It's Notre Dame Week, which means we have two Q&As. The first is with friend of TOC Keith Arnold of NBC Sports' "Inside the Irish." My answers to his questions are here. Keith talks about the state of Notre Dame's defense, fans loving Spartan Stadium's grass field, the HISTORICAL RIVALRY and more.
1. How has Tommy Rees looked this season? He seems to be avoiding the turnovers that have plagued him, but he's not exactly lighting the world on fire, either. Does it have to do with the pieces around him at all?
He's had a nice start to the season. I tend to think that if you told Irish fans that a back-up quarterback forced to take over the starting job would be No. 13 in yards per game, No. 21 in yards per attempt, and No. 31 in QB Rating through three games, that you'd be very happy. But since he's Tommy Rees and has quite a bit of history with Irish fans, that colors the lens you view things through quite a bit.
This Saturday will be a good test for Rees, who has many of the same limitations he's always had, but has certainly improved his game in many areas, most notably throwing the ball accurately down field. The pieces around him may not be quite as starry, but this is the best receiving personnel Notre Dame's had since the early Weis years, with TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels looking like front-line players, with intriguing pieces like Troy Niklas and Chris Brown also making things tough on defenses.
Beating up mediocre teams has never really been Rees's problem. So seeing how he does this Saturday against an aggressive defense that will challenge him should be fun to watch.
2. Why is this defense struggling? It brought so much back from last year's unit, but Devin Gardner lit them up, and even Rob Henry moved the ball a bit. Is the loss of Manti Te'o bigger than anticipated?
After the Alabama game, the Catfish scandal, and the draft slide, we tend to forget that Te'o played last season at a pretty insane level, taking the ball away at a historic clip while being really, really good in the run game as well.
This group has struggled finding consistency and hasn't generated the pass rush it did last season when Stephon Tuitt wasn't a known quantity just yet. Even though Sheldon Day has played very well, offensive lines have doubled Louis Nix, helped out on Tuitt, and forced the Irish to blitz to get to the quarterback, leaving some unproven linebackers in coverage.
Between that and uneven play in the secondary, some of the heroic things this group did last year, especially limiting big plays and being a brick wall in the red zone, have disappeared. Add to that the game Devin Gardner played two Saturdays ago, and there you go.
3. This is typically a great game, but it doesn't draw national attention for obvious reasons. It's pretty clear that ND kept MSU and Purdue on the schedule over Michigan because they're easier games (not that ND's future schedules are cupcakes or anything). Brian Kelly cited the history of the MSU and Purdue rivalries. Was there a little bit of truth in that?
I don't think they kept these games because they were easier. There's probably a lot of little things that played into it, so I'll do my best to lay it out succinctly. First and foremost, the contract between Michigan and Notre Dame had a really easy escape clause for both schools that came free of charge. (It was actually first exercised by Michigan, even though Dave Brandon did a nice job conveniently forgetting that. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick even called Brandon telling him they'd need to take a break to help fit the five contracted ACC games into the schedule before slipping the infamous letter into Brandon's pocket before last season's game that "surprised" Brandon.)
Then, I think Notre Dame looked at their Big Ten rivals and thought about how they've been as partners. The Purdue game means a lot to both schools, and is a huge revenue driver for a Boilermakers program that isn't exactly in the prime of the Tiller era. Combine that with it being an in-state game, and a rivalry that's been played consecutively for a long time, and it had to stay. Then you look at the Michigan State game, and it's another game that's been played (almost) consecutively for a long, long time, with quite a bit of history. Adding to that, Mark Hollis was cooperative with Swarbrick as they found a scheduling arrangement that worked for both schools. (Four years on, two years off.)
Lastly, one factor that really does play into it is animosity between Michigan and Notre Dame. It exists at all levels, starting with the fans and going all the way up to the administration. Whether it's still hanging around from the ugly past or a product of new administrators butting heads, it's a shame that the game won't happen in the next few years. That said, we'd have to be kidding ourselves to think that a big money game like this won't happen sooner than later.
4. Off-topic, what's the future look like in terms of "modernizing" Notre Dame football, aka video boards, field turf and the like? I know it's something Kelly has struggled to accomplish, but winning should make that easier.
An announcement has been made that Notre Dame Stadium will undergo a significant remodel, with hopes of better integrating it into campus life, with classrooms, conference rooms, a student center and better media and community access all part of the plans.
But you're fooling yourself if that doesn't mean added luxury boxes and potentially -- SCARY!!! -- a videoboard and possibly even field turf. (Irish fans have long been envious of the wonderful natural playing surface in Spartan Stadium, wondering why ND can't figure out how Sparty does it.)
Right now, the stadium only sees action on six or seven Saturdays a fall. The idea would be to make it a year round asset, helping to round out the campus expansion that's taken place over the past dozen years. It'll also give the university more space for donors and important alums, as the Gold Seats for VIPs are scarce.
5. What's your score prediction and why?
I don't do predictions, but it's all going to depend on how well Michigan State's offense plays. The Irish coaching staff know what they have in Pat Narduzzi and respect him a great deal. They always game plan to try and get a handful of "big chunk" plays, with hopes that they'll turn into points. That happened last year, helping the Irish pull off a convincing victory thanks to a very nice defensive performance.
I'm skeptical that the Spartan offense can become a dual-threat one in weeks after being a old school, power attack for so long. That match-up plays to the strengths of Notre Dame's defense, which is still pretty stout against the run game. I'm also skeptical about a one-week breakthrough against an FCS opponents, though it's much more promising for Michigan State than another woeful offensive Saturday.
I also think Tommy Rees could do some damage against the Spartan defense, especially if they're going to play man-to-man all day against the Irish receiving corps. He's been sneaky good throwing the ball down the field and that might be more of the playbook this weekend as well. The Spartans have probably the most talented defense Notre Dame will face until they head to Palo Alto at the end of the year, and the familiar recipe of No Turnovers + Some Big Plays is a must if the Irish are going to extend their winning streak against the Spartans.
(I'm fully aware that this is a cop out answer. I just hate making predictions.)
Thanks again to Keith for answering some questions. Check out his work over at Inside the Irish.