"YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!"
If that describes you as a Michigan Football fan then the upcoming road test against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame is not for you. That is because Team 133 and us fans will find out for the first time this season how good Brady Hoke's team truly is in 2012. The gray areas will be painted in black and white for the entire nation to see. Is the offense a one-man show that can slowed to a halt like we saw vs. Alabama or is it the well-oiled, multi-faceted arsenal we saw against UMass? Is the defense really as shaky as many feared it to be after getting bludgeoned by the Crimson Tide and dazzled by Air Force, or is it an improving group that simply is in the process of coming together as suggested by the performance against the Minutemen? Contenders or pretenders? Can they win on the road? We've been asking these questions since the season started and, ready or not, here comes Notre Dame more than willing to provide us all with the answers in South Bend under the lights.
We all know how amazing Denard Robinson can be. We also know the criticisms. He wins the "September Heisman," he folds in big games, he can't win on the road, he can't throw the ball with consistency, he is ineffective against good defenses, he is Michigan's only offense, among others. So far in his senior season, those perceptions have not changed. I am not going to get geeky with statistics. I am going to just lay it out there on the table in plain and simple English. He's faced one very good (maybe the nation's best) defense against Alabama and was, well, not good. He was Clark Kent. As expected, the Michigan and Denard detractors, both local and national, came out in full force on TV, radio, Twitter, the press, etc. In the last two weeks he has faced defenses with obvious inferior talent and he had his Superman cape flowing behind him as he flew to the end zone and delivered TD passes at will. That was "proof" to the naysayers that "Shoelace" was all the offense Michigan has. Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press went as far as labeling the Wolverines "The University of Denard Robinson."
Notre Dame will provide the perfect opportunity for Denard and the offense to quiet their critics. The Irish are 3-0 and coming off a very impressive 20-3 undressing of MSU in Spartan Stadium. Their front seven proved to be legit by completely shutting down the Spartans' vaunted running game (50 total yards) and forcing Maxwell and his inexperienced receivers to beat them through the air which they were unable to do. Well, that exact game plan is the same one that has been implemented successfully against Denard and the Wolverines by Alabama, MSU, Illinois, and VT. It's the type of defense that supposedly exposes the UM offense as a one-man crew incapable of beating a team by passing the football. Well, here's a chance to prove everyone wrong because the Irish will be stacking the box and forcing Robinson to beat them with his arm. We'll see if he has truly grown as Quarterback after Saturday.
Notre Dame is not very strong in the secondary. Even more so after losing yet another starter in senior safety Jamoris Slaughter for the season with an injured Achilles. A converted red shirt WR will be taking his place in an already injury-plagued secondary. It will be up to Denard to make the right reads and find the open receivers and not to force throws into coverage. It will also be on the receivers to get open which is something the Spartan receivers could not do. It will take a team effort offensively to score points in South Bend, not just the heroics of "Shoelace" and his world class speed. One thing is for certain, the ND defense will be looking to get in his face all game. Just ask Andrew Maxwell who was sacked 4 times and seemingly running for his life every time he dropped back. Denard's decision-making, the play of the offensive line, and the ability for the receivers to find the open areas will be under a microscope Saturday night.
The Michigan defense, particularly the defensive line, has looked to be the team's weakest link thus far. We knew this may be the case with the departures of seniors Martin, Van Bergen, and Heineger. They were manhandled by Alabama's mammoth offensive line, did not get very much push vs. Air Force, and were not able to completely dominate an inferior UMass offensive line. Brady Hoke called this group out every week, especially Will Campbell. There is no need to rehash "Big Will's" career struggles at UM. It's been talked about ad nauseu. But he is being looked upon to finally live up to his potential as a senior and provide a consistent presence in the middle. So far he has been inconsistent. He and his mates will need to play a lot better against ND to win this game.
Frank Clark, however, has been the the one constant horse since returning from suspension against Air Force. He was a MONSTER against UMass by practically living in the Minutemen backfield, providing pressure, batting passes, etc. The Wolverines will need him to provide pressure on Golson and contain the outside. He could really have a massive national coming out party with a big game against ND.
The big uglies for Notre Dame were outstanding against MSU's supposed world-beater defense. They provided protection for Golson allowing him to pass for 178 yards without a sack, paved the way for 123 yards rushing, and helped put up a 20-spot on one of the nation's best defenses. We are going to find out exactly how good or bad this Wolverine Defense is on Saturday. If they resemble the defense we saw against Alabama or Air Force, the one that was out of position, constantly blown off the ball on the line, missing tackles, and blowing coverages, it is going to be a long and ugly night in South Bend. Greg Mattison has been saying that as long as they play with great technique consistently they will be just fine. There would be no better time than Saturday for that to start happening.
Saturday will also be Team 133's first road test of the season, and it's a doozey. Last year they finished 2-2 away from the Big House dropping their biggest tests against Iowa and Michigan State. Denard has not had his best games on the road either. They don't get a warm up here. They will be thrown right into the fire against a very formidable foe. It will be interesting to see if they can go on the road and beat a quality opponent under the lights with the nation watching.
I think the point has been made pretty clear that after Saturday, we will know a lot more about the 2012 Michigan Wolverines. We will see if this offense can score points on a big and athletic defense. We will see if this defense has enough play makers and enough on the line to make enough stops against an offense that can score on the ground and through the air. We will see if Team 133 has the intestinal fortitude and the leadership to go on the road, in a hostile environment, under the lights, against a highly-ranked team and pull out a W. Are they tough enough? Are they technically sound enough? Are they strong enough? Are they contenders or pretenders? After Saturday, we won't have to ask those questions anymore...the answers will be presented on the national stage for us all to observe. It won't be for the weak-hearted so if you can't handle it, I suggest you either stay away from a TV on Saturday night or watch reruns of Seinfeld. It's gut check time! GO BLUE!!!