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  • Irish Seek Validation Against Spartans

    by John Vannie

    Notre Dame continues its road trip on Saturday evening as the Fighting Irish battle the Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing. The teams will meet for the 79th time with Notre Dame holding a 48-29-1 series lead, although the Spartans have more than held their own in the last two decades. Michigan State is 2-0 this season after dropping to 3-9 in 2016, but the 2-1 Irish represent their first true test. The long history between these programs will be interrupted after this week’s game until the 2026 season. The Fox network will televise the contest nationally beginning at 8:00 PM Eastern time.

    The game features the sixth matchup between two familiar foes, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio of the Spartans. Dantonio is 4-4 against the Irish but just 2-3 in head to head meetings against Kelly’s Irish teams. Overall, Dantonio is 92-42 in his eleventh season in East Lansing with two BCS Bowl wins and one playoff appearance.

    Once again, Notre Dame will face a young quarterback with limited experience. Sophomore Brian Lewerke earned the starting job for the Spartans, and he has enjoyed modest success in his first two games. Lewerke has completed 65% of his passes, most of which have been short and safe. He has also flashed excellent running ability, and has a 61-yard touchdown sprint to his credit. Brandon Wimbush remains a work in progress for Notre Dame, as the Irish hope to make advancements in their struggling passing attack this week.

    On the injury front, Irish wide receiver Freddy Canteen has been lost for the season due to a shoulder injury, while Cameron Smith returns to the lineup this week after missing one game. Running back Tony Jones, Jr. left the game prematurely last week and did not return. His status is questionable for Saturday. The Spartan starters are relatively injury-free after a week off coming into this contest.


    Chase Claypool
    Balance in the offense is the primary objective this week as the Irish look to exercise their strong suit by running the ball while demonstrating improved passing efficiency. It’s not practical to expect a repeat of the 422 yard rushing performance against temple or the 515 yard effort last week at Boston College, but Notre Dame must be better than the 55 yard performance against Georgia when facing an MSU team that will load up to stop them.

    At the core of the Spartan defense is last year’s leading tackler and strong side linebacker Chris Frey. When asked how his team views the task of slowing down the Irish, Frey said, “I think it’s something we look forward to every single week. We pride ourselves constantly on stopping the run. Obviously, you just said they are one of the best run offenses in the nation so it’s going to be a big head-to-head battle and we’re excited to take it on. They’re a great run team, a great team overall, so we’re just excited to show what we can do against a team like that; an offensive line like that, and a good running back.”

    Frey will seek help up front in MSU’s 4-3 alignment from tackles Mike Panasiuk, Raequan Williams, and backup Naquan Jones. The entire front four rotation is dominated by sophomores with only one senior among the two-deep, end Demetrius Cooper. The end position is particularly problematic due to attrition. Cooper is coming off a suspension in the offseason and currently running with the second team behind former walk-on Kenny Willekes. Dantonio’s depth chart suffered a blow this spring when Josh King and Auston Robertson, both of whom saw action as true freshmen last season, were dismissed from the team along with wide receiver Donnie Corley.

    This patchwork group held up well against lesser competition, and will be severely tested when trying to stand up to the Notre Dame offensive front. While the Spartan game plan will certainly be to stop the Irish from running at will, they probably won’t be able to accomplish this objective without leaving themselves vulnerable to the pass.

    This, of course, is where Wimbush must show improvement. His accuracy and touch has been a concern after subpar passing performances in the last two games. His receivers have not helped him as much as Coach Kelly would like, but tight ends Durham Smythe, Alize Mack and Nic Weishar have enjoyed more success lately. Play selection is also a factor in the equation for Wimbush, The offense was discombobulated in the first half against BC, but flowed more smoothly after intermission. Kelly also remarked about play calls after the Georgia game, leading observers to believe that he won’t be reluctant to exert his influence over new Offensive Coordinator Chip Long if his team gets off to another slow start.

    Michigan State’s youth on defense extends to the secondary, where sophomore cornerbacks Justin Layne and Josh Butler team up with junior nickel back Tyson Smith. Safeties Khari Willis and Matt Morrissey are also juniors. The Irish receivers have a chance to break out against this group, but Wimbush needs to muster the patience and accuracy to connect with them.


    LJ Scott

    The youth movement continues for Michigan State on the offensive side of the ball. Lewerke has a pair of unheralded receivers in Darrell Stewart and Trishton Jackson joining Felton Davis, who started as a sophomore in 2016. Tight end Matt Sokol is a promising talent at 6’6” and 250 pounds, but he is just getting his feet wet as a starter. The Spartans remain a run-first team and Lewerke does not have exceptional arm strength, so Dantonio’s passing attack is designed more as a ball control mechanism than a home run threat.

    Center Brian Allen, a senior, is the mainstay of the offensive line. He is joined by several new faces led by 6’8” sophomore left tackle Cole Chewins. David Beedle played this position last year but is now at to right guard. Surprisingly, Lewerke is the leading rusher in yardage even though tailback L.J. Scott has twice the number of carries. The Spartans also use Stewart in sweeps and reverses, with excellent results to date. He has 98 yards in six attempts.

    Despite the level of competition in the first two games, turnovers have been the main area of concern for this offense. There have been seven fumbles with four lost and two of those returned for touchdowns. Lewerke also has one interception to date. This sloppiness is uncharacteristic for a team coached by Dantonio, but it underscores the fact that there are so many inexperienced players in the lineup.

    Notre Dame needs to be mindful of Lewerke’s ability to run the ball, but they should be able to attack this offense with little fear of getting burned. The Spartans don’t have exceptional speed and would prefer to play keepaway from the Irish if they can control the line of scrimmage.


    Notre Dame’s kicking specialists and coverage teams have performed well after a rocky first game for Justin Yoon. The return teams have failed to produce any remarkable plays, which is hard to accept given the talent level being deployed.

    The Spartans have more serious questions to answer. Freshman kicker Matt Coghlin has not attempted a field goal as yet, and no one has any idea what he will do when the call comes. On the kick coverage side, MSU has already surrendered a 100-yard touchdown. The dangerous Stewart is the return man for both punts and kicks, but his stats to date are just average.


    Sparty The atmosphere of a home game at night will help Michigan State, but they don’t appear to have the horses to contend with Notre Dame over sixty minutes. Success for the Irish will mean that the game finally slowed down for Wimbush and speeds up considerably for Lewerke. The visitors need to establish competency in both the run and the pass for their own well-being and for future deployment when the leaves turn brown and the schedule becomes less forgiving.

    Fortunately, Notre Dame’s defense has been a consistent and pleasant surprise to date, and there is no reason why that should not continue on Saturday. If they are able to set the edge against Scott and any exotic runs by Stewart, it’s doubtful that Lewerke can pass the Spartans to victory.

    Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:

    Which team will commit costly turnovers?

    Will Notre Dame be able to dominate MSU’s front seven in the running game?

    Can Wimbush find a rhythm through the air against the youthful Spartan secondary?

    Which quarterback will have the most success on runs and scrambles?

    Will either team generate significant pressure on the passer?

    How will each team perform in the red zone?

    Will Chip Long or Brian Kelly call the plays in the fourth quarter if the game is close?


    LJ Scott
    The Irish need this game badly in order to bury the ghosts of 2016 and gain confidence in their ability to beat a respectable opponent. While the loss to Georgia was a gut-punch, another defeat against the rebuilding Spartans could shatter all hope for the season and create distractions regarding the future of Brian Kelly. The Spartans were down last year as well, but they remain a year away from being an upper level team in the Big-10.


    21 Responses to “Irish Seek Validation Against Spartans”

    1. Bartender, I’ll have whatever he is having! Jvan showing great confidence here.

    2. I am surprised with the optimistic final score as well. I agree Mich St isn’t as good as past years but they usually have the horses to compete in the front 7. If they play physical on offense make some plays on the ground, I suspect a very close game. I’ll say they eek out a win because of the defense! ND 21-16

    3. I got nothing. I honestly have no idea where this game is going.

      Their defense is focused on stopping the run, same as Georgia, and we apparently had two entirely different O-lines last week against BC, so who shows up?

      Who’s going to lose the passing game first, Wimbush’s lack of confidence, our receivers’ sluggish routes, or the Spartan’s man-on-man coverage out on an island?

      Does their offence cough up the ball enough to give our offense more chances, or does being at home against the Irish focus them? Does Dantonio pull more Little Giants garbage, and if so, does our defense stay focused on their assignments?

      I really have no idea, and I hate the classless Spartans so much, I just won’t be able to handle a loss here. I have nothing to hang my hat on but faith in our players, and I’m taking strength from Vannie’s optimism – we’re the better team with the better players, so we should pull this off.

    4. irishhawk50 says:

      I tend to agree with the analysis. This is not Michigan State of recent past. It seems to have more of a rebuilding task than even the Irish. Despite Wimbush’s passing problems I think there will be some improvement in ND’s offense as the season progresses and it will be enough Saturday night to push the Irish past a shaky Spartan team, but it might be a little closer than your prediction. ND 35-28.

    5. Irish 27 MSU 17

      Wimbush finds his groove in the passing game and Dexter Williams has a big game to compliment Josh Adams and the Irish get a huge road win. GO IRISH

    6. JVAN, sorry to curb the excitement — but this is the game where BK will be once again exposed
      as the average coach that he is..

      MS has too much size, strength, and toughness on the Defensive side of the ball for the Irish
      to do much of anything.

      Special teams (or lack thereof) from the Irish leave them doomed!!

      Bright lights too much for the young Irish.. I hope I’m wrong!!

      Sparty 35
      ND 16

    7. Gentlemen, Let us pray…

    8. Lots of optimism here. I like that, but MS knows the drill here and will be ready for ND’s rushing attack. I don’t see Wimbush having a miraculous passing transformation in one week. Nevertheless, ND has a gunfighters chance here. Expect the game to be won or loss in the trenches – O line vs. D Line. I am not going to make a prediction here other than the team that can come up with the better smash mouth line play will win.

    9. After watching the irish’ first three contests here is my view of this game:

      Hard to know how good MSU really is. Lets face it, they have played a cupcake schedule so far. They will be tested by a big, physical and fast Irish squad. Good news for them is that they get to play at home and the crowd will be revved up at night.

      We can expect the Irish defense to keep the scoring low. They play disciplined defense, tackle well and have been stingy with allowing points. I expect more of the same.

      I expect the Irish to run the ball on defense and Sparty to be geared up to stop the run. This will be the game in a nutshell. Can MSU force 3 and long and will Wimbush be able to make some throws to take advantage of MSU loading up the box to stop the run. I think the Irish are good enough on offense to score 28 points of more. That should be enough.

      Some things to watch:

      As we saw last week field position matters. Both teams want the other to start drives deep in their own end. So kicking will be important. Bad field position limits play selection with new QBs.

      Turnovers are key too. I suspect the winner in this stat will win the game.

    10. I hope I am wrong but I am not feeling good about this game. I say Mich State wins a nail bitter 24- 20 because we seem too inconsistent offensively. I don’t think Wimbush has enough consistency with accuracy and passing to get it done. I felt that his big runs last week came because Boston College was more inept at tackling and missed assignments than anything else. Add in that Wimbush is an excellent runner too, don’t get me wrong but I feel that Mich State will be more sound in tackling and not let Notre Dame get loose like that. Compounded by Kelly’s lack of coaching to higher level in big games I’m just not sold on him to win this for us either. I think it will be similar to last year. We have the lead for a bit then we lose it at the end. The defense will play good again. Solid enough for us to win, but the offense will leave something to be desired. I don’t feel Kelly will ever get us to the College Football Playoffs. Yes I do think that we can do better than Brian Kelly.

    11. Another 1 possession Loss

      MSU: 20 ND 17

      Go Irish anyway!

    12. Lose this game and the season is down the drain and the viability of this regime is crippled once and for all. You can’t have the athletic director constantly talking about championships and have the team never beat anyone who is half decent. It sounds delusional. This quarterback has been in the system three years including spring and fall practice as the starter. No excuses for inaccurate passing. No excuse for the offensive line to not assert itself. It’s time to do something or let someone else try. Let’s get some results, not more excuses.

    13. If Kelly is half way competent ND should win easily by 21 points. MSU is very green especially on defense. It should be a buffet for the ND offense. ND should be able to run it down their throats and pass it. ND has a very experienced offensive line, very good running backs, very good running quarterback. ND defense is very competent so far and MSU offense doesn’t have any game breakers.

      Wild card is Kelly and turnovers. I trust Elko and Long more than Kelly. Long seems to trust the run game much more than Kelly. Plus down in the Red Zone ND has decided it will run and even with QB under center and multiple backs. To me this offense really is different than the previous Kelly offenses.

      ND 31 – 14.

      • All I know is that this is a game BK needs to win. Period! Michigan State on the road. He dosen’t have many signature wins at ND. If they lose tonight, I think the season will be dismal and the talk of a BK replacement will heat up immensely.

    14. Austinirish says:

      For some reason, I feel good here. MSU is inexperienced. Stay with the run game, avoid mistakes. Slow but steady wins this game. Irish going away 42-17.

    15. I’ll start by saying I’m apprehensive at best about this game. However, it seemed like the offense flipped in switch in the second half last week. Maybe they were wearing BC down but better conditioning can be very effective. God knows it happened to ND enough the last few seasons. I’m more concerned about Dantonio’s love of trick plays. I’m quite sure that my heart can’t take another last second field goal loss to MSU. As always, MSU will be up for this game. A night game at Spartan stadium and Notre Dame seem to turn MSU into a national title contender…at least for one night.

      I’ll say that I’ve become rather disillusioned with BK as well. It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day. And even worse, so far this year the offense seems to be the problem. However, I’ll ask the same question that’s plagued me for a number of seasons now. Who are we going to get to coach this team? Everyone is so sure ND can do better and maybe they can…but I don’t see the any big name or up and coming coaches knocking the door down to take the job. The Elko hire was clearly a home run. I also think Long was a good hire but Kelly needs to get out of the way and let him do was he’s being paid to do. So far this season, Kelly seems to be more about coaching the team rather than screaming at the QB all game. Maybe he’s finally made some changes.

      I agree that this is a big game…bigger than it really should be. This is a good opportunity for the team and the coaching staff to prove this won’t be like last season. Go Irish!!!

    16. ND loss at MSU
      Hope for the best… ready
      For another Kelly debacle…Sad to say but I fear a tragic loss on the way again. Sparty will expose D and secondary on prime time.. hope I’m wrong

    17. Me thinks this game will give some insight into 2017 season for the Irish. Am just not sure ND can be as physical as the Spartans. MSU will tackle well, better, I think than we will. Am not sure our inside and outside zone schemes, alone, can open holes nor get us the cutbacks to run. Lastly I just don’t think Kelly is the equal of Mark Dantonio, either in preparation, or in-game coaching and adjustments. Not picking a score but hoping for the best for the Irish.

    18. O line has yet to prove itself against a top team. The Georgia play calling had Kelly’s hands all over it as well as every game this year so I am confused about what you mean by “Kelly also remarked about play calls after the Georgia game, leading observers to believe that he won’t be reluctant to exert his influence over new Offensive Coordinator Chip Long if his team gets off to another slow start.”
      Again I repeat as I did after Ga game. Look at University of Memphis play calling last year and see if it resembles any Irish game this year. I am a Memphis grad and watched every game last year. Have yet to see Long’s influence but have seen plent of Kelly’s.
      If Kelly losws this game fire him immediately, let Kelso take over and hire Mike Norvel at season end. Norvel will keep Chip Long and open up the offense.

    19. Kevin Calabria says:

      Huge game for both coaches today. One of them will be in boiling water. Nebraska has shown the way