Inside The Numbers: Notre Dame Defense vs. Michigan Offense
When No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 20 Michigan square off this weekend, the battle between the Irish defense and the Wolverine offense is the most lopsided on paper. Notre Dame has been one of the nation’s best defenses through the first eight weeks of the season, and the Michigan offense has sputtered against any defense with a pulse.
The talent matchup is much closer than the statistical one, and Michigan is coming off its best half of football while the Irish defense allowed USC to score on all four of its second half possessions.
Will the finishes to each unit’s most recent contest be a trend of things to come, or will the season-long numbers be a better indicator of who holds the edge in this matchup? We will find out on Saturday night.
Notre Dame Scoring Defense vs. Michigan Scoring Offense
Advantage: Notre Dame
Notre Dame has been a relatively steady defense this season, giving up between 14 and 23 points in all but one of its first five games. The exception being a shutout of the lowly Bowling Green squad. Notre Dame gave up 27 against USC in its most recent contest, but the Irish all but gave up the final touchdown in an attempt to force the Trojans to use clock and ice the game.
USC was also the first opponent to top 390 yards against the Irish defense and the first to go over 6.0 yards per play. Notre Dame currently owns a streak of 20 games of allowing 30 or fewer points, which began against LSU in the Citrus Bowl following the 2017 season.
While its overall numbers are impressive, the Notre Dame defense has yet to hit its stride, and we’ve yet to see the unit play a truly dominant four quarters against a quality opponent. It finished strong against both Louisville and Virginia, but that came after rough starts.
It was brilliant for three quarters against Georgia, but could not overcome its own offense struggling in the third and early fourth quarters. Notre Dame was quite good in the first half against USC, limiting the Trojans to just three points and 146 yards of offense, but the second half was problematic.
To win a tough road game against an opponent like Michigan, the Irish defense will have to be at its best, which means starting well, finishing strong, continuing its trend of forcing turnovers at a high rate, playing improved third-down defense and showing a boost in production in the red zone.
Michigan has been incredibly erratic on offense this season. It averaged 44.7 points in wins over Middle Tennessee, Rutgers and Illinois, teams that are a combined 6-15 this season and rank between No. 84 and No. 123 in scoring defense.
Against its three opponents with a .500 or better record, Michigan’s offense averaged 15.0 points per game, 327.7 yards per game and 4.9 yards per play.
Turnovers, the ability to move the chains on third-down and putting the ball in the end zone have been primary factors in Michigan’s struggles. The Wolverines rank 109th nationally with 14 turnovers. The good news for Michigan is that after turning it over nine times in the first three games, it has lost the ball just five times in its last four contests.
Notre Dame Rush Defense vs. Michigan Rush Offense
Advantage: Notre Dame
A case could be made that this particular matchup could be labeled even, but Notre Dame’s overall statistical edge and the fact it has had more good performances on defense than Michigan has had on offense is why the Irish get the edge.
After a brutal start to the season it seemed like the Irish defense had found its stride on the ground, giving up just 91.3 rushing yards and 2.6 yards per attempt against Georgia, Virginia and Bowling Green. Any positives vibes, however, were diminished when USC racked up 171 yards and its backs topped 6.0 yards per carry against the Irish.
Against USC we saw many of the issues that plagued the defense early in the season; missed tackles, poor angles, losing leverage. The result was USC gashing the defense, and the Trojans averaged fewer yards per game (137.2) coming into that matchup than does Michigan (154.0), and USC’s yards per carry number (4.2) was only slightly higher than the Wolverines (4.0).
Almost half of Michigan’s rushing yards (528 of 1,078) came in wins over Middle Tennessee and Illinois, who rank 122nd and 103rd in rushing defense. The Wolverines were able to rack up 141 yards against Penn State, a defense that is limiting opponents to just 66.3 yards per game this season.
Even when the run defense has scuffled this fall, Notre Dame has been able to rack up plays at or behind the line, which has forced opponents into tougher third-down opportunities. Notre Dame currently ranks fifth in the nation in tackles for loss per game, but Michigan has been good at limiting such plays, ranking 10th in the nation in fewest tackles for loss allowed.
This matchup will be crucial in Saturday night’s contest.
Notre Dame Pass Defense vs. Michigan Pass Offense
Advantage: Notre Dame
On paper this is a significant advantage for the Irish, but the talent is much closer than the numbers, and that makes this a dangerous matchup for Notre Dame.
Notre Dame was outstanding at limiting the opposition pass attack in the first three games, with opponents throwing just one touchdown against three interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 50.6 percent of their passes in the early part of the season, but in recent games Notre Dame has had a much tougher time getting stops.
Notre Dame’s last three opponents have thrown four touchdowns against just three interceptions, and opposing quarterbacks completed 65.7 percent of their throws. Only Bowling Green completed fewer than 68 percent of its passes against the Irish defense over the last month, a number that must dramatically improve.
Getting cornerback Shaun Crawford back is a plus, but Notre Dame will be tested down the field against Michigan, who will look to utilize its size at wide receiver. It will also look to take advantage of the aggressive Notre Dame safeties, who have struggled in coverage in recent weeks.
Michigan put up decent numbers throwing the ball this season, but it has lived on big plays down the field. Efficiency has not been a strength for Michigan, with the Wolverines completing fewer than 60 percent of their passes in five of their seven games.
Michigan is a middle of the road team when it comes to protecting the quarterback, but it has shown dramatic improvement in recent games. The Wolverines gave up nine sacks in the first four games, but over the last three contests opponents have sacked Michigan quarterbacks just three times, and just once in the last two contests.
Notre Dame will need its standout ends - Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara - to dominate this matchup much like they did a season ago.