by Mike Coffey
by John Vannie
The Michigan State Spartans visit Notre Dame on Saturday as both teams try to get back on track after disappointing losses last week. While the Irish failed to close the deal against Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Spartans gave away a tight contest at home to Central Michigan by failing to recover an onside kick in the final moments. Notre Dame has not beaten Michigan State in South Bend since 1993, and is 3-9 overall in the series during this span.
Kirk Cousins has taken over the quarterback duties for the Spartans, but he is being pushed by Keith Nichol, a transfer from Oklahoma. Both are capable passers and are surrounded by quality receivers. The running game has yet to approach last year’s success now that stalwart tailback Javon Ringer has departed. Freshmen Ray Caulton and Larry Caper are working in tandem to replace him with mixed results to date.
The Irish hope to be healthy this week after suffering injuries to Michael Floyd and Armando Allen at very inopportune moments against the Wolverines. Floyd appears to be ready while Allen’s status may be a game time decision. Defensively, Notre Dame’s players escaped injury but their pride was badly bruised by Michigan’s upstart quarterback Tate Forcier, whose newfound fame will forever be tied to the Irish.
Both Mark Dantonio and Charlie Weis have similar jobs this week as far as motivation and focus are concerned. Michigan State needs to address problems in the running game and in the secondary, while the Irish must be concerned about the defensive front and special teams. Weis can ill afford to drop to 1-2 on the season since this will certainly rekindle negative speculation regarding his job security.
Notre Dame’s Offense against Michigan State’s Defense
The Irish ground game made notable progress last week, and the plan against the Spartans should contain more of the same. Armando Allen ran for 139 yards and converted several third down opportunities behind an improved offensive line, but the extent of his availability this week is unclear. Jonas Gray and Theo Riddick may have to absorb more of the workload, but neither performed particularly well in brief duty last week. Michigan State may prove to be tougher against the run with nose tackle Oren Wilson and All-American Greg Jones at middle linebacker. Jones leads the team with 29 tackles in two games.
Michigan State’s approach will be to stop the run and put pressure on Jimmy Clausen in the pocket. This worked well for the Spartans last year, when Clausen was rarely able to set his feet and complete passes downfield. Safety Otis Wiley, who has since graduated, recorded two interceptions at key moments in that game. This season, the improvements in the running game, better pass protection and a more experienced Clausen should enable Notre Dame to find the end zone. Dantonio acknowledged the risk of bringing pressure against the Irish this season given the progress Clausen has made and the threat of countermeasures such as screen passes and draw plays.
Michigan State’s secondary has been its biggest concern on defense this season. It’s not likely that they will be able to cover Notre Dame’s receivers without an effective pass rush. The Spartans will try to disguise their intent on blitzes, and the outcome may come down to a chess game between Weis and Dantonio. If the Irish can run the ball at or near the level achieved against Michigan, they will be able to put up plenty of points this week.
Other notable defenders for the Spartans are senior end Trevor Anderson and sophomore free safety Trenton Robinson, who will get the start over 5th year senior Danny Fortener.
Michigan State’s Offense against Notre Dame’s Defense
Notre Dame’s aggressive, blitzing defense should have more success against Cousins, who is primarily a pocket passer. Nichol is the better runner of the two Spartan signal-callers and may see action if needed to counter the rush. Regardless of the target at quarterback, the Irish must stay in position and wrap up each tackle.
Cousins will be effective if given time to throw. He has completed 66% of his passes and thrown four touchdowns with no interceptions. He has a trio of capable receivers led by Blair White (16 receptions), plus a quality tight end in Charlie Gantt. Receiver Mark Dell, who played well against Notre Dame last year, may be ready to play after missing the first two games this season.
The Spartans are trying to revive their running game now that Ringer is no longer an option. Caulton (the starter) and Caper are splitting time right now, but the team managed only 107 yards on 30 attempts against Central Michigan. The offensive line is anchored by left tackle Rocco Cironi, and it’s no coincidence that most of the successful running plays are run in his direction. The other side is still sorting itself out as Dantonio searches for the right pieces to the puzzle.
Dantonio will try to keep the Irish defensive line at bay with the run in order to keep Jon Tenuta’s blitz from harming his quarterback. Since neither Michigan State’s rushing attack nor Notre Dame’s run defense has performed well this season, it will be interesting to see which unit gains the upper hand. If the Spartans can make yards on the ground, they will also be able to keep pace on the scoreboard.
Both team had major snafus last week. The botched defense against an expected onside kick doomed the Spartans while the Irish gave up a long kickoff return for a touchdown that energized Michigan. Senior kicker Brett Swenson is perfect on field goals and extra points this season and is generally very reliable from under 50 yards. Punter Aaron Bates is also solid.
Notre Dame has been less than stellar. Nicholas Tausch recovered after an early missed field goal in Ann Arbor, but punter Eric Maust was inconsistent at best. The Irish return and coverage teams have not looked crisp this season and personnel changes may be underway since many freshmen and sophomores were given an early opportunity to make an impression.
The Irish must put last week’s loss behind it and seize the initiative on Saturday to win. Notre Dame’s players are experienced enough to do just that, but the Spartans usually play their best game of the year in this contest before their annual November fade. Both offenses boast an effective passing attack but the successful team will be the one that can keep the others running game under control.
If Wilson is able to tie up blockers while Jones runs free to stuff the run, the Spartans can keep close until the fourth quarter and find a way to pull off yet another victory on Irish soil.
Here are a few key questions that will determine the outcome:
- Can Notre Dame avoid a letdown after a disappointing loss?
- Will Notre Dame play more disciplined defense or continue to be out of position?
- Can the interior of the Irish offensive line keep Jones from dominating in the middle?
- How will Cousins handle the pressure from a blitzing defense?
- Will Weis be able to keep the Spartans off balance with his play calling?
- Will a special teams play have an effect on the outcome?
- Can Notre Dame’s much maligned defensive front stop the Spartans’ anemic running game?
- Will Allen be at full speed, and if not can Gray and Riddick pick up the slack?
The overall talent and experience levels favor Notre Dame, but the Irish must avoid the catastrophic mistakes that plagued them last week. They would also benefit from a better performance by the referees, but the id
ea is not to put oneself in a position where one bad call can determine the outcome. This could be a 14-point win for the home team if events unfold as expected, but Michigan State’s history of exceptional performances in recent years and the uncertainty regarding Allen’s availability cannot be ignored. The Irish should hold on for the win, but the Spartans will bring plenty of attitude and make things uncomfortable until the final moments.
Notre Dame 31 Michigan State 27