NCF Nation: ND-Michigan coverage


Ivan Maisel is joined by Todd McShay, Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg and Pac-10 blogger Ted Miller to break down the two biggest games of the weekend: Notre Dame-Michigan and USC-Ohio State.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg

The Notre Dame-Michigan game means something again. Both traditional powers started the 2009 season with impressive victories, blowing out two solid non-BCS foes in Nevada and Western Michigan. The 18th-ranked Fighting Irish travel Saturday to Ann Arbor to face Michigan (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), which could be on its way back under Rich Rodriguez.

Before the teams enter the Big House, we took a look at several of the key factors in the game.

Brian Bennett: Adam, Notre Dame vs. Michigan feels important again for the first time in a couple of years. Both teams are 1-0 and looking for bounce-back years.

My first question for you is, which team and which coach needs this more? I say it's Notre Dame and Charlie Weis. While I think Michigan fans would accept another rebuilding-type of year with the Wolverines' young quarterbacks, the Irish are built to win now. Weis has to get to eight or nine wins to feel safe, and this is a huge swing game for Notre Dame. Losing to Michigan would bring back more doubt and questions that Weis and his players don't need.

Brian Spurlock/US Presswire
Charlie Weis arguably needs to win this game more than Michigan's Rich Rodriguez.
Adam Rittenberg: I totally agree, Brian. Michigan had its sky-is-falling game last week, especially after all the allegations of NCAA violations and the talk about Rodriguez. The Wolverines remain young and not very deep at several places. On the flip side, this has to be Notre Dame's year. Weis has recruited too well not to get at least nine wins out of this team. Anything less is unacceptable, especially with this schedule. Rodriguez and Michigan can't afford another 3-9 season, but they proved last week that this will be a much better Wolverines team and one that should make it back to a bowl game.

Notre Dame's offense looked awfully impressive last week, especially the line. I've been skeptical of that group because older players don't necessarily mean better ones. Has the Irish line turned a corner and what does that mean for Jimmy Clausen and those dynamic wide receivers. How do you think they'll match up against a younger but faster Michigan defensive front?

BB: The Irish offensive line neutralized Nevada's defensive ends, Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch, who combined for more than 20 sacks last year. Clausen had time to write his thesis in the pocket. Weis said they threw everything at the ends -- cutting, double-teaming, screens and running right at them -- to slow them down. Michigan has better athletes up front and should be ready for those ploys. Notre Dame's offensive line still has a lot to prove, as they didn't exactly run the ball down Nevada's throat. Unless inexperience bites them, I think this could be an advantage for the Wolverines.

That being said, when Clausen does get time, who is going to stop Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and Kyle Rudolph from going off? It's been a while since the Wolverines have seen such talented pass-catchers.

AR: Each of those guys is awfully tough to stop, especially in man coverage. Michigan's defensive backs tackled extremely well last week against Western Michigan, even when they were left alone in space. Still, the secondary is an inexperienced group, particularly at safety, and to expect it to contain Floyd, Tate and Rudolph is unrealistic. Junior corner Donovan Warren is a potential shutdown guy, and I'd imagine he'll be on Tate. The other corner, Boubacar Cissoko, had an interception last week and did a lot of nice things against Western Michigan. For Michigan, the key to stopping those three is not giving Clausen enough time to get them the ball down the field. The Wolverines will try to generate a pass rush solely with their down linemen to give the secondary some help from the linebackers.

Obviously, Michigan's offense looked dramatically different with Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson at quarterback. How do you think Notre Dame will defend the spread? How big of a factor will freshman Manti Te'o be for the Irish?

BB: It's interesting, because Notre Dame got some practice against a spread-type offense and a running quarterback versus Nevada. I think that will help their preparation for this game. The Wolf Pack didn't score but did get quite a few big running plays before turning the ball over or failing to convert key third downs. The Irish didn't really have to worry about the passing game much, either. Te'o didn't play a whole lot in that game, partly because they were afraid to throw a true freshman in against a confusing offense, but mostly because linebackers Brian Smith and Toryan Smith played so well. Weis said this week that Te'o would be involved more, and he showed in his limited time that he can really run and deliver a big hit when he gets there. They may need that this week.
 
 Eric Bronson/Icon SMI
 Junior Hemingway collected five passes for 103 yards and two TDs against Western Michigan.

What other offensive concerns do the Wolverines pose, and how much of a role do you think the inexperience factor will play for them at quarterback in this game?

AR: Forcier said after last week's game that he never gets nervous, and I believe him. He didn't look anything like a freshman in leading the offense. Denard Robinson still has a ways to go as a passer, but he's too fast and too athletic to be left off the field. I'm sure you saw his electrifying scoring run on his first career carry in college. Michigan had called a reverse on that play, Robinson fumbled the snap and he still found a way to make a huge play. Forcier will get most of the snaps, but Robinson will definitely be a factor. I'd also watch out for wide receiver Junior Hemingway, who had a huge game in the opener after missing most of last season with mono. He looks like Forcier's top target. Michigan also is extremely deep at running back and should get Brandon Minor back on the field Saturday.

This game got a lot more interesting last weekend, and I could see it go either way. I can't see Forcier and Robinson playing as cleanly as they did last week, and it'll be tough for Michigan to contain Notre Dame's deep threats for 60 minutes. I'm giving the Irish a slight edge in this one, 30-27.

What's your take?

BB: I'm real close to your score. I've got Notre Dame by a 34-29 count. I just think the Irish are more experienced and have a few too many weapons on offense. But this game could be a lot of fun. And it isn't it great to have Notre Dame-Michigan mean something again?

AR: Absolutely. Enjoy the Big House, my friend. Should be a good one.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett


Three things to watch for in Notre Dame's game at Michigan:

1. The offensive line vs. Michigan's pass rush: The Irish offensive line kept Jimmy Clausen clean against Nevada. But that was Nevada and this is Michigan. The Wolverines are going to try and bring heat with their athletic defensive front, and defensive coordinator Greg Robinson had Notre Dame's number last year as Syracuse's head coach. Has the Irish O-line actually improved? Or did it just look good against a WAC team? Saturday is a proving ground.

2. Clausen and his receivers vs. the Michigan secondary: Clausen has been nearly perfect his last two games -- again, against WAC defenses. Still, the Wolverines will have a tough challenge trying to slow down Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and tight end Kyle Rudolph, who comprise maybe the best set of pass-catchers Michigan will see all year. Michigan will have to try to stop the big pass play, which Notre Dame excelled at against Nevada.

3. Notre Dame's defense vs. Michigan's spread: Playing against Colin Kaepernick and Nevada's pistol offense was kind of like practicing against a scout team for Michigan. While the two offenses are different, they have similar principles, including a running quarterback. The Irish can take comfort in the fact that they shut out Nevada, even though the Wolf Pack averaged more than 5 yards per rush. Freshmen Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson will try to make the Wolverines' spread option go. Linebacker Brian Smith and Toryan Smith will have to play as well as they did against Nevada to stop it.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett


Jimmy Clausen says Notre Dame's players like to think they have a 2-0 record. They view last year's Hawaii Bowl as the start of the current season.

The Irish pounded Hawaii 49-21 and followed that up with a 35-0 shellacking of Nevada last week at home. Clausen and the offense were nearly perfect in those two games.

Of course, there's quite a difference between the WAC and the Wolverines. For Notre Dame to actually reach a 2-0 record, it will have to go in and beat Michigan on the road this week. The team's only road win last year -- if you don't count Hawaii -- came against a winless Washington team.

"This is the next big step for us," Clausen said, "going on the road to Michigan in a hostile environment, 110,000 people there. It's going to be a big test for us."

The Hawaii win hinted at a breakthrough for the Irish. All offseason, talk centered around how more experience and maturity could get this team back into national relevance, maybe even BCS contention. That promise looked pretty good in Week 1, when Notre Dame dismantled a Nevada team coming off four straight bowl games.

"When you think about openers and coming out and making a statement for our season, I can't think of it going much better than it did on Saturday," tight end Kyle Rudolph said.

But if Notre Dame is really on the way back, it needs to go into Ann Arbor and win. With a victory there, it's not hard to imagine the Irish sitting at 5-0 when USC visits on Oct. 17. A loss to Michigan will raise some of the same old questions about Charlie Weis' job security and when this team will truly turn the corner.

"We've talked about it," Rudolph said. "There are positive things coming out of Notre Dame now, and this is a way for us to build even more momentum.

"With each win, every week gets even bigger. If we get a win up there, that makes Week 3 even bigger. But if we fall up there, that makes Week 1 not mean anything."

The Irish are riding as much confidence going into Michigan week as they've ever had under Weis. Of course, the Wolverines finally have a reason to feel good about themselves after last year's 3-9 season and the controversies surrounding Rich Rodriguez right before the first kickoff.

Their 31-7 opening win over Western Michigan has them looking at this week as a swing game, too. With Eastern Michigan and Indiana up next, a 4-0 start would be well within the Wolverines' grasp.

"I think right now they're probably taking a similar approach to us as far as shortsightedness," Weis said. "They're coming off a 31-7 win, and I don't think they're worrying too much about what happened last year."

Last year's problems seemed long ago buried by the way Notre Dame played in the opener. It will take a win this Saturday to truly keep those ghosts down.

"Coming out of the opener, we gained a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence in our team and each other," linebacker Scott Smith said. "Obviously, we realize this weekend at Michigan is a huge game, and they're going to bring their best effort and we're going to bring our best effort. Like we did in the first game, it's all about showing up and performing on Saturday and giving it all we got."

Video: Big Ten preview

September, 8, 2009
9/08/09
4:10
PM ET



Kirk Herbstreit previews Notre Dame-Michigan and USC-Ohio State.

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