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Preview: Michigan State vs. Notre Dame

Wake up the echoes, baby.

Your Michigan State Spartans vs. the Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Indiana
3:30 ET

You're surely weary of all the talk about how this game features two wounded teams looking to salvage their seasons; in Notre Dame's case this may be true (perhaps they're attempting to salvage their coach's job as well, if they even care), but we still have a conference season ahead of us.  Nonetheless, last week's game absolutely sucked, and nearly all of the bad taste in our mouths can be washed out by tomorrow night.  During Dantonio's time in East Lansing, the team has done an excellent job bouncing back from our most difficult losses with big wins: after the Michigan game in 2007, we beat Purdue on the road and Penn State at home; after being blown out by Ohio State last year, we turned around to beat Michigan in Ann Arbor.  Repeating that history won't be easy here; I know that many MSU fans don't think much of Notre Dame, but to me, no matter how many points we put up, Notre Dame has the capability to score more.  Last week, our defense looked hopeless and lost; this week, we need a colossal effort from them to win.  Can our defense play inspired-enough football to shut down an offense full of, quite frankly, superior athletes?


WHEN MICHIGAN STATE IS ON DEFENSE:  Well, we might as well get this over with: Notre Dame is potentially the best offense we'll see all season.  Unless you've been spent the last five years with your hands over your ears screaming "la la la" to the world, you know all about Jimmy Clausen.  There's a reason why Todd McShay has been salivating over him since 1997 or so: he has a cannon for an arm.  However, I submit to you (at the risk of mega-jinxing us, a la last week), that he's more than a bit overrated, as his reputation has been built on 1) his recruiting service rankings from many years ago, and 2) his performances against horrible defenses.  True, Clausen played spectacularly well against Hawaii and Nevada, but does that mean anything?  Hawaii was probably the single-worst bowl eligible team last season, and Nevada had the worst pass defense in 1-A in 2008.  Clausen's last four regular season games last season looked like this:

Att Comp Int Yards TD Passing
46 26 4 226 0 80.4
Navy 18 15 2 110 0 112.4
Syracuse 39 22 0 291 2 136
USC 22 11 2 41 0 47.5

(Thanks, mgoblog!)  Not so good, Al.  Then, last week against Michigan:

Att Comp Int Yards TD Passing Efficiency
42 25 0 336 3 150.3

Those are obviously good numbers, but 1) he had the benefit of Boubacar Cissoko apparently having the worst cornerback performance in Michigan history, or something, and 2) as ITI said yesterday, he left a lot of yards on the field:

But a quick word on Floyd. He could've gone for 200 against Michigan. He made those defensive backs look just terrible, and the only reason I think Clausen just played "okay" (25-42, 336 yards, 3 TDs 0 INTs) is that he left a ton of yardage on the field by leading Floyd out of bounds.
So, I submit to you that Clausen can be contained.  His Achilles heel, revealed over and over again over again over the past couple seasons, is that he doesn't respond well to pressure.  mgoblog, again:
But, man, every time Clausen got the slightest bit of pressure he just chucked the ball, usually off his back foot, and never accurately. Future ND opponents should spy for screens and send the house again and again.
Last season, we were able to get pressure on Clausen from our front four and sacked him three times; the pressure led to a whole bunch of throwaways, and two Otis Wiley interceptions.  This season, the Irish offensive line looks substantially better: they haven't allowed any sacks.  I think the key to the entire game for us is getting some pressure on Clausen from our front four; otherwise, we're going to be picked apart.  Narduzzi thinks we can do it:

"I think we can," Narduzzi said Thursday at the assistant coaches' weekly media session. "Trevor got pressure last week pretty good like we anticipated, but he missed two sacks. If you run right by the guy, you don't get any."

The problem is that the pressure really, really has to come from the front four; we can afford an occasional blitz, but ND's receivers and tight ends are too good for us to be sending outside linebackers, corners, and safeties in on the blitz.  If our defensive line comes up big, we'll win this game.  I think it's that simple, honestly.

About those receivers: yeah, they're good.  As discussed with ITI, Michael Floyd is one of the country's best receivers, if not the best.  Last season, he caught 7 balls for 86 yards and a touchdown against us; this season he already has 11 catches for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns.  Floyd lacerated his leg when he fell on the track at Michigan Stadium last week; he missed the last few offensive plays of the game, and his absence might have cost ND the game.  Supposedly he's 100% this week; I hope he isn't, as he's explosive, catches everything thrown near him, and is simply damn good.  The best we can hope for is to somewhat contain him.  And, unfortunately, containing him probably doesn't mean doubling him, because ND's other wideout, Golden Tate, is a scary, scary deep threat.  He has 12 catches for 174 yards and 2 touchdowns already this season, and if there's someone on the ND roster who's likely to pull a Herb Haygood-type play as shown above, it's him.  Tate will probably be lined up against Chris L. Rucker for much of the game; Rucker had a difficult game last week, and needs to bounce back.  Kyle Rudolph is the Irish tight end; at 6'6", 260, he's a load, and he's also a pass catching threat, with 29 receptions as a freshman last season.  The Blue-Gray sky said, with some justification, that Rudolph "is going to be one of the best tight ends in the country this year."  He had only 3 catches against Michigan last week, but one of them was an important 24-yard catch-and-run.  He'll also split out into 3-wide sets occasionally.

In short: Notre Dame is going to get at least one long touchdown pass; it's just going to happen.  The key will be to prevent the second and third from happening.

Armando Allen is the primary Irish running back; he had a big day against Michigan last week which could have been even bigger if he wasn't called out-of-bounds on what would have been a 70-yard screen pass touchdown.  Still, against Michigan, he ran 21 times for 139 yards (6.6 average!) and a touchdown; he's also a big pass-catching threat out of the backfield, as he had 50 receptions last season.  As I mentioned to ITI, Allen is the first real running back we've faced this season; hopefully our defense won't be completely preoccupied with the pass and will be able to contain him.

With regard to MSU personnel, the only real news is that we'll see more of Chris Norman this week at OLB, as Brandon Denson hasn't been the greatest.  Narduzzi took the unusual step of directly calling Denson out:

There could be some changes in MSU's linebacking setup because fifth-year senior Brandon Denson struggled against Central Michigan and true freshman Chris Norman continues to impress.

"I think (Norman) had seven snaps last week and he gradually gets better every week," Narduzzi said. "He'll probably get 15 to 20 snaps this week. He's going to get more work and we'll find out what happens.

"No, I'm not happy with (Denson's) play."

Changes may be in order with the third-down nickel defense as well.

"Decker was an average pass rusher last week, and he’s got to get better or he’ll be replaced," Narduzzi said.

Perhaps this isn't the greatest time for defensive shakeups, but it was probably inevitable after last week's disaster.  We need a big effort; the game will be won or lost on defense.


Your team, Kirk.

WHEN MICHIGAN STATE IS ON OFFENSE: We'll be helped in a big way if Joel Nitchman returns, and it looks like he will:

Fifth-year Michigan State center Joel Nitchman is expected to return to action for the first time since spraining his knee late in the first half of the season opener against Montana State.

Offensive line coach Dan Roushar said Thursday that he's planning to use Nitchman in Saturday's game at Notre Dame. Nitchman's name appeared on the dress list for last week's Central Michigan game, but he didn't suit up.

"We anticipate that Joel could be ready for us, so we're going down there with that in mind and we'll go from there," Roushar told reporters. "He's the quarterback of the offensive line. You can never replace the experience he has. He sets the tone and the tempo for how we come in and out of huddles.

Bad comes with good, however, as J'Michael Deane will probably sit out after gettting injured early in the CMU game.  The return of Nitchman could bode positive things for the run game, which was certainly underwhelming against CMU.  Ray and Caper should have opportunities for bigger things against ND; everything Brian uncovered last week in his preview of the ND rush defense remains true.  ND writer Brian Hamilton:

"The defensive line just has question marks all over, whether it's because of youth or that they're generally unproven as performers. And since the Irish haven't been particularly stellar at stopping the run the past couple seasons as it is, it's a concern."

And from Irish Eyes:

Junior Ian Williams and sophomore Ethan Johnson are a talented pair, but both struggled vs. the [Nevada] Wolf Pack’s veteran front line. Irish defensive ends Kerry Neal and John Ryan are undersized on the right side (quality pass rushers that can struggle at the point of attack) and Notre Dame features a redshirt freshman at left defensive end who played in his first collegiate game [against Nevada].
Not surprisingly, against Michigan they allowed 190 rushing yards.  I don't expect us to get that many, but I'd really, really like to see us approach 150 yards on the ground.  Quite frankly, the ND front four just isn't that good.

The Notre Dame secondary, on the other hand, is good.  Excellent ND blog The Blue-Gray Sky said of them before the season:
Even with the loss of David Bruton, this is a fantastic secondary. The corners are rock solid with Darrin Walls (#15) likely to push back into the starting lineup at some point. Then add in Gary Gray, Sergio Brown, and Jamoris Slaugther and ND is loaded at corner. There isn't too much depth at safety, but McCarthy is as steady as they come and won't miss many tackles. Count me in the group that thinks the transition back to safety will be an easy one for Harrison Smith.
Last season, we didn't do all that much against ND through the air: Brian Hoyer went 12/26 for 143 yards and no touchdowns.  Part of the reason, of course, was that in last year's game, Javon Ringer was our first, second, and third option; that's clearly not the case with our running game this year.  I'm skeptical that we'll be able to get long gains on the Irish secondary, unless Blair White goes nuts, or Mark Dell comes back from injury and looks like he did in the Cal game last season.

ND's linebackers are young, inexperienced, and will be blitzing all the freakin' time.  That's where the openings will be in the passing game: we have to get our tight ends involved.  We really underutilized them last week; this week, they have to take advantage of the underneath routes which will open up when the linebackers blitz.

I've said this before: the QB rotation has to end, and I expect it will.  Cousins' big challenge will be to withstand the blitz; I'm confident in his ability to hang in the pocket and deal with the pressure.

FINAL PREDICTION: WOO I've already written this part:
I think we can move the ball and score points on the Irish.  Tenuta is an excellent defensive coordinator, but his default setting is blitz, blitz, blitz, and stacking the box and bringing pressure really isn’t the way to defend against us.  You really want to clamp down in the secondary, and force us to beat you on the ground, because we haven’t yet proven that we’re capable of doing that.

For me, this game will turn on how game-ready Michael Floyd is.  If he’s healthy, we’re probably not going to be able to stop both he and Golden Tate, and ND will get a couple long touchdown passes that will make the difference.  If he’s still hurt, I think we can somewhat contain Tate, and slow down ND’s passing game just enough to win.  Ultimately, though, I think our biggest problem is that our pass rush isn’t going to bother Clausen at all, and with time in the pocket, he’s going to pick us apart.  Another thing to watch is whether Clausen and Allen are able to gouge our defense with screen passes; we looked absolutely hopeless last week in defending screens.

Gun to my head prediction: ND jumps out to an early lead, MSU fights back to take the lead, but ND gets a late touchdown to win 31-27.  But I’ve picked ND to win this game at home many times now, and somehow we keep on escaping back to East Lansing with the Megaphone, so you never know . . .
Comments welcome.  GO STATE, BEAT THE IRISH.