And in that corner... the Michigan Wolverines
While most of us are still processing the opening win against Purdue, there’s no game that’s been circled on Irish calendars more than the rematch against Michigan. Last season’s stunning loss was the coronation of freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, who thanks to some questionable play-calling and mediocre defense by Notre Dame, and some impressive moxie and field presence, led the Wolverines to a last-second touchdown to beat the favored Irish.
Fast forward a year, and so much has changed. Forcier is now third in the depth chart behind Denard Robinson. Charlie Weis is now sitting in the press box for the Kansas City Chiefs. And the two promising seasons that got off to decent starts for both the Irish and Wolverines? They ended with both teams spending the holidays and bowl season at home.
A convincing opening victory against UConn orchestrated by the stunning play of Denard “Shoelace” Robinson has Wolverines fans calling off the dogs that were chasing head coach Rich Rodriguez out of town, and potentially gearing up for a season where they play the role of Big Ten darkhorse. Covering it all is AnnArbor.com’s Michael Rothstein, who has the unique perspective of having walked the Irish beat as well, covering Notre Dame for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette before making the move to Ann Arbor.
Mike was nice enough to answer a few questions on the state of the Wolverines, their defense, that Shoelace guy, and Michigan fans’ perspective on their former local son, Brian Kelly.
Inside the Irish: Both squads had impressive debuts on Saturday: Michigan with an impressive offensive showing, Notre Dame with a strong defensive game. What was more surprising?
Michael Rothstein: I’d say Notre Dame having a strong defensive showing. The defense, in many ways, is what really did Charlie Weis in at Notre Dame last year. He spent more time recruiting offensive talent and then had a stubborn defensive coordinator so it was tough to really say how much talent was there. With Michigan, you had a feeling the offense would be dynamic because there are a lot of playmakers and the promise Denard Robinson showed in the spring. So I’d say Notre Dame’s defense - although I’m not sold on either defense just yet.
ITI: Let’s get serious. Can the Michigan defense win the game with the secondary they’re trotting out there?
MR: On paper? No. Michigan will see the best wide receiver it’ll face all year (Michael Floyd), the best tight end it’ll see (Kyle Rudolph) and probably one of the top three quarterbacks on the schedule in Dayne Crist, with Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor and Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi being the other two. Notre Dame has a lot of offensive options and Michigan’s secondary really wasn’t tested last week. Plus, it’s now down two defensive starters as Troy Woolfolk is out for the season with a preseason ankle injury and freshman safety Carvin Johnson is “highly doubtful” according to Rich Rodriguez with a sprained left MCL. If the Wolverines’ secondary can manage to contain this Notre Dame offense, I’ll become a believer. But not until I see it do something.
ITI: Did Rich Rodriguez win back some of the Michigan faithful with a strong opening win? Is he still on the hot seat? After last year’s 4-0 start, what does he have to accomplish to stick around for year four?
MR: Winning, unsurprisingly, cures a lot. Make no doubt, Saturday was a big win for Rodriguez, perhaps even bigger than the season-opener a year ago because this time it was against a BCS league opponent which had been touted as a contender in the Big East. And Michigan, for the most part, was dominant. So I think some fans have probably started to shift back to Rodriguez if they were on the fence about him. One game, though, doesn’t cure all. A loss Saturday and Michigan is still 1-1. It’s funny, actually, on the numbers question. I’m at the point where I refuse to give any sort of number projection because I just don’t know. I don’t know if numbers will play into it as much as progress (barring injury) and that there isn’t some major change in the status when the NCAA comes back with its findings from the August Committee on Infractions hearing. I’d say if Michigan were to start 4-0 this year, it’d be more of an accomplishment because it’ll be two very well-coached teams. Randy Edsall is a really good coach and Brian Kelly, from a coaching standpoint, is better than Charlie Weis and Jon Tenuta.
ITI: You reported that Tate Forcier said he was “out” after Saturday’s game. What’s going on at QB and with the Forcier family in general? Is Forcier a locker-room cancer? Is he going to continue the family legacy of transferring schools?
MR: I’d have to say very few people really know when it comes to what is going on with the Forcier situation. And that’s what I’m calling it now. He said what he said to me, then his father told the AP he is “150 percent” not transferring. And then according to the Channel 7 news guy’s Twitter feed here in Michigan, he started to blame the media saying they were trying to drive his son out of Michigan. It’s been a weird set of circumstances. There certainly have been a lot of rumors, though. Can’t speak to the locker room issue, save for that in the spring and the preseason, Rodriguez pointed to Forcier as a guy who needed to improve some of his off-the-field stuff and Woolfolk called him out on media day. That sort of stuff just doesn’t sit well with teammates. Reports have been that he’s earned that trust back, but he was still No. 3 on Saturday against Connecticut. That answer is just a long way of saying it is certainly a situation to continually pay attention to as the season progresses.
ITI: Let’s talk Shoelace. He was pretty electric last weekend. Is he a star in the making? What do the Irish have to do to keep him in check? And when is someone going to explain to him that actually tying his shoelaces and using his cleats properly would actually help him?
MR: I think he is. He was flat impressive Saturday. The thing that I wondered - especially after watching him a year ago - is how he’d handle pressure and what would happen when he had to pass. I think he answered all of those questions at least for one week. Notre Dame’s defense, on tape, looked a lot better than Connecticut in person. As far as the shoelaces, I’d be hesitant to change anything. Consider it a quirk - much like Jim Furyk’s golf swing - that you just leave alone. I think Notre Dame will have to hit him and play good contain defense on the ends to keep him honest and in the pocket. When he starts to scramble, that’s when he’s even more dangerous.
ITI: What’s the impression of Brian Kelly as a coach from the UM perspective? Are the Irish more dangerous with Kelly in charge?
MR: I think so, if for no other reason than sometimes change is good for a program. It was clear toward the end that it just wasn’t working with Weis and Jimmy Clausen at quarterback. Clausen had so much talent but it never seemed like the team was fully behind him from the time he stepped on campus. Crist, though, is an overwhelmingly likable guy, which makes it easier to rally around him. Kelly, too, seems more down to earth than Weis. And understand, this opinion is just from talking with others and from my experience mostly with Weis. But he’s been a head coach before and has a lot of talent at his disposal. Plus, he’s already shown he can recruit. I think people up here respect Kelly, for sure. After all, he had success in the state both at Grand Valley on the Division II level and then at Central Michigan in the MAC. Rodriguez has faced him before and they have a mutual close friend in Butch Jones, so I don’t think he is going to be surprised by anything Kelly tries to do. But there is certainly mutual respect there.
ITI: What does Michigan have to do to win in South Bend?
MR: Hope the secondary doesn’t get burned too bad and that Robinson is able to replicate, at least in part, what he did last week. Michigan doesn’t need the record-setting day it got out of Robinson again this week, but that’s because he has a couple good running backs in Michael Shaw and Vincent Smith who can do some of the lifting for him. Michigan’s main problem will be containing Floyd and Rudolph. If it can get some pressure on Crist - and the Michigan defensive line is probably the strongest part of that unit - then I think the Wolverines have a shot. Either way, it’s a close game.
ITI: Obviously, last year’s game came down to the wire, with a few critical breaks going Michigan’s way. What do you see happening this year?
MR: Not sure. And I say that fairly at this point. Michigan’s secondary is still such a large question that I have a tough time believing they can hold it together for a whole game against this type of passing talent. That said, Notre Dame’s tackling from the linebackers, specifically Te’o, wasn’t great. If the middle linebacker is missing tackles against Robinson or Shaw, that could open any play up to turn into a touchdown. I think, much like last year, it is a very offensive-based game. Not going to make a prediction just yet because I’ll do that at AnnArbor.com later in the week. Also, because as of Tuesday afternoon, I just don’t know what way I’m going to go.