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MSU Football Preview: Game Two — Notre Dame

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After a brief hiatus, Michigan State and Notre Dame renew a nearly 120 year-old rivalry

Notre Dame v Texas Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Looking at the Michigan State Football schedule the past two years and not seeing Notre Dame has been strange. Equally strange, was seeing the Irish on the 2016 schedule after a week two bye. Thanks Bama!

No, really, thank you for canceling that home and home. Tuscaloosa is beautiful this time of year and we’d hate to ruin it with all the Spartan corpses Saban would leave in his wake.

MSU will head to South Bend rather than the deep south this week and hope for a better outcome than the last time these two teams met in 2013.

How We’re Feeling.gif

Good, I guess? Maybe bad? Excited? Aroused? Depressed? Orange? Over FOUR PEPPER HUT HUT HUT!!!!

Sorry. This game is overloading my motherboard. It’s hard to know how to feel, honestly.

In theory, Notre Dame has an explosive passing game led by future NFL quarterback DeShone Kizer and #AllCFBNameTeam Captain Equanimeous St. Brown...but MSU’s back seven, now featuring a lightly-used Ed Davis, is (supposedly) as good as they have had in the last decade.

Also in theory, LJ Scott and the Spartan offense have plenty of weapons...but whether Tyler O’Connor can expose ND’s injury-and-suspension-riddled secondary is anyone’s guess.

Between each team having so many new faces and being a cumulative three games into the season, there isn’t a ton to go on.

Whichever side can answer the most questions will probably go home happy Saturday night. Let’s do some mildly educated guessing as to which way that cookie will crumble.

Notre Dame Offense vs Michigan State Defense

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Texas Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Notable Irish

  • Leading Passer: QB DeShone Kizer — 30-for-42 (71.4%), 371 yards, 7 TD/1 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB Josh Adams — 21 carries, 149 yards, 0 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR Equanimeous St. Brown — 11 catches, 160 yards, 2 TD

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Tackler: LB Chris Frey — 9 Tackles
  • Leading Sack Artist: DE Evan Jones — 1 sack
  • Leading Ballhawk: LB Andrew Dowell — 1 INT

The last meeting between these two teams featured a lot of flags, mainly in the secondary. Like almost every team that faced that legendary ‘13 MSU defense, Brian Kelly completely abandoned the run in favor of lobbing deep shot after deep shot — 20 by Mark Dantonio’s count — against a then-unheralded cornerback duo of Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes.

That put the game into the all-too-willing hands of the referees who called four pass interference penalties, including this gem against Waynes in the second half.

Ugh.

After the game Pat Narduzzi said he wouldn’t have his defensive backs play any differently. They listened — so did the refs — and the rest of that Rose Bowl season is history.

Heading into this year’s matchup, the biggest storyline is how will senior cornerback Darian Hicks hold up should ND deploy a similar gameplan?

Hicks has had an up and down career thanks in part to injuries but seemed to turn a corner down the stretch last year. His pass interference calls against Furman, however, surely gave Spartan fans some terrible flashbacks.

Hicks has been roasted by fans since the game but not all of it has been deserved. @SamWorkMartin broke down the tape wonderfully and Hicks actually played pretty darn well. On his PI calls he had great positioning but just needed to turn his head and play the ball more confidently.

With a big armed quarterback like Kizer, a leaper like St. Brown and a host of other talented wideouts like Torii Hunter Jr (if healthy) and CJ Sanders, it would be a surprise if Hicks doesn’t get tested early and often.

That isn’t where this game will be won or lost, however. That would be in the trenches where, you guessed it, both teams have a lot of unproven talent. ND lost four offensive lineman, including sixth overall pick Ronnie Stanley, to graduation while MSU had the population of a small country defect from their playing group. Not shockingly, neither side has been too impressive thus far.

Things did not go well for the Domers against the one legitimate opponent they have faced in Texas. The Longhorns lived in the backfield racking up five tackles for loss, including three sacks of Kizer. ND was able to put up 47 points, however, so something was working.

Kizer had six total touchdowns (five passing, one rushing) and the talented running back combo of Taurean Folston and Josh Adams combined for 141 yards on 29 carries (4.86 ypc). Not bad! Granted, this is all assuming Texas is actually good, which ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Aside from Malik McDowell, who was EVERYWHERE, the MSU defensive line did not impress in their opener. The defense did have three tackles for loss and a sack but did not look like a group that should strike fear in Irish hearts. A lot more will be needed out of guys like Gabe Sherrod and Demetrious Cooper if MSU wants to shake Kizer’s faith. The Spartan d-line wasn’t the only meh unit, the defense as a whole was lackluster but several caveats apply.

First, Furman ran an offense they had literally never run before. Tough to prepare for something you have never seen, right Ohio State? OH HELL YEAH IT’S ON NOW.

Secondly, the coordinators were being decidedly vanilla in their play-calling, often rushing four against max protect. Again, tough to impress the viewership that way.

Finally, the Paladins only had 226 yards of total offense and the Spartans committed several drive-extending penalties so it’s not like they were blowing the doors off.

What should help is the return of two difference making linebackers — Davis and Jon Reschke. Both missed the Furman game, due to waiver status and injury, respectively, but will play this week.

It would be wise to temper expectations for Davis, as he has to scrape off a year’s worth of rust, but if he can get it in gear quickly, he is a major boost in pass rush situations. Reschke isn’t listed as a starter but will certainly a lot of action and help provide depth to an already stacked linebacking corps.

Michigan State Offense vs Notre Dame Defense

NCAA Football: Furman at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Passer: QB Tyler O’Connor — 13-for-18 (72.2%), 190 yards, 3 TD/1 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB LJ Scott — 20 carries, 105 yards, 1 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR Monty Madaris — 5 catches, 85 yards, 0 TD

Notable Irish

  • Leading Tackler: LB Nyles Morgan — 17 tackles, 0.5 TFL
  • Leading Sack Artist: No registered sacks through two games
  • Leading Ballhawk: CB Shaun Crawford/DL Jarron Jones (tie) — 1

Those expecting a wild-west-style run-and-fun show against Furman were severely disappointed, however, there were plenty of positive takeaways. The first being that LJ Scott appears ready to take over as the focal point of the offense.

Scott was noticeably quicker and slipperier than a year ago and, while he didn’t leap over anyone, his patience was reminiscent of Le’Veon Bell — the Steelers version, not the bulkier Spartan version (although he was ok, too).

Another bright spot was Monty Madaris’ long awaited coming out party. Finally healthy, the former four-star recruit reeled in 5 passes for 85 yards and was impressive after the catch. He looks ready to be the team’s top wideout and will need to be a source of big plays for an offense looking for a few.

On the other side, Notre Dame’s defense is not in great shape. Not only were they ravaged by departures — including Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, KeiVarae Russell and more — but suspensions and injuries have further thinned the squad, especially in the secondary.

Projected starting safety Max Redfield was dismissed from the program following his pre-season arrest, while corner Devin Butler was suspended indefinitely for his. On top of that, another corner, Shaun Crawford, was lost for the season after Stephen Tulloch-ing himself last week and tearing his achilles celebrating a fumble that was later overturned.

Remaining corners Cole Luke and Nick Coleman are solid, if unspectacular — Coleman especially has been spotty this fall — but the depth behind them is almost entirely untested. At safety, Drue Tranquill is coming off a major injury from a year ago, while Devin Studstill and Cal grad transfer Avery Sebastian will contribute heavily.

It will be very interesting to see if Tyler O’Connor can take advantage of this relative weak spot. The Spartan signal caller did throw three touchdowns in the opener but the moment got the best of him a few times and caused some wild throws. Even though the ND group is a bit of a MASH unit, TO’C (note the apostrophe) cannot afford to make the same mistakes in this one. Hopefully he got all the jitters out in week one.

It will be imperative for the hog mollies not only to protect TO’C but the pave the way for Scott as well. It doesn’t match up with ND’s biggest defensive weakness, but MSU’s best chance of winning this game is by controlling the clock and keeping that potent ND passing game on the sidelines. The best way to do that is to run the ball.

It’s hard to get a read on ND’s front seven so far. Linebackers Nyles Morgan (team-leading 17 tackles) and James Onwualu (13 tackles, 3 TFL) are studs and lineman Isaac Rochelle (14 tackles, 3 TFL) can get pressure, but for all the tackles for loss, the team has yet to record a sack and their only source of a true interception, Crawford — the other was a tip that a lineman caught — is done for the year.

They are big and they are talented but MSU should be able to move the ball if the offensive line (and play calling) is up to the task. If they give up too much pressure or get predictable, the wheels could come off pretty quickly.

Special Teams

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Texas Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Classic good news, decent news, bad news situation for MSU.

Good news: Jake Hartbarger looks like a weapon. The true sophomore downed all three of his punts, including a 58-yarder, inside the 20 yard line two weeks ago. That’s about as good as it gets.

Decent news: RJ Shelton is returning kicks. He’s probably the best bet for a big play, but a potential injury seems like a huge risk to take with one of your only experienced pass catchers. Darrell Stewart seems reliable as well, as long as he isn’t getting a shovel pass.

Bad News: Michael Geiger is not very good. Anything outside of 30, maybe 35 yards is a complete crap shoot. Not ideal.

Notre Dame on the other hand has a very good kicker in Justin Yoon, who went 15-for-17 a year ago and is 2-for-3 this season. He has missed three extra points however because why not!

The Domers also have a fun little return man in Sanders who already has a 40 yard punt return and a 37 yard kick return to his credit in 2016. Surely he won’t break a huge one Saturday. No way, can’t happen.

I’m gonna go back to burying my head in the sand. BRB.

Bottom Line and Prediction

NCAA Football: Furman at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

This game, like most, will be won in the trenches. Whichever team’s defensive line can make the opposing offense uncomfortable holds a massive advantage.

For MSU to win, the front seven must contain Kizer, both in the running and passing game. Kizer, Adams and Folston will have to be contained by the linebackers and McDowell will have to play like the top three pick he plans on being. If Kizer is allowed to sit in the pocket and launch deep balls or the backs are allowed to break contain and run wild, it will be a long night.

On the other side, the Spartan blockers need to pave the way for Scott. Unless Connor Cook sneaks onto the field and no one notices (unlikely) MSU is not going to be able to exploit ND’s vulnerable secondary without establishing the run first and utilizing play action. Look for a decent amount of two tight end sets and some trickeration on the part of Dave Warner. I would bet he has kept a few wrinkles up his sleeve for this occasion.

Being that’s the 50th anniversary of the 1966 “Game of the Century” I badly wanted to predict a 50-50 tie, but I couldn’t, I owe you all more than that silly prediction.

Short of that, I badly wanted to pick MSU to win but, again, I couldn’t.

It’s not because I don’t believe that they can, this team is more than capable of doing so, the problem is we just haven’t seen it yet from this group. Until we do, I can’t pick against Notre Dame at home under the lights in a renewed rivalry game.

MSU keeps it close until the end, but Kizer makes the difference with a late rushing touchdown.

ND 27-MSU 24