Friday, September 15, 2006

It's In The Game...RIVALRY GAME

Michigan's coming to town. One of these teams is ranked in the Top 5 with national title aspirations. The other is on mend from a 7-5 record. But unlike many past meetings, its a case of role reversal - Charlie Weis and Irish are #2 in the AP Poll, while LLLLLoyd Carr is fighting off the antsy alumni from a Wolverine program that can't seem to break back to the next level. Since Carr's shared national championship in 1997, Michigan has never lost less than 2 games per season. Much like Larry Coker, Carr is discovering national title good-will ain't what is used to be in today's college football world.

The Irish-Wolverines rivalry is defined only by the intensity within the past 20 years - 1980's Harry Oliver kick, 1989's Rocket Ismail show, 1991's Desmond Howard tour-de-force, 1999's nailbiter, 2005's Irish Upset. Unlike USC, there is NOT what you could call a healthy respect between the two schools. The teams genuinely don't like each other before the game, during the game, and after the game. Here comes Preview 3...

#2 Notre Dame vs. #11 Michigan
3:30 PM EDT
Notre Dame Stadium - Notre Dame, IN

Why Michigan Will Win

Michigan's Defense. It's as good as any the Irish will face this season, and it's largely the same unit that handcuffed Brady Quinn throughout last year's game - Quinn was 19 of 30 last year in Ann Arbor with a pair of touchdowns, but totaled just 140 yards through the air and the Irish offense as whole tallied just 244. Led by Lamarr Woodley and Alan Branch up front, this will be the stiffest challenge yet for an Irish O-line that's had trouble picking up blitzes during the first two games.

On offense, the Wolverines have a solid but unspectacular group of performers when you consider all the hype attached to them. QB Chad Henne has been the in system for three years and had only occasional flashes of brilliance, while Mike Hart has struggled with injuries ever since his breakout freshman season. Wideout/return specialist Steve Breaston has been touted as the next Desmond Howard since he arrived on campus 4 years ago, but the results (like the rest of the Wolverines squad) haven't matched the expectations.

Bottom line, the Wolverines present the most complete package of speed, athleticism, leadership, and experience the Irish will face before the season finale against USC. If Michigan springs the upset, it will be because of their attacking front seven doing what Georgia Tech and Penn State failed to do - not only to pressure Brady Quinn, but force him into game-changing mistakes.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Notre Dame's offensive line has been called a 'disguised weakness' during the first two games, its faults being covered by the fact that the Irish won their first two contests in spite of their sometimes suspect work. Now they face their biggest test and (quite possibly) the strongest defense on their schedule.

Will Sam Young continue to quietly perform under the intense pressure of being the first freshman to start a season upfront for the Irish? Can the veterans - Santucci, Morton, & Harris - eliminate the dumb mistakes they've been prone to during the opening games? For all the talk about Brady Quinn's Heisman candidacy and Darius Walker's vision as a running back, the Irish offense won't be able to build on their 34-point display against Penn State if they can't beat back the Wolverines in the trenches. It might be repeated ad nauseum, but it's also true - the football game is won and lost in the trenches.

That goes for Notre Dame's defense too. Derek Landri and Trevor Laws have been awfully quiet this year - they'll need to blow up the protection early and often against Henne and harass him into the key mistakes he made in the Big House a year ago when he committed two red-zone turnovers. The real X-factor will be Chinedum Ndukwe: he's becoming the Glenn Earl of this unit - aka The Hit Man. Having decked Calvin Johnson and Derrick Williams in back-to-back games, look for him to welcome Steve Breaston to the neighborhood at some point on Saturday.

The Prediction

There's no such thing as a "trap game" when the opponent is ranked #11. This is no surprise attack coming from Ann Arbor. This is a good football team that - most importantly - wants blood in a tough rivalry contest. Nothing would give the Wolverines more satisfaction then knocking the Irish down a few pedestals on their march to a perfect season. This will be a close, intense game that the Irish seize with the help of solid special teams play and methodical offense, allowing them to grind the clock and win the field position battle.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan 17.



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