Sunday, September 17, 2006

Odds & Sods - Fredericksburg Edition | by Mike

I have not yet reviewed the game tape since returning from South Bend, so feel free to supply any corrections evident from watching the broadcast.

Dots and loops. Both before the season started and after the opening two games, I expressed concern over the matchup between Michigan's running game and the Notre Dame linebackers. For Notre Dame to win, the Irish would need to take Mike Hart out of the game. Since I didn't expect Notre Dame's run defense alone to shut down Hart, I had hoped game situations would limit Hart's opportunities - that Notre Dame would jump out to an early lead. Instead, Michigan dominated the first quarter, grabbing an early lead. This created a negative feedback loop. With a big lead, Michigan had an even greater incentive to stick with the running game, allowing Michigan to hammer away at the Notre Dame defense's weakness and open up their passing game. Mike Hart had 31 carries, and if you had been told on Friday that Hart would get that many carries, you would have known the game's winner. In other words, Michigan's offense was in a position to dictate the flow of the game. The Michigan staff recognized the enormous impact an early lead would have on this game and thus appeared willing to go for big plays earlier than they usually do in road games. As yesterday's events demonstrated, this was a great strategy.

As I watched the game unfold, I thought about how rarely Weis's teams have had to play from behind. Before the Michigan game, last year's Michigan State game was the largest deficit for a Weis-led Irish team. However, last year's linebackers - despite their problems against the pass - were quite stout against the run. Thus when MSU tried to run clock in the second half, they were attacking the defense's strength, allowing Notre Dame to get back in the game. Yesterday's game revealed how this year's Irish squad is poorly suited to overcoming a significant deficit.

Hard to explain. Heading into the game, I was more optimistic about how Notre Dame's defense would fare against the UM offense when the Irish could get into nickel situations. However, Michigan had an answer for this defense. Michigan OC Mike DeBord moved Mario Manningham around in order to match him up against Notre Dame's nickel back, Terrail Lambert. The first time this resulted in a big play, I had to give credit to DeBord. Yet when Michigan was able to get this matchup repeatedly, I had to ask why Notre Dame DC Rick Minter - and then Weis, when it continued - did not adjust to this. While Manningham's out-and-up touchdown did come against Wooden, I don't understand the rationale behind allowing the other team to line their best receiver up against one's fifth defensive back. This puzzle came just two weeks after the curious decision to leave a freshman on an island with Calvin Johnson.

Run. Michigan's defense looked markedly unconcerned with Notre Dame's running game. The gameplan appeared to be to take off after the quarterback on every play until Notre Dame gave them a reason to look for the run, which the Irish never did. Once again, the Michigan staff's decision to take more chances on the road paid huge dividends.

In the 2004 and 2005 wins, Notre Dame relied on 100-yard efforts from Darius Walker. It's hard to picture Notre Dame beating Michigan without a strong rushing performance, yet Notre Dame failed to produce any semblance of a power rushing game. Falling behind so quickly was obviously a contributing factor, but that does not entirely explain why Walker had only 2 carries in the second quarter.

No joy in Mudville. It's hard to find positives when your team gets shelled, but there are a few moments from the game that should probably be acknowledged. Filling in for an injured Asaph Schwapp, fullback Ashley McConnell recorded his first career reception and his first career touchdown in the first quarter. Last week, McConnell got the Irish a first down with a fourth-down carry shortly after Schwapp was taken off the field. It's nice to see a senior who hasn't played much take advantage of his opportunities. Needless to say, as Michigan rolled up the points, the opportunities for a fullback diminished rapidly.

Once again, Quinn guided the offense on an end-of-half touchdown drive. After taking over at the 28 with 2:30 left in the second quarter, Quinn went 7-7 for 71 yards and a touchdown. Without looking at the tape, it looked like Michigan played conservatively on this drive, and Quinn responded with machine-like efficiency. Given the contrast between this drive and most of the rest of the game, one can predict what strategy opposing defenses will employ for the remainder of the season.