This is Denard Robinson’s favorite time of the year — Notre Dame week.
The senior quarterback has torched the Fighting Irish defense as Michigan football’s signal caller each of the past two seasons. There’s something about this rivalry that brings out the best in him.
In the 2010 matchup in South Bend, Robinson accounted for 502 of Michigan’s 532 total yards, with over 200 passing and rushing yards. In the 2011 showdown in Ann Arbor — Michigan Stadium’s first-ever night game — he threw for 338 yards and rushed for 108 more, and found wide receiver Roy Roundtree in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with two ticks left.
“Denard playing his heart out,” said redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint on what he remembers of last year’s game. “I think that’s one of the better games he’s played here, personally. Then you had guys out there playing with him, playing their heart out for him.
“(Notre Dame) plays hard, and I believe when you have competition, that makes you bring out your best game.”
Toussaint did not play in last season’s duel with Notre Dame because of a shoulder injury. His return to the starting lineup for this season’s episode adds another weapon to Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s offensive arsenal that his counterpart Brian Kelly didn’t have to deal with last year.
Toussaint rebounded a bit last week against Massachusetts, picking up 85 yards on just 15 touches following his rough return to the lineup the week before against Air Force. But against Notre Dame, he’ll take on a front seven with talent he has yet to see this season.
Up front in Kelly’s base 3-4 defense is formidable nose tackle Louis Nix III, who consistently disrupts runs up the middle, or at the very least draws double teams that free up space for the ends and linebackers. And the linebacker corps is led by presumed 2013 NFL draft first-rounder Manti Te’o, whose run defense is among the best in the country.
Te’o led the Irish defense in tackles in both the 2010 and 2011 matchups.
“Te’o’s an excellent player,” said offensive coordinator Al Borges. “(He’s) very active, always around the ball. Their front is similar (to Alabama’s) in that they’re both three-man fronts, eat up a lot of gaps inside, try to make it tough for you to run the ball inside the tackles — so they’re similar that way. Both of them are physical fronts that run well and, you know, will cause us problems if we don’t take care of business.”
Behind the front seven, though, Notre Dame’s secondary isn’t very strong, and Robinson may be more inclined to stay in the pocket and pass than he was in the teams’ past two meetings. The Fighting Irish secondary features a true freshman and a wide receiver transplant, and starting safety Jamoris Slaughter went down with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon against Michigan State last week and is out for the season.
The Spartans lack significant vertical threats, meaning the inexperienced Notre Dame secondary has yet to be tested.
“I feel like, through the film, their DBs don’t look half bad to me,” said junior wide receiver Devin Gardner. “I don’t see where people get that from. The front seven is really good, and the DBs are really good, from what I can see.”
On the other side of the ball, Kelly has a new weapon this year in sophomore quarterback Everett Golson, who has gotten the nod as Notre Dame’s starter. The signal caller is a dual threat, so the Wolverines will have to be wary of him breaking out of the pocket.
The inexperienced Wolverine defensive line hasn’t turned many heads so far this season, but it may be able to get a solid push against a relatively week Notre Dame offensive line. So far this season, Golson has had happy feet, but unfortunately for opponents, scrambling has been a strength for him.
Michigan may also have a tough time matching up with star tight end Tyler Eifert, who’s featured heavily in Kelly’s offense. The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder is a very reliable safety blanket for Golson, and he’ll be able to catch passes over undersized Michigan defenders.
Ultimately, though, the Notre Dame offense is one that Michigan has seen before.
“It’s still the same,” said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. “It’s the head coach — he’s still going to run his thing and their philosophy and that’s what they’ve done. The thing that maybe changes a little bit is he has the ability to scramble (with Golson) if something isn’t there.”