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  • Irish, Spartans Set for Battle

    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.


    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.


    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.


    35 Responses to “Irish, Spartans Set for Battle”

    1. Really? You pick State to win?! What kind of fan are you?

      • John Vannie says:

        An objective and impartial one, at least when I’m evaluating these games.

        • Right on the money John. Nice job.

        • Solid work John. I am a fan first and always pick the Irish to get the W. That being said I respect your work, and you are on the money with your prediction this week. I happen to think the weakness of Sparty’s Special Teams, and GA3 bringing kicks back will give us a chance to go into sparty world and come home with a doughnut in the loss column. Defense is the word of the day, if they play solid up front and control the run game we will blow them out for the second year in a row. Good work John, I look forward to reading your posts for the rest of the year. GO Irish!

      • A really well thought synopsis. I can’t find any holes in your thoughts above. We’re vanilla as we’ve been in several years on offense…..much due to either young or less talent at key positions. I’m convinced after watching MSU twice on TV we can win this game. Stop or limit their running game and force them to throw or run plays they aren’t as comfortable with. ND MUST win the turn over battle to win this game. If we can flip the turnovers in our favor we have an excellent chance of leaving MSU Saturday night @ 3-0. Should we lose the turnover battle I don’t belive we can defeat this MSU team. We’ll certainly have to play our very best game YTD to win.

    2. irishhawk50 says:

      I agree that the game will probably be decided by defensive play. I watched the MSU-Boise State game and was not impressed with Maxwell. I don’t know how much he has improved since then, but I think ND can pressure him and cause him to make mistakes. I am afraid the same can be said about MSU with Golson. My feeling is that if ND wins it will be very close, but Michigan State could win by a bigger number if Golson plays like he did in the second half against Purdue. Establishing an effective run game will be a must for ND. I will keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best. Go Irish.

    3. MSU was dedicated to stopping the run against Boise. They will have a very similar game plan as purdue did. The question will be if Kelly learned anything from purdue.

    4. I think ND has the talent to win this. I dont know is Kelly is capable of coming up with a game plan against real competition. He has yet to do this in his tenure at ND and has been out coached in every game against a good team. If it is close ND has a huge disadvantage in the special teams. as was noted in the article we have not thrown a block on a punt return in over two years. Why this cant be improved upon is a reflection of the poor special teams coaching.

      • You all rip on Kelly for his coaching strategy. Did you not watch the USC game two years ago? Pretty sure Kelly is the first coach to come up with a game plan to beat USC in quite some time. The game plan is executed by the players, and maybe they deserve a little credit for poor game decisions sometimes too.

        • Well Put 13, also look back to this same game last year. 31-13 against a top 25 team. I have been a fan of Kelly since Cinci, and I think a lot of people forget Kelly put 22 athletes on the field week in and week out and let speed dictate the game. He has built this Irish team the same way. His first recruiting class are really only sophmores, Charlie had a lot of the class locked in before Kelly got to South Bend. We play a lot of young, talented, pure speed players, and Kelly knows how to get them in a position to win. Go Irish.

    5. Giggity_Giggity says:

      I simply have no faith in our coaching staff’s ability to prepare and execute the tough, run-based gameplan that is required to win this game.

    6. Maxwell sucks. they key is stopping bell. If the Irish slow Bell down they win. Dont forgot a much better state team last year was dominated by ND d line. d line must play the gaps and wood runs away with this one. GO IRISH

    7. RocketShark says:

      I’ll submit the following question that may factor into the outcome: will Coach Dantonio try a trick play against ND for 4th consecutive year? He’s 2-for-3 so far, with the obvious big success occurring in 2010. If the Spartans are trailing I’d say it’s a safe bet that some kind of gimmick play will be attempted, probably on special teams, especially with him knowing how the Irish have been struggling in that department.

      ND and MSU have been pretty evenly matched overall this century (not meant as a compliment to either team). Most of the victories for either side came down to making a huge play for a TD (Rogers for MSU in 2001, Dillingham-to-Battle for ND in 2002, Zibby strip and runback in 2004, OT MSU win in 2005, Lambert’s interception return in 2006, Little Giants in 2010).

    8. Jshep – JVan is the thinking man’s fan. He shouldn’t blindly pick the Irish to win every week if he doesn’t think they are going to win. If he did these write ups wouldn’t be worth reading.

      MSU’s strengths play to all the weakness or at least struggles ND had last week. Also, Dantonio is not Danny Hope. He and his staff will be able to craft ways to take advantage. I think MSU will win too. It will be close.

    9. MSU’s strength is the run and our d strength is run D. Advantage us.Golson looks much better than Maxwell on a very small sample. advantage us. We do need to run the ball a bit better, But Cierre will be very motivated. We win 20-10 or 17

    10. Vernon Gholston went to Ohio State. William Gholston goes to Michigan State.

    11. Sterling James says:

      I have to agree with a couple of the folks on this board. BK hasn’t outcoached a better opponent since the Utah game a couple of years ago. USC in 2010 was a much USC’s fault for losing as it was ND taking advantage of their miscues. 2010 was BK’s most talented team, 2011 most experienced and 2012 will be his least experienced. I will be more surprised if ND wins. It will mean BK finally outcoached a good coach. I will also be surprised if EG isn’t pulled mid 2nd quarter or Rees doesn’t start the third.

      Many fans think ND can beat the same team they played last year but we played the same Purdue team too and squeaked by. The key is the O-line. This is a necessary win for BK and Golson. It will springboard ND’s confidence going into Michigan at home.

      • The bar seems to keep moving for BK; the Irish beat the D’Antonio-coached Spartans last year, but BK didn’t “out-coach” him; thus, that win doesn’t count. I get the feeling that if the Irish D stuffs the run on Saturday, D’Antonio will drop from the ranks of anointed “good coaches”, and BK will have to earn his bona fides against another top ten opponent. I’m not a Kelly apologist; he’s made quite a few bone-headed decisions as ND coach. But let’s identify the performance accurately– ND teams (not just Kelly’s but those going back over the last 15 years or so) often seem to lack focus, and this lack of focus manifests itself in little mistakes that can have a knock-on effect.

        For me, the real bogeyman on the Irish sideline is the man with the red mittens; NBC’s insufferably long broadcasts mess with the team’s rhythm. It affects opponents less because they’re not on national TV every week, and the adrenaline keeps them focused on the task at hand. I don’t know if the Irish use a team psychologist, but I think it would be worth arming the kids with some mental tools to help focus on the task at hand. Go Irish…

    12. I have to assume our 16 points is because of a missed extra point and not because we hit 3 field goals… 🙂

    13. I fear MSU will win this one BIG. They are a better team than Purue personnel-wise, and they have more proven, more solid coaching than Purdue and, unfortunately, ND.

      The Irish have a lot of impressive talent, both experienced and new. But, it remains to be seen if this staff can use them to their full potential, and the overall play of the last two years has not been encouraging on this score.

    14. Great write up and insight. There’s nothing more annoying than the “fan” that uses social media to continually dog the coaching staff and question their experience and smarts. Let me remind you that Saint Urban Meyer plucked two very good assistants from Kelly’s staff. Kelly knows how to hire and he doesn’t have to prove anything to any of us. Go Irish.

    15. The Irish have a huge hole in the right side of the OL. Until that gets fixed (if ever), teams with a good DL will cause ND big problems. I think Jvan predicted correctly.

      I was very impressed by MSU’s D against Boise, although it was a Week 1 game. Their offense, however, looked atrocious. I could see a 13-12 game or something along those lines.

    16. ND 35 MSU 24
      MSU \ – vaunted defense is overrated – BSU is not as good as advertised and neither is MSU/

    17. Mark Napierkowski '88 says:

      I just hope BK doesn’t jettison the run game if we struggle early. It would be nice if we could actually dictate tempo, instead of being dictated to.

    18. Coach Kelly is going to have to get EG’s nervers settled fast. The environment is going to be very hostile so getting him into a flow early will help his confidence. MSU’s d-line and linebackers are going to come after him early and often to rattle his cage so I would like to see some swing passes and quick hits to the outside to gain some momentum and get EG’s confidence up in the passing game and hopefully slow down the pass rush. They like to bring an occasional corner as well so he has to make the right read on that and hit the open receiver.
      What resonates with me over the past two seasons is the fact that ND didn’t have a QB that can run therefore nullifying the option read play. Hendrix was able to execute this a few times last year but other than that it’s not there. We haven’t seen this with Golson either the last two games. Hopefully Kelly kept this out of the game plan for a reason and is going to use it this week. A couple of long gainers on that will keep the MSU defense on it’s heels and open up some other things. It’s worth a shot because if EG gets banged up Kelly has a viable QB in Rees to turn to even if people don’t like it. I think Kelly opens up the playbook a little more for this one.
      One of two things are going to happen here. Either ND wins a close one or they get blown out.
      “GO IRISH”

    19. Sappiness alert:
      It is my hope that many years from now Manti will have a dream where he’s walking on the beach reflecting on the highs and lows of his life, and when the scenes from this week and the MSU game gets flashed across the sky he’ll see 84 sets of footprints in the sand.

    20. I am really confused about this ND team after 2 games. I think that we definitely have enough talent to win this game but the coaches have to execute a game plan to effectively run the ball and take pressure off of our QB. It is completely fine if Purdue blitzes like crazy last week, I would have welcomed it. In that case lets throw screen passes and welcome that blitz all day long, and throw over their heads for big gains. I don’t remember seeing 1 screen pass last week do you? If they did them, it wasnt very much; but we have to get GAIII into the game somehow, he is too valuable to not get touches. And some of our quick sweeps and pitches to the RB did work against Purdue last week. It is just not effective to run right up the middle against them, and the same can be said for MSU. MSU will do a similar game plan to Purdue. Who wouldnt after watching that game last week and seeing ND’s offensive line struggle like that. EG has to do a better job at pulling the trigger on those isolated one on one match ups to Eifert and Nicholas. He cant think too much about it, he just has to go out there and play like the talented kid we know that he is. I think he would benefit and build confidence from those screen passes. I don’t know if many people would agree with this, but I do think that we can utilize Rees in certain situations and have a successful 2 QB system because I do see alot of Upside to having Rees on the field too. I know his history has been inconsistent with turnovers, but I really do think he is calm and cool at game management and does have some QB talent to make good reads and be a great leader too, as he showed last week against Purdue. He came off completely cold from bench and delivered for us. Not many kids can come in and do that, especially when some people were against him and even booing him. He is a gamer. His reads were so quick. He got the ball out quickly when he needed to and read the Purdue defense correctly. I know it was just 3 passes but he contributed to a win. I like his record too. I’m not saying that Tommy should start by any means, EG should start. But certain packages can benefit from Rees. If anyone can work this 2 QB system effectively its coach Kelly. Just from his track record at previous schools like Cincinnati. Whether he can do that at ND remains to be seen, but lets hope. I know this might sound like a stretch but I don’t believe this game will be very close. Either MSU blows us out or we blow MSU out. I think that it will be close in 1st half, but 1 of the 2 teams will come unglued and self destruct. I think the score will be similar to last year. Hopefully with A win for ND. I feel our Qb’s are better than MSU’s. So I am predicting us to win. I know its bold but I will say ND 27, MSU 13. And blow out is relative. You know what I mean. Beating State by 2 TD’s is a blowout I consider with these circumstances. We must block better. Go ND!

    21. Boise State team replaced 17 starters…and a QB who hasn’t started a game ever. This game will be close, neither team is proven. Great write-up.

      Kelly’s game plans are getting deserved criticism in my opinion.

    22. Notre Dame 20 Michigan St 14. Irish win by virtue of a strong defensive performance. Te’o needs to have a monster game and we must come out ahead in turnover margin. Golson needs to start doing more than merely running the offense and avoiding mistakes. He needs a couple of big, key plays. If he under performs look for Rees to come in earlier than he did versus Purdue. Go Irish!

    23. I have a fear that the State defense is just going to be too much to handle up front. Our offensive line struggled so readily last week and this is a whole new test this week. According to Todd McShay on ESPN, this may be the best defense in the country outside of the SEC. Not good for an offense that struggled to move the ball against a decent Purdue team.

      I think we really have to unleash the legs of Golson tonight early and in doing so keep the defense somewhat honest. If Golson just sits back in the pocket all night it will become a beatdown, bu if we can get him on the perimeter and keep the MSU defense from pinning its ears back, we can keep it close and have a shot to win.

      We also need a receiver to stepup big to keep the defense from tripling Eifert all night and it would be nice to see us surprise some folks by rushing for maybe 200 yards against that vaunted front seven.

      I don’t see it and I foresee a 27-17 Michigan state win; although I hope I am very wrong

    24. It’s only halftime but that was the best ND defensive effort since Holtz. I pray that it continues.

    25. How about this :

      Notre Dame defeats Michigan and Maimi and goes into Norman undefeated to face Oklahoma – shades of the past when Notre Dame went there, I believe it was 1947 or 1949 and beat Oklahoma 7-0 and stopped a 49 game winning streak for Oklahoma. LETS GO IRISH !!!!