This weekend’s Michigan/Notre Dame matchup is a marquee game only in its hilarity. Both hallowed teams have a ton of “tradition,” are 0-2, and can both best be described as “incompetent” in their first two games. Notre Dame has been laughably bad on offense, while Michigan has been equally bad on defense. However, only one coach (Lloyd Carr) is truly under fire. It’s arguable that Notre Dame has actually looked worse this season, but they didn’t lose to Appalachian State, either.
We here at Rumors and Rants don’t want to just leave things at that. We’re going to break down how each team has reached its nadir and ponder the question: “can things get any worse for Michigan and/or Notre Dame?” The answer is: we hope so.
Michigan was supposed to be loaded on the offensive side of the ball. They have a good quarterback in Chad Henne and Mike Hart, who is a major work-horse at running back. They’ve got a stud offensive tackle in Jake Long, and they even have the usual Michigan one-good-receiver in Mario Manningham. All four probably could have left for the NFL after last season, but didn’t because they thought they could win a title. Well, technically Manningham couldn’t have left, since he was just a sophomore.
Now Henne is hurt and the offense hasn’t been nearly as good all season, even when he was healthy. The senior was only completing 51.7% of his passes in the game and a half he played. Hart is averaging 157 yards per game on the ground, but he’s the only bright spot. As far as their 0-2 start goes, the offense isn’t really to blame for this season’s meltdown; it is to blame for the demise of Lloyd Carr as its head coach. More on that later. With freshman Ryan Mallett at quarterback, the offensive production could slide significantly. It’s also possible that Chad Henne is simply overrated as a quarterback. There has to be a reason he wasn’t chosen as a team captain, right? Either way, Michigan better hire Mike Hart a personal masseuse for the rest of the season because their success depends entirely on him.
The Wolverines are too conservative on offense. That doesn’t mean they just run the ball a lot, though they do. Even with Henne and Manningham in the passing game, Michigan opponents have little trouble stopping the pass. Lloyd Carr has never brought the Wolverines offense out of the 1970s. He only just started using “zone blocking” in the running game. They’re still stuck in the “run it up the middle and throw deep” offensive mentality. There is no intermediate passing game, which is a staple of modern offenses. This is why Henne’s best season completion percentage is only 61.9 and he’s never thrown for more than 2,800 yards. All those long throws he makes are obviously very low-percentage attempts. When he does throw short, it’s usually within five yards. Michigan doesn’t run a pro-style offense and therefore their skill position players often struggle upon reaching the NFL as well (Chris Perry, David Terrell, Anthony Thomas, anyone?). And even Tom Brady split time with Drew Henson when he was at UM.
While Michigan’s offense has some positives, Notre Dame’s has none. They are statistically the worst offense in Division 1A college football and have not yet scored an offensive touchdown. They can’t run or pass the ball with anything resembling efficiency. However, that should have been expected. I’ll repeat that: Notre Dame fan and everyone else should have seen the Irish’s offensive ineptitude coming.
Charlie Weis’ offense is designed to control the ball through short, safe passes. Last year the Irish threw the ball 471 times compared to 423 rushing attempts. By contrast, Michigan threw the ball 331 times compared to 535 rushing attempts. Notre Dame’s offensive problems have arisen because there is no commitment to running the ball. Darius Walker ran for 1,267 yards last season, but he was routinely out of the game while four receivers were in on third and short. Part of the hype-machine for Brady Quinn? Possibly. However, it also explains this year’s offensive woes. The Irish are simply a finesse team with an offensive line that does not play physically and therefore has issues pass blocking and run blocking. Oh, and they’re replacing nearly every skill-position starter. Couple that with the play-calling of Weis and you have yourselves the 119th-ranked offense in the country.
The Irish just switched coordinators and from the 4-3 to the 3-4, so they deserve a little leeway on defense. That said, they’re in pretty much the same situation as the past couple of years under Charlie Weis. This is actually where Weis deserves a little bit of a break. Tyrone Willingham didn’t exactly leave the defense loaded with talent when he was fired. Weis has just started to recruit a little talent on that side of the ball. Let’s face it, if the Irish could score, they’d probably still lose, but the games would at least be closer. Still, it’s not like Notre Dame has been good defensively at all recently, so things are pretty much status quo here.
Despite the stone-age offense, defense is what has been the death of Michigan this season. Yes, they lost a ton of starters to the NFL draft and those guys are nearly impossible to replace right away. However, it’s not as though last year’s talented defense was stopping anyone at the end of last season anyway. The Michigan defense has been lit up in four consecutive games now, including getting torched by Ohio State and USC and their NFL-caliber offenses. This year, Michigan has been destroyed by Appalachian State and Oregon, two teams that aren’t exactly offensive juggernauts.
So what has been missing from Michigan’s defense lately? Lloyd Carr is a defensive coach. This is his freaking calling card. In the words of John Madden, “speed kills.” Teams are routinely running past Wolverine defenders. In last week’s Oregon game that made Dennis Dixon look so great, Oregon wide receivers constantly blew by Michigan’s DBs. All Dixon had to do was lob the ball to them. To make matters worse, Michigan now simply cannot stop the run. Oregon racked up 331 rushing yards and averaged 6.5 yards per carry last week. Overall, the Ducks averaged 8.1 yards per play to Michigan’s 4.3. Appalachian State only averaged 3.6 yards per carry against Michigan, but they averaged 9.9 yards per passing play, so they were often left with short-yardage third downs. Consequently, they ran for 10 of their 19 first downs. To sum up: teams have run circles around Michigan’s defense recently. They are simply too slow.
So, who will win this weekend’s game between the two teams most fans love to watch struggle? The spread is currently Michigan -7.5. At least Michigan is good on one side of the ball, even if their starting quarterback is out. Notre Dame has absolutely nothing to fall back on this season. This could be just the beginning of their free-fall. Mike Hart should have a big game against ND’s defense. Look for Michigan to finally win one, though this is the one time we kind of wish there was still the possibility of a tie in college football.