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Blog Roundtable: Notre Dame

With Notre Dame being one of the two or three biggest games of the season, I decided to gather together a variety of Michigan minds to discuss reactions to Michigan's early season performance, and of course the showdown Under The Lights. Six different bloggers participated, and their answers are below.

Everyone agrees that Gardner will have to limit turnovers for Michigan to win tomorrow.

Question One: Grade Michigan's CMU performance

Zach Travis at Maize N' Brew: B+. The only thing stopping this from being an A is the few small issues like the early interceptions and the two third-and-long conversions. Otherwise, Michigan did just about everything you want to see a team do against an opponent that shouldn't be able to keep up. The offense marched down the field using a variety of running backs, it struck on a couple big pass plays, and it converted two-thirds of its third down opportunities and both fourth down tries. The defense held CMU to just over two yards/carry, a completion percentage under 50%, and forced turnovers. Even the special teams added a touchdown and a couple scintillating returns. It wasn't perfect — and CMU was missing its starter at tailback and quarterback because of injuries early in the game — and that's the only thing that keeps if from an A.

Chris Gaerig at Burgeoning Wolverine Star: B+. Like most people, the offensive line was my biggest concern entering the matchup with Central Michigan. They acquitted themselves well, but the numbers don't lie: Fitzgerald Toussaint's 4.1 YPC is a troubling sign against a MAC opponent. Excise his one 20-yard run and Fitz averaged 2.8 YPC on 13 rushes. The offensive line and Toussaint will need to do a much better job against Notre Dame's powerful defensive front.

Defensively, the team looked great, but caveats about strength of the opposition apply. The loss of Jake Ryan won't be as significant as previously thought, and the defensive line should be better than last year, when it was one of the team's strongest units.

Notre Dame didn't look great against Temple in week one, so a comparable performance from Michigan should keep them competitive. My hope is that Al Borges left a ton of tricks in the bag against CMU that will open up easy yards/points for the Michigan offense.

Ace Anbender at MGoBlog: B+. Gardner's two interceptions and just a little bit of shakiness in the secondary keep me from pushing this into the 'A' territory; it was going to be hard to get there anyway against a middling MAC team (CMU is not as good as their record last year would indicate).

Joshua Henschke at The Big House Report: To keep the opponent in perspective, I would rate the play of Michigan a solid B+. Yes, scoring 59 points should warrant an A grade, but I saw some things Michigan could improve on. Most notably, Devin Gardner's decision making earlier in the game. Two rushed throws for two interceptions which one was almost housed. Though considering first game jitters and rust were likely reasons for a not-so-great start, Michigan played great football. Offensive and defensive line play was great, freshman stepped up, and senior Cam Gordon had himself a really great game as well. All things to be taken as positives heading into Notre Dame week.

Brad Muckenthaler at MaizeNBlue Nation: Given we saw maybe 50% or less of the Michigan offensive playbook and maybe even less of the defense, I'd say it's tough to give an impartial grade given such an inferior opponent. In terms of what Michigan needed to do to beat Central Michigan and do so in a convincing fashion, I'd say mission accomplished. I'll take a satisfying win against a directional Michigan school for an opener rather than a brutal beatdown at the hands of the best team in country like we did a year ago.

Schofield and the offensive line are clearly the biggest key for Michigan's success on Saturday.

This Saturday, they just need to button up some of the mental miscues that so often plague opening games. Errant throws, penalties, and special teams errors are forgivable when you're playing an overmatch MAC squad. But when it's Notre Dame, on a much bigger stage, everything is amplified. I think 2 years ago Michigan may have gotten more caught up in the emotion of the atmosphere than the Irish did.

Justin Potts at Maize & Go Blue: I give Michigan a solid B for its performance last Saturday. Coach Hoke would probably assess it a little differently and he said as much after the game, rattling off a long list of things he didn't like about the Wolverines' performance. But for a season opener against a MAC school, Michigan did exactly what it was supposed to do: win big. The Wolverines didn't struggle like Michigan State and Ohio State did. They didn't give up 600 yards like Nebraska did. They won convincingly and gave the backups a quarter and a half of game action.

This Saturday will be a different story. Devin Gardner can't afford to throw a pick inside his own 10-yard line, the offensive line will have to get more push against Notre Dame's stout front to allow the running backs to rush for more than 2.8 yards per carry when big plays are removed, and the defense will have to get just as much pressure on the quarterback as it did CMU's.

Question 2: What unit is most important this week for a Michigan victory, excluding the obvious choice of the interior of the offensive line?

Potts: I think there is a tremendous opportunity for Michigan's special teams to make a big impact in this game. For once Michigan is pretty solid all around, with Brendan Gibbons having made 14 straight field goals (hope I didn't just jinx him) and Dennis Norfleet due to break one any time. It would be nice to have last year's Big Ten punter of the year, Will Hagerup, but Kenny Allen boomed a 51-yarder the only time Michigan punted last Saturday.

Conversely, Notre Dame allowed 29.3 yards per kick return, while only averaging 20 itself against Temple, and missed both field goal attempts. Norfleet's ability to give Michigan's offense good field position could help neutralize ND's strong defense, and if the game comes down to the last second, I trust Gibbons to get the job done.

Anbender: I don't think there's any question it's the safeties. Getting Thomas Gordon back in place of Josh Furman is huge, as Furman didn't impress in coverage last weekend and Notre Dame has a couple of serious big-play threats in DaVaris Daniels and TJ Jones at receiver, plus a tight end who can hit it up the seam in Troy Niklas. Having Courtney Avery available as another option should Jarrod Wilson struggle also makes me optimistic that Michigan can hold it down in this regard; that said, Tommy Rees looked very good against Temple and I expect Notre Dame to attack the lone apparent weak point of this Wolverine defense. If Michigan can avoid giving up big plays in the passing game, they should win without too much difficulty; that's easier said than done.

Gaerig: Cornerback. Against Temple, Tommy Rees set his career high for passing yards (346) on 16-23 (69%). The strength of Michigan's defensive front seven and the lack of a true feature running back for the Irish will likely necessitate a lot of passing. With safeties Courtney Avery and Thomas Gordon seeing their first game action this season, having lockdown corner play will be crucial. Fortunately, their performance against Central indicates a strong group of defensive backs for Greg Mattison to work with.

Ray Taylor had a good game against CMU; some believe the corners are key this week as well.

Muckenthaler: Well, that's just it. The OL is crucial in any game. But I'll go even more specific and say Jack Miller at the center spot. Word is now Glasgow is getting snaps in practice this week. Notre Dame boast two dominant defensive linemen in Louis Nix on the interior and Stephon Tuitt at defensive end. Nix is a 340-pound destroyer who will give Michigan's inexperienced interior fits. The Irish didn't allow one rushing touchdown last year, thanks in large part to their stout front 7, which lost some guys, but is still quite good. Temple was able to punch the ball in from the 1 last week, however.

But since you asked, I'll say there's little chance Michigan wins this game without dominant play from their linebackers. Notre Dame's offense will rely heavily on Tommy Rees and his ability to move the ball around. Mattison needs to be able to move linebackers around in the secondary to mix up coverages, meanwhile knowing when and who to blitz. Cam Gordon, Desmond Morgan and James Ross all looked solid in week 1. That and more will be needed this Saturday.

Travis: The safeties. This is probably an obvious answer. Michigan got good play out of its safeties in week one, but the questions still remain. We don't know what Thomas Gordon can do without Jordan Kovacs, and we aren't even sure if Jarrod Wilson will start or Courtney Avery will be healthy enough and will bump the sophomore to the bench. I am cautiously optimistic that Wilson will be solid after his week one performance, and getting Gordon back should help, but the level of competition goes up a lot this week, and Notre Dame went to the air early and often against Temple a week ago. Michigan's run defense should do well, forcing the Irish to win the game through the air. The safeties had better make sure that doesn't happen.

Henschke: Safety play. Granted the team was missing Thomas Gordon last week, they need to stay on their toes. Furman did a respectable job taking over for Gordon. With Avery coming back this week as well, it takes the pressure off Jarrod Wilson to perform. Even against Central, they gave up a few big plays early in the game. Even though it didnt lead to touchdowns, Notre Dame is a different beast.

Question 3: Can Derrick Green be that guy this early in terms of a solid 2nd (or even 1st option), or is he still a ways away?

Henschke: I don't believe Green is ready to be that guy yet. But I do believe he can be a respectable backup until he has proven that he can take over the reigns from Toussaint. That comes with repetition and game experience. Now with him being the #2 guy, he will see plenty of touches Saturday.

Considering how scrutinized Green was for his weight coming into camp, I was really happy to see him play and play well. That 30 yard rush and eventual goal line touchdown showcased what he is capable of.

Muckenthaler: Green is a good back, but what he did against CMU wasn't so much as impressive as it was expected. He's also very raw in terms of his ability. He's still just a true freshman. Granted we only saw limited carries, and one of them was a 30-yard rumble where it looked like his 240+ pounds kept him from breaking it loose. But yes, Derrick Green is going to be the primary backup in Michigan's offense for at least the foreseeable future thanks to Drake Johnson's injury. Does he have what it takes over overtake Fitz this year? I don't think he's there yet.

Green is getting there, but has some time before he takes the reigns from Fitz Toussaint.

Gaerig: Tentatively, yes, he can be that guy. Green looked strong against Central despite a tendency not to take what the offensive line was giving him. He won't be a breakaway threat, but despite his recruiting profile, I doubt he was ever going to be. If he learns to barrel into safeties and linebackers to pick up a few extra yards, he'll be exactly what this offense needs this season.

Anbender: Frankly, I wasn't very impressed with any of the backs outside of Fitz Toussaint's nice cutback run, which was reminiscent of him in 2011. Green is clearly carrying too much weight, didn't look as fast as he did in high school, and went down on first contact on every carry aside from his one-yard goal-line plunge (and he struggled to get that one yard). I think he's going to need some time before he's a really viable option, and I fully expect Toussaint to get the vast majority of the carries this weekend.

Potts: Derrick Green's debut on Saturday was a positive one and I think it was good enough to solidify his role as the team's second back going forward. I don't think he's ready for the starting role at this point, but 8-12 carries a game would be good to both spell Fitz Toussiant and provide a different type of back.

Two things were good to see from his performance against Central Michigan. First, ripping off a 30-yard run. Yes, he had great blocking, but he hit the whole and took off and protected the ball when he was tackled. Second, converting short-yardage situations. On 4th-and-2, he gained three. On 3rd-and-goal from the one, he punched it in. That's the kind of power running Hoke wants and I think Green can provide it. But I'm not ready to hand him the reigns just yet. I like the experience that Fitz brings as the starter with Green in a limited role. Next year, Green can fully take over.

Travis: I think when you are talking about the number two guy at running back that he can be. Toussaint should get over 20 carries, which leaves somewhere around 8-10 for a guy like Green. I know his conditioning has been a major talking point, but in a limited role and used in the right packages, I think he can excel. He still has the speed to get out to the second level if the hole is there, he showed that last week. I think over the next few weeks he plays that number two spot and as he works his way into shape he could push Toussaint for the majority of the carries.

Question 4: How big of a boost will the (likely) return of Courtney Avery and Thomas Gordon provide to a defense that looked really good on Saturday be?

Travis: As I said above, I think Gordon is going to be a big help. He is very experienced and has shown the ability to be a big help in the run game. My hope is that Avery is healthy, but that the coaches saw what they needed from Wilson and that he gets the starting nod. I liked what he did in week one and I think he has the potential to build on that, especially if he is next to a guy as capable as Gordon.

Anbender: Gordon's return can't be overstated in its importance; Avery gives the team depth at safety, nickel, and even on the outside if need be, and that's also an obvious boon to the secondary. It'll be interesting to see if Greg Mattison continues to slide Blake Countess down to the slot when Michigan plays their nickel package, or if he keeps Countess on the outside and uses Avery in the slot, taking a true freshman off the field—Channing Stribling, who had a nice strip but didn't exactly play lockdown coverage as the field corner in the nickel package.

Gaerig: Probably negligible. Against Central, Michigan's safeties weren't tested, so how much better they are than the stand-ins is unclear. This probably isn't a great game for Avery to make his first career start at safety, and rolling him into the defensive box to try to tackle running backs will be an adventure. We know the safeties will be tested in this game, and Avery's coverage capabilities coupled with Gordon's experience should be an asset for the defense. I'm cautiously optimistic that they will be able to avoid giving up the big play, but a bust here or there would not be unexpected.

Muckenthaler: Well I think it's a big boost. Any time you can have experience in the the secondary, especially at safety, the better off you are. Thomas Gordon wasn't really missed against CMU, and it was nice to see Jarrod Wilson and Josh Furman hold it down in their first starts. With Avery and Gordon back, that position is in a really nice spot right now.

Potts: Michigan's pass defense looked pretty good on Saturday, but let's not forget that CMU was using a backup quarterback and, well, it was CMU. Jarrod Wilson looks like a nice big, rangy safety with good instincts and Josh Furman did pretty well for his first career start. One of them, I think it was Furman, got sucked up too far and beat deep once, which can't happen against a Notre Dame team that loves to throw deep.

Tommy Rees threw for 346 yards last week, so the return of Thomas Gordon and Courtney Avery will be a big boost because of their starting experience and senior leadership. Gordon picked off Notre Dame last season (although it was Golson, not Rees) and will be a definite upgrade over Furman at strong safety. I think Wilson should start at free safety with Avery rotating in.

Henschke: I think it really shores up the defensive backs. I did mention that safety needs to step up, but getting back two seniors this week is crucial for vocal leadership and on-field leadership. That's a fairly big boost to a young core of guys.

Question 6: What's your favorite Michigan moment against ND?

Anbender: Watching Remy Hamilton's game-winner in 1994 is one of my earliest memories as a Michigan fan. Still, I have to go with the first Under The Lights game—my second as a credentialed reporter, and the first in which I took the opportunity to head down to the field for the end of the game. Needless to say, that was a good decision. Being about 30 feet away as Roy Roundtree hauled in the winning catch is something I won't ever forget.

Potts: My first real memory of the rivalry was the Remy Hamilton game-winning kick in 1994. I was 12 at the time and I remember going out in the back yard and kicking the football through the pretend goal posts between the trees, pretending to be Remy.

But I would say my favorite was the 47-21 drubbing of the 2nd-ranked Irish in 2006 because I had just met my eventual wife, whose whole family is die-hard Notre Dame fans. ND was supposed to win, but Michigan dominated the entire game - in South Bend no less - and gave me bragging rights from the beginning. I also loved Charlie Weis' quote after the game: "They deserve their just due. I think it's important to understand that team just came and whooped us pretty good." Anytime you can get a quote like that out of the opposing coach, especially one like Weis, you know you've done something right.

In my opinion, the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry holds a very similar prestige as the Ohio State game does, despite not having over 100 all-time meetings. Michigan-Ohio State is the great, traditional end of season showdown, while Michigan-Notre Dame is a great early season measuring stick for both teams. Having been married to a Notre Dame family for the past five years, there's even more on the line. It's too bad it has to end.

Travis: I gave this same answer somewhere else, and I think considering the last few games this one gets overlooked: beating the Irish and derailing Brady Quinn's Heisman hopes in 2006. That was my senior year in college and followed a disappointing 2005 campaign. I figured the '06 team was good before the season, but that Notre Dame game confirmed just how good it was. I spent the whole game at my then-girlfriend's apartment in East Lansing rolling around on the floor and cackling maniacally as Michigan trounced Notre Dame. It was, to me, Michigan announcing just what a great season it was about to have by tearing apart Notre Dame's hopes at a return to glory.

Gaerig: "I saw cover zero". Optimism was high in Ann Arbor following the crippling debut campaign under Rich Rodriguez. I had fully bought into the new program and Tate Forcier was the team's unequivocal leader after one game. I was standing in the student section when Michigan was down 4 points and facing an early 4th and 3 in the fourth quarter. I can still envision Forcier juking a Notre Dame linebacker out of his pants and scampering into the endzone, arms raised and pointing toward his adoring fans. And when Forcier connected with Greg Matthews with 11 seconds left, I felt a joy I hadn't experienced since Braylonfest 2004. The Rich Rod era was a disaster, but the highs were often higher than anything Michigan has offered fans in the last decade.

Muckenthaler: For me personally, easily two years ago under the lights. That atmosphere was ridiculous. Pregame was intense as the stadium filled up easily an hour before kickoff. The Desmond Howard ceremony was pretty special, and of course being the first night game made the whole event that much more exciting. While the game itself was tough to watch for Michigan fans for three quarters, it provided yet another amazing last second win in a series that has seen so many great finishes.

UTL2 is going to have to be pretty amazing to top the 2011 game.

Henschke: I'm younger and not from this country so I haven't been able to witness plays like Desmond's fourth down catch. But I would have to say in 2009 when Michigan upset Notre Dame in the Big House thanks to Greg Mathews. I was probably row five in the student section for that game, it was so loud and electric. It will be something I never forget.

Though Denard's heroics and Roundtree's catch are hard to beat.

I will be at the game this Saturday with the students so I'm hoping for even more positive memories.

Thanks to all who participated. These guys all run or contribute to great sites and are worth your time when you get the chance.

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