: Boxer Tom Zbikowski, who is a boxer and the most overrated safety in America when he is not boxing or being boxed or participating in a boxing fight, Terrail Lambert and Ambrose Wooden, etc. New safety David Bruton has already made a couple hideous mental gaffes.

So... yeah, they've done pretty well so far but is this not a Zach Mills at PSU situation wherein opposing teams with good defenses can pack away anything remotely dangerous in the knowledge that 14 points will be good enough? A common MGoBlog heuristic is to severely doubt seniors who sucked as juniors without extenuating circumstances and to furthermore doubt all non-freshmen stuck behind the suck: this applies to every member of the Notre Dame secondary save Walls, and Michigan has at least two guys you have to cover, possibly more.

It's impossible to offer anything solid here with a freshman quarterback and conflicting indicators from the opposition... a few big plays for and against are probable.

Key Matchup: Mallett versus Corwin Brown. It will help our efforts greatly if Mallett does not throw the pick or two that seem inevitable; the coverages Brown calls will attempt to bait him into them.

Run Defense vs. SSONIINI

If we are preparing for Cripple Fight 2007, these are the most malformed limbs. Notre Dame's total rushing through two games: -8 yards. Michigan's rank in rushing defense: 109th. Something has to hold. Probably.

Which is it? If there's one position group that Michigan fans might be holding out a little bit of hope for, it's the defensive line. While they were spread and shred the last two weeks the guys up front are relatively veteran folks with little starting experience and considerable guru acclimation. Projected strongside defensive end Brandon Graham has missed most of the first two weeks with an ankle injury but was healthy enough to provide a little bit of pass rush -- virtually Michigan's only -- against Dennis Dixon last week and will hopefully find his way on the field full time, allowing Shawn Crable to resume his outside linebacker role. The rest of the line has been disappointing against spread option attacks, but Notre Dame's offensive line has been somewhere beyond disappointing. Somewhere *way* beyond it. Like in the realm of Michigan as a team. (Zing!)

On the other hand: the linebackers have been awful and the gashing consistent. Armando Allen is a fast little bugger, if one who has been consistently doomed by eight guys in the box and the turnstile in front of him. Notre Dame will not have negative rushing yards this day, and there is always the possibility of effectiveness when Chris Graham is on the field. (Jonas Mouton's potential return could help matters, but he's just a freshman.)

Key Matchup:

Pass Defense vs. SSONIINI

Everyone's praising Jimmah's poise... for some reason. Hell if I know why. There's a whole post on this: he didn't throw downfield against Penn State until the game was well out of reach and the backups were in; every completion was a swing or a screen or a long handoff save the occasional five-yard-out. He was sacked six times, led Notre Dame to no points, and only reached 144 yards passing with some garbage time YAC. Poised he may be. Good he is not.

So it's fortunate for him that he's going up against a Michigan secondary that has given up four long touchdowns in two weeks largely because it decides not to cover guys or enjoys falling down once they catch the ball. Notre Dame has promised to open up the playbook and they probably will: attempting to flail its way to first downs with ND's promised Nasty Power Ground game is not likely to work, so their best chance to score will be eating up big chunks of yards against Michigan's befuddled cornerbacks and safeties.

Again, I cannot tell you what happens here. Notre Dame has no good receivers. David Grimes and George West are slight and slightly athletic; Robby Parris is sort of a Samardzija type, and Duval Kamara is an enormous freshman. None has established anything. Clausen enters his second career start with about four passes downfield to his name. The Michigan secondary seems equally crappy. One thing I do figure: the ND offensive line once again proves to be an achilles heel, severely limiting ND's chances of hitting a long play.

Key Matchup: Tim Jamison and Shawn Crable versus Various Offensive Linemen. Jimmah has proven he can hit guys running open by five yards in high school; Michigan secondary will provide these targets; pressure will make or break the ND passing game.

Special Teams

If Notre Dame punter Geoff Price was a thunder god from beyond time, he could battle Zoltan the Inconceivable to a near-standstill. He is but a man, so this is not possible, but you can still expect many booming 50-yarders followed by limp returns.

Punt returner Tom "You May Not Know This, But I Have Boxed From Time To Time" Zbikowski's inability to wrap up and tackle doesn't affect his returns; therefore he is good at them. He's capable of breaking one off if Zoltan decides, in his mighty wisdom, to let off one of the line drives that he occasionally fires.

Kicker Brandon Walker has two short field goals to his name; little is known about his proficiency.

Key Matchup: Zoltan/punt cover versus Zbikowski who is a boxer. Michigan cannot give up cheap points if their defense in intent on being cheap points incarnate.


Cheap Thrills

Worry if...
  • The coaching staff clearly has no faith in Mallett's ability to read defenses.
  • Demetrius Jones wanders in to take a spread option snap. (Note: WOTS is that Jones is no longer with the team and may be looking to transfer, so this may not be a possibility.)
  • Hart limps off the field.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
  • Clausen's poise is limited to passes within five yards of the LOS.
  • Michigan dominance on the lines is established early.
  • We finally get a couple accurate deep balls.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for We Suck, -2 for They Appear To Suck Worse, +1 for We Could Just Pack It In).

Desperate need to win level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5; -2 for This Season Is Basically Over Already, +1 for But It Would Be Nice To Shift The National Ire Onto SSONIINI, +1 for Mike Hart Deserves Better, +1 for Charlie Weis Deserves Worse, +1 for You Realize I Have To Watch These Things Over And Over Again, Right?)

Loss will cause me to... increase pace of "Profiles in Heroism" series.

Win will cause me to... create "Jimmah Clausen for Heisman" YouTube highlight reel.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
There are portions of Michigan's team that are not resolutely awful: the run game. The receivers. The offensive line. And maybe the defensive line could squeeze its way into competence when it faces off against the Irish turnstiles.

Meanwhile, no part of Notre Dame's team has really looked good except maybe the secondary if you believe the Irish have finally taught Tom Zbikowski to cover and tackle and those corners to not flail horribly. I think the easier explanation is this: Morelli and Bennett suck and their teams knew that they could just pound ND and its swing-mad offense into oblivion. This is a version of the gameplan against Penn State at any point in the Zach Mills era. They suck on a level Michigan probably does not.

So... yeah, this is a game Michigan should win. A freshman quarterback, a defense that looks epically awful, and Angry Michigan Safety Hating God could conspire to throw this one to Notre Dame, but it would require two or three disastrous plays for that to happen. Chances of that: 30%. Outside of disaster, though, Michigan's advantage on both sides of the LOS should be the deciding factor.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • Hart beats Notre Dame to death with their own limbs. Also goes for 165 and two touchdowns.
  • Mallett throws two picks; so does Jimmah.
  • 24-17, Michigan.