The classic matchup set to take place in Ann Arbor, Michigan this Saturday evening is the kind of contest that only college football can produce. Two classic, midwestern powers with famous academics and even more famous football tradition, both battling for heartland supremacy. This is one of those games in which everyone hates one or both of the competing programs and, consequently, everyone watches.
Sort of like a Celtics vs. Lakers NBA Finals.
I defy anyone to name another event that carries such national significance while featuring competition between midwestern entities without referencing college football. This is why we love it.
Currently, these programs are in important transitional periods. Notre Dame came out of nowhere to compete in the national title last year under new-ish head coach, Brian Kelly, and his modern spread tactics. They'd prefer that their relationship with national prominence go better than their Heisman finalist's famous fling. Michigan is attempting to climb back on top of the college football world after the three and out by spread guru Rich Rodriguez and are under the captaincy of local Brady Hoke.
Brady Hoke has a clear vision for Michigan football, and it's both modern and classical in approach. Along with his offensive coordinator Al Borges, the new/old vision for Michigan football is a return to the "remorseless and punishing" power run game of the past combined with West Coast passing principles.
In essense, the "Power Coast" offense of Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw that has catapulted Stanford into college football's national conscience.
The only hang-up in the implementation of this laudable vision has been the roster inherited from Rich Rodriguez. In order to run his up-tempo, zone run game with QB option, Rodriguez pushed his big uglies to cut weight and spent his three years developing an offensive line for Brady Hoke that's tall and athletic but not necessarily prone to knocking people backwards on a straight ahead play.
He also handed Hoke
QBRB Denard Robinson to run his offense with Devin Gardner waiting in the wings.
Completely misshapen pieces to form the puzzle of Power run plays and progression and timing based passing schemes.
On the journey towards Hoke's vision we find the 2013 Michigan offense, which has been adapted pretty well both to the intended finished product and the available talent. They currently have two main approaches to moving the ball and scoring points.
First is the classic formula of run game paired with play-action passing. While waiting for the power-based offensive line to come together, Michigan's current line has two senior offensive tackles, led by freakish athlete and left tackle Taylor Lewan. In between their bookend tackles are a walk-on senior guard, a center who was recruited as a defensive end, and a Hoke-recruited five-star sophomore heralding the new era of Wolverine linemen.
With this cast, Borges and Hoke do feature Power-O in their gameplan:
In this example they pull Lewan ahead of scat back Fitzgerald Toussaint and the left tackle's athleticism enables him to make a late adjustment to his read and clear the linebacker out of the way for Toussaint to dart through the hole and reverse field.
They still appear more comfortable running Zone Stretch, which was Denard Robinson's favorite play, and build play-action off it as well as Power-O.
Then there's the 2nd layer of Michigan's current approach, which is the West Coast passing game. However, similar to the 2005 Texas Longhorns with Vince Young, the Wolverines run several West Coast concepts from spread formations and allow Devin Gardner to include, "make it rain!" amongst his progressions.
They run concepts like Y-stick that involve quick reads and timing throws to control the ball and move the chains. If the mike linebacker takes away the inside route to slot receiver Drew Dileo and the pocket starts to collapse? Ummm, make it rain!
Gardner has also developed the ability to look off safeties and make the reads and throws the offense requires:
Here he watches the progression of Dileo's inside route and his eyes command the safety's attention, then he turns and throws a strike to the outside receiver who's beat the corner on a post. The safety is out of position to help, touchdown Michigan.
On defense the Wolverines are in better shape, save for the extremely unfortunate injury sustained by star linebacker Jake Ryan. Still, if you have athletes, you can run successful defense without having ideal fits for one particular scheme or another.
Greg Mattison's Michigan defense has various fronts and blitzes but can ultimately be defined as 4-3 Under defense that is defined by aggressive and downhill play from the DL backed by speedy linebackers with a safety dropping down as the eigth man and filling the cutback lanes.
In this instance, they drop the strongside end into coverage and bring a sole linebacker but that's merely one of many ways that they shift and move pieces around to form their swarming, eight man front.
They'll also bring five in a Fire Zone and ratchet up the pressure:
In 2012 they were keyed by the pressure and perimeter tackling of Jake Ryan but they have loaded Cam Gordon into the SAM linebacker position and are overall a more talented group with Mattison's higher ranked recruits starting to fill out the roster. The secondary in particular has been a weak spot for the Wolverines and if they don't achieve pressure with their aggressive DL and linebacker blitzes, the sidelines and deep middle could be ripe for a vertical passing attack.
When Brian Kelly came to Notre Dame from Cincinnati in 2010, his intention was to build around his 4-verticals passing game and spread offensive formula which had thrust his Bearcat teams into the limelight.
He inherited a roster recruited to run Charlie Weiss' pro-style offense which featured a diverse and power run game paired with a precise passing game. He immediately invested in integrating the different approaches while searching for a QB to play the part of distributor in the new Fighting Irish offense.
That search seemed to conclude with Everett Golson, but we all know how that turned out. While waiting for Golson's potential return, the Irish turn back to Tommy Rees, he of the 2011 turnover-induced collapse. Should Rees prove up to the task of getting the ball into the hands of the Irish playmakers, Notre Dame does have greater overall team talent than do the Wolverines.
The Kelly offense is a standard "spread'em and shred'em" system that uses formation and concepts to threaten every part of the field before hitting the vulnerabilities in the defensive response.
At the heart is the passing game, which constantly utilizes "4-verticals" and other passing concepts in which the receivers began vertical stems before making breaks based on the defensive response.
6-6 Tight End Troy Niklas is key part of their approach as he has the strength to be a blocker and the hands and route running to demand that the defense account for him in the middle of the field.
After the vertical stretch, they also make use of Niklas and their speed at wideout in the screen game:
Pay careful attention to how Niklas drove the safety across from him to open up an enormous running lane for TJ Jones. This is the fate for teams that attempt to use DB's to cover Niklas, they get driven off the field in the run and screen game.
The Notre Dame running game is quite solid, but primarily concerned with punishing defenses that spread out to cover their receivers. Like Michigan, they make heavy use of Zone Stretch
While the Wolverines have an athletic OL, the Irish crew are observably better at physically displacing opponents from their stances to their backsides.
Between Niklas on the edge, four star running backs Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson III, and a strong offensive line, the Irish have a potent ground game that will necessitate Michigan's eight man fronts and prevent them from torturing Rees with Cover-2 and blitzes. If they get the run game going they have a potent play-action attack throwing to TJ Jones and company.
The real star of the show is the Notre Dame defense, which is a big part of why they earned a berth in the BCS Title game. They are large and powerful up front, and conservative on the back end with a defense very similar to Alabama's that rotates between a two-gap 4-3 and a classic 3-4 front depending on situation and gameplanning.
The starting point with the Notre Dame defense is their execution of their Palms/Cover 2 defense:
Stephon Tuitt is a 6-6, 312 pound defensive end who can beat you off the edge or stand up your run game if you lack power at the point of attack. Managing to get the run game going without seeing your tailback devoured by 342 pound noseguard Louis Nix III is also a challenge.
"Rush" linebacker Prince Shembo is another frequent contributor to the Notre Dame pass rush which will also bring pressure on 3rd down or in the red zone.
Otherwise, as you can note from the above clips, while the Irish front plays the hero you can see the safeties lining up deep and then dropping even deeper after the snap. Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco asks his linebackers to cover a lot of ground underneath the safeties' umbrella which can result in creases in the quick passing game or the run game if you should manage to move Nix's body out of the way.
This leads us to our main questions which should dominate the game:
1) Can the Notre Dame defense bend without breaking during the Devin Gardner Improv hour?
As Alabama discovered against Johnny Football, it can be difficult for defensive ends of the size of Stephon Tuitt or Sheldon Day to contain someone like Gardner in the pocket with a four man rush.
It may also prove too difficult for the large Irish inside linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese (245 and 250 respectively) to cover up the quick game to the Wolverine's inside receivers Drew Dileo and Devin Funchess. There's no Manti Te'o here to grab two picks and change the ball game.
Notre Dame survived Michigan's ground game when it was spearheaded by Denard Robinson but this was before having to concern themselves with Gardner's improving command of the passing game. Robinson threw five interceptions in this game last year, and the Irish magic trick of making Jeremy Gallon disappear with double coverage will be strained against Gardner and the emerging Wolverine receiving corp.
One foot down noted that the best strategy to handle a dual-threat QB is inside pressure flushing the signal-caller into defensive ends who are waiting in contain. However, this leaves the middle of the field bare against Funchess and Dileo. If Gardner's wise to that trick and responds with quick hitting passes, it could backfire spectacularly.
2) Can Michigan run the ball and establish play-action?
Take a stroll through last year's highlights and you'll see the repeated theme of Robinson throwing picks to linebackers who are dropped deep despite play-action fakes by Michigan. In order to land kill shots and finish drives, Michigan will need to earn the respect of the Notre Dame run defense.
The interior OL of the Wolverines is green and pitted against one of the largest and nastiest defensive fronts in all of college football. This will be a physical contest that may well come down to a few possessions. As a general rule, you don't want to be out-toughed in a game where 30 points probably clinches victory.
The men in the trenches for Notre Dame are more talented than the Michigan men, but the ferocity of the Wolverines and personality imbued by their coach on both sides of the ball could very well lead to a physical draw.
3) How do the Wolverines handle the spread stresses of Troy Niklas and Notre Dame without Jake Ryan
Cam Gordon is a quality player, but Jake Ryan would absolutely devour the wide side of the field for the Wolverines last year when he wasn't coming off the edge or up the middle to boost the Michigan pass rush. Had he been available then the Wolverines could have been confident about nixing Niklas and Notre Dame's edge on the perimeter. Instead, we'll have to wait and see whether Gordon or Niklas wins the edge for their respective side.
Within this realm of conversation, Michigan needs greater production at safety and some impact from the other linebackers James Ross II and Desmond Morgan (a Reggie Cleveland All-star if there ever was one). Control the middle of the field against 4-verticals and the Irish run game and you put this game on the arm of Tommy Rees throwing deep and wide.
4) Can Tommy Rees navigate the Michigan pass rush and beat the back end of the Wolverine secondary?
If you assume as I do that Gardner will land a few licks on the Irish defense and the Wolverine front will respond to an uncharacteristically wild and raucous Big House to minimize the effectiveness of the Irish run game, then this question probably determines the game.
Last year Tommy Rees came in and made the big passes to bring victory to Notre Dame. If he can beat coverage on the sidelines and pick apart the middle of the Wolverine defense then Notre Dame can bring their overall talent to bear and secure a big victory.
It sounds overly simplistic, but the way many modern offenses build their systems around the Quarterback the outcomes of games often correlate directly to the performance of the signal callers.
In the instance of Notre Dame, the greater scheme and system disperses playmaking responsibilities across the squad, yet it's up to Rees to make the reads and throws to insure that the right player has the ball in the right place at the right time. It's silly to pretend that Rees was chosen and anointed by Kelly for this role, though he may well prove up to it.
Meanwhile for Michigan, Gardner is absolutely the system's playmaker either by virtue of making reads and looking off defenders or with his rain dance routine.
Kelly inherited a team built to play as Brady Hoke prefers while the Michigan coach found himself in charge of a squad designed to run the spread. In the meantime, both coaches have excelled while mitigating the roster difficulties.
For this contest I'm betting on the team who's QB has been best positioned to thrive...also I distrust the Irish punter:
Michigan 27 Notre Dame 23.