by John Vannie
A pair of 2-0 teams square off at Michigan State on Saturday night as Notre Dame takes on the Spartans in a nationally televised (ABC) contest beginning at 8:00 PM Eastern time. The Irish recorded their most impressive win of the season last year in defeating the Spartans by 31-13 at Notre Dame, while their last trip to East Lansing was significantly more painful. A successful touchdown pass from Aaron Bates to Charlie Gantt off a fake field goal in overtime shocked the Irish by 34-31 in 2010. A win in this year’s contest will likely serve as a springboard for the successful team to put itself in the BCS conversation.
The Spartans have won ten of the last 15 meetings in the series. Head coach Mark Dantonio has established a strong track record of accomplishments in his five-plus seasons at the helm. He has a 46-22 overall record and is 30-6 at home, including a current 15-game winning streak. MSU is 10-1 over the last two years in games decided by ten points or fewer and achieved back-to-back 11-win seasons during this span for the first time in program history.
Each team has played one soft and one challenging opponent while breaking in a new starting quarterback. Notre Dame’s Everett Golson and Michigan State’s Andrew Maxwell have been very respectable, although Golson was relieved by Tommy Rees against Purdue in the last two minutes of a tie game, and Maxwell was victimized by Boise State for three interceptions in the opener. Although the Spartans dominated the Broncos from a statistical standpoint, one of Maxwell’s interceptions was returned for a touchdown that kept the score much closer than the respective team performances.
The Irish suffered injuries to several key performers last week, including Tyler Eifert, DaVaris Daniels, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Jamoris Slaughter and Golson. None have been ruled out for this game, and Notre Dame will also have the services of starting tailback Cierre Wood, who is back from a two-game suspension. The Spartans currently report no serious injuries among their core players.
Michigan State has rebuilt its offense from last season and lists only two seniors in the starting lineup. Much of the defense is back from 2011, but there are seven juniors and only three seniors. Conversely, the Irish start eight seniors on offense and five on defense.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. MICHIGAN STATE’S DEFENSE
The Irish were able to connect on a few long pass plays last week to Daniels, Robby Toma and their tight ends, and this proved to be the difference in the game. Coach Brian Kelly will again seek to exploit mismatches with these weapons, while Dantonio will counter with two excellent cornerbacks in Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. Golson can expect to see a continual back and forth shift by the Spartan safeties as they rotate from a cover two pass-oriented defense to bringing one safety toward the line to stop the run.
In talking about his plans to maneuver his secondary to potentially complicate Golson’s pre-snap reads, Dantonio’s remarks indicated that he has already studied the Purdue film. “You have to go back and forth on this (cover two and cover one alignments). You can’t go all one way. You have to be able to play cat and mouse. There’s no question that anybody who has great corners has the ability to stop the pass in a lot of ways. Notre Dame, they’re going to take it deep a lot, throw it up to No. 80 (Eifert). That’s what they do.”
“We’ve got to be able to defend the ball in the deep part of the field, handle all the loose plays. The quarterback is going to get loose, move around in the pocket. We have to be able to handle the loose ended plays in the deep end of the field, stop the quarterback. ”
After a lackluster performance last weekend where Notre Dame allowed five sacks, the Irish offensive line will have to rise to another stiff challenge from Michigan State’s front four. End William Gholston, at 6’7” and 275 pounds, will provide outside pressure on the quarterback while 330-pound nose tackle Anthony Rashad White is a formidable interior presence. The Spartan linebackers are well above average and led by middle man Max Bullough, the team’s leading tackler. He is flanked by Chris Norman and Denicos Allen.
Notre Dame must play well up front and establish the running threat. This will force Dantonio to sacrifice safety help and open up the seams for Eifert and others to exploit. If the Irish cannot handle Michigan State’s front seven from a physical standpoint, it could be a long night for the visitors. It is alarming that Golson was sacked five times last week, and his linemen simply must be tougher in what promises to be a hostile environment.
MICHIGAN STATE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Spartans are striving to become a two-dimensional offense as they bring along Maxwell and a group of young and inexperienced receivers, but their strength remains a strong running game and their confidence it will pay dividends in the fourth quarter. Le’Veon Bell is a 6’2 244-pound battering ram with surprising speed and agility. Larry Caper and Nick Hill are available for a change of pace, and Michigan State frequently employs fullback Niko Palazeti as a lead blocker.
The Spartan offensive line boasts eight players who have started games, and is much improved over the inexperienced and banged-up group that Notre Dame dominated last season. Maxwell has not been sacked this year but the Irish have the talent to change that statistic. Tackles Dan France and Fou Fonoti will team with guards Chris McDonald and Blake Treadwell to protect Maxwell from harm and create gaps for Bell to lumber through.
While the key to the game may be determined by which player is left standing after roughly 30 collisions between Bell and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, another interesting matchup pits the new Spartan receivers against the Irish secondary. Flanker Bennie Fowler has become Maxwell’s primary target, and Dantonio will rotate six or seven wideouts into the game including Keith Mumphery, Tony Lippett and a pair of promising freshmen in Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings. Tight end Dion Sims, at 6’7” and 285 pounds, has caught ten passes already and merits special attention from Notre Dame.
Stopping the run is still Job 1 for the Irish defense, however, as Maxwell does not have Golson’s improvisational skills or an All-American such as Eifert in his receiving corps.
Notre Dame started six drives inside its own 20 yard line last week, which made it difficult to take control of a game they should have won by 10-14 points. The blocking for George Atkinson and DaVonte Neal in the return game has been poor to date, and Ben Turk’s punting remains a bit inconsistent. Kyle Brindza has performed well by blasting kickoffs into the end zone, and he came back after an early missed field goal to boot the game-winner against Purdue.
Veteran Michigan State kicker Dan Conroy is historically very accurate despite a couple of early misses this year, and he has a 50-yarder to his credit. The speedy Hill returns both punts and kickoffs for the Spartans. Punter Mike Sadler has been relatively average to date. Neither team appears to have an advantage in this facet of the game, but the group that performs best may be able to tip the overall outcome in its favor. It’s also quite possible that the game could come down to a battle of field goals, so each three pointer will be important.
The game will be physical and most likely a low-scoring, defensive battle. The offense that runs the ball best and puts its quarterback in the most advantageous position on third down will have the edge. A turnover in the passing game could very well decide the contest. Otherwise, the result will come down to Notre Dame’s ability to generate big plays against Michigan State’s punishing ground attack and war of attrition philosophy.
The question for the Irish is whether they learned enough from the Purdue game to run the ball more and not afford too much respect to the opponent’s ability to stop them. Dantonio will not oblige Notre Dame by aligning his defense such that Kelly and Golson can readily adjust the call before the play clock expires. When the Irish do throw the ball, it will be important that targets such as Daniels establish themselves since the Spartan secondary will probably be fixated on Eifert.
Here are a few questions that will provide insight into the outcome.
Which team will need reinforcements to stop the run and leave itself vulnerable to the pass?
Can the Irish offensive line rebound from a poor performance against Purdue?
Which young quarterback will best avoid mistakes and execute in the passing game?
Will MSU’s changing defensive alignments force Notre Dame to burn its timeouts?
Can Cierre Wood reenergize the Irish ground game?
Which kicker will perform best under pressure?
Will Eifert and his fellow receivers get open against the MSU secondary for big plays?
Michigan State held a capable and well-coached Boise State team to 37 yards rushing and outgained them by 250 yards. Bell alone ran for 210 and the Spartans controlled the ball for 39 minutes. Absent a score by the defense or special teams and a few additional breaks, Notre Dame simply cannot win if the Spartans dictate the style and tempo of the game in this fashion. Unfortunately for the Irish, Dantonio’s record at home and in close games gives Michigan State an advantage in what is sure to be a hard fought battle.
MICHIGAN STATE 23 NOTRE DAME 16