Wednesday, September 07, 2005

ND Football 2005

Issue 2: Michigan

Michigan Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

Michael Hart burst onto the scene in 2004, scoring 9 touchdowns and averaging 121.2 yards per game on the ground. Last week against Northern Illinois, he picked up right where he left off, gaining 117 yards and one touchdown on 27 carries. Freshman Kevin Grady is Hart's primary backup. Grady had a respectable debut against NIU, picking up 42 yards on 9 carries. Three other running backs saw token carries last week, but oddly enough no one listed on the roster as a fullback touched the ball. That of course doesn't rule out a tailback lining up as Hart's blocking back. But, it will be interesting to watch on Saturday if the fullback simply isn't a weapon in Lloyd Carr's offense, or if the Wolverines were pulling punches in an attempt to keep the tape reviewers Irish off guard. A quick look at Michigan's 2004 stats indicates that the former may be the case here.
Notre Dame's defense in recent years has been known as a hard-hitting group of run stoppers. Against Pitt last week, they didn't disappoint. The Irish surrendered 103 yards on the ground against the Panthers, with 55 of those yards coming on one play. Notre Dame's run defense is lead by senior linebacker Brandon Hoyte, who was in the backfield for a stop 5 times (ok, 4.5 times) last week.

ND Rush Offense vs. Michigan Rush Defense

Notre Dame's running game ran over, around, and through Pitt last week. Darius Walker, whose 2004 debut will remembered for a long time by both Notre Dame and Michigan fans, started the season on a fine note with exactly 100 rushing yards. Fullback Rashon Powers-Neal, who also lined up at tailback on short yardage and goal line situations, turned 8 carries into 41 yards and 3 touchdowns, earning him the first ever KankaNation Horse Trailer award. Even quarterback Brady Quinn got in on the act, choosing his spots to the tune of 5 rushes for 49 yards. Walker's primary backup, if you don't count Powers-Neal, is Travis Thomas, who picked up 40 yards in a mop-up role against the Panthers. Overall, the running backs and the offensive line were completely dominant in the ground game against the Panthers.
On most days of the week, a Big Ten run defense is much better than a Big East run defense. Will Notre Dame pick up 275 yards on the ground this week like they did last week? To quote a certain computer engineering professor at ND, "Probably not." However, the U of M Blogosphere (see below) is still worried about what Walker, Charlie Weis, and an experienced Irish o-line can accomplish on the ground this week. Word on the 'net is that run defense is one of the weaknesses of this year's Wolverine squad. The 211 rushing yards given up to mid-major NIU support that thesis. If Michigan wants to stop Walker et al. (and I'm assuming they do, since winning football games is a good thing), they'll have to rely on another big game from linebackers Chris Graham and Scott McClintock. Graham and McClintock combined for 19 tackles to lead the Wolverines against Northern Illinois. In addition, Graham made 2 of Michigan's 4 tackles in the backfield.

Michigan Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

Chad Henne, yet another sophomore starting (and starring) in this offense, passed for 2743 yards, 25 TDs, and 12 interceptions last year, very good for a freshman in a big-time program. I'm also told he looks good in yellow spandex pants, but I was never a good judge of that sort of stuff. Like Hart, Henne picked up where he left off to start the 2005 season, completing 20 of 31 passes for 227 yards, 2 TDs, and no interceptions. There's no question who Henne's primary target is: senior receiver Jason Avant. Avant is said to have amazing hands, and he proved it last week with 9 catches for 127 yards. Michigan's #2 receiver, Steve Breaston, is off to a shaky start in 2005, catching only 2 passes in week one. Michigan's tight end is Tim Massaquoi. He, Breaston, and the backs will be catching any passes that don't go Avant's way.
As good as Notre Dame's has been over the past few years, there pass defense has left a little to be desired (or a lot to be desired, if it's a late-season game with Heisman implications). A supposedly nonexistent pass rush had a good day against Pittsburgh, as four players combined for five sacks. Brandon Hoyte, who is showing flashes of becoming a complete player, led the team with two sacks. Safety Tom Zbikowski had the team's lone interception.

ND Pass Offense vs. Michigan Pass Defense

A perfectionist would say that Brady Quinn got off to a rough start against Pitt - his only options early on were to run or dump the ball of to Walker. When he did go downfield, he had time, but it was forced (this includes his lone interception). But then, adjustments were made, and Quinn was able to hit the "usual suspects" downfield. Quinn spread the ball very evenly: one receiver had 4 catches (tight end Anthony Fasano), three had 3 (Walker, Rhema McKnight, and Jeff Samardzija), two had 2 (Maurice Stovall, who I'm told wasn't at fault for that dropped screen pass, and John Carlson), and one with 1 (RPN). Look for Quinn, and perhaps more importantly Charlie Weis, to again attempt to use all available weapons effectively.
The Huskies of NIU gained 200 yards on 17-25 passing last week. This comes a year after Michigan gave up about 200 yards per game in the air in 2004, a very respectable number. The Wolverines only managed one sack, by linebacker LaMarr Woodley, and had one interception by cornerback Grant Mason. Michigan's coaching staff claimed they were running a simplistic defense to avoid tipping their hands to ND. Is that the case, or are they trying to hide a weak pass rush? (I'm not implying anything - I honestly don't know, and that's why I'm asking.) If there isn't a pass rush, will Charlie Weis be able to slowly pick apart the Wolverine pass coverage? Besides the way the Irish secondary deals with Avant and Massaquoi, the way Brady Quinn and Company react to a good pass defense will be the matchup of the game.

Special Teams

Michigan returns Garrett Rivas as their placekicker. After converting 19-24 field goals in 2004, Rivas missed from 48 and made from 38 and 23 against NIU. Rivas' long in 2004 was 47 yards. Kicking again for ND is DJ Fitzpatrick, who did not have a field goal attempt last week, but who did go 11-15 with a long of 47 in 2004.
Michigan has a new punter in 2005 in Ross Ryan. Ryan had one punt against NIU for 41 yards. That punt landed inside the 20. DJ Fitzpatrick, once he was finally needed against Pitt, had three punts, averaging 45.7 yards with a long of 54.
The Wolverines had three kickoff returns last week: Breaston went 17 yards, Grant Mason 16, and backup WR Adrian Arrington 15. ND kickoff specialist Carl Gioia averaged 52.1 yards per kick, meaning that the opposing team caught the ball just inside the 15 each time. Once Pitt did receive the ball, they returned it an average of 17.5 yards, a respectable but not great number.
Backups Justin Hoskins and Brandon Harris handled kick return duties for the Irish. Hoskins' lone return netted 24 yards, while Harris' gained 11. Garrett Rivas (assuming he's the kickoff guy) has a boot when it comes to kickoffs. Five out of seven kicks against Norther Illinois were touchbacks. When there was a return, it was for about 16 yards.
Michigan did not have a punt return last week, but I will assume those duties will once again go to Steve Breaston. Breaston averaged 12.2 yards per return and had 1 return TD in 2004. Making things all the more intriguing is the fact that Notre Dame did not yield a punt return last week. In 2004, they gave up 8.2 yards per return.
Notre Dame's lone punt return opportunity against Pitt came to Tom Zbikowski, who turned it into a 23 yard gain. NIU's lone return last week netted 1 yard again Michigan's punt coverage team.

Look for a big game from Fasano, RPN, Samardzija, the O-Line, Hoyte, and the ends (Victor Abiamiri and Chris Frome)

ND 30, Michigan 24: Walker and RPN on the ground, Fasano in the air, and 3 by DJ.

Michigan Blogs

Blue Notes
Football Insiders (also a great NFL site and former home of the TMQ)
Straight Bangin'
iBlog for Cookies
Rob in Madtown
Big House Football
Motown Sports Revival
Blah Me to Death
Blue Cats and Red Sox
The Blog that Yost Built
SportsLog Michigan
ArborBlogs Sports
Dangerous Logic
Fanblogs Michigan