There can be no doubt, #18 Michigan’s season at this point is one filled with question marks. Those questions however will be fully addressed Saturday evening in South Bend, Indiana as the Wolverines take the field to face 11th ranked Notre Dame’s most formidable offering in recent memory.
Forget Alabama — as difficult as it may be — Saturday’s meeting with the Irish is certainty the pivot point for the remainder of the 2012 campaign. And as the Wolverines go Saturday, so shall go the Michigan season.
Brady Hoke and his staff have long since put the Cowboy’s Classic thumping behind them, as any coach worth his salt would. Since the opener, the Wolverines have faced an extremely disciplined, back-alley brawling Air Force squad that had most Wolverine fans gnawing their nails. Luckily Michigan escaped with a 31-25 win in the home opener.
Then the following week, Michigan played an undermanned, sparsely talented UMass team that seemed to have surrendered their lunch money by the end of the first half. Even after the 63-13 thrashing, many followers of the program were questioning the defense’s ability to dominate consistently. Even though they actually allowed only two field goals to UMass. Go figure!
For Michigan, internally, there are several glaring issues that surround them at every turn, most notably defensive line play. Greg Mattison’s group has show improvement this year, yet that may be due solely to the fact that Michigan’s competition has progressively gotten easier each week. No such luxury this week, the Irish are athletic, big, fast and probably the most physical team left on the schedule.
The Litmus Test for Michigan will be if they can utilize their learnings and improvements made since the season opening embarrassment in Dallas and put together the type of solid, fundamentally sound effort it will take to beat the hostile Irish on the road. But Brian Kelly’s group will present some challenges if the Wolverines are to do so.
The Irish have a veteran offensive line, a serviceable, athletic quarterback and Cierre Wood who ran the ball 25 times for 134 yards with one touchdown in last years battle “Under the Lights” in Ann Arbor.
Wood though is still rounding into form after siting out Notre Dame’s first two games due to suspension. Last week Wood put up 56 yards on 10 carries. But that was against the MSU defensive line which is “supposed” to be really strong.
The Wolverine defensive line will need to put together their absolute best performance of the season so far to insure that Wood doesn’t repeat last year’s performance. It’s safe to say that so far no opposing offensive coordinator is looking at Michigan game film and shuddering in fear over what they’ve seen from the Michigan defensive line.
Though the defensive line is somewhat inexperienced, starters Jibreel Black, Will Campbell, Quinton Washington and Craig Roh have anchored a group that proved they can play bend but don’t break football against a hard running Air Force team. A lot was expected of Campbell this year and so far he is leading the linemen with 12 combined tackles.
The strength of the Wolverine defense is in the back seven with solid depth at every position except corner. Linebacker is the deepest position led by senior Craig Roh and his 20 combined tackles and the group has a healthy rotation of players.
Fortunately there is no more Michael Floyd to contend with though the Irish WRs are a good unit that lacks the overall game-breaking ability they displayed last year. Michigan’s biggest concern aside from Cierre Wood, has to be TE Tyler Eifert, a 6″6″ 250 lb. Kyle Rudolph clone that does everything that a TE should, very well.
When the Wolverines are on offense, well, there is Denard Robinson.
Everyone knows what Denard Robinson can do, especially to the Irish. Last year alone, Robinson played his best football of the year in the forth quarter of the Notre Dame game when he led the Wolverines on four touchdown drives to steal the win at home. Denard will run. Denard will pass. The hopes of most Michigan supporters are that Denard will NOT throw passes to the other team. If he can limit his interception opportunities for the Irish, the quarterback play will be fine.
Success will then be up to offensive coordinator Al Borges to deliver a game-plan plan that will best utilize his ability. But Denard will not be alone thanks to his new weapons, the Devins!
Devin Gardner the junior converted quarterback is the leading Wolverine receiver with 8 catches for 155 yards with 3 touchdowns and Devin Funchess would be the true freshman tight end who plays like a wide-out. Gardner, with each passing game, seems to display more comfort with the position even though he has expressed interest in not giving up his desire to play quarterback again in the future.
Gardner is blessed with a lion’s share of natural ability and athleticism. His 6’4″ height, speed and leaping ability is beginning to pay dividends within the offense. And for the 6’5″ 230 lb. Funchess, his speed makes him a nightmare for heavy footed linebackers. His height and leaping ability are an immediate disadvantage to safeties and DBs.
Though a bit slight in terms of weight for his position, Funchess appears to be more than adequate in his willingness to block or he would not be getting playing time and he shows no symptoms of rookie culture shock. Yet, Funchess is still listed fourth on the tight end position depth chart for the Notre Dame game.
The Michigan offensive line anchored by senior Elliot Mealer in the middle has, at times, shown obvious inability to blow opponents off the ball. It is however a line that has enough talent to respond to coaching and make marked improvements as the game wears on. The group’s progression from being humiliated to evading upset then polishing off a cream puff in a three week span could possibly be advantageous for this group.
Starter and redshirt junior running back Fitz Touissant is seasoned, skilled and can at anytime rebound from his slow start to be the game changer he became in 2011. Much of the same can be said for Roy Roundtree.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, the leader of the Irish defense — coming off a a 12 tackle, two pass break-up, one interception NFL audition on the road — paced the Irish in holding Spartan Le’Veon Bell to a very average 77 yards on 19 attempts. Considering that Michigan has yet to have a back other than Denard remotely sniff at a 100 yard game makes the presence of Te’o loom larger.
The Wolverines should have ample opportunities to test the Domer’s back-line because of all of the inexperience and the Irish secondary has been racked with injuries, most notably season ending setbacks to cornerback Lo Wood and safety Jamoris Slaughter.
Intangibles, this is a winnable ball game for either team. Attitude and desire to win will play a large part in Michigan’s success Saturday night and onward throughout the season.
If Michigan loses to the second best team they’ve played this year, that will not bode well for their opportunities to repeat last year’s success and 11-2 record. After Notre Dame comes a home match-up against MSU and their most difficult remaining games will be on the road at Nebraska and then at Ohio State. I’m sure the Buckeyes and new coach Urban Meyer will be looking for major payback after dropping the game last year in Ann Arbor to Michigan.
Should the Wolverines win this game Saturday night, there will not be a team on the remaining schedule that Michigan can not, nor should not beat. And then the opportunities of even a better season than last year will be all within Brady Hoke and team’s grasp.
There’s and old saying, “a journey of 1000 miles begins with the first step,” that step for the Maize and Blue could very well take place with a victory in South Bend Saturday night.
A win against the Irish will not bestow the elite status upon Michigan that it once held, but it very well could set the tone for it. The ball is in the Wolverines court (so to speak), with much to be gained by a victory underneath the shadow of “Touchdown Jesus.”
That truly would be divine!
Aaron S. Bryant