Michigan offense vs. Notre Dame defense
• QB Denard Robinson is not yet operating coach Rich Rodriguez's triple-option offense as seamlessly as Pat White once did at West Virginia, but Robinson is catching up in a hurry. In the triple-option, Robinson has an option to hand off to the running back inside, keep the ball and run it himself, or swing the ball out to a wide receiver on the perimeter if a defensive back comes crashing off the edge. Robinson now knows exactly what he's reading and is reacting rather than thinking (or sometimes even guessing). The game is slowing down in his mind, which is allowing him to play faster.
• Robinson's performance is garnering most of the attention, but his offensive line was just as responsible for the success versus Connecticut. This group finally looks like a Rodriguez offensive line. The unit, as a whole, is slimmed down and much quicker than a year ago. The scheme requires the line to be active with lots of pulling, angle blocks and second-level responsibilities. The assignments will be slightly different versus Notre Dame's three-man front this week, but the philosophy remains the same. If Michigan's offensive line knows its assignments, takes good angles and works hard to finish as it did in the opener, the results should be similar on this side of the ball.
• Notre Dame's defense needs to play with exceptional discipline in order to limit the Wolverines' chances for big gains. While the triple-option is the foundation of Michigan's attack, it was actually the quarterback-lead draw that led to Robinson's three longest runs versus Connecticut, while a play-action pass accounted for his longest completion (43 yards). All four of those long gains were aided by undisciplined safety play. If Notre Dame is to limit Robinson's big-play production on Saturday, safeties Harrison Smith and Jamoris Slaughter need to be the hardest-working players in the film room and then need to transfer that film study to the field. Diagnosing plays early, remaining disciplined despite play-action and misdirection, and tackling well in space are the three areas in which Smith and Slaughter must excel.
Notre Dame offense vs. Michigan defense
• One bright spot from Notre Dame's opener was the play of RB Armando Allen. The senior looks comfortable in the new zone-read option and he's showing more shiftiness than ever before. Allen is a patient runner who does a nice job of waiting for his blocks to develop. He also shows good burst through the line when a crease develops. Allen's backup, sophomore Cierre Wood, also showed flashes of big-play ability in the opener. The tandem combined for 151 yards on 25 carries, which is surprising production for coach Brian Kelly's offense. Michigan's run defense is improved from a year ago but is still a middle-of-the-road unit. This group seemed to wear down as the game progressed last week, surrendering 48 of Jordan Todman's 105 rushing yards in the fourth quarter. However, this trend makes sense, considering the lack of depth along the Wolverines' defensive front. Notre Dame doesn't need to pound away at this unit to wear it down. Instead, look for Kelly's offense to ramp up the pace. The faster QB Dayne Crist can get the Irish from one snap to the next, the better chance the Irish have of wearing down Michigan's thin defense by the fourth quarter.
• Notre Dame's offense had moments of brilliance, but it needs to be more consistent in its execution. At this point, Crist is not as accurate as Kelly needs him to be in order to operate the passing attack at its highest level. That's a big reason why (in our opinion) the Irish were more committed to the ground game than expected in the opener. It will be interesting to see if Kelly takes a more aggressive approach with Crist and the passing attack against an injury-riddled Michigan secondary. The Wolverines had already lost their best defensive back in Troy Woolfolk (ankle injury) for the season, and now it is likely that freshman Carvin Johnson will be sidelined by a knee injury suffered against Connecticut. The Wolverines play a lot of zone coverage on defense, and they will not give up many big plays vertically because they're conditioned to give cushion and keep receivers in front of them. Cavities can always be found in zone coverage, but Michigan's conservative approach and its injury issues in the secondary should provide Crist and his receivers even more room than usual to attack.
• A couple of things need to happen for Notre Dame to take advantage of Michigan's vulnerable secondary. First, Crist needs to get into an early rhythm and improve his timing as a passer in order to fit the ball into tight windows. Second, Notre Dame's talented group of pass-catchers must consistently find soft spots in the zone coverage and do a better job of securing the ball in traffic. Senior WR Michael Floyd is not a great route runner, and he lost a fumble while heading in for a score last week. However, he is still the team's best perimeter weapon and he does a great job of using his big frame to shield defenders from the ball. Per usual, look for Floyd to be targeted on the perimeter on a lot of fade routes and skinny posts. Kelly is also doing a nice job of keeping TE Kyle Rudolph involved in the passing game, using him both as an in-line tight end and flexed out in the slot. If Floyd and Rudolph hold up their end of the bargain early on, it will lead to more operating room for secondary receivers such as freshman TJ Jones and sophomore Theo Riddick, who combined for five catches and 54 yards in the opener.
Key Individual Match-Up
Michigan lead blockers
Notre Dame ILBs
Manti Te'o and Carlo Calabrese
As previously mentioned, Robinson's three longest runs versus Connecticut came on quarterback-lead draws. It's a simple play that features Robinson getting the ball on a direct snap, pausing for a quarter-count to buy his blockers time and then attacking the line of scrimmage while playing off of his lead blocker. Michigan will send either a tight end (Kevin Koger or Martell Webb) from the backfield or use one of its running backs (Vincent Smith or Michael Shaw) as the lead blocker on this play. If Notre Dame is to limit Robinson's production on lead draws -- and on any running plays, for that matter -- Te'o and Calabrese need do diagnose the play early and then quickly disengage from the iso-block. If Te'o and Calabrese are late to get in position and/or struggle getting off blocks, it will provide Robinson with just enough daylight to explode through the line of scrimmage. Once he hits the second level of a defense, Robinson becomes a nightmare to track down.
Neither defense stacks up very well in this matchup. Crist should be able to exploit the Wolverines' vulnerable secondary by spreading the ball around the field to his strong corps of weapons, including Floyd and Rudolph. Notre Dame should also find some balance on the ground. However, Michigan's offense is playing at a different speed with a confident Robinson as its triggerman. The Irish simply do not have the athletes or depth on that side of the ball to contend. As a result, we like Rodriguez's Wolverines in a shootout at South Bend.
Prediction: Wolverines 41, Fighting Irish 34