ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Enjoy 3-0 for one more day, Irish fans: Michigan’s up next, a team Notre Dame hasn’t beaten since 2008.
Wolverine beat writer Kyle Meinke of MLive.com gives an in-depth analysis on Denard Robinson, a struggling defensive line and what a bizarre first three weeks of Michigan’s schedule means for the team’s identity.
Q: It’s been an interesting first three games for Michigan: Getting blown out by Alabama, narrowly beating Air Force and then dominating UMass. Not a typical lineup there. Has it been hard for this year’s team to find an identity?
Kyle Meinke: This is one of the really interesting things about Michigan so far, in that it’s 2-1 and yet no one really has any clue how good this team is. How much can you tell from getting spanked by Alabama? Because Michigan surely won’t be the last team to have that happen. Or how much can you really tell about escaping Air Force, which runs the triple option, something that won’t be seen again for seasons? And you sure as heck can’t tell much from crushing UMass, which was crushed the week before by Indiana — by 39 points.
That has, I think, slowed Michigan’s growth just a bit, since each of those teams operate wildly different schemes. The good news, though, is Notre Dame runs a spread offense that isn’t so dissimilar from UMass (although obviously much more proficient).
Something that can be gleaned from the early play, though, is the line play. It hasn’t been very good on both sides. That’s obviously a concern for Michigan offensively, since so much of its offense runs through quarterback Denard Robinson and tailback Fitz Toussaint, and Notre Dame features a terrific defensive front seven.
Q: Notre Dame shut down Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell and the Spartan run game last week, but the Irish secondary just lost one of its two veterans (Jamoris Slaughter) to injury. Does that shape how Denard Robinson will be utilized in this game? He’s thrown five picks this year, but are you seeing development in his passing game?
KM: I have seen some improvement in Robinson’s passing, even if it’s not reflected in the numbers. His decision making and mechanics really are night and day. He looks like a different player to me. The problem that still lingers are the interceptions. That number is skewed by balls that should have been caught — including the pick-six last week against UMass, which deflected right off the hands of the intended receiver — but still, he’s a little mistake prone.
I do expect Michigan to try to establish the passing game for two reasons: First, obviously, it avoids Notre Dame’s strength (the front seven) and attacks a weakness (the secondary). Second, if Michigan can find success vertically in the passing game, it will loosen up the box. ND cheated with an extra defensive back (or two) to stop the run, and it worked well for three quarters. A passing game would make it harder for ND to do that.
Q: Robinson is clearly the star of the show, but are any other weapons in the offense emerging? How is his chemistry with his receiving corps?
KM: Those two go hand in hand, as the two biggest surprises are guys who catch passes — and both, ironically enough, are named Devin. One, Devin Gardner, backed up Robinson the past two years at quarterback. But he’s extremely athletic (was ranked the No. 1 dual-threat QB coming out of high school) and is 6-foot-4. Michigan lacked both receivers and big receivers coming into the season, so he made the switch and already is U-M’s top receiver in catches, yards and scores. He has a touchdown in all three games.
The other surprise is Devin Funchess, a true freshman tight end. He is 6-5 and has elite speed for a tight end, so he is posing matchup problems for defenses. Put a linebacker on him, and he outruns the coverage. Put a DB on him, and he outjumps it. He’s tough to handle, and gives U-M even more size in the passing game.
Q: Both Purdue and Michigan State stacked the box against Notre Dame, forcing a young quarterback in Everett Golson to throw a lot more than coach Brian Kelly would have liked. Considering its performance against the Alabama and Air Force run game, does Michigan have the defensive weapons to shut down the run?
KM: Michigan’s defensive line might be its weakest position on the field. It has generated little push or pressure, which has made U-M’s linebackers — considered a strength coming into the year — a little less effective. The secondary, a strength, also has to hold its coverage for longer, which has made them a little less effective.
The Wolverines’ rush defense numbers are awful, but they’re also skewed because Air Force ran the ball on pretty much every play. U-M isn’t as bad as its numbers, but also isn’t very good. I’d expect Notre Dame to have some success moving the ball on the ground against Michigan.
Q: Notre Dame is a narrow favorite heading into the weekend, and Michigan is looking to beat its first ranked team on the road since 2006. What’s it going to take for the Wolverines to win in South Bend?
KM: Notre Dame’s defense is strong, and its front seven especially so. For that reason, I don’t think Denard Robinson goes nuts, like he has the past two years in the rivalry. In fact, he was pretty much shut down for three quarters last year, but just busted loose for some late big-chunk plays.
For that reason, for Michigan to win, its defense has to find a way to contain Golson and the ND offense. I don’t think the Wolverines can win a shootout in this one. Robinson will break off a big play here and there, as he typically does, but — unlike in past years — Michigan won’t win unless it gets stops from the start.
Michigan also hasn’t been very good in the turnover battle, and ND has been very good. This area often decides road games, or rivalry games. U-M has to find a way to flip that trend to stand a chance.