Welcome back for a second season of Conversations with the Enemy, wherein we shock and awe opposing bloggers with mildly antagonistic questions about upcoming games. This season's first victim: Keith Arnold, who writes NBC Sports' excellent Inside the Irish blog.
My answers to his questions about MSU will be up on his site later this morning. Below, I'm in bold:
How would you assess Dayne Crist's performance so far? And are there any ongoing problems with his health that you're aware of? Obviously, the Irish looked like a completely different team when he was out of the game.
Crist has been solid, but I don't think anyone will call it spectacular. Part of the problem assessing his play has been finding an appropriate measuring-stick of what a realistic performance should be for the first-year starter, who is coming off ACL surgery and only 20 career passes. Irish fans are spoiled -- they just got done watching one of the most statistically impressive seasons ever by a Notre Dame quarterback with Jimmy Clausen's 2009 and Brian Kelly's offenses have been remarkably QB friendly. Dayne's healthy after last weekend's fluke injury, but we saw last week what the Irish have behind him, and it's scary.
Through two games, Michael Floyd has only 10 catches for 148 yards, and no touchdowns. Those aren't terrible numbers, but everyone certainly expected more from him, and he wasn't a big factor in Saturday's loss. What's going on with him?
He's a marked man. With Golden Tate leaving early and Floyd playing opposite a true freshman that's split wide, teams have been rolling coverages over the top, and Michael hasn't had a chance to really explode for any of his traditional big plays. (He's also dropped a few balls, had Crist throw him into the band twice, and not run his trademark fade route yet, either.) The key to getting Floyd unleashed will be the continued dominance of Kyle Rudolph and Theo Riddick stepping up at the slot receiver. Floyd didn't go two games in a row without a touchdown last year. You've got to think a big game is coming.
The Irish offensive line features three new starters this season, but if there's a dropoff, it doesn't seem to have bothered Armando Allen so far. In your estimation, how has the line performed this season?
It's tough to be anything but positive about the line play. The running game has looked solid and the offensive line hasn't committed a penalty through two games. Kelly singled out first-year starting tackles Zack Martin and Taylor Dever as playing better than even he anticipated. New offensive line coach Ed Warinner performed magic tricks at Illinois, turning a Juice Williams offense into the most potent running attacks in the Big Ten and also did great things at Kansas under Mark Mangino. I've been really high on Warinner since Kelly hired him, and think the line play is only going to get better as Braxston Cave gets comfortable at center and Trevor Robinson starts playing more consistently.
More, after the jump.
It's obvious that Notre Dame's current offensive schemes are quite different than those we saw during the Weis era, but it's less clear how the defense differs from last year's unit. What are your general impressions of the Irish defense so far? I assume there's a lesser emphasis on blitzing than there was under Tenuta.
Night and day difference schematically, and so far, so good. While it's stunning that Denard Robinson put up 502 yards of total offense (94% of Michigan's total) Michigan still only scored one touchdown in the second half. (Granted, it was a really big one...) Bob Diaco's system is similar to the one that many of the Irish defenders were recruited to play, but Charlie Weis abandoned the 3-4 system when he hired Jon Tenuta to install a pressure scheme. That move was a complete disaster and cost the previous staff their jobs and Tenuta his reputation as a good defensive coach. The Irish are thin along the defensive line and in the secondary, but they have players that are very capable of being good, they just need to continue to learn their roles and play "assignment correct" football.
Relatedly: the Michigan game was interesting because nearly all of the Wolverines' rushing yards came via their quarterback. MSU's running backs, conversely, have really led the way for us so far. Based on the Purdue game and whatever evidence you can cobble from last weekend, how has the ND defense performed against the run?
It's tough to dismiss Robinson's performance, but the Irish have actually done a very good job of bottling up running backs. Granted, it's only two games, but opposing running backs are only averaging 3.3 yards-per-carry against the Irish, and Ian Williams, Manti Te'o, and Carlo Calabrese are rock-solid run defenders. (As rock solid as you can be if you gave up 258 yards in one afternoon to a 185-pound kid that wears velcro on his shoes...)
Is there anyone on offense or defense for the Irish that MSU fans may not have heard of, but we should keep an eye on?
If you haven't heard of Cierre Wood, you might after Saturday night. Wood is a redshirt freshman that was stuck in neutral against Michigan, but dazzled during the Purdue game and lit up fall camp after dominating the spring game. He's got big-play ability at the tailback position, has home-run potential and is the perfect complement to go with the all-around steadiness of Armando Allen. I just mentioned him, but Ian Williams also could have a nice day, working against an unproven Spartan center at nose guard.
And finally, how are you feeling about the game on Saturday? It seems like this game could go either way; what's the biggest key for ND to escape with a win?
When it comes to playing Michigan State, you'd be crazy to feel good about anything. Last year's cardiac special seems like your average Spartans/Irish match-up. Whether it's the epic comeback by the Irish in the rain in 2006, the infamous flag-planting at Notre Dame Stadium in '05, or earlier performances by Charles Rogers and Arnaz Battle, you just don't know what's going to happen when these two teams get together. In many ways, this will be a season-defining game for the Irish and I think they'll come in incredibly hungry. The Irish can't lose the turnover battle and need to stop the run to win the game. (That said, I do think the Spartans will try and get the passing attack going as well.) With the teams the Spartans have played, it's tough to tell how good they are yet, but I know it'll be a rowdy environment for a visiting team desperate for a victory.
Thanks to Keith, and a pox upon his team.