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.


Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Associated Press
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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

@NDFootball
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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line