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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rebounding Effort

posted 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.

Special Teams

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 idea 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

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post - I hope both the team and the fans shake off last week because MSU will give the Irish a long Saturday afternoon if they don't.

Last week's debacle did not rattle my opinion that this year's squad is talented and mature, and can still win 10 games. A given? No, nothing is given after last week. Let's see where the season is headed.

ND 31, MSU 17.

Go Irish!

9/17/2009 05:38:00 PM  
Anonymous SonofTheGreeb said...

ND 38, MSU 17.

9/17/2009 05:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we lose again at home to MSU, then Charlie should be fired without hesitation! They lost to CMU for God's sake!

9/17/2009 06:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post, as always. Let's hope you are right.

9/17/2009 09:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go Irish! But I echo an earlier poster's comment: If MSU comes into our house and spanks us silly once again, I hope all of the Weis apologists will give it up and call for his ouster. I will remain an optimist. Until Saturday.

9/17/2009 09:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, Michigan State seems to bring their 'A' game to Notre Dame stadium every year. As for Charlie, he should be fired regardless. I think we've given him plenty of oppurtunity to get over the hump and he seems to be refusing to do it. The passing calls in the 4th quarter last week were unbelievably amatuerish.
Notre Dame-27

Go Irish!

9/17/2009 10:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could this possibly be the biggest game in Charlie's career at ND? A loss to MSU spells the end of the Weis regime in my opinion. It's time for ND to make a statement but will they?

9/17/2009 11:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

central michigan is a credible program not enough respect. nd 23 msu 12

9/18/2009 06:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This will be a big test for our players. After last week there are a lot of questions: Defense? Special Teams? Play calling? Moving on after last week will be easier said than done. MSU has owned ND and it's time to end the streak. Although, I'm not happy with Coach Weis' decisions last week, I don't feel it's time to jump ship yet (I stress "yet"). IF this team runs the table or even loses one more game, Weis, in my opinion, has done his job. Yea, the UM game will be a thorn in everyone's side, but 11-1 and 10-2 are still successful seasons. Let's have our coaches' and team's backs and watch how the rest of the year plays out. A coaching change in the middle of the season will only make things worse and our players don't deserve that.

9/18/2009 09:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

45-20 ND...agreed that he should be fired if we lose

9/18/2009 10:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It cannot be ignored that without the many mistakes made along w poor refs...we would have puttin 50 up on Michigan...period...and it was on the road...we should easily be able to have soemthing around that on saturday considering its at home...my prediction is 45-20...another thing that i really am i shocked i havent heard this week is about our opening drive...we went right down the field @ michigan and staleld w a horrible qb draw call on 3rd down followed by a missed 25 yrd fg...this sent a msg to michigan that we are goig to mistakes all day instead of sending the msg that we came here to dominate (what a td would have done)...very important that we put the ball in the endzone on the openign drive this week..we do that we will be fine..

9/18/2009 10:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This team is WAY too talented to get beat by Michigan St again. If they do, its squarely on Weis as an indication he simply cannot get his team ready for battle. The spartans have beaten us into submission time and time again, and has showed little to no class in doing so. Absolutely ZERO motivation should be necessary from the coaching staff. I think the Irish come out and make a statement tomorrow, and run the table from here, including an upset of Southern Cal at home, who may not even be undefeated coming into South Bend based on what I saw last week.


ND 42 Mich St. 14

9/18/2009 02:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Rick Doyle said...

MSU always worries me! But this year I for some reason see us puttin the spankin on them. Dont get me wrong it wouldnt surprise me to see a tight game. I just see us really takin it out on MSU this year. Last week sucked. I dont know if I will ever be over that game. (Lets hope the players feel differently.) We SHOULD have won that game. We moved the ball at will just shot ourselves in the foot. I still stand by the horrible play calling playing a HUGE factor in the loss. There was just too many disheartening calls in that game that really can take away from a teams attitude and took away any momentum we would have gained. Also shutting the damn crowd up. Anyways make to MSU! I hate to say it but this is prolly the biggest game Charlie will coach this year. He knows his career at ND could be riding on this game. I really love Charlie as a person and as a ND coach. I am 100% sure he will suceed at ND and it starts this year. This game, RIGHT NOW! GO IRISH!!

ND 41 MSU 21

9/18/2009 03:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Jersey44 said...

I am hopeful but not at all confident. The Irish need to start well to avoid energizing Sparty and deflating the stadium.

9/18/2009 04:45:00 PM  
Blogger Van Giles said...

Every team that comes into Notre Dame Stadium is playing their toughest, best game of the season. Charlie better have 'em prepared. I have stood up for Weis so many times now, it's about time he started coaching our players to a level where they take on ANY opponent. Last week was a heart breaker, no doubt about it, but the truest test of this team will be to see how they rebound.
Onward to Victory!

9/18/2009 05:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the most talented team since the Lou Holz era and the only thing missing is a coach who can bring the team together, motivate them and be part of them, ala Pete Carroll or Rick Rodriguez! The Weis term is over....it is time for ND to move beyond him.

ND 37
MSU 28

9/19/2009 02:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's go a little bit easier on Charlie. I probably would have made the same calls last week in the final minutes trying to pick up yardage and a 1st down Had they panned out, he would be called a genius. Unfortunately they didn't and one key dropped pass made the difference in the game. Charlie didn't drop that ball, a receiver did.

9/19/2009 09:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a little off topic but I watched miami and georgia tech the other night. when will notre dame ever play with the kind of attitude miami and some of these other teams play with? Im an ND fan but I feel like theyre soft and NEVER hit ANYONE!! hopefully they beat up on the spartans today.

9/19/2009 10:06:00 AM  

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