Big Ten: Ian Williams

Two of college football's storied programs meet Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, but the only thing historic about these teams are their helmets. Two spread offenses and two coaches known for their offensive creativity match wits. Both Michigan and Notre Dame recorded critical wins in their season openers, and bloggers Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg take a closer look at this week's matchup.

Adam Rittenberg: So, Bennett, we meet again. Good starts for both the Irish and the Wolverines on Saturday, and it should be a great one in South Bend. Let's talk offense. What do you think Knute Rockne and Fielding Yost would say about these two systems matching up?

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Matt Cashore/US PresswireArmando Allen gained 93 yards on 18 carries and scored a TD against Purdue.
Brian Bennett: I think both coaches would have spit in a leather helmet in disgust. What's the over/under on total number of snaps under center on Saturday? Five?

Yet, for all the talk of the spread offense, Notre Dame stuck to an old staple to beat Purdue: the running game. Running backs Armando Allen and Cierre Wood together averaged better than six yards per carry, and the Irish were happy to hand off and stick to the short passing game as the Boilermakers defense played Cover 2 and protected against the deep ball. I don't think Michigan will attack Notre Dame the same way, and the bubble wrap will have to come off quarterback Dayne Crist in Week 2.

As for the Wolverines, Denard Robinson was incredible. But I didn't see a whole lot out of the backs and receivers, and now it looks like Roy Roundtree won't play. Is Michigan a one-man offense, and can it win on Saturday that way?

AR: Good point about the Irish run game, and I think the matchup between Michigan's defensive line and Notre Dame's offensive front could decide the game. Despite the loss of Brandon Graham, Michigan boasts good experience and talent up front with Mike Martin, Greg Banks, Ryan Van Bergan and dynamic sophomore Craig Roh. They'll try to take advantage of a young Notre Dame line that, despite all the talk about weight room progress, remains unproven in my eyes.

Robinson was ridiculous against Connecticut, and you can't expect him to duplicate the performance in South Bend. Then again, the guy only needs about a foot of daylight to break through the line, and then, good luck trying to bring him down. Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw both scored touchdowns in the opener, but they'll need to be more effective out of the backfield against the Irish. Roundtree would be a big loss, but wideouts Darryl Stonum and Kelvin Grady, and tight end Kevin Koger all are good targets for Robinson, who also hooked up with Terrence Robinson for a 43-yard gain.

In many ways, Michigan won the UConn game at the line of scrimmage. How do you see the two groups matching up on Saturday?

BB: The Irish played well in the trenches against Purdue, but Michigan presents a tougher challenge. With the way Brian Kelly runs the spread, the ball is out of the quarterback's hand quickly, so that neutralizes the pass rush to some degree. The key in my mind is whether the Notre Dame line can open running lanes when the Wolverines drop men into coverage.

Defensively, the front three for Notre Dame proved stout against Purdue, and surprisingly the backups gave them a solid rotation. Ian Williams looks like a perfect fit as nose tackle in a 3-4, and Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson can make plays off the edge. I think the pressure is on the Irish linebackers to make plays in this game. Manti Te'o should be a stud and the perfect antidote to Robinson, but he missed a lot of tackles in Week 1. Darius Fleming is their hybrid guy, and he was stuck on the sidelines with cramps for most of the Purdue game. Once Robinson gets through the first line of defense, can the Irish contain him in the open field?

How about the Michigan pass defense? Connecticut missed some opportunities there, but the Huskies don't have guys like Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph at their disposal.

AR: Totally agree about Connecticut missing some major opportunities to attack downfield, especially in the first two and a half quarters. Michigan is extremely young in the secondary and likely will be down another starter, as linebacker-safety Carvin Johnson sprained his knee in the opener. Michael Floyd absolutely shredded this defense a year ago, so you can bet Notre Dame will try to get him the ball a lot on Saturday. We'll likely see a lot of Floyd vs. Floyd, as Michigan's J.T. Floyd as emerged as the team's top cornerback and forced a big fumble against UConn. Cue the Pink Floyd music.

I'm interested to see how Michigan approaches Rudolph, a matchup problem for pretty much any team he faces. Linebackers Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh played well in the opener, but they'll certainly be tested by No. 9. Roh brought a ton of heat against UConn, but he might have to drop back more in this game.

OK, Bennett, you're on the spot. Your Michigan-UConn pick didn't work out so great, and some of my new friends in Ann Arbor were calling you nasty names Friday night. Who wins Saturday and what's the biggest key to the game?

BB: Well, I'm happy to play the villain in Ann Arbor as long as they still let me in the bars there. I have little doubt this will be a close game, possibly as exciting as last year's shootout. Notre Dame will have its hands full with Robinson, but I think the Irish have a more well-rounded offensive attack. And they will take advantage of that young secondary while making just enough plays of their own defensively. A special-teams play might be the difference. Brian Kelly gets his first big win as the Irish squeak by.

Now tell me why I'm wrong.

AR: You're always welcome in Ann Arbor. Just tell them you know me.

It'll definitely be a close game, and like last year, we should have a dramatic finish. Michigan's young secondary concerns me, and Crist will make plays downfield to both Floyd and Rudolph. But I also have my doubts about Notre Dame's line play and the overall toughness of that team. Robinson is certainly the X-factor here, and while Michigan can't run him 29 times again, he'll make some big plays. If special teams makes the difference, Michigan could be in trouble. Notre Dame jumps ahead, but D-Rob leads the Wolverines back in the fourth quarter for a narrow win and continues to grow his legend in Ann Arbor.
 
  US PRESSWIRE
 Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez are facing similar problems within their programs.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg

Notre Dame and Michigan treated us to one of the season's most entertaining games back on Sept. 12 at the Big House. Both teams seemed destined for solid seasons back then, but the Fighting Irish and Wolverines have since fallen on hard times. Michigan hasn't beaten an FBS team since Sept. 26 and needs to upset No. 20 Wisconsin or No. 11 Ohio State to avoid missing a bowl for the second straight season. Notre Dame likely fell out of the BCS bowl mix by losing to Navy for the second consecutive time in South Bend. Not surprisingly, head coaches Rich Rodriguez and Charlie Weis are in the crosshairs.

Which coach's problems are worse? How did these two programs get here? Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg take a closer look.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's talk about Charlie Weis and the Irish. They lose to Navy at home again. Nose tackle Ian Williams says they're getting outschemed. What's going on with Weis and the Domers?

Brian Bennett: There's very little excuse for Notre Dame to be only 6-3 at this point. The Irish have legitimate stars in quarterback Jimmy Clausen and receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, an experienced offensive line and seasoned upperclassmen all over the roster. But this program continues to lose to every ranked team it plays and throws in at least one head-scratcher each year (this time, Navy. Again.).

Something just isn't working here, and you have to blame Weis. He remains a brilliant offensive mind, but I think sometimes he outthinks himself in an effort to prove his intelligence. He doesn't appear to be able to properly motivate his teams, likely because of his NFL coordinator background. And years of suspect recruiting or talent evaluation on the defensive side has again led to a team that can't stop anybody.

Notre Dame, simply put, should be better than this in Year 5 under Weis. It's only Year 2 under Rodriguez in Ann Arbor, but people expected a lot more than this. What's wrong with the Maize and Blue?

 
  Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
  There were high expectations for both Michigan and Notre Dame this season.
Rittenberg: Those expectations certainly increased after Michigan's 4-0 start, highlighted by the win over the Fighting Irish. I remember thinking then that Notre Dame was the better team in that matchup, but Michigan found a way to win and had the potential to make major progress. Instead, the mistakes Michigan overcame in its first four victories began to cost the Wolverines in October.

Quarterback Tate Forcier has battled injuries and some inconsistent play. He still creates a lot of plays with his feet, but he's still too much of a freelancer and struggles with his throws in the pocket. Brandon Minor might be the Big Ten's most dominant running back, but he just can't stay healthy. But for the most part, the offense hasn't been the problem. Like Notre Dame, Michigan's major issues are on the defensive side. There's a lot of youth and not much depth there, as evidenced by several walk-ons in the two-deep, but the number of major breakdowns is shocking. It's one thing to allow big plays to Notre Dame on Sept. 12. But to give up the same plays to Iowa, Illinois and Purdue later in the season is unacceptable.

Rodriguez isn't to blame for all the problems, but like Weis, I think he fights himself a lot. He has won a certain way for years, and he can be stubborn. Rich has talked a lot about the need to have patience but admits he doesn't have much himself. And he still talks too much about the program he inherited from Lloyd Carr. Last I checked, he coaches Michigan, not Eastern Michigan, and while there were problems in 2007, a program like Michigan should never miss bowls in consecutive years (a strong possibility), especially in an average Big Ten.

Both of these coaches are known for offense, and yet both have major problems on defense. Has Weis put enough focus on the other side of the ball?

Bennett: Well, as you know, Weis is the offensive coordinator again this year and fully admits that he leaves most of the responsibility for the defense in the hands of veteran coordinator Jon Tenuta. The blitzing schemes favored by Tenuta haven't really worked, but that's mostly because of the personnel. Though Weis has brought in some highly rated recruiting classes, there still aren't enough big-time playmakers on defense, especially up front. When you look at, say USC, or even this week's opponent, Pittsburgh, the Irish simply don't stack up athlete for athlete on the defensive line.

What I don't understand is how Michigan can have talent problems, even in the coaching transition. Shouldn't the Wolverines have enough blue-chippers to field a good defense even as they adjust to a new offensive system?

Rittenberg: You would think, Brian, but Michigan has had an abnormal amount of attrition on that side of the ball, coupled with some bad recruiting classes for defense toward the end of Carr's tenure. The Wolverines also have had veteran players regress this season, and there aren't enough young guys ready to fill the gaps. Rodriguez needs his defensive recruits to blossom immediately, especially since Michigan will be losing its best defensive player (DE Brandon Graham) and possibly its No. 2 defender (junior CB Donovan Warren). It will be interesting to see what happens with first-year coordinator Greg Robinson, who hasn't had the desired effect on this unit.

OK, you're on the spot. What's your prediction for the rest of Notre Dame's season? Can Weis turn things around? Will next year's Fighting Irish head coach be Weis or your man-crush, Brian Kelly?

Bennett: The rest of the season brings a trip to No. 12 Pitt this week, followed by a visit from dangerous UConn next week and the season finale at Stanford. I have a hard time seeing Notre Dame winning more than two of those, so 8-4 or 7-5 looks like the final tally.

Jack Swarbrick isn't going to call me for advice, but I wouldn't think that record would be enough to keep Weis, especially since the Irish could once again lack any real quality wins. They don't hang banners for Gator Bowls in South Bend.

If there is a change, I would imagine Notre Dame would first try and land a big-time name, such as Urban Meyer or Jon Gruden. Once those guys say no -- and I don't think either would take the job -- the Irish would be crazy not to go after Kelly. He's Catholic, a great program salesman, he's built strong recruiting ties in the Midwest and he just wins big everywhere he goes.

He'd be a perfect fit at Notre Dame -- unless Michigan came calling first. Any chance Rodriguez doesn't survive, especially if the NCAA finds something in that whole practice time investigation?

Rittenberg: The NCAA investigation is the wild card, especially if major violations are found for the first time in Michigan football history. But this isn't boosters paying players or academic fraud, so I can't see the penalties being too terrible. Michigan AD Bill Martin said earlier this week that Rodriguez is safe, and though Martin will be retiring soon, they're not going to make a change in football after only two years, especially during an athletic director transition.

A 5-7 season combined with NCAA violations would really sting, but Rodriguez should be back in 2010. He'll definitely be on the hot seat entering next fall, needing at least eight or nine wins to keep his job at a tradition-rich program.

Sound familiar?

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