September 11, 2009
Xs and Os on Saturday's Michigan-Notre Dame showdown from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football.
Jimmy Clausen has become the great quarterback he was recruited to be. Over his last two games the new-edition blonde bomber has thrown for 716 yards and nine touchdowns on just 44 attempts (16.3 yards per attempt), and his completion percentage is an astouding 84.1 percent. Yes, Clausen is at the peak of his game, and Notre Dame is back.
So say the Irish faithful, anyway. Before those blistering performances against the famed steel curtain-esque defenses of Hawai'i and Nevada, though, Clausen had a horrific day against Southern Cal, managing only 41 yards (1.9 yards per attempt) and throwing two picks. And before that? Clausen played a so-so game against lame-duck Syracuse in a humiliating upset. The Irish are still 1-14 the last two years against teams that finished .500 or better, and Clausen has been mostly terrible in those games. Assuming Michigan really is much closer to the team that rocked Western Michigan in last week's opener than to the one that fell on its face on a weekly basis last year -- and never more so than a six-turnover catastrophe in South Bend -- Saturday is a classic "Prove It" game for both.
A Deathbacker Never Forgets, Either. There was much speculation coming into the year about new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson's intentions with the Wolverine defense, where position names were given titles like "deathbacker" and "spinner," and alternating reports of a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense accumulated daily. One game in, we can confidently say what Michigan is running: A 4-3 under scheme with 3-4 personnel. (Got that?) What that means is that Robinson, who has coached with Pete Carroll, runs the same front that Carroll does at USC, except that he's replaced the weakside defensive end with a "hybrid" linebacker/defensive end who gives the defense more versatility against spread offenses.
This is nothing too special, as Carroll actually used this same scheme himself with Brian Cushing (whose MVP performance against Michigan in the 2007 Rose Bowl springs immediately to mind), and the hybrid played the "elephant" position. Robinson has updated this role at Michigan as the "deathbacker," which no doubt speaks better to an 18-year-old kid than "elephant position."
Like Carroll at USC, I expect Robinson to focus this year on man-to-man schemes with a single safety deep and another player as a "robber" -- an intermediate guy who watches the quarterback's eyes, or spies a mobile quarterback.
In their opening day victory against Western Michigan, the Wolverines used this concept with tremendous success, holding the Broncos scoreless until the game was long decided in the second half, which is what Michigan should do to a MAC offense.
But I don't think Robinson will stick with as much man-to-man against the Irish. The least threatening aspect of Notre Dame's offense, pretty much from the moment Weis arrived, has been the between-the-tackles run game, and the one area Notre Dame can take the Pepsi challenge with against any team in the country and come out well is a comparison between receivers. Golden Tate and Michael Floyd are both big, fast, dangerous downfield threats at all times, and Michigan is unlikely to spend most of the game daring Weis to throw to them on the outside. He's going to be dialing them up no matter what.
In response, Robinson is more likely to go for deep, bracketing type coverage. A common one is a variant on "quarters" coverage, descriptively called "quarter-quarter-halves."
To the wide side of the field, the corner and safety play "quarters," which means they divide the field into fourths but, if only one receiver threatens deep, they double-team him. On the other side the "halves" refers to a Cover 2 defense used to the short side of the field -- the corner rolls up and plays aggressive at the line, while the safety "rolls" over top so that they bracket that receiver high and low. This is a common strategy to try to contain dangerous outside receivers and keep the possibility of double teams. Michigan plays this coverage against Western Michigan's four-wide look below, though WMU runs a run play up the middle.
The defense is still effective against the run because the safeties can get involved.
Charlie's puzzle. None of these counters will shock Weis, not least because he and Robinson faced each other in the NFL more than once. The bigger issue with Weis, as always, will be pass protection. But assuming Clausen gets protection, what kind of big-play passes can we expect? One is a great combination ND called last week known as "double-post," which can specifically attack "quarters" coverage or any coverage that tries to put a cornerback on Michael Floyd with inside help from the safety.
Floyd just runs a skinny post while the tight-end or a slot receiver runs a post, dragging the safety inside (if he doesn't, the tight-end can be open or the backside split-end runs a comeback). And I will say this for Clausen: He has become much more accurate on these downfield throws.
Of course, we know that Weis really just wants to get his outside guys singled up and to throw them long bombs. There was the spectacular long ball to Floyd last week where the Nevada defender fell down on the coverage, but Weis also called up a deep crossing route several times, where Clausen was instructed to throw the deep go route to the receiver whenever it was open. Watch how the safeties below react to the other receivers -- to the tight end in on the double-post play to Floyd, and to the backside receiver running the cross on the deep bomb to Golden Tate -- and the great protection Clausen gets.
And that is really the issue in this game: Clausen, Tate, and Floyd are very dangerous, but Michigan is not Nevada or Hawai'i on the defensive line. Can Weis provide enough protection for Clausen? And can the Irish run well enough to set up the one-on-one bombs downfield off play-action? The inability to keep the Wolverine secondary interested in the running game should force ND to go to more of the short and intermediate passing game that was so effective in the Brady Quinn days, and can't just rely on smoking the defense whenever it feels like it. For all of Weis' bluster about decisive schematic advantages, the one thing he does very well is aggressively strike for big plays when he thinks he can burn you on a deep post or a deep go route. But he hasn't always shown an ability to set those plays up with the run, or to keep his quarterbacks healthy, and Clausen is only now morphing into a guy who can consistently hit those strikes.
Although there's another side of the ball in this match-up, I think the key will be in the match-up between Robinson's new-look defense and Weis' go-for-broke offense. Michigan will try to show Clausen a lot of looks and double-team and bracket those dangerous outside receivers. Weis, who has reassumed playcalling duties after giving them up for most of 2008, must be patient early, run the ball, and throw the intermediate passes, and Clausen must prove he can complete them before Michigan will make the big downfield shots available. The X-factor is whether Notre Dame's experienced line can protect Clausen; thus the importance of running it early and completing the short ones to keep Brandon Graham and Co. on their heels.
I think Michigan is starting from a bit further back than Notre Dame, and the Irish's talented playmakers will make enough plays to overcome some early stumbles. Michigan's offense will fare decently well against ND's defense, but it won't be enough to overcome the more experienced ND offense.