by John Vannie
Notre Dame returns home on Saturday afternoon to host defensive-minded Michigan State. The 3-0 Spartans are ranked among the top five nationally in total defense, but will face a much more severe test from the Irish in their first road game of the season. Mark Dantonio is in his seventh year in East Lansing and holds a 54-28 record to date. Brian Kelly’s Irish are entering a difficult three game stretch in the schedule before a mid-season bye week, and will need the defense to show up this week if they are to stay on a winning track. NBC will provide national television coverage starting at 3:30 PM Eastern.
The Spartans were floundering on offense and in search of a quarterback until Connor Cook was given the opportunity and emerged as the leader of the pack. Cook has now claimed the position from previous incumbent Andrew Maxwell by guiding his team to a 35-10 halftime advantage last week with a 15 for 22, 202 yard effort. Meanwhile, the defense has smothered three weak opponents on the strength of a dominant front seven that has yielded only 50 rushing yards per game, forced eight turnovers and recorded nine sacks. Conversely, Notre Dame (2-1) has forced three turnovers and has three sacks.
The Irish dominated last year’s contest against a relatively young Spartan squad. Maxwell was not able to generate any traction in the passing game, while star running back LeVeon Bell was held in check. With Bell gone this season, the offense struggled early while constantly rotating multiple quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs. Realizing that this uncertainty was not a formula for success, Dantonio appeared to make the right decision by sticking with Cook last week as the offense began to hit its stride. He’ll have more reliable context to assess his team’s progress this week, however, as the matchup with the Irish will be a far cry from a glorified home field scrimmage against Youngstown State.
Each team may have to play without a key defender in the lineup. Strong safety Isaiah Lewis did not participate last week and is a game time decision for this contest. His backup, R. J. Williamson, has proven to be a capable replacement. For Notre Dame, defensive end Sheldon Day hurt his ankle against Purdue and may not be ready to go.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. MICHIGAN STATE’S DEFENSE
The key to the game may very well be whether the Spartan front four can stop the run and generate some pressure on Tommy Rees in the pocket. If they can drop seven men into the passing zone and keep their safeties deep, it will be tough going for Notre Dame. This talented group has a pair of graduated 300 pound seniors in the middle, Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover. Ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush are very active, and Calhoun already has scored a remarkable three defensive touchdowns this season.
Senior Max Bullough returns to lead the linebacker from his spot in the middle. He is flanked by senior Denicos Allen on the strong side and talented junior Taiwan Jones at the weak side or “star” position in Dantonio’s defense. Each is very solid against the run but can also cover the pass competently. The Irish ground game found it difficult to gain yardage in the early going against Purdue, and the Michigan State front seven is more talented and experienced. Cam McDaniel had success in the fourth quarter with the game on the line and Purdue starting to wear down, but Notre Dame will have to block and run much better on Saturday if they expect to have a balanced attack and a credible play-action passing threat.
If the Spartans force the Irish to the air, the offensive line will receive its most challenging test to date. Rees’ lack of mobility in the pocket could be a factor if the protection is not solid, and the deep passing ability that he demonstrated last week may not be viable. The Michigan State secondary is above average, with Lewis (if available) and Kurtis Drummond at safety. Darqueze Dennard moved over from field cornerback to the boundary side this season to make room for 6’1” sophomore Trae Waynes.
The battle between these two evenly matched units is less likely to be a chess game or a matter of finesse. Dantonio will challenge the Irish to beat his standard alignment before taking risks or making adjustments by blitzing or moving his safeties forward. Notre Dame must also be willing to run the ball against a standard 4-3 look to make Bullough and company respect the threat before dropping back into the intermediate passing lanes. The Spartans may not have Bubba Smith or George Webster in this year’s lineup, but they are solid.
MICHIGAN STATE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
It’s unusual for a team to have gained significantly more yards rushing than passing after three games, but the Spartans have averaged 210 yards on the ground and 160 through the air. Their run/pass mix is 58/42%. The task for the Irish is to shut down the run and force Cook to excel in his first real career test. Cook has several young receivers in the rotation, but consistency has been a problem dating back to last season. The starters are sophomores Macgarrett Kings, who is viewed by the MSU staff as an emerging star, and Aaron Burbridge. They are joined in three-receiver sets by junior Keith Mumphery. Kings and Burbridge have eight receptions each to lead the team, so the passing game is definitely a work in progress. Also in the mix are Bennie Fowler and R.J. Shelton. All have raw ability but collectively they still drop more than a few passes. Tight ends Andrew Gleichert and Michael Dennis are plus sized in-line blockers who rarely are targeted in the passing game.
Jeremy Langford leads a tailback by committee trio that includes the diminutive Nick Hill and sledgehammer Riley Bullough. Langford is the only tailback that has been targeted as a pass receiver, but he has only 28 total yards to show for his seven catches. Dantonio employs a fullback in a base two-back set that has all but disappeared from today’s game. Trevon Pendleton, a compact 250 pounder, handles that role for the Spartans. Cook also poses a respectable running threat, so Notre Dame will have to cover all angles to keep Michigan State at bay.
Last year’s young offensive line is a year better this season. Quality depth has also been in evidence, so the Spartan attack has the potential to become formidable this season if Cook and the receivers continue to improve. Fifth year senior guards Blake Treadwell and Dan France are fixtures while Dantonio has the luxury of a two man rotation at center and the tackle spots.
The worst case scenario for Notre Dame is its depleted defensive line will falter in the second half against Michigan State’s deep offensive front and persistent running game. The potential absence of Day and Stephon Tuitt’s slow recovery from offseason surgery make this unit somewhat vulnerable, and the linebackers have yet to play as well as expected. If only Kelly could call upon Alan Page and Jim Lynch to bolster his run defense.
Notre Dame’s return and coverage teams regressed last week after a season-best performance at Michigan. Although George Atkinson had one decent kickoff return, the Irish failed to capitalize. Kyle Brindza remains solid on field goals and kickoffs, but Alex Wulfeck replaced him as the punter when the team needed to land one inside the 20 yard line at Purdue.
The Spartans have also recorded very average results in the return and coverage areas. Nick Hill handles the kickoffs and Andre Sims is the primary punt returner. Kevin Muma is a strong-legged senior who is generally reliable on field goal attempts and gets the ball to the goal line on kickoffs. Mike Sadler is a statistically average punter, so the bottom line is that neither team appears to have an advantage in this aspect of the game. It should be noted that Dantonio has a tendency to run fakes or trick plays on special teams, so Notre Dame must be ready.
All signs point to a close, low-scoring game where strength collides with strength (ND offense vs. MSU defense) and two struggling elements (ND defense vs. MSU offense) have something to prove. The Irish need a strong, fast start in this game and must not fall behind. If Michigan State can play with a lead, it will not expose Cook to extreme pressure and potential mistakes. The Spartans have better linemen than Purdue on both sides of the ball and are less susceptible than the Boilermakers to a comeback attempt.
Two defensive keys for Notre Dame are the ability of reserve defensive linemen such as Kona Schwenke and Isaac Rochelle to contribute quality minutes, and the overall tackling by the linebackers and secondary. The latter metric has been alarmingly poor so far this season after a stellar performance in 2012. The loss of Manti Te’o and Zeke Motta may be part of the answer, but certainly not all of it as basic fundamentals appear to have deteriorated.
Here are a few questions that will help determine the outcome:
Which offense will create more manageable third down situations for its quarterback?
Will the Irish offensive line be able to protect Rees from the Spartan strip/sack specialists?
Can Cook and his young receivers continue to have success through the air against much stronger competition?
Which team’s running back by committee approach will be most productive?
Will Notre Dame play with high intensity and emotion, particularly at the start of the game?
Which team will commit a costly turnover or suffer a special teams breakdown at a crucial moment?
This matchup on paper appeared to favor Notre Dame by a moderately comfortable margin before the start of the season, but the actual play of both teams in the early going suggests a much more competitive contest. The real strength of the Spartan offense is tough to calibrate at this point, and the team needed defensive scores to bail them out in their first two games. The Irish will benefit from the home crowd and familiar environment, which will be just enough to motivate the defense to play a solid all-around game. Even with that assumption, the contest will still go down to the wire.
NOTRE DAME 20 MICHIGAN STATE 17