September 12, 2008
Having now watched most of the early gasps of the Rodriguez administration lurching into gear at Michigan, I wouldn't hesitate to project doom for the Wolverines and their stunningly bad quarterbacks under most circumstances. If only Notre Dame hadn't played a game itself. I'm not alone here: as Brian Cook pointed out earlier this week, it's almost impossible for a spread to swing the way this one has: in about twelve days, the ND-Michigan spread veered from a "summer line" of ND -3.5 to ND -8.5 after Michigan's opening loss to Utah, then back to Michigan -1 on the Monday of actual game week; it's been bet up to -2 in favor of the Wolverines in the past few days. Because the only thing anyone even pretends to know about either of these teams is that they're truly, utterly terrible on offense.
The only way this might not be true is if the Irish actually found something sustainable in the fourth quarter last week, when Jimmy Clausen took over a more urgent, no-huddle offense and completed 8 of 9 with two touchdowns to lead ND out of the darkness. That's what a serious quarterback is supposed to do against San Diego State, if you ignore everything that happened before it going back to Jimmy's over-the-top commitment ceremony.
It seems very likely the clouds will descend again, though, if Notre Dame can't put together some facsimile of a running game that will slow the Michigan pass rush, which buried Clausen (8 sacks) in last year's 38-0 wipeout. The last two years, the Irish have rushed for -2 yards combined against Michigan; the defensive line remains by far the Wolverines' strength, and there's nothing about this Irish offensive front that suggests it's any less likely to be overwhelmed in all facets than its predecessors. Quite the opposite, in fact: ND only eked out 105 yards on less than four per carry against one of the worst defenses in the country last week, and still seems generally incapable of blocking anybody with even a moderate talent level. Good luck with Brandon Graham, Tim Jamison and Terrance Taylor.
So Michigan doesn't need much from its offense, and just as obviously it's not going to get much. If the Wolverines have anything going for them, it's the trio of fast freshmen, Sam McGuffie, Michael Shaw and Martevious Odoms, who put together a few big plays last week -- although, of course, Miami of Ohio's defense had plenty to do with that. And even against the MAC, Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan were virtual non-factors from the pocket; an improvement, actually, over the "crippling factor" they were for the vast majority of the Utah game.
Faced with such bleak competing themes -- Notre Dame has no hope of blocking Michigan; Michigan has even less hope of challenging ND more than a few yards downfield -- I'm tempted to call it a 3-3 tie and pop in "The Bodyguard" to recall a time when this rivalry mattered nationally. As it is, while I don't believe ghosts or echoes and generally can't believe I'm typing this, the clearest difference between one side and the other is Clausen. He's obviously rounding into something closer to his recruiting than the raw meat we saw last year, and if he has a long way to go still, at least he can put a little pressure on a defense downfield if given just a little time. Barring perfect circumstances (which does not include "facing a Jon Tenuta-coached defense") and a slew of turnovers on the other side, Michigan quarterbacks look incapable of any such thing.
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Photo of Clausen sandwich via Getty Images.