6 keys to Notre Dame-Michigan: How to stop Devin Gardner

Jonathan Daniel

What do SB Nation's Maize n Brew and One Foot Down have to say about this matchup?

When the No. 14 Fighting Irish travel to Ann Arbor on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), it will be the 41st time they have faced the No. 17 Wolverines. It will also be their last visit to the Big House for a while, as their yearly series with Michigan will be on hiatus beginning in 2015.

Notre Dame's keys to the game

1. For Notre Dame, the biggest key to scoring an eighth win in Ann Arbor will be containing Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner, who is in his first full season in replacement of Denard Robinson. Gardner isn't quite as mobile as his predecessor -- he did run for two touchdowns against Central Michigan in Week 1 -- but he is light years ahead as a passer.

Though Gardner had a relatively pedestrian 10-of-15 passing, 162-yard performance last week, consider these numbers:

  • Robinson only completed 66 percent of his passes 12 times in his four years, and that figure drops to seven when we enforce a minimum of 10 passing attempts.
  • Gardner's QB rating of 152.7 against Central Michigan was better than a large majority of Robinson's games. Again counting games with a minimum of 10 passing attempts, Robinson bested this mark only 11 times in his career.
  • In Gardner's five starts last season -- an admittedly small sample size -- he totaled a quarterback rating, completion percentage, TD/INT ratio and YPA that either exceeded or nearly met every career high of Robinson's.

In short, the Irish will be dealing with a mobile quarterback who is not only four inches taller and 10 pounds heavier, but a better passer too. Here's One Foot Down on what the Irish defense has to do in response:

  • Stay in your containment lane. For ends, this means getting level with the QB before constricting the pocket. For tackles, this means simply bull-rushing the opposing offensive lineman and not getting diverted to either side of a straight lane to the QB.
  • Keep your eyes in the backfield. Against a mobile quarterback, you need to be ready to shed your block at a moment's notice to cut off the QB's path to escape.
  • Don't try to sack the quarterback. This is why many teams lose contain and struggle against mobile QBs. The main goal of the defensive line shouldn't be to bring the quarterback to the ground; it should be to constantly shrink the pocket until the QB has nowhere to go. A great contain team will have a ton of half-sacks spread out across the whole line, and not many individual sacks that are the cause of great swim/rip moves at the line.

OFD continues with a prediction for how defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will handle Gardner, a task that will become much more difficult without the now-graduated Manti Te'o:

Going into the game in Ann Arbor on Saturday night, I fully expect the Irish to be running contain on every passing down, and I expect to see some pressure from the ILB position on obvious passing downs (with the side benefit of taking weaker coverage players out of coverage). This, along with the fact that Michigan's interior OL is yet to be truly tested, means that may see a lot of pressure get to Gardner from straight up the middle. The most important part of generating that pressure, however is keeping contain on Gardner, no matter the call. If he escapes the pocket with regularity, it may be a long day for the Irish secondary and fans alike.

2. Other concerns for the Irish this Saturday will include Wolverine wide receiver Jeremy Gallon and linebacker James Ross III. On Gallon, OFD writes:

The 5'8 fifth-year senior has emerged as the favorite target of Gardner and is coming off a 2012 season in which he led Michigan in receptions (49) and yards (829). As you would expect, he's shifty and quick due to his size, and he's also thrived under the Robinson/Gardner offense(s) when the play breaks down and the quarterbacks buy time to throw downfield. He's not your typical No. 1 receiver, but he's dangerous in his own right.

3. And Ross:

Michigan fans are expecting BIG things out of the true sophomore. He only tallied three tackles (with 0.5 for loss) against Central Michigan but didn't play a ton of minutes in the blowout. As a true freshman he put up a solid 36 tackles with 2.5 for loss and will be looked at to be one of Michigan's top playmakers on defense with Jake Ryan recovering from knee surgery. At 6-1, 220 he's not very big but he plays bigger than his size and has really good speed. He'll definitely be used as a weapon to disrupt Tommy Rees and slow down the Irish running game.

Michigan's keys to the game

1. The Wolverines have never lost at home under Brady Hoke, and in order to keep that streak going, they must first focus their efforts on the Notre Dame running game, according to Maize n Brew:

The running game is going to likely be the staple of Kelly’s offense for the fourth consecutive year, and Michigan will look to come out and shake the confidence of unproven runners. The Wolverines seem to have the better stable of linebackers, especially in terms of experience, and should be strong enough to stop Notre Dame from breaking off big runs. However, if the Irish are able to consistently produce on the ground, even worse because it would be without the legs of Golson, Michigan’s defense could risk giving up too many yards like they did in 2011.

2. Though he no longer has tight end Tyler Eifert to throw to, Irish quarterback Tommy Rees ranks right up there on the list of concerns, having carried Notre Dame to a 13-6 win over Michigan last season and coming within four points of another one in 2011. Maize n Brew on Rees:

He isn't the best passer, and not the most mobile guy, but he is capable of making Michigan's secondary pay. Of course, without Jordan Kovacs in the lineup, this could spell trouble for a Michigan secondary that has already been beaten deep by Rees a few times.

3. There is also the issue of Irish defensive tackle Louis Nix III, he of the Maxwell and Bednarik watch lists. Maize n Brew says the matchup between Nix and the center of the Wolverine line will be worth watching:

Nixing Nix and Co.: Notre Dame's defensive line is going to create a lot of problems for Michigan's young interior offensive line. How well Miller, Glasgow, and Kalis can adapt on the fly and keep executing the gameplan will influence just how well Michigan can run the ball, which will have a big effect on how much Al Borges can set up his full offense.

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