And in that corner… the Michigan State Spartans

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It hasn’t exactly been a love affair between the Spartans of Michigan State and the Fighting Irish, yet a unique rivalry has been crafted between the two teams.

(Who else plays for a half blue/half white megaphone?)

As Michigan State prepares to come to Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday, we caught up with renowned Michigan State blogger LVS of the new Spartans website TheOnlyColors.com. He swears he has nothing to do with the flag planting incident.

Inside the Irish: Let’s get right to it: Why does Michigan State hate Notre Dame?

LVS: On a base level, the hate arises for the same reasons why many other college football fans
hate Notre Dame: perceived arrogance, disproportionate and unwarranted
national attention and influence, etc.  But it’s really the familiarity
that matters: our campuses are only two and a half hours apart, and we
play each other yearly, so contempt is only natural.  Furthermore, I
think some MSU fans sort of resent how Notre Dame-types give this game
relatively short shrift, even though we beat ND with greater regularity
than anyone not named Southern Cal.  Finally, you can’t underestimate
just how traumatic the 2006 game was for our collective psyche; winning
the last two years has barely started to heal that awful, awful night. 
Firing John L. Smith helped more.

It should be said that while there’s hate on a year-to-year basis,
any serious MSU fan also greatly appreciates the role ND played in the
development of our program.  When most big midwestern schools wouldn’t
play MSU (at that time, MAC/MSC), Notre Dame did, every year.  Those
games greatly legitimized our program and directly led toward MSU
joining the Big Ten.

ITI: This is an interesting rivalry from both team’s perspectives. Where would you slot this rivalry in for the Spartans? Is it a different kind than the rivalry with the Wolverines?

LVS: It’s definitely different than the Michigan game, and quite frankly not
as important to us.  Take the familiarity I just discussed, crank it up
by a factor of, oh, 15 or so, and that’s the Michigan rivalry.  We play
Notre Dame every year; not only do we play Michigan yearly, but many
our friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc. are Wolverines or
Wolverine fans.  Add in conference implications and state bragging
rights (at least when we don’t let Central into the picture . . . bleh)
and you end up with a big, big deal.

For most MSU fans, this is the second (or, if Ohio State’s on the schedule, sometimes the third) biggest game of the year.

ITI: What do you think the biggest key to MSU’s dominance at Notre Dame Stadium has been?

LVS: First, it isn’t a coincidence that all but one of the wins in the
streak have come against mediocre-to-bad Notre Dame teams (’07, 03,
’01, ’99, ’97).  Really, only the 2005 win was against an above-average
Irish squad.  (Of course, many of our teams during that time period
weren’t the greatest, either.)  Also, it doesn’t hurt that we’re
usually coming off of a relatively easy win the week before the ND game (usually!), while ND always plays an emotionally and physically draining game against Michigan right before facing us.

More directly, I think that at this point, our guys aren’t awestruck or intimidated by Notre Dame Stadium
as many other visiting players are.  Each of our players will play
there twice during their careers; the first time around, they’re
surrounded by upperclassmen who know nothing but winning in South Bend,
and the second time, they are those upperclassmen.

ITI: Obviously, we’re coming off pretty difficult losses. How much wind came out of the Spartan’s sails after losing to the Chippewas?

LVS: Oh, loooooots.  We simply played a terrible game: we couldn’t establish a consistent running attack, our defense couldn’t stop anything,
our pass rush was nonexistent, we took a bunch of inexcusable
penalties, and we lost in the epically inept manner of MSU teams past. 
We had all hoped that, after last season, we had left those sorts of
performances behind.  Simply: we anticipated being at least in the
discussion for the Big Ten title.  Championship contenders don’t lose
to MAC teams at home.  It’s a cold reality.

ITI: Can your defense stop the ND offense?

LVS: I doubt that we can stop ND’s offense, but I do think we’re
capable of slowing it down enough to win.  Remember, ND’s offense is
comprised of substantially the same players who could only score seven
points against us last season; those players are obviously more
experienced and better now, but even if you quadruple that output, I
still think we can score 31 points and win the game.

I wouldn’t read too much into last week; CMU runs the type of spread offense
we’ve historically been awful against.  ND has incredible receivers,
but I think our secondary is much better suited to defend against the
type of pro-style offense ND uses.  One thing which may be interesting:
MSU hasn’t faced a real running back yet this year.  Montana State more
or less abandoned the run after 10 minutes or so, and CMU’s screen
passing game essentially is their running game.  I expect our
rush defense to be better than average, but there’s no evidence to back
that up yet.  If there is a weakness there, Armando Allen is clearly
talented enough to exploit it.

ITI: Who should the Irish be scared of for the Spartans?

LVS: I think MSU can move the ball on Notre Dame, primarily through the air.  We
have two excellent receivers in Blair White – who is a walk-on, as you
may have heard – and B.J. Cunningham. White is one of the best
receivers in the Big Ten, and will work both from the slot and split
wide; coming into this season, many MSU fans were concerned about
Cunningham’s reliability, but he has been sure-handed and excellent
through the first two games.  Each has two touchdowns already this season.  The wide receiver corps will additionally given a boost if Mark Dell plays.  (He’s missed the first two games with a leg injury.)  Last
season, Dell was a bit inconsistent, but he’s tremendously athletic,
and the closest thing we have to a genuine gamebreaker.  We
also have three tight ends who are big threats in the passing game:
Charlie Gantt is the starter, Brian Linthicum is a Clemson transfer who
looked great in our first game and then was woefully underused
last week, and Dion Sims is a freshman, and an athletic freak in the
mold of recent MSU tight end Kellen Davis.

 

I’m confident in both of our sophomore quarterbacks, Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol.  Briefly, Cousins is the pure passer of the two, while Nichol can pass, but is also a threat to scramble.  The
two have been rotating throughout the first two games (to our great
detriment in the CMU game, in my opinion), but Cousins is the team
captain and has been slightly more impressive in the first two games.  I’d expect the rotation to end and for Cousins to play the entire game unless something goes terribly wrong.

 

Conversely, Notre Dame shouldn’t be particularly worried about our running game.  Javon Ringer obviously killed the Irish last year, but he’s gone, and we’ve struggled so far to replace his output.  Two running backs – redshirt freshman Caulton Ray and true freshman Larry Caper – have separated themselves a bit from the pack; expect to see them both on Saturday.  But
the real problem has been our offensive line, which has two new
starters on the right side and has struggled mightily to create holes
for the backs.  Their play needs to improve, and soon, for MSU to be successful.

 

On
defense, ND should be worried about Greg Jones, our team’s best player
and the Big Ten preseason defensive player of the year.  He’s the best linebacker we’ve had in
East Lansing
in many, many years; he flies to the ball faster than almost anyone
else in college football, and is also a big threat on the blitz.

ITI: Did you have anything to do with the flag planting?

LVS: Ha.  My tuition helped pay John L. Smith’s salary, so I suppose I’m complicit in some way.  Honestly,
I think the entire episode was waaaaaay overblown, but I think I speak
for all MSU fans when I say that I’m very, very glad that unfortunate
era of Spartan football is dead and gone.

ITI: If you had to guess, what do you see happening this weekend?

LVS: Eesh.  Like I said, 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 . . .

 

This is obviously an enormous game for both teams.  I’m really looking forward to being in South Bend for it.

ITI: If Dantonio doesn’t work out, do you think you guys have any interest in hiring proud MSU alumnus Ty Willingham?

LVS: Why would we need to hire him?  By doing more than anyone to run Notre Dame’s program into the ground, he’s already served his alma mater well.

Check out LVS and the rest of the crew at TheOnlyColors.com.


Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.