Welcome back to another season of Conversations with the Enemy, wherein we shock and awe opposing bloggers with mildly antagonistic questions about upcoming games. For the fourth year in a row, Keith Arnold, author of NBC Sports' excellent Inside the Irish blog, stops by to provide insight on our rivals from South Bend.
My answers to his questions about MSU will be up on his site later this morning. Below, I'm in bold:
No need to bury the lede: Will it be Everett Golson or Tommy Rees?
It will absolutely be Everett Golson. Brian Kelly announced it in his post game interview with NBC's Alex Flanagan and repeated himself in the presser. But that doesn't mean Kelly hasn't reserved the right to go to Rees when he feels like it, who has the trust of his teammates and coaching staff... but not an ounce of support from the fan base.
What Golson has done in the Irish's first two games has been pretty impressive. Outside of forcing a ball into coverage against Navy, he's shown good decision making, a strong arm, great poise, and good elusiveness. He did have a costly fumble late in the game against Purdue, but he's put up very good numbers, all while learning on the fly.
ND averaged 1.4 yards per carry against Purdue. What happened? Is it mostly a problem with the offensive line, or is the return of Cierre Wood going to make all the difference?
Irish fans were ready to anoint the starting offensive line one of the best in the post-Lou Holtz era. And then Saturday happened. The Irish were whipped up front by a stout Purdue front featuring a lot of talent that flooded the box and challenged the Irish to throw. Rewatching the game, Mike Golic Jr. got handled by Kawann Short, and standouts Braxston Cave and Zack Martin didn't play their best. But this is a strong unit, and they'll rebound after a tough week.
Welcoming Cierre Wood back to the running back rotation will definitely help, and it'll give the Irish some flexibility with Theo Riddick and George Atkinson, a guy that absolutely needs to get more touches as the Irish's home run threat. A renewed commitment to the run in the offensive game plan won't hurt either.
More, after the jump.
Tyler Eifert has inherited the title of Notre Dame Receiver That Terrifies Me. (Averaging 24.5 yards per catch with a long of 29 is kind of ridiculous for a tight end.) Is there an update on his status for Saturday? Assuming he plays, how integral is he to ND's offense, and how is the rest of the receiving corps?
He's already been cleared to return to practice and will be fine for Saturday night. And you are correct, he's a terrifying player, and at 6-foot-6, 250-pounds with great speed, he's probably the best of the tight ends that have come out of South Bend lately, a position group that's been on a pretty good run (one that'll likely continue with converted linebacker Troy Niklas, a 6-foot-7, 260-pound true sophomore nicknamed 'Hercules' by his teammates).
Put simply, Eifert is the Irish's best receiver, and the offense uses him like one. You're just as likely to see him split out wide as you are attached to a formation, and he's a dangerous player in the red zone on fade routes who also can make his living catching balls up the seam. New offensive coordinator Chuck Martin has made it simple for his quarterbacks. If you see Eifert in single coverage, throw him the ball. He likely would've put up even bigger numbers against Purdue if he didn't get his bell rung and sit out the fourth quarter.
If you're Dan Roushar, how do you attack the Irish defense? What would you stay away from?
It all depends on if you trust Andrew Maxwell. Notre Dame is really green in the back end of it's defense, starting two new corners including true freshman KeiVarae Russell, who planned on playing running back this season until switching sides of the ball the first day of fall camp. The Irish front seven is the best its been in years, so running the ball might be tough, especially if Kapron Lewis-Moore is healthy after leaving last Saturday's game with a calf strain. There's almost 1,000 pounds spread across Notre Dame's three man front with Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt joining Lewis-Moore. Nix is probably the Irish's best defensive tackle since Trevor Laws and Mel Kiper Jr. called Tuitt the best defensive lineman in college football (and that was before he added two more sacks against Purdue). Even if you only take half of what Kiper says seriously, that has to mean something, right?
Roushar should follow the blueprint USC has laid out: A heavy dose of play-action passing. With the Irish linebackers playing downhill, attacking the middle of the field through the air has worked pretty well for opponents. (See Purdue's game tying 4th down conversion where Carlo Calabrese left his jockstrap on the five yard-line after Antavian Edison beat him on a double move.) After getting gashed badly in 2010, the Irish shut down the Spartan ground game last season. Michigan State will need to establish the run, if only to utilize the play-action game.
Name one player on ND's offense and one player on ND's defense for MSU fans to keep an eye on this Saturday night.
I'm going to take obvious players like All-Americans Tyler Eifert and Manti Te'o off the list, just to keep things interesting. On offense, keep your eye on George Atkinson. The 215-pound sophomore running back only got one carry last week, but broke a 56-yard touchdown run against Navy and is one of the most explosive players the Irish have had in a long time. He's got elite speed (he ran a 10.36 100m dash this spring while moonlighting with the track team) and he brought back two kickoffs for touchdowns last year as a freshman.
On the defensive side of the ball, you've got to keep an eye on Stephon Tuitt. Kiper's kudos aside, he's the key to the defensive line and is making Irish fans forget Aaron Lynch. Tuitt is a mammoth guy for a true sophomore and he'll slide inside on passing downs while holding down the edge of the defense in a 3-4 set. The Irish had a rock solid game against the Spartan's offensive line last year and that should be one of the game's biggest match-ups.
What's the single biggest key for the Irish to escape East Lansing with a win?
It has to be whether or not Everett Golson can operate the Irish offense in extremely hostile territory. The biggest worry Brian Kelly and company had going into this season was Golson's ability to run the offensive operation, not whether or not he can throw it or run it. Against Purdue, the Irish had burned all their second-half timeouts with over 11 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. And that was a home game.
After watching Purdue shut down confuse the Irish pre snap, key on the running game and challenge the Irish receivers with man coverage, you have expect Pat Narduzzi to do the same thing. If he can bait the young quarterback into making some bad decisions and force some turnovers, it's going to be a long night for Notre Dame.
Many thanks to Keith.