by John Vannie
Notre Dame makes its first road trip of the season this week as the 2-0 Irish travel to East Lansing to play Michigan State. Coach Mike Dantonio’s Spartans are 2-1 after an opening loss at California and two easy wins over Eastern Michigan and Florida Atlantic. This game is a significant benchmark for Notre Dame in its quest for national respect. Doubters remain after the Irish dispatched turnover-prone Michigan last week, and oddsmakers have listed the Irish as decided underdogs in this week’s contest.
Notre Dame followers have noticed a significant change in confidence and attitude this season from the youthful Irish squad. One has to wonder whether the team will take the field on Saturday with its head in the clouds, or if it will be armed with determination to prove that Notre Dame is truly back. Irish fans shudder at the memory of the MSU game ten years ago where Bob Davie’s team was coming off an impressive home victory over Michigan only to find itself down by 42-3 at halftime to the Spartans.
Coach Charlie Weis should be able to keep his troops grounded and focused on the task at hand. Most of his starters have not been able to take success for granted in their college careers, and both players and coaches realize that a loss to Michigan State will remove some of the luster from the victory over the Wolverines. Conversely, a 3-0 start will reinforce the notion that the team’s return to national prominence will happen sooner than many predicted.
Meanwhile, the Spartans appear to be one of the stronger teams in the Big 10 and believe they will have a breakthrough season themselves. Dantonio’s offense is solid and balanced, and the defense is built with an emphasis on speed rather than size. The weather forecast is excellent and neither team suffered any serious injuries last week. The game may turn into a high scoring affair, but it will likely remain close throughout.
Notre Dame’s Offense vs. MSU’s Defense
The Irish demonstrated modest proficiency in the running game last week against a tough opponent, and it was enough to set up successful play action passes in the first half before the weather and the scoreboard dictated changes to their strategy. The Spartan front seven is smaller and quicker than Michigan, and they have lost five starters from last season. Senior tackle Justin Kershaw is the best of the down linemen.
Notre Dame should be able to use its considerable size advantage and run right at MSU. The Spartans surrendered several big plays in the running game against California, who rolled up over 200 yards on the ground and 5.6 yards per carry.
The Spartans feature a trio of active linebackers and playmaking strong safety Otis Wiley. Adam Decker, Greg Jones and Eric Gordon lead the team in tackles, and Wiley has six pass break-ups and the team’s only two interceptions. The rest of the secondary is competent but somewhat inexperienced. Cornerbacks Ross Weaver and Chris Rucker are more than six feet tall, as is free safety Dan Fortener. It should be noted that Wiley is the only senior among the entire MSU back seven.
The Irish should be able to move the ball against the Spartans and put points on the board. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen should have open targets if MSU overloads against the run or gambles with blitzes. The Spartans have only three sacks to date and should not bother Clausen unless the Irish fall behind and abandon the run.
MSU’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
Javon Ringer is the engine that drives the Spartan offense. He has accounted for 500 yards and nine of MSU’s 11 touchdowns this season. The senior rushed for a career-high 282 yards and two touchdowns on 43 carries in the 17-0 win over Florida Atlantic last week. MSU will undoubtedly look to attack the perimeter of the Irish run defense after reviewing the success enjoyed by Michigan. The compact (5’9” – 202) Ringer represents an imposing combination of speed and strength, and rarely is brought to the ground on first contact.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer is a senior whose statistics to date are somewhat disappointing. He has completed 44% of his passes and has only one touchdown – a 52 yard bomb to Mark Dell against California. The talented Dell and fellow wide receiver B.J. Cunningham are legitimate downfield threats, but the departure of tight end Kellen Davis to the NFL removes a formidable weapon from MSU’s arsenal. Davis has been replaced by sophomore Charlie Gantt, who has four receptions in three games.
Notre Dame’s defensive
plan must focus on Ringer. He must not be allowed to run for seven or eight yards before encountering resistance or he will wear out the Irish. If Notre Dame can force Hoyer into passing situations, the question becomes whether or not the Irish secondary can cover Dell and Cunningham. This is a much more favorable matchup given Hoyer’s inconsistency than getting steamrolled by Ringer all afternoon.
The Spartan offensive linemen average over 300 pounds, but three new starters are in place at center and along the right side. Despite the personnel turnover, this revamped group is talented enough to cause problems for Notre Dame’s vulnerable front. MSU will be able to score points, but the Irish need to make them earn every yard and limit the number of long gainers.
Veteran Brett Swenson handles the kicking chores for the Spartans, while sophomore punter Aaron Bates has suffered one block this season. Ringer is the primary kickoff return man and Wiley represents a significant threat as the punt returner. MSU’s coverage units are average at best, and the Irish could have an opportunity in this area.
David Bruton and Mike Anello lead the improved coverage teams for Notre Dame, and the Irish have yet to be burned for a long return this season. Punter Eric Maust has booted the ball well, but the consistency of Ryan Burkhart’s kickoffs remains a concern. Field goal kicker Brandon Walker has displayed a strong leg, but his accuracy is still a question mark. This game may provide his first real test in a fourth quarter pressure situation.
Analysis of this overall matchup yields no distinct advantage for either side. Notre Dame has demonstrated greater proficiency in the passing game, as Clausen has thrown the ball more accurately than the more experienced Hoyer. The Irish secondary is also better than their counterparts, and neither side generates much heat on the quarterback. The Spartans have an edge on the ground with Ringer and company against the Notre Dame defensive line, but their 36% conversion rate on third down is below par given the competition they have faced.
Notre Dame cannot come into Spartan Stadium with a deer in the headlights look. If they maintain their poise, the issue will be decided by turnovers, coaching adjustments and a few key defensive stops. A last second field goal or even overtime are distinct possibilities.
A review of the key questions that will determine the outcome:
Will the Irish avoid an early deficit and execute their game plan?
Will the offense run well enough to win the time of possession battle?
Will the Irish defensive front be able to contain Ringer?
Will the Irish build on last week’s performance or will they regress?
Can Hoyer win the game for MSU through the air?
Which defensive staff will adjust more quickly and effectively to slow their opponent?
Which team will exhibit poise in the fourth quarter?
The Spartans are clear favorites in this game, which indicates a lack of respect for Notre Dame and a belief that the Irish were more lucky than good last week. Picking Notre Dame to win requires a leap of faith that last week’s win over Michigan was not only a breakthrough performance for this young team, but also that they
are mature and talented enough to sustain success. The two most likely outcomes are a comfortable win by the Spartans or a close game in which Notre Dame comes out on top. This may look silly on Sunday morning, but…..
Notre Dame 34 MSU 31