Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Notre Dame Football 2006
Issue 3: Michigan

Michigan Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

Running back 20 Mike Hart gets used so much, the common thought is that Michigan has a very run-centered offense. Last year, Michigan ran 499 times and passed 409 times. So far this year the numbers are skewed, with the Wolverines running 101 times and passing 43 times. But then you look at the numbers closely. Twenty-six rushes have come from Hart's backups, and one could presume that most of those came in "garbage time." Twelve have come from quarterbacks, either on sacks or possible scrambles. Four have gone to receivers. Isolating Hart's carries (50), and assuming that quarterback run attempts were designed pass plays, and you see that the playcalling comes out right around 50-50, both percentage-wise and attempt-wise. Hart has averaged 25 carries and 131 yards a game so far, and has added three touchdowns. Last year he averaged 19 carries and 83 yards per game. His 2006 totals may come close to his 2005 totals when all is said and done, but look for the Michigan offense to test ND's run defense in this one. Hart's primary backups are 3 Kevin Grady and 4 Brandon Minor. Grady is averaging 9 carries and 38 yards per game, and has scored twice. The freshman Minor has averaged 5 carries and 30 yards per game so far. The Wolverines have yet to see a carry from a fullback, but receivers 15 Steve Breaston and 86 Mario Manningham have each carried the ball twice this season. Breaston has had much more success, with 39 rushing yards to Manningham's 3. Quarterback 7 Chad Henne has scrambled 8 times for 35 positive yards.
Notre Dame's defense is giving up 138.5 rushing yards per game. That number combined with Hart's 2006 success may be a reason for concern. However, one could argue that in the past two games ND was conceding the run to shut down the pass. Arguing, of course, does nothing to affect the outcome of the game. To shut down the run, Notre Dame will need a solid performance from its entire linebacking corps. MLB Maurice Crum had a breakout game last week with 14 tackles. WLB Travis Thomas has shown flashes of athleticism and toughness on his way to 6 tackles. The play of SLB Mitchell Thomas and Anthony Vernaglia has been criticized so far, especially since Notre Dame has had most of their defensive success after substituting a nickel defensive back for this position. Michigan's offense may not call for as much nickel this week, and in that case Mitchell Thomas and Veraglia will need to be ready to step up.

ND Rush Offense vs. Michigan Rush Defense

The key thing about Darius Walker is not how he is used, but that he is used effectively. Two weeks ago. Walker ran for 99 yards against Georgia Tech. Last week, facing a great front 7, Walker was used as a receiver, making 7 catches. Darius Walker first broke out against Michigan two years ago, and he'll look to repeat his success against the Wolverines this year. Travis Thomas has emerged as Walker's primary backup, even though he he's only averaging 4 or 5 carries a game. In an important game such as this, one would expect to see the experienced Thomas play in the place of freshman Munir Prince. Fullback Asaph Schwapp, expected to be ready to play this Saturday, is averaging 2 carries a game. Quarterback Brady Quinn has scrambled 10 times for 58 positive yards so far.
Michigan's run defense is giving up only 29 yards per game. Take away sacks, and that number increases to 71 yards per game. Before you point out that these numbers have come against the likes of Vanderbilt and Central Michigan, bear in mind that in past years trends and averages established in "cupcake" games tended to carry on into the rest of the season, or at least into the Notre Dame game. What does that horrible run-on sentence mean? Michigan's impressive numbers against the run aren't entirely a product of their competion. The Wolverines have some talent of their own. This team has already made 19 stops in the backfield, including 5 each from ends 91 Rondell Biggs and 56 LaMarr Woodley. Biggs and Woodley are tied for second on the team with 8 tackles, while the team leader is once again middle linebacker 45 David Harris with 10. Harris has "only" two tackles for a loss so far.

Michigan Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

Chad Henne is back for another try as Michigan's quarterback. Henne has been effectively mediocre so far, with an average game consisting of 10 completions out of 20 attempts for 124 yards and a TD. These numbers are down from last year's, when Henne averaged 19 of 32 for 211 yards and 2 TDs. Of course, this is Henne's first year without a star receiver, after Braylon Edwards left in 2004 and Jason Avant did the same in 2005. Steve Breaston has always been more of an athlete than a polished receiver, and Mario Manningham is still just raw talent. The pair are combining to average 6 catches per game, up from 4 per game last year. Breaston is averaging 47 yards receiving per game this, an increase of about 20 yards per over last year. Manningham is averaging 36 yards per game, a number consistent with his 2005 totals. Mike Hart has made 3 catches this year, but with very little to show for it (13 yards). Receivers 85 Carson Butler and 16 Adrian Arrington have combined for 5 catches, with Butler compiling 26 receiving yards and Arrington 12. Tight end 89 Tyler Ecker has made a total of 2 catches for 22 yards; those were his per-game totals last season.
It will be interesting to see how Notre Dame defends the pass in this game. Of course they will have to pay attention to the run. Neither Breaston or Manningham are elite receivers, but both have the ability to beat you deep. Last year's Irish win was aided by Henne and his receivers being consistently unable to complete the deep passes. He's a year older and wiser now, as are safeties Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe. This will be the next big test to see whether Zbikowski and Ndukwe have learned how to handle play action fakes. Speaking of Henne, much has been made of his low release point. DT Trevor Laws knocked down a pass last week, and he's the shortest of all the Irish defensive linemen by two inches. The Irish line knocked down several Henne passes last year, and they're likely to knock down a few more this year. Another key matchup when Henne drops back to pass is DE Victor Abiamiri against Michigan RT 72 Rueben Riley. Abiamiri has been a force in the backfield when not being double teamed, and Riley is said to be having trouble adjusting to the right tackle position.

ND Pass Offense vs. Michigan Pass Defense

Brady Quinn's numbers this season may not be as flashy as his 2005 totals, but if you look closely they're just as good. Quinn is "only" averaging 267 passing yards per game, but he is completing 65% of his passes (average of 24 completions on 37 attempts per game) and has yet to throw a pick against 3 TD passes. Quinn has done a great job of finding the open man, and as a result four players have between 10 and 13 catches this year. Rhema McKnight is leading the way with 13 catches and 167 yards. Jeff Samardzija is right behind with 12 catches for 130 yards. Samardzija's numbers may be down from last year, but the link above gives you a good indication why. Darius Walker is right behind Samardzija with 11 catches for 90 yards. Each of these players have caught a touchdown. Not to be outdone, tight end John Carlson has opened eyes with 10 catches for 134 yards. Number 2 tight end Marcus Freeman is the only other Irish player to catch a pass this year; he has 2 for 12 yards. Quinn may not be throwing to as many different receivers this year, but he has still managed to keep the attack balanced.
As mentioned above, Michigan's defensive ends have been in opponents' backfields all season. Not only have they combined for 10 tackles for a loss, but 7 of those TFL's are sacks. The team has 10 total sacks, with one each coming from S 22 Jamar Adams, CB 29 Leon Hall, and S Ryan Mundy. This tells even a person of mediocre football knowledge like me that Michigan likes to blitz their DBs. Brady Quinn had trouble against the blitz in the Georgia Tech game, so it will be interesting to see how much pressure the Wolverines put on him, and how he handles it. Adams and Hall have combined for 5 pass breakups, which tells me that they are both gifted athletes. The only interception so far by Michigan has been by backup linebacker 51 Max Pollock.

Special Teams

38 Garrett Rivas returns for his fourth season as Michigan's field goal kicker. He has converted 4 of 5 field goal attempts; his only unsuccessful attempt was a block from the 40-49 yard range. His long on the season is 48 yards, one yard longer than his best from 2005, when he converted 19 of 26 field goals. Notre Dame's Carl Gioia bounced back to even out his record on field goal attempts this year. He's now made two from 35 yards out after missing from 42 and 36.
The Wolverines use the two-headed punting combination of 41 Zultan Mesko and 3 Ross Ryan. Mesko has a booming leg, averaging 44.4 yards per with a long of 54. Ryan appears to be Michigan's attempt at a coffin corner guy. He's averaging only 36.5 yards per punt, with one touchback and one inside the 20. For the Irish, Geoff Price continues to be a pleasant surprise, now averaging 48 yards per punt with a long of 62 and 3 of 8 kicks landing inside the 20.
Steve Breaston is Michigan's primary kick returner. He's averaging 20 yards per return after 3 tries this season. CB 25 Johnny Sears and WR 17 Carl Tabb have each been given one chance to return a kick. Sears went for 22 yards while Tabb for 19. In 2005, Breaston averaged 28 yards per return, including a 92-yard touchdown, and Tabb added 30 yards per return, so look out for both. Bobby Renkes has been the second pleasant surprise on the Irish kicking unit. The kickoff specialist is averaging 63 yards per kick, with 3 of 10 kicks going for touchbacks. Add in the ND coverage team's average of 14.2 yards given up per return, and the average starts for opponents is the 16. Not bad at all.
David Grimes, George West, and Darrin Walls have all lined up deep to return kicks for the Irish. Grimes has returned one kick for 46 yards, while West has returned two kicks and covered that same distance. Walls has yet to field a kickoff this season. Punter Ross Ryan also kicks off for the Wolverines. He averages 60 yards per kick, with 2 touchbacks. Michigan is giving up 25 yards per kick return, allowing their opponents to start around the 30 yard line.
In what should come as no surprise, Steve Breaston returns punts for the Wolverines as well. He's averaging 5.5 yards on 4 attempts this year, after averaging 12.3 yards on 29 returns in 2005. Notre Dame is giving up a respectable 7.2 yards per punt return.
Tom Zbikowski has been bottled up as a punt returner so far. On 6 returns, he's averaging 5.7 yards per return. Michigan's punt coverage team is holding opponents to a very good 5 yard return average.

Look for a big game from Walker, McKnight, Carlson, Abiamiri, and both Thomases.

ND 25, Michigan 20: Just because ND/Michigan games always seem to end with scores like this.