It's Notre Dame week, and we have our second Q&A with One Foot Down, SB Nation's Irish blog. Patrick from the blog was kind enough to answer some questions about the Irish offense, the HISTORICAL RIVALRY, and he gives a real score prediction! My answers to his questions should be up over there soon.
1. Tommy Rees brings more experience and passing ability to the offense, but that side of the ball hasn't exactly been lights out so far. What are your impressions of the Irish offense compared to what it was a year ago with Everett Golson?
I think the offense has definitely been better than we expected in the passing game (and I'd argue with you that Tommy Rees brings more passing ability), but it's really been surprising how poorly we've run the ball. We seem to check out of a TON of plays and have Rees chucking the ball all over the yard. In the Temple game, it was because their secondary was so bad. In the Purdue game, it was because they put 8 guys within 10 yards of the LOS. In the Michigan game, it was because we were behind the entire game.
We have seen that this offense can move the ball through the air with regularity, which is what we will rely on. Our RBs and OL haven't gotten into a rhythm yet this season, and seem to be running really predictable plays with limited misdirection/counter looks. We're certainly having trouble manufacturing a numerical advantage in the run game (via formation or motion). That is the biggest difference with Rees instead of EG--the defense doesn't have to respect the threat of run from Tommy, essentially giving the defense an extra defender against the run.
The biggest worry for most Irish fans on the offensive side of the ball (other than the always-nebulous "playcalling") is our Red Zone woes. We have an extremely efficient offense between the 20s, but once we're in scoring range, it's like we have no idea what to do. At this point, we're hoping to score on big plays or assuming it's just going to be a field goal.
2. On the other side, last year's defense was one of the best in the nation, and a majority of starters have returned. Yet, Michigan was able to move the ball with ease and even Purdue went up and down the field more than expected. Why is this unit struggling?
Sigh, our defense. There was plenty of talk this offseason among Irish fans that this defense may actually be BETTER than last year's defense on a yards-per-play basis. We really underestimated the losses of Manti Te'o and Zeke Motta to our defense. Add in the loss of Danny Spond (starting DOG linebacker) and Nicky Baratti (1/2 of Strong Safety rotation) right before the season, and the back 7 of this defense has been thrown for a loop.
The biggest weakness of the Irish defense is pass coverage in the short middle of the field. Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, and Jarrett Grace rotate at ILB for the Irish, and of the three, Jarrett Grace is the only one who has shown himself to be serviceable in pass coverage this season. We never expected Calabrese to excel here, but Fox's performance has been a surprise (not the good kind). This issue has allowed teams to dink-and-dunk us to death, and has really put the pressure on the Irish D to try and send more and more guys at the QB if only to take the ILBs out of coverage responsibilities.
The other major weakness of the Irish D is the poor tackling of the secondary, especially boundary corner KeiVarae Russell and free safety Matthias Farley. Brian Kelly's teams have been so good at the little things for a long time, so we're confident this will get rectified at some point this season, we're just not sure when.
3. What are three keys to victory for the Irish?
-No "TOMMY, NO!" moments. This will always be the #1 key for any Irish fan who made it out of the 2011 season alive. Early returns on this key are good through the first 3 games.
-Less predictability on the offensive side of the ball. Tommy Rees has a tendency to make a lot of checks, especially if the defense shows a look early. The Irish can't be baited into checking into a play dictated by a Spartan defense waiting for that exact check. Fake audibles and call-it-and-haul-it plays along with some misdirection are what the doctor ordered, and its something we haven't really seen out of ND yet this year. We'll need it in this game.
-Tackle. ND's defensive front is good enough to stop anybody running the ball against us. The Irish simply need to keep everything in front of them and make tackles.
4. Since this is such a HISTORICAL rivalry, what are your thoughts on it generally staying on the schedule thus far? I know there's a break coming up, but indications appear to be that, for now, the rivalry will continue. On our side, we're thankful for Notre Dame helping us get into the Big Ten, and there have been plenty of great moments over the past 20+ years. On the other side, do you guys really care about Michigan State at all? I get the sense ND fans don't. We fully understand MSU was kept on the schedule instead of U-M because it's generally an easier game.
I think ND-MSU has been very good for both schools of late. As far as us "caring" about MSU, I think the "rivalry rankings" are probably as follows for most Irish fans in the games we play regularly:
- Michigan State
That being said, I think most fans' level of "good old-fashioned hate" for State is probably just a notch below Michigan, which is several notches below USC. I care about State since I was applying to ND at the time of the flag planting, and was a freshman for the Valenti rant -- throw in Little Giants, and the primetime game last year, and I have a lot of fondness for the series.
We really just got UM off the schedule because they had the easiest out clause of any of the series. I think in the near future, we'll see ND adopt a sort of rotating B1G schedule, with Michigan/MSU/Purdue taking up two slots every year. Especially if the B1G goes to a 9 game schedule, it works for everyone.
5. Give me a score prediction and why
Notre Dame 30 - Michigan State 24
Notre Dame comes in as a 7 point favorite, and despite both defenses, I think this game will end up being relatively high scoring, and I always take the dog in a shootout. Notre Dame's passing attack will move the ball down the field efficiently, but the red zone woes will continue, and the Irish will have to settle for field goals more often than they would like. Michigan State's offense will be frustrated most of the day, but they will hit one or two big touchdowns due to coverage and tackling breakdowns. Add in one "TOMMY, NO!" moment for a pick six, and MSU will have put some points up on the board.
I think the big win possibility is out there for the Irish if they get their running game going. If you start seeing Irish backs going for 4, 5, or 6 yards per rush, it could be a long day for the Spartan defense.
The big win possibility is out there for MSU if they are able to take advantage of ND's deficiency in the short middle of the field. If they dink and dunk with regularity and can then close it out in the red zone, I'm not sure ND will be able to keep up against one of the best defenses in the country.
Thanks again to Patrick for answering some questions. Check out One Foot Down for the Irish side of things.