Opponent preview: Michigan State Spartans


This is the third of many opponent previews, leading us into the opening week of the season. Suggestions and comments are welcome. For more, check out previews for Purdue and Michigan.

The Overview:

It was a season of “what could’ve been” for the Spartans. Mark Dantonio, who Brian Kelly replaced at Cincinnati three seasons ago, enters his fourth year coaching the Spartans. After two promising seasons under Dantonio, the Spartans reverted into the inconsistent squad that existed under former coach John L. Smith, losing five games by single digits including heart-breakers to Central Michigan, Notre Dame (more on this in a second), and Iowa. While Dantonio was brought into East Lansing to instill his trademark defense and toughness, it was the defense that let the Spartans down, giving up over 26 points a game and ranking an abysmal 114th in passing. The result was a mediocre 6-7 season, ending with a 41-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl.

Last time against the Irish:

For the second week in a row, it looked as if the Irish were going to fall in the final seconds to a rival from Michigan. But Kirk Cousins overthrew Larry Caper who was all alone in the end zone with just over a minute left, and the next play Kyle McCarthy stepped in front of Cousins’ throw on the Irish four yard-line, allowing Notre Dame to escape with a home win against Michigan State for the first time since 1993.

Earlier in the second quarter, the Irish suffered two injuries that would help define their season. When a jailbreak sack came up the middle, Jimmy Clausen tried to protect himself from a big hit, but instead injured his foot. While he remained in the game, the injury hobbled him for the remainder of the season, and eventually necessitated surgery during the winter. Later that quarter, Clausen threw a fade route to the right corner of the end zone where Michael Floyd skied above a Spartan defensive back and looked to come down with his two feet in bounds for a touchdown. The officials disagreed, and worse for the Irish was the loss of their star receiver to a broken clavicle, suffered when he hit the ground. Clausen returned to the game, Floyd did not and the woeful Irish defense again struggled, getting torched for 354 yards passing and giving up 459 total yards. The Irish were also sloppy — broken plays, falling prey to an onside kick, and committing 11 penalties (including back-to-back personal foul calls), but it wasn’t enough to stop the cardiac kids, who somehow held on for the win in dramatic fashion.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins had this to say after the game: “I need to throw the ball away or take a sack, do anything to throw the ball away.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank the Spartans as the fifth most difficult on the schedule. While there are still question marks in the secondary, Michigan State has seemed to have been a thorn in Notre Dame’s side, with the Irish splitting the last eight contests, with all four of their wins being decided by a touchdown or less. Winning a night game in East Lansing is never an easy task.

Bonus Reverse Degree of Difficulty:

Michigan State fansite The Only Colors ranks the Irish the fourth-hardest game on the Spartan’s schedule, with Wisconsin, Iowa, and Penn State seemingly tougher opponents. Here’s the crux of the issue for them:

“Essentially, your opinion on ND’s chances this season must rest on your opinion of Brian Kelly. I think he’s excellent, and ND will be significantly improved.”

The Match-up:

Kirk Cousins returns to pilot an offense that only lost Blair White from an offense that averaged just a touch under 30 points a game. Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, who combined for 13 catches, 195 yards and two touchdowns against the Irish last year will once again challenge the Irish secondary. The question on offense is whether or not the Spartans can replace three starting offensive linemen.

On defense, Michigan returns All-American linebacker and Big Ten defensive player of the year Greg Jones, the Spartans leader in just about every defensive category, who was third in the country in tackles. Linebacker Eric Gordon is no slouch either, returning after 92 tackles and a starting streak of 27 games. The defensive line has a steady anchor in sophomore Jerel Worthy, but behind him they are unproven. The secondary needs big years out of underachieving Chris L. Rucker and Johnny Adams, who missed last season for disciplinary personal and medical reasons.

How the Irish will win:

If the Irish want to neutralize Greg Jones and pick on a thin secondary, they’ll have the weapons available to do so. If they can protect the quarterback, Notre Dame can spread teams out, using four and five wide receiver sets, running mostly one and no-back formations to give themselves as good a match-up as possible with the questionable Spartan defense. (Theo Riddick will be huge.) Last year, the Irish ran the ball almost to prove a point, content to eat clock and unsuccessfully protect the defense. We already know Brian Kelly won’t do that. The defense will still need to avoid giving up the big play, as the Spartans threw every trick in the book at the Irish, including a successful onside kick recovery. While it’ll be more than unruly in Spartan Stadium that night, a quick start by the offense could have fans sitting on their hands.

How the Irish will lose:

There might not be a more hostile environment for the Irish this season than this Saturday night, and it’ll be the first trip away from the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium for the Irish and starting quarterback Dayne Crist. This game comes down to handling the pressure of an away game, and if Crist and the offense stumble out of the gates it could be tough sledding for the Irish. Look out for big games from Jones, the proven commodity and true freshman William Gholston, the unproven one. On defense, the Irish still need to figure out how to stop a Spartans offense that racked up gigantic yardage throwing the ball while platooning their quarterbacks. With back-up Keith Nichol now playing wide receiver, one trick play may be all the Spartans need to capitalize on the Irish defense, that will surely be tested in the air.

Gut feeling:

If you’re a Notre Dame fan, your gut should never feel good against the Spartans. That said, if this team is as good as many believe they can be, there’s no reason they shouldn’t walk out of East Lansing with an undefeated record. Consider me Missouri: I’m in a “Show Me” state.

Kelly stays in the moment

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Coming off a bye week, you could excuse Brian Kelly if he started looking ahead. To his impending hire at defensive coordinator, or his shifting focus to a recruiting class that suffered its first defection since Blake Barnett bolted for Alabama.

But the seventh-year head coach has his hands full fixing his current predicament, leaving any planning beyond Miami to the weeks after the regular season.

“My time is spent on the present right now. I don’t look too far ahead,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I think I’ve stayed with very similar thoughts about not mortgaging the future, not dwelling too much on the past, but living in the present right now.”

That commitment to right now hasn’t translated into wins yet. But it’s the best way to beat Miami, a talented football team with what might be the best quarterback the Irish will face, coming in on a three-game losing streak.

So while Irish fans wonder how this team will find a way to straighten out and win four of their next five to qualify for a bowl game, Kelly talked about the internal motivation this team has, playing for each other more than any postseason bonus.

“All these kids, they come to Notre Dame because they want to be challenged,” Kelly said. “They have incredible intrinsic motivation every day to get up, to go to class, to want to succeed. It’s why they come here. There’s an immense amount of pride. They want to freakin’ win. They want to win. They really don’t care whether they get a Visa gift card in the bowl game.

“They want to practice more. They want to be with their teammates. They want to be with their guys. They want to win football games. They want to be successful in the classroom. They want to be successful on the football field. That’s why they came here. That’s why I’m here. That’s all we talk about. That’s all we do every day, is think about how we can be more successful.”

Mailbag: The head coach, Malik and the running game

Notre Dame offensive line

bearcatboy:  The “fire coach Kelly” thing is getting a bit over-blown, particularly in the twitter-verse (ad nauseum). I hate asking this question (I think its reached the point where it’s warranted), but as a rational person, what has Kelly done to make you truly believe he can win a title, or even big games for that matter, at ND?

Consider this an answer to the roughly 40 different posts asking the same question. So apologies if this gets a little meandering.

The big thing for me—and something that most people calling for change are doing their best to ignore—is that Brian Kelly already got his team to one title game. If you’re trying to run him out of town based on this season, you can’t ignore that season. This isn’t figure skating, where you throw out the high score but not the low.

Ultimately, my biggest reason for sticking with the status quo, is that it’s hard to win. Period. And it’s really hard to win at Notre Dame. Besides that, all coaches, at least when they’re under your microscope, are going to have flaws that drive you nuts.

Let’s go through the wish list of Notre Dame coaches: Urban Meyer just lost to a 20-point underdog this weekend, and he’s still one of the game’s two best coaches. Dream candidate Tom Herman lost to Navy and just got blown out by SMU, another huge underdog.

You want someone who has some tenure? Well, former Irish assistant Dan Mullen lost a few terrible games this year that are head-scratchers and Dak Prescott is getting smaller in the rearview mirror. David Shaw’s team is losing. Mark Dantonio’s team is losing. Dave Doeren’s team is losing. Jim Mora’s team is losing.

This isn’t the old college football. This isn’t even Lou Holtz’s college football. It’s a hyper-competitive industry, and while there are a few institutional advantages that Notre Dame still certainly has, there are quite a few negatives that are truly barriers to winning.

We’ve watched Kelly and Jack Swarbrick attack some of the major ones—and Kelly has it better than Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis when it comes to others. But certain things—academics, the way the university handles  student life, fifth-years and redshirts—they might not ever change.

Ultimately, I don’t know if Notre Dame can compete with Alabama—if that’s the standard you want to set. But then again the Crimson Tide had a star defender arrested for drugs and guns on a Thursday and he played on Saturday. Max Redfield is looking for a place to finish up his degree.

I think Brian Kelly’s a good football coach having a really tough season. Can he bring Notre Dame to the promise land? Not sure.

But he had them within 60 minutes once and last year had a roster that was ravaged by injury and had his team within a field goal of probably getting an invite to the playoff. So I’m not rolling the dice yet, and wouldn’t unless the change is a clear upgrade. And I’m not sure who that’d be.


blackirish23: Malik Zaire has been less than impressive when given the opportunity. Do you think Malik’s heart just isn’t in being a back-up QB and thus has lost a bit of his passion for the game which affects his play when given the opportunity?

If somehow Kizer decides to return to ND next season, should the coaching staff discuss a position switch with Malik similar to what happened with Carlyle Holiday and Arnaz Battle (and even Braxton Miller at Ohio State)? If so, what position would Malik be best suited to switch to?

Thanks for the question, it’s certainly not the first time someone has wondered how to utilize Malik if it isn’t at quarterback. To address that point first, Malik isn’t Arnaz or Carlyle, and he certainly isn’t Braxton Miller. Those guys have the speed to be NFL receivers, something Malik doesn’t possess. Does that make him a tight end? H-Back? Running back? Probably not one who is good enough to get onto the field for the Irish.

As for his heart, I don’t think that’s something I can speak to with any certainty, though I do think he’s pressing. Give a guy known for “making plays when things break down” a limited amount of reps and it’s human nature to press. That explains to me why he’s breaking out of the pocket and scrambling when the initial look isn’t there. Or trying to juke a defender and make a play instead of throwing the ball away on a reverse.

Lastly, if Kizer stays-or-goes, I think Zaire would owe it to himself to look around and check out his options after he earns his degree. A graduate transfer might be the best thing for his football career if he wants to be a starter. Because Brandon Wimbush is a very talented quarterback with an elite set of skills and there’s no telling if Zaire will beat him out for the job next year, let alone Kizer.


ndgoz: ND has consistently been producing high-level NFL draft picks on the O-line. The running game is predominantly zone read plays, which rely on isolating and attempting to deceive a defender. If ND has the quality offensive line that the NFL draft suggests, why doesn’t ND put more emphasis on a power running game?

If you have more size and skill than your opponent, you don’t need to trick them – just overpower them. You can still take advantage of the QB running ability with bootlegs and rollouts to keep the defense honest.

I’m not the guy to go to if you’re looking for astute offensive line breakdowns. For a while, I think there was some validity to the criticism that Notre Dame’s ground game was a bit too vanilla. Inside zone, outside zone, repeat.

But I don’t think the zone read game is as simple as you make it out to be. Deception is a piece of it, but there’s plenty of physicality and winning at the point of attack, something we just haven’t seen that much of this year.

Kelly’s running game looked great last year, a big-play machine with a talented offensive line.  No, they weren’t a lock to convert every short-yardage attempt, but then again—Alabama isn’t either. And with CJ Prosise and Josh Adams and a very nice offensive front, these guys were hitting home runs.

The zone read can drive certain fans nuts. But asking why Kelly doesn’t put more of an emphasis on the power running game kind of ignores the fact that he’s not running that system. So when you say that the offense could get production from DeShone Kizer on bootlegs and rollouts, I think you’re discounting just how impactful Kizer has been as a runner these past two season. He’s run for 17 touchdowns in the 19 games he’s played since Virginia last year and he’s on pace for double-digit touchdowns again this season.

We’ve seen Kelly and Harry Hiestand do things to help get the ground game going—pistol, pulls, traps, and a few other wrinkles. But a lot of the issue is breaking in four starters at new positions with only Quenton Nelson in the same position as last year. This group will gel. But it might be a while before they can just go out and dictate terms.



How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told ESPN.com.

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here: