And in that corner… the Michigan State Spartans


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 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.


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.


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

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”