by John Vannie
Notre Dame and Michigan State renew their football rivalry on Saturday night for the first time since 2013. The Irish lead the overall series by 48-28-1 and have won the last three contests, although the Spartans are 10-7 during the last two decades. The participants will recognize the 50th anniversary of the epic 1966 clash between the schools that was known as the “Game of the Century”, which ended in a 10-10 tie. NBC will begin its national television broadcast at 7:30 PM Eastern time.
Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio is in his tenth season with the defending Big Ten champions. He has an 88-33 record overall and is 37-5 since 2013. This season, MSU is 1-0 and ranked #12 in the AP poll, which may be an overly optimistic placement for a team that is returning only three starters on offense and six on defense. Meanwhile, the Irish stand at 1-1 and cannot afford another loss if they are to keep alive any hope of crashing the playoff party on New Year’s Eve.
Both teams have struggled to establish an identity this season as new starters are getting their sea legs and competition is still very much open in several positions. Brian Kelly has selected DeShon Kizer as his quarterback and Josh Adams appears to be the most productive running back, while Equanimeous St. Brown has staked his claim to the wide receiver position alongside veteran Torii Hunter and slot man C.J. Sanders. Hunter, who sat out last week’s game against Nevada due to concussion symptoms, will play this week.
The Irish defense is still in flux as Brian VanGorder is still searching for a pass rusher, a third linebacker to complement Nyles Morgan and James Onwualu, and help in the secondary to patch holes at cornerback and safety. Freshman Devin Studstill appears to have captured the free safety spot after a strong performance last week.
Michigan State’s offense is also a work in progress. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor was unsettled in the pocket against Furman in the team’s opener despite a 13 for 18 performance. The offensive line struggled at times and the team committed numerous penalties. Defensively, the front four did not dominate as anticipated despite playing a decidedly weak opponent. The Spartans are coming off a bye week and should improve from their initial outing, since many players were starting for the first time and fundamentals often went by the wayside in the excitement. At this early stage, the pedigree of this team and its ultimate ceiling remain uncertain.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. MICHIGAN STATE’S DEFENSE
The Irish have a clear advantage at quarterback with Kizer, but this edge won’t translate on the scoreboard if the Spartans are able to stop the run and pressure Kizer in the pocket. Notre Dame’s offensive line disappointed against Texas and had its way with Nevada, but the group must continue to improve to pass this week’s test. Adams has demonstrated the best combination of quickness and power among the running backs, and it will be crucial to create lanes for him to keep MSU honest.
Junior tackle Malik McDowell anchors the defensive line, but production is needed from two new starters at defensive end, Demetrius Cooper and Evan Jones, and from tackle Kevin Williams. Other than McDowell, who is a very disruptive force, this group is a far cry from the units that terrorized the Big-10 during the past few years.
The strength of the Michigan State defense is at linebacker, where starters Chris Frey and Andrew Dowell have impressed alongside stalwart Riley Bullough in the middle. Sixth year man Ed Davis, who is known for his pass rushing ability off the edge, has just been cleared for action and will play on Saturday.
Notre Dame will strive to stay out of third and long situations, but the Spartan secondary may be vulnerable when Kizer has to pass. Free safety Demetrius Cox is the grizzled veteran, but the corners are still getting their feet wet. Sophomore Vayante Copeland is a new starter and Darian Hicks will take over on the opposite side in place of Tyson Smith, who started in Week 1. Cox and each of the three linebackers were the top four tacklers against Furman.
MICHIGAN STATE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Tyler O’Connor displayed good accuracy with his passes in the opener, but success was typically achieved when his primary receiver was open. He needs to continue to grow in terms of rapid progression through his options and in overall poise and confidence in the pocket. It’s up to the Irish to make him as uncomfortable as possible in that realm, but the hosts have not registered a sack as yet and have generally been unable to generate a rush.
The hallmark of Michian State’s offense under Dantonio has been the running game, and this season is no different. In fact, it may be more crucial due to the relative inexperience at quarterback. Senior tailback L.J. Scott, who racked up 105 yards against Furman, is the workhorse at 230 pounds. The Spartans frequently deploy a two-back set with a fullback leading the way through the hole, and these duties are shared by Delton Williams and Prescott Line. London Madre is the speedier backup to the more powerful Scott.
MSU’s front line has a few new starters that have been in their system for five years, but the best player in the mix could be junior right guard Brian Allen, a 2015 second team All-Big Ten award winner. Like their defensive counterparts, they did not dominate Furman to the extent that had been anticipated, but measurable improvement after a bye week should be expected. The question is whether the Notre Dame front four can win a fair share of the one-on-one battles in the trenches.
When O’Connor must throw the ball, his top targets are senior Monty Madaris, sophomore Felton Davis, who is an emerging star, and flanker R.J. Shelton. Tight end Josiah Price is a very productive senior and may be the most dangerous threat from the position that the Irish face during the first half of the season. Notre Dame must stop Scott to force O’Connor become a playmaker rather than a game manager, which may be an overused term but applicable in this case.
Notre Dame still has lingering concerns regarding the consistency of punter Tyler Newsome, while kicker Justin Yoon missed an extra point last week and a medium range field goal against Texas. C.J. Sanders has excelled in the return game when given a chance, but the Irish still do a poor job of blocking the opponent’s gunners on punts or creating a clean running lane on kickoffs.
Shelton handles the punt return duties for the Spartans and shares the kickoff return chores with fellow wideout Darrell Stewart. Veteran kicker David Geiger returns for his senior season, and has been reliable from short and mid range throughout his career. He does struggle from beyond 40 yards and missed his only field goal try from 44 yards two weeks ago. Sophomore punter Jake Hartbarger had an impressive debut, averaging 45 yards per boot.
Notre Dame cannot rely solely on Kizer to bail out the offense with his playmaking ability. The line needs to sustain blocks and keep him upright, but also cannot afford to be held to fewer than 125 yards rushing. There are weaknesses to attack if the blocking is respectable, but constant third and long challenges will not yield great results. Michigan State’s performance on opening day was not overly impressive, but the Irish should expect a much crisper and inspired effort from the visitors than they saw this week in the film room.
The Spartans must enable Scott to run downhill and bring a high degree of physicality to the Irish. This will create a safer environment for O’Connor in the pocket, where in recent years Notre Dame has turned numerous mediocre quarterbacks into Heisman candidates because they simply can’t bring enough pressure.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Which defensive line will be able to harass the quarterback?
Will either defense be able to create turnovers?
Can Kizer continue to turn third and long situations into first downs?
Which special teams will have the greatest impact on the outcome?
Will Notre Dame’s offensive line finally live up to expectations?
Which team’s secondary will give up the big play?
Can Alan Page or Jim Lynch suit up for the Irish?
The battle in the trenches among the respective offensive and defensive linemen will be spirited and should determine the outcome. After shaky starts to open the season, each of the four groups in this game has something to prove. The problem is that I don’t see a significant difference in the talent level, so the game could very well come down to a field goal or a clutch play from the quarterback position. The Irish have the edge in both cases so they should be able to win at home in a game they absolutely must have.
NOTRE DAME 23 MICHIGAN STATE 20