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The Only Questions: Q&A with Notre Dame

The last time these two teams met Michigan State was on top of the world

Well Spartan fans we had a full week off but now it’s back to it. We may not be out there running sprints like the rest of the guys but hey we definitely read about it.

Last time out Michigan State beat the Western Michigan Broncos 28-14 in East Lansing. The Spartans managed to contain the entire Bronco team other than Darius Phillips who scored all of Westerns points.

This week is our first real test of the season. The Fighting Irish are in town and boy are they ready for a battle after last year.

Let’s all just a take a horrible second and remember that the previous time these two teams met both were ranked in the Top 25. MSU beat the Irish on the road 36-28. The Spartans won a single game the rest of the way while Notre Dame won just three.

Now we bring it all the way back to the present where we have Patrick Sullivan joining us from One Foot Down, the SBNation site where you can find all things Notre Dame!

Pat gave us everything we asked for and then some. His scouting report is off the charts and there really isn’t a better way to prepare yourself for the game like reading our Q&A’s.

Go Green!

Notre Dame had a similar season to Michigan State's last year. They finished 4-8 (their worst record since 2007). So far ND is 2-1 in 2017 with a heartbreaking one point loss to Georgia. Are things looking up for Notre Dame this year? What do you think their record will be at season's end? Why?

Compared to 2016, so far you could say that things are looking up this season. The Fighting Irish have blown out the two bad opponents they've faced thus far, and against the one ranked opponent they faced, they were in it until the end (and quite frankly, should have won it).

However, as a former eternally-optimistic Notre Dame fan who has become incredibly jaded and pessimistic about the state of the program under Brian Kelly in the past few years, I don't think the first three games of this season give me any indication that the program is back on track, or fixed, or anything in that regard. I think this is Kelly regressing to the mean again, just like he did after the 2012 season (12-1 record). I see both 2016 and 2012 as statistical outliers in an otherwise very consistent 8-to-9-wins per year performance from Kelly's teams.

So, are things looking up compared to last year? Sure. We have a defensive coordinator who actually knows what he's doing, and we still have plenty of raw talent coming in with each recruiting class. But improving on a disaster of your own making isn't impressive to me, and I'm not convinced anything is seriously on the up-and-up with this program overall. I expect an 8-4 season that will be juuuust enough to let Kelly keep his job and stick around for another 8-4 season in 2018.*

*With that said, I really hope he proves me wrong. I just want to see ND as a national contender again.

Brian Kelly is in his 8th year as head coach, he has a 61-32 record as the Fighting Irish's coach. He's been to a bowl game every year he's been there besides 2016 (not unlike Mark Dantonio). Is he on the hot seat at all because of last year? How do you and the fan base feel about him at this point?

Oh man, I answered #1 without reading this question. I'll go into a little more detail here, though, because I LOVE ranting on and on about Brian Kelly.

Brian Kelly is definitely on the hot seat, at least with most fans. Some fans are more complacent than others and thus happy with the product on the field, but as a whole the Irish fanbase is tired of being so mediocre every season under BK. For the most part, he's beaten all the bad-to-average teams he should beat, and has lost to just about every big-time opponent he's faced.

Some quick bullets to help you understand why, after just one awful season following many "winning" seasons, ND fans are ready to be rid of Kelly:

  • He's finished ranked in the final AP Poll just twice in seven seasons...that's not acceptable at a program that expects to compete for national championships
  • He's not exactly taking the Irish to a bevy of impressive bowl games, let alone winning anything big in the postseason:
  • 2011 Sun Bowl (beat a bad Miami team)
  • 2012 Champs Sports Bowl (blew the win against an average FSU team)
  • 2013 BCS National Championship (completely eviscerated by Alabama, and then later had the game vacated due to ineligible players who had been cheating on assignments)
  • 2014 Pinstripe Bowl (beat Rutgers, wowee!)
  • 2015 Music City Bowl (beat an okay LSU team - easily his most impressive postseason game)
  • 2016 Fiesta Bowl (blown out by Ohio State)
  • His winning percentage in games against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 at the time of the game: .423 (11-15)
  • His winning percentage in games against teams who finish ranked in the AP Top 25 at the end of the season: .357 (10-18)
  • I said 'for the most part' a couple paragraphs above this because although he usually beats the bad opponents, he's also managed to lose to Tulsa, Duke, South Florida, Northwestern, and Navy (2x)
  • His personality, coupled with the mediocre-to-bad teams he's produced, does not go over well with a lot of fans. Nick Saban or Bill Belichick can be prickly, emotionless, blunt, and grumpy/rude/angry because they are the best at what they do and they win almost all the time. Brian Kelly does not, and so he doesn't have that sort of deserved leeway that great coaches are afforded
  • Finally, going 4-8 in year 7 of his tenure is one thing. It's a bad look, but Dantonio just did the same thing at MSU, and he's earned the trust and faith of fans and boosters because he's had such a fantastic stretch leading up to 2016. Brian Kelly hasn't had the same kind of success, and so going 4-8 in year 7 looks a lot like a guy who doesn't know what he's doing, as opposed to a bad year that will be corrected as the program goes back to winning lots of games

I'm of the opinion that Brian Kelly did a solid job of taking Charlie Weis' unstable and lackadaisical program and making it into a consistent, winning program. But this is Notre Dame, and eventually that shouldn't be enough, to win 2/3 of your games and go to a bowl no one cares about.

After 8 years, you'd expect a little more consistency in terms of competing for the Playoff, and that just isn't happening. It's time for the school to move on and find a coach that can actually take this team back to the level of performance it's used to, historically.

Tell me about Brandon Wimbush. This is his first year as the starting quarterback for Notre Dame. What should Michigan State fans expect come Saturday?

Brandon Wimbush is a junior who's been groomed as the next big thing in South Bend for a couple years now, and it's clear after the first three games that he has all the physical talent in the world, especially in terms of running the ball. He's extremely fast and dangerously slippery in the open field.

His passing game, however, needs work. He has a cannon for an arm, but the accuracy isn't there consistently yet, and he seems to have some trouble making reads and finding the right receivers. Also, it doesn't help that besides Equanimeous St. Brown, the ND receiving corps has been almost nonexistent so far this season.

MSU fans should expect ND to try to establish the run with Wimbush and RB Josh Adams using the read-option, and should expect to see Wimbush get loose for a few nice runs. However, if they can corral him for the most part, they should do very well, as the passing game is nothing to be afraid of right now if you're a Notre Dame opponent.

What are three things Notre Dame needs to do well in order to take one away from the Spartans Saturday night?

1. The Notre Dame offensive line has to play like they did against Boston College, and not like they did against Georgia. Way easier said than done, considering MSU's defensive front is going to be a lot more similar to Georgia's than BC's, but if this team can't run the ball effectively, they won't score points and they will definitely lose this game.

2. The ND defense has to be a sure-tackling team on Saturday night. They've done very well so far, and for the most part bottled up Georgia's two-headed running back monster (Nick Chubb and Sony Michel), but LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes, Madre London, and even Brian Lewerke are all super dangerous if they get some daylight. So, the Irish need LBs Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini and Rover Drue Tranquill to all be absolute monsters in chasing down ball carriers, and the defensive line has to not get blown off the ball and give those guys a chance to make plays.

3. The ND receivers have to step up. Wimbush is still struggling in the passing game, so St. Brown and co. need to make it easier on him and get open. Part of this is probably play-calling from offensive coordinator Chip Long, and part of this is probably Wimbush missing open guys at times, but ND absolutely needs someone (looking at you, Alize Mack) to step up and be an unstoppable force running routes, catching the football in traffic, and picking up yards after the catch.

This offense isn't rushing for 515 yards this weekend. Someone else needs to chip in to help score some points.

In your opinion what is shaping up to be the most intriguing matchup between these two teams?

My first instinct was to say ND's offensive line vs. the MSU defensive front, but I'm actually going to reverse it and say the MSU running game against the ND run defense.

New defensive coordinator Mike Elko has done an excellent job turning this defense around in a year's time, but it will be extremely important that they contain the MSU running backs and Lewerke on the ground. They haven't faced a combination of running backs and quarterback who can all break off big runs yet this year, and I think the game could be won or lost in this matchup, considering the ND offense is unlikely to be able to win a shootout without a reliable passing game against the MSU defense.

Who are three guys Michigan State fans should know about prior to kickoff and why?

1. The running back tandem of Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, which I've unilaterally decided to count as one person: I'm sure you guys all know who Adams is, considering he just tore up BC to the tune of 200+ yards. But Williams is even more explosive and even quicker than Adams, and has been a guy that ND fans are dying to see get more carries. We're talking about a guy who got 120+ yards on just 6 carries against Temple, but who somehow didn't get one offensive touch against Georgia.

Adams is the guy to worry more about because he's the workhorse and an absolute stud, but if #2 is in the backfield for ND, be wary that he's capable of scoring from anywhere if he gets a little wiggle room.

2. Drue Tranquill, who plays "Rover" in Mike Elko's defense: Tranquill is a senior who spent his first few seasons at ND as a run-specialist safety who was a little too slow in coverage. Nevertheless, he has been huge in games against triple option teams like Georgia Tech (he took over that game in 2015), but he has also torn an ACL twice while at ND, so he's a pretty cool story as a really good, hard-nosed kid who's worked hard to be where he is today, as the bonafide leader of a revamped defense.

He's also an engineering major, which is pretty impressive and unique, I'd say. He'll be all over the field on Saturday night, and will definitely be a guy who the Irish will count upon to make some big plays.

3. I'm going to go with Equanimeous St. Brown for this last one, just because he's one of the most interesting players in college football. His full name is Equanimeous Tristen Imhotep J. St. Brown, and his brothers are named Osiris and Amon-Ra. Their father, John Brown, is a former Mr. Universe who chose his wife partially because he felt the two of them would produce great athletic specimens together. They raised those kids to speak 3 languages (mom speaks to them exclusively in German) and their dad has been training them and developing them to be NFL players since they were in elementary school.

Furthermore, Equanimeous has lived up to the hype, as he's an excellent combination of long, fast, and smart. He's got incredible hands and will absolutely be playing in the NFL either in 2018 or in 2019. He's the real deal, and if it weren't for the lack of a reliable and dangerous second option, he'd be exploding this year even more than he did last season.

The Notre Dame rushing attack is scary good. Brandon Wimbush and starting running back Josh Adams have combined for 757 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns in their first three games. Will Brian Kelly stick to what ND does best or do you think he tries to focus on exposing the Spartans suspect secondary? If so how successful will Wimbush be throwing the ball?

I think Kelly and Long will absolutely try to establish the run. They know what they have in the passing game, and they know it isn't great. But they did just run for 515 yards last weekend, so it makes sense to try to ride what's working.

With that said, Brian Kelly teams have a tendency to default to passing if they don't see much running success right away. So if MSU gets up by more than one score and has moderate success corralling Adams, don't be surprised to see Wimbush slinging it all over the place and Adams/Williams to be mostly split out wide, swing passes and bubble screens.

In 2016 Equanimeous St. Brown caught 58 passes for 961 yards and 9 touchdowns. In their last game against Boston College he only managed to catch one pass for three yards. How will he fare against Michigan State? Is he due for a big game? And how does Notre Dame focus on getting the ball in the hands of one of their better playmakers?

He's definitely due for a big game, but as I stated earlier, he's really the only consistently good pass-catching option Brandon Wimbush has. If no one else in ND's group of WRs and TEs steps up and makes plays, I don't think St. Brown has any sort of huge day, as the MSU DBs will be able to key on him and take him out of the game, more or less.

He'll have at least a few catches just because of his fantastic route-running ability and because he's the only receiver Wimbush can really trust in big moments, but I don't see him having a field day unless he gets some help.

Prediction time: Who wins? Final score? Why?

I think this is a close game between two programs trying to claw their way back up from disaster 2016 seasons.

The difference, though, is I think MSU is the more complete team, and Brian Lewerke could end up being the difference. If he makes enough plays, and if the MSU defense holds serve against the ND running game, I think the Spartans take this one 31-23.

Thank you to Pat and everyone over at One Foot Down for taking the time to talk with us and help put this Q&A together. They were fantastic and I strongly suggest you follow both of them on twitter!

Also don’t forget to head over to One Foot Down to check out what Pat asked me and what I had to say about the game.

Go Green!