Notre Dame, fresh from two road games, hosts Michigan State playing in their first road game of the season. This contest will be the 76th renewal of what has been at times a very bitter rivalry. The teams began competition in 1887, played intermittently through 1921, and it became a steady series from 1948 to today with a two year hiatus from 1994-1995. The winner claims the Megaphone Trophy sponsored by both schools’ alumni clubs of Detroit. The game will, of course, be televised by NBC with preliminaries beginning at 3:30 and kickoff around 3:41. The weather forecast for the contest calls for sunny skies, 70 degrees, and a 0% chance of rain.
Notre Dame holds the lead in the series 47-28-1 and won last year 20-3. The Irish record against the Spartans at home is 28-13-0. The Irish have won three of the last four contests, the only loss being the 2010 overtime loss as the Spartans ran a fake field goal pass play to win the game. An interesting series fact is that both teams have had eight game winning streaks in the series. Michigan State has done it once, from 1955-1963, while Notre Dame has done it twice, 1887-1909 and 1987-1994.
Michigan State is led by Mark Dantonio who is in his seventh season as the Spartans’ head coach. Coach Dantonio, a Youngstown State graduate, has a 72-45 record as a head coach. His first head coaching job was Cincinnati where he posted an 18-17 record. At Michigan State he is 54-28. Besides being a head coach at two Midwestern programs Dantonio was an assistant at Akron, Youngstown State, Kansas, Michigan State, and Ohio State working for Jim Denison, Jim Tressel, Glen Mason, Nick Saban, and Jim Tressel again before getting the Cincinnati head job. Dantonio, known for his defensive expertise, has led the Spartans to be the top defensive team in the Big Ten the last two seasons. Against Notre Dame Dantonio is 3-3 and 1-2 versus Coach Kelly.
Michigan State stands at 3-0 with consecutive home wins over two FBS schools, Western Michigan 26-13, Southern Florida 21-6, and the FCS Division’s Youngstown State 55-17. The combined record of Michigan State’s 2013 opponents is 3-6. Notre Dame’s opponents are a combined 4-5.
Notre Dame-Michigan State Connections
Irish outside wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock was on the Michigan State staff from 1988-1989. Spartan assistant strength and conditioning coach Lorenzo Guess held a similar post at Notre Dame from 2010-2011. Spartan associate athletics director John Lewandowski is a 1984 Notre dame graduate.
Michigan State’s George Blaha graduated from Notre Dame in 1966 and has been the play-by-play radio announcer for Michigan State for the past thirty-eight seasons.
Michigan State Offense
Woeful in the first two games is the word that best described the Michigan State offense in their first two victories. Their leading scorer before last week’s game was Shilique Calhoun #89, their sophomore defensive end who had scored three defensive touchdowns, one more than the starting tailback.
The Youngstown State blowout allowed place kicker Kevin Muma #17 and starting tailback Jeremy Langford #33 to pass Calhoun and tie each other for the team scoring lead with 24 points over three games.
The Spartans still have their power running game, the spread, and now the pistol. To me they seem in search of an identity offensively. They will try to run and pound you and if they can’t they are behind the proverbial eight ball offensively due to quarterback play. Their passing features a lot of underneath routes and they tend to favor the under man in crossing patterns from two or three wide outs to the same side. The quarterbacks also throw a lot of check downs to their running backs rather than force the ball downfield.
Trick Play Possibilities
Michigan State will run the Wildcat. The standard reverse running by receivers is a Michigan State staple. One receiver, Tony Lippertt #14 was a high school quarterback so a pass off of a reverse is a possibility. Quarterback Cook is enough of an athlete to be included as a receiver in a throw-back play. Dantonio has also used the halfback pass not to mention fake field goals.
Projected Michigan State Starting Offense and Significant Contributors
QB #18 Connor Cook, 6-4, 218, sophomore, 6 games, 2 starts
RB #33 Jeremy Langford, 6-0, 206, junior, 26 games, 3 starts
RB #30 Riley Bullough, 6-2, 230, RS freshman, 3 games, 0 starts
RB #20 Nick Hill, 5-8, 198, junior, 31 games, 1 start
WR #16 Aaron Burbridge, 6-1, 195, sophomore, 14 games, 9 starts
WR #3 Macgarrett Kings, 5-10, 186, sophomore, 11 games, 3 starts
WR #14 Tony Lippett, 6-3, 191, junior, 30 games, 9 starts (5 starts at cornerback)
WR #25 Keith Mumphery, 6-0, 208, junior, 30 games, 14 starts
WR #13 Bennie Fowler, 6-1, 212, fifth year, 34 games, 9 starts
TE #92 Andrew Gleichert, 6-6, 263, junior, 14 games, 2 starts
TE #94 Michael Dennis, 6-7, 299, junior, 12 games, 3 starts
LT #76 Donavon Clark, 6-3, 300, sophomore, 9 games, 5 starts
LG #64 Blake Treadwell, 6-3, 304, fifth year, 33 games, 19 starts
C #63 Travis Jackson, 6-3, 283, junior, 17 games, 17 starts OR
C #66 Jack Allen, 6-1, 297, sophomore, 13 games, 13 starts
RG #59 Dan France, 6-6, 312, fifth year, 36 games, 27 starts
RT #74 Jack Conklin, 6-6, 326, RS freshman, 3 games, 3 starts
RT #51 Lou Fonoti, 6-4, 298, fifth year, 16 games, 13 starts
Quarterback Connor Cook #18 (pictured) took over the starting job from a fifth year senior in the second game. Cook is a pro-style quarterback who has enough wheels to take off under pressure. Last week he solidified his hold on QB #1 with a 15-22-0 performance for 202 yards and 4 touchdowns. He also rushed four times for 18 yards.
Cook hails from a good mid-sized parochial program in Ohio that took on anyone who would play them. Despite one service claims that he was turnover prone Cook has yet to throw a pick and has only fumbled once. As a passer he has a strong arm, good mechanics, moves well in the pocket, and can pull the ball down and gain big chunks of yardage. Cook effectively ran the zone read against YSU.
Subtracting his lone sack he averages 5.9 yards per carry and has a longest run of 20 yards. His season statistics are 27-49-0 for 55%, a long of 26 yards, and 4 touchdown passes that all came in the game last week, and 1 sack. Dantonio doesn’t expect Cook to win the game this early in the season, but the signal caller has shown improvement and with improvement there usually comes confidence and better performance. He, however, did miss some open receivers against Youngstown State.
His backup could be Tyler O’Connor #7 a 6-4 218 pound red shirt freshman. O’Connor is 9-14-0 for 64%, a long of 18 yards, and 0 touchdowns. I think if Cook goes down or is struggling that Dantonio will go back to his most experienced quarterback Andrew Maxwell #10. It makes no sense to go with another experienced quarterback should Cook struggle. Maxwell isn’t a danger of being on the all-conference team, but he does represent experience with 14 starts and he would be going against an Irish defense that is significantly weaker than what he faced last season as the starter against Notre Dame.
The starting tailback is Jeremy Langford #33 who has great speed, cuts well, and can make tacklers miss. He does a good job bouncing out to the outside when the hole is clogged. Consistency is something that the MSU staff is looking for from a player that came to East Lansing as a running back, was switched to defensive back, then to receiver, and finally back to running back. Langford’s not an overpowering back and he’s often tackled too easily, but he’s fast enough to go the distance if he gets a seam. He is a good pass blocker though and the third leading receiver with 7 passes for a 4.0 yard average and a long of 9 yards. As a runner he averages 4.5 yards, has a long of 18 yards, and 4 touchdowns.
Riley Bullough #33 is the younger brother of Max Bullough the MLB. He’s the biggest and most powerful of the three running backs MSU uses at tailback. Bullough can get the tough yards, averages 3.9 yards per carry, but has a longest run of 19 yards. He has good hands and averages 4 yards on 2 receptions with a long of 7 yards.
Nick Hill #20 is the third tailback on the depth chart, but in my opinion the best pure runner of the three and the most dangerous. Hill is a threat on the jet sweep and would scare any defensive coordinator in America running a wheel route. His short height helps him hide among the giants on onside runs. He has quick feet, gets to full speed quickly, hits the hole with intensity, and reads his blocks well. Hill has a 7.2 yard average, a long of 35 yards, and 1 touchdown. As a receiver he has one catch for 10 yards.
R J Shelton #12 has only two carries, but he averages 8.3 yards per carry. Unheralded so far this season Dantonio has mentioned the need to take advantage of Shelton’s speed. The running back has soft hands for receiving, good vision running the ball, is elusive, and has game changing speed.
Fullback Trevon Pendleton #37 is a small guard in the backfield. The walk-on does have fair hands and 1 reception for 12 yards and a touchdown on a blown coverage, but has yet to carry the ball as a rusher.
Two sophomore wide outs lead the team in receptions for a unit that is ranked as mid-level among the Big Ten. There’s physical talent all over the receiving corps, but as a unit they’ve also been plagued with drops. Nine different receivers have caught passes for the Spartans this season. Unlike Michigan they have no go to guy and all receivers, wide outs, tight ends, and backs are averaging only 9.4 yards per reception to rank 115th in the nation. Conversely Notre Dame averages 14.8 yards per catch. However, that average took a big jump against Youngstown State as MSU receivers took short passes and turned them into long gains and averaged 12.3 yards per reception.
Macgarrett Kings, Jr. #3 is a former high school running back learning receiver. Dangerous after he catches the ball Kings has soft hands, runs a good slant pattern, and will just keep getting better each week. He hasn’t run a reverse yet, but as a former running back I’d say it’s just a matter of time. Kings has 8 receptions, a 12.4 yard average, a long of 24 yards, and 1 touchdown.
Aaron Burbridge #16 is a more polished receiver than Kings. He runs good routes, has good hands, and he uses his body well. Also a run threat Burbridge has run a reverse for 21 yards. He has 8 receptions, a 10.0 yard average, and a long of 26 yards.
Tony Lippett #14 brings height to the Spartan receiving corps. He has good hands, runs his routes well, and good body control. He’s not real fast and being skinny he isn’t very strong. Lippett has four receptions for a 10.2 yard average and a long of 18 yards. He’s also run a reverse for 3 yards. He can pass the ball off of a reverse having been a high school quarterback.
Keith Mumphery #25 brings strength and size to the position. He can get the ball in traffic and he’s a good leaper who will go up for it fearlessly. Not usually a deep threat nor capable of many post catch moves Mumphery has 6 receptions, a 7.8 yard average, and a long of 18 yards. He also has run a reverse for 3 yards.
Bennie Fowler #13 was the returning leader in yardage and touchdowns, but he dropped three in the opener and has had his time on the field reduced. Still, he’s a threat when he’s on the field. He’s had one reverse for 17 yards. Fowler has 5 receptions, a 14.6 yard average, a long of 26 yards, and 1 touchdown.
Tight end Andrew Gleichert #92 is a big tight end that blocks well. More like an extra tackle than a tight end he has only 1 reception for 7 yards. The other tight ends, Josiah Price #82 and Jamal Lyles #11, are more apt to be receivers with five catches collectively for an average of 9.4 yards and both have longs of 13 yards. The latter two have emerged of late and will probably be more of the offensive plan against the Irish.
Yet to catch a pass this season is tight end Michael Dennis #97. Dennis was converted from tackle to tight end, a position he played in high school. I include him because he has played in two tight end sets this year and at 6-7, 299 pounds he has to be a matchup nightmare for a safety or a linebacker.
The Spartan offensive line is a typical Spartan offensive line, big, physical, and for the most part, experienced. Three starters are in their fifth year and this is a more intense group of lineman than what Purdue offered last week. Rated among the top two offensive lines in the Big Ten they’ve been in a state of flux this season as this line has been shuffled around due to injuries. Still, a good unit, solid throughout, but having no superstar like Michigan does in Taylor Lewan. They have only allowed 2 sacks on the year.
Right tackle Fou Fonoti #51 has been slow coming back from last year’s foot injury although he’s played in both games this season. If he’s completely over the injury I look for him to start at right tackle and for the current starter Jack Conklin #74 to move to left tackle and start there if he’s physically able. It could be that the foot injury from last year limits Fonoti’s amount of playing time. Fonoti seems to bring some stability to the MSU offensive line that’s missing when he’s not in the game. Fonoti is an athletic lineman with quickness who didn’t allow a sack on close to 700 snaps the year before he injured his foot.
Left tackle Donavan Clark #76 has started the first two games, but is replaced by right tackle Jack Conklin #74 when Fonoti enters the game. Clark had his difficulties against Western Michigan so it’s easy to see why Conklin moves to his position when Fonoti enters the game.
Dan France #59 has been moved from left tackle to right guard. France is a good drive blocker and shows great ability to seal off a playside defender shading him to the inside, something hard to do for any lineman. He’s also physical, particularly on power. France is a character and tries to get into his opponent’s head through being weird. He has been known to act like a cat, purring, meowing, and hissing.
Blake Treadwell #64 is the left guard and he’s also capable of playing center if needed. Treadwell is not as athletic as his line mates and not as sound technically, but he’s still a typical Michigan State guard pulling up into the hole on power. As a pass blocker and as a run blocker he’s determined and if he locks on he has you.
Center Travis Jackson #63 comes off the snap well. As a run blocker he does a good job sealing off the nose tackles he’s encountered this season He also gets out on the screen and is in control and can locate and block someone in open space. Jackson is one of the better centers in the Big Ten.
Another center Jack Allen #66 started for Jackson last week due to a Jackson injury. He could start again this week and he also plays guard. Allen pulls well and doesn’t just look good pulling. He actually blocks well in space.
Michigan State Defense
The Michigan State defense is the number one ranked defense in the FBS. They have only allowed four touchdowns in three games. The Spartans have also scored four defensive touchdowns. Two by interception returns and two by fumble returns.
Michigan State is ranked #1 in total defense allowing 177 yards a game, 4th in rushing defense allowing 50 yards per game, and 5th in passing defense permitting 127 yards per game. The Spartans’ most crushing defensive statistic is their 2nd place ranking in allowing opponents to convert only 16% of their third down attempts. Scoring defense finds MSU ranked 12th allowing 12 points per game. Michigan State is ranked 14th in dropping the quarterback with 9 sacks. The Spartans are ranked in a tie for 6th in turnovers with 8, 4 fumbles, and 4 interceptions.
In the Red Zone the Spartans have allowed opponents to score on five of five penetrations inside their defensive Red Zone. That breaks down into 1 rushing touchdown, 1 passing touchdown, and two field goals. Those five scores out of five penetrations ranks MSU tied for last with many teams at 100%. The fallacy of that statistic is that Notre Dame has allowed opponents to score 73% of their time into the Irish Red Zone to rank 32nd. In terms of points allowed the Spartans have allowed only 24 Red Zone points over three games while the Irish have allowed 56 Red Zone points.
Projected Michigan State Starting Defense and Significant Contributors
DE #89 Shilique Calhoun, 6-4, 220, sophomore, 16 games, 4 starts
DE #44 Marcus Rush, 6-2, 245, junior, 30 games, 30 starts
DT #91 Tyler Hoover, 6-7, 290, sixth year, 40 games, 15 starts
NT #60 Micajah Reynolds, 6-5, 307, fifth year, 32 games, 9 starts
WLB #34 Taiwan Jones, 6-3, 250, junior, 30 games, 6 starts AND
WLB #23 Jairus Jones, 6-1, 213, fifth year, 28 games, 6 starts
MLB #40 Max Bullough, 6-3, 245, senior, 43 games, 30 starts
SLB #28 Denarcos Allen, 5-11, 218, fifth year, 43 games, 29 starts
FC #15 Trae Waynes, 6-1, 185, sophomore, 12 games, 3 starts
BC #31 Darqueze Dennard, 5-11, 197, senior, 33 games, 29 starts
SS #9 Isaiah Lewis, 5-10, 208, senior, 42 games, 30 starts OR
SS #26 R J Williamson, 6-0, sophomore, 212, 14 games 1 start
FS #27 Kurtis Drummond, 6-1, 200, junior, 28 games, 10 starts
The Spartan defensive line is the weakest unit of the Michigan State defense. Before the reader gets excited consider that the MSU linebacking corps and the secondary are among the best in the country and that Michigan State’s defensive line is still the best that the Irish have faced this season. They also have quality depth all along the line.
Defensive end Shilique Calhoun #89 has been a big offensive threat for MSU from the defensive end position, scoring three touchdowns in the first two games. Calhoun is a prime example of Coach Dantonio’s philosophy of having players who are 6-5 or better manning the edge of the defensive line. The sophomore is athletic, long armed, uses his hands well, is a good leaper, and has a quick burst of speed off of the edge. He’s quick on the inside move across the blocker’s face and runs stunts well. A tight end in high school he has the hands to make plays that lead to score on defense. He has 5 solo tackles, 3 for losses, 2 sacks, 8 QB hurries, 3 fumble recoveries, and 1 interception.
The other defensive end is the aptly named Marcus Rush #44 and is in his third year starting. The junior has a great burst off the line, is relentless, plays good gap discipline, and has good pass rushing skills. Not the physical presence Calhoun is, but he makes up for it with his effort. Rush has 7 tackles, 3 solos, 2 sacks, 2 QB hits, 1 pass defended, and 1 forced fumble.
Nose tackle Micajah Reynolds #60 is a former offensive lineman who also played defensive line in 2011, but he switched over to the defense exclusively in 2012. He hasn’t always performed well and lost his starter’s job after six games last season, but played in all thirteen games. Reynolds possesses natural strength and quick feet for his size. Reynolds also penetrates well, pursues better than most nose tackles, and gets his hands up on pass attempts. He has10 tackles, 1 solo, and 3 QB hurries.
Defensive tackle Tyler Hoover #91 took over the position starting the last three games of the 2013 season and won the job again this season. He penetrates consistently, has a good spin move, and gets his hands up when he can’t reach the passer. He also has a good motor and can put the pressure on opposing quarterbacks from the inside. Hoover has 9 tackles, 2 solos, 2 sacks, 2 passes defended, 1 QB hurry, and 1 forced fumble.
This unit returns the most experience from 2012, two starters and a part time starter who recorded 11 tackles in the MSU spring game. It is one of the top linebacker units in the FBS. Each of the three starters in this unit could possibly play at the next level.
Weakside linebacker Taiwan Jones could well be titled the best athlete on the Michigan State team. At 6-3, 250, and possessing 4.5 speed he would get many a vote for the title. He’s been suffering from a leg injury after a cut block against YSU. Physical and fast Jones has 11 tackles, 4 solos, 1 for a loss, and 1 QB hurry.
Max Bullough #40 is an intelligent player who is calling out reads and alignment changes in the pre-snap. He’s very tough between the tackles, diagnoses runs quickly, fills and scraps clean, and fills the hole with a physical presence. Bullough is an excellent blitzer with good timing. He’s not that fast, laterally, so he has some problems from sideline to sideline. He also has trouble getting good depth in pass coverage and if he’s in a back pedal he gives up a lot of ground when he turns to run with the receiver. Still, he is a good player who was a coaches’ choice for All Big Ten first team in 2012. Bullough has 15 tackles, 4 solos, 2.5 for losses, 1 pass defended, 3 QB hurries.
Strongside linebacker Denicos Allen #28 is a small packaged linebacker who plays beyond his size. Allen is very active, has a great downhill burst, good football smarts, and diagnosis plays quickly. Athletically he’s very good, plays well in space, and seldom takes a bad angle. His speed off the edge makes him an excellent blitzer who runs into the backfield with more agility to react to a quarterback’s movement than his larger fellow linebackers. His major problem is size and big blockers can overpower him. He has 15 tackles, 7 solos, 3 tackles for losses, 2 sacks, 1 pass defended, and 3 QB hurries.
Non-starter Jairus Jones #23 is a light linebacker at 213, but the fifth year player is an intelligent one. Jones, a former strong and free safety made the transition to linebacker this spring and has two interceptions this season. He has good speed and a knack for the ball, especially when it’s in the air. Jones has 11 tackles, 4 solos, 1 for a loss, and the 2 picks.
The Spartan secondary is a veteran unit that ranks high in the Big Ten just behind Ohio State’s secondary. Overall they are experienced, talented, and physical. As a unit they only have one interception, but they’ve had several near misses. Any one of them will come on a blitz. Hopefully, for the Irish, it seems their concentration wanders at times, and Youngstown State receivers did fairly well blocking MSU’s corners on running plays.
The Spartans are led by boundary corner Darqueze Dennard #31 who returns as a first team corner on the coaches’ 2012 All Big Ten team. Dennard should play on Sundays. He has great flexibility in his hips that make him a formidable defender that can turn and run with most any receiver. Dennard uses his hands well in the battle for the ball. He has good closing speed on breaking receivers, has excellent ball awareness, and jumps high and well timed. Good in man coverage and in jamming receivers he sometimes gives too much cushion in zone coverage. Dennard can have good games tackling and not so good games as he has a tendency not to wrap going for a hit. He has 9 tackles, 2 solos, .5 for a loss, 5 passes defended, and 2 QB hurries.
The field corner is Trae Waynes #15. He’s one of the fastest players on the MSU squad with 4.4 speed and it’s obvious to see that he’s a fantastic athlete. Waynes is very good man to man, has good ball skills, and is a solid tackler. Problem is he was beaten by Youngstown State receivers on a couple of occasions. He was also turned around more than any corner should be. He has 5 tackles, 3 solos, and 2 passes defended.
Strong safety Isaiah Lewis #9 is nearly as good in his ability as Dennard is in his. Lewis also has good hip flexibility that allows him to run with receivers when transitioning from backpedal to running. He has good ball awareness and uses his hands well to jam and defend on the ball. Lewis’s first step explosiveness allows him to fill immediately against the run from any spot he’s aligned at on the field. He plays nasty and can deliver a big hit. Like Dennard he does have difficulty in zone coverage, but he too should play on Sundays. Lewis has 11 tackles, 5 solos, 1 pass defended, and 1 QB hurry.
Lewis missed the last game with an injury and if he can’t go or is unable to go the whole game then RJ Reynolds #26 will step into the strong safety slot. Reynolds has 1 tackles, 4 solos, 1 for a loss, and 1 pass defended.
Free safety Kurtis Drummond #27 is the leading tackler for Michigan State. He has good size, toughness, tackles well, covers a lot of ground, and is very athletic. His one handed interception this year was something to see. Drummond has 17 tackles, 9 solos, 2 passes defended, and 1 interception which he returned for 21 yards.
Michigan State Special Teams
Placekicker Kevin Muma #17 is 4 of 5 in field goals and 12 for 13 in extra points. His longest field goal attempt this season has been a successful 30 yarder. His lone miss came at 25 yards.
Muma is in his fourth year doing the kick offs for MSU. This year he has kicked off 18 times and has 10 touchbacks. His coverage team is ranked 88th allowing opponents a 23.75 yard return average with a long of 24 yards.
Nick Hill #20 is the man that MSU wants taking the kickoff. He has four returns for an average of 21.8 yards with a longest of 27 yards.
Michigan State’s punter is Mike Sadler #3. This season his 20 punts have averaged 41.2 yards. He has a long of 54 yards, 2 touchbacks, 11 inside the twenty yard line, and 4 fair caught. The six returns against the Spartans have averaged 4.2 yards with a long of 19 yards to rank them 36th in the FBS.
Andre Sims #21 has done most of punt returning for the Spartans. He has returned 14 punts for an 8.6 yard average and a long of 33 yards. He might be done though after fumbling two weeks in a row trying to run the ball. Backing him up have been Nick Hill with 1 return for 18 yards and Macgarrett Kings Jr. #3 with 1 return for 15 yards. Dantonio has mentioned wanting to see more of Kings and Hill.
Intangibles-Advantage Michigan State
Notre Dame ended Michigan State’s 15 game home winning streak last year and that has to rankle the Spartans.
MSU quarterback Cook has gotten better with each game, going 6-16-0, 6-11-0, and 15-22-0. Michigan State’s third down conversion percentage of allowing opponents only a 16% conversion rate. In 45 third down attempts opponents have only succeeded 7 times.
This season the Spartans have forced their opponents to go three-and-out on 24 of 43 possessions a 56% average and an alarming 8 three-and-outs averaged per game. Notre Dame has averaged 3 three-and-outs per game. Something has to give.
A good offense goes against a good defense? A poor offense goes against a poor defense? Interesting dichotomy.
Offense – Advantage Notre Dame
Notre Dame has beaten MSU the last two years by running the ball. Against Michigan the Irish threw the ball too much in my opinion. They got a little more balanced against Purdue running 36 times and passing 34 times, but must run the ball this week to keep the Spartan defense honest.
If I was the Irish offensive coordinator I’d pick on Trae Waynes, the field corner. Despite having been blessed with great physical skills he’s inexperienced, was beaten deep and turned around by Youngstown State receivers, and he hasn’t faced the quality of receivers that the Irish possess. He’d get a steady diet of T J Jones and DaVaris Daniels, short, medium, and long all game long were I calling the Irish offense.
Michigan State’s third down conversion percentage of allowing opponents only a 16% conversion rate necessitates some serious attention to detail on first downs. Third and long plays by an offense are lambs being led to the slaughter in Dantonio’s system.
Notre Dame Defense vs Michigan State Offense – Very, very slight advantage Notre Dame
Toughen up defensively, especially in the passing game. The opposing quarterback statistics against the Irish are dismal when one considers the opposing quarterbacks and the number of starts they had made. Opposing quarterbacks have all had their best day this year against the Irish.
Stuff the run. The last two times the Irish have done so and the MSU quarterbacks haven’t been able to win the game for the Spartans.
Michigan State watches film too. Their staff saw the screens Purdue ran against Notre Dame. The Spartans screen well themselves and they also throw a lot of underneath and crossing routes. In other words, a Spartan game plan to stress the skills of the Notre Dame linebackers is a given.
Notre Dame has to get off the field. Health issues and depth are a major concern on wearing down the Irish defense.
No cheap touchdowns on a busted coverage, bad tackling, or special teams.
Special Teams – Advantage Even
A mistake here by either team could turn the game though.
The Irish need to match Michigan State’s physicality. This is always a physical game.
Start fast offensively. Coming from behind against Michigan State won’t be as easy as it was against Purdue. Don’t waste one scoring opportunity. Go deep on MSU early to open up the running game.
Tackle. Tackle. Tackle. Tackling was at a premium last season. Sure tacklers last year have missed too many tackles this season.
Field position, not always controllable, but it can be very important. If the Irish are pinned in their own territory MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi can, and will, dial up a lot more pressure. Last year the Irish had good field position on their two touchdown drive, both starting from their own 49. The only other scores came off of field goals.
Protect Tommy Rees. The Spartans have an aggressive blitz package that can include anyone in the back seven of their defense to go along with two good rushing defensive ends.
Contain Cook. Cook’s running as a scrambler and on the zone read might be the best way for Michigan State to inflict damage against Notre Dame not only by the plays themselves, but the Irish defense’s psyche.
Put pressure on Cook. He’s not faced the pressure like the Irish can bring. Constant pressure is more important than sacks.
After all is said and done Michigan State’s prowess on defense with its number one ranking and their late blooming offense came at the expense of one MAC team, one winless FBS team, and one FCS team. Last season the Spartans were ranked fourth defensively and Notre Dame won 20-3. In 2011 the Irish beat a 6th ranked MSU defense 31-13. Those facts and that soft MSU schedule makes me want to lean Irish.
My only trepidation on my selection is the fact that each quarterback the Irish have played against this year has had their seasonal best game, if not their career best game. All three opposing quarterbacks’ poorer performances came against Houston, Fordham, Central Michigan, Akron, Cincinnati, and Indiana State. Plus Notre Dame is giving up almost 24 points a game this year compared with only 10 points a game last year. The defense got better as the year went along. Hopefully, the Irish will start to get better this year on Saturday.
So I can go with the idea that Michigan State hasn’t played anyone and Notre Dame has or I could lean towards the worries I have that the Notre Dame defense is performing at a sub-par level and MSU’s poor offense could jell against the Irish. Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Notre Dame 27 Michigan State 24
It is a home game. That tipped it for me.