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Opponent preview: Michigan State Spartans

Aug 22, 2010, 12:00 PM EDT

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.

  1. Kevin LeBlanc - Aug 22, 2010 at 2:12 PM

    I don’t think a 3-0 record at that point in the season is realistic. I think this game will be reminiscent of the 2008 game, where some big plays on offense will be canceled out by inexperience at quarterback. Granted Crist has played in a hostile environment (@ Purdue last year), that was a 5-7 Purdue team and he needed Clausen to bail him out on the last drive. Improved Crist in his first road game? I’ll take an improved Spartan team that should win 8, maybe 9 games over an improved Irish team in yet another classic.

  2. TLNDMA - Aug 22, 2010 at 2:45 PM

    I checked out Cincy’s results from 2007, Kelly’s first yr. there. They scored a lot of points. They failed to score 27 pts only three times. Granted this was against a much weaker schedule than ND’s but, if form holds, it is encouraging that the Cincy kids were able to pick things up quickly. The scoring for their first five games,59,34,47,40&52 pts. That’ll get it done.
    Again the schedule is the difference. The other difference is the ND talent level. Cincy didn’t have a Five star Qb. or the weapons at RB and WR that ND posseses.
    I think 3-0 is very possible but, Sparty is the toughest of the first three. They are the best of the three and it is on the road.

  3. valpodoc - Aug 22, 2010 at 3:13 PM

    I like the Irish in this game. If the team is healthy and Big Ten officials don’t try and give it to MSU, look for the Irish to make a statement.

  4. Mannix - Aug 22, 2010 at 5:48 PM

    3-0 after this game is VERY realistic. Okay, Crist doesn’t have a lot of snaps, but Kelly has proven that he can take any QB and put points on the board. I strongly disagree that this will be anything like 08. Plenty of points will be scored, especially with State’s unproven secondary. I agree that State’s offense will be just as good if not better than last year, but the Irish have too many weapons for Sparty to handle. The Irish defense is also unproven, however I think a lot of talk at the beginning of the game will start with the name Jones, but by the end will it will be Te’o. Look for Brian Kelly to sweep the State of Michigan in consecutive weeks, Irish win 42-21.

  5. Kevin LeBlanc - Aug 22, 2010 at 8:17 PM

    I hope you’re right, Mannix…but you have to look at how these games usually go…Can the Irish defense play better than last year? That’s the key. Their passing game will be improved.

  6. #1irishfan - Aug 22, 2010 at 9:35 PM

    I agree this should be a win and I’m hoping for a blow-out! I would like to see the flag planting incident finally put to rest with a win of seismic proportions. Let us not plant our flag though we shouldn’t even think of degrading our lady’s flag in such a way!! GO IRISH!!!

  7. Art Vandelay - Aug 22, 2010 at 10:11 PM

    This is another team that gets totally pumped to play us (see Flag-planting reference above) and usually has our number. I say we get emotion back on our side this year. Floyd is on fire; Crist is accurate and effective; Riddick is a new weapon and our D stiffens appreciably. ND 38 – MSU 14.

  8. Anthony Udell - Aug 23, 2010 at 9:01 AM

    I believe the Irish will squeak out the win against Purdue since Robert Marve is really an unproven quarterback, still. The Purdue defense is still a bit suspect, and if you look at ND’s past recruiting classes, they have some talent. They might have one of the best wide receiving units in the country? ND’s second game against Michigan will be tough, but by the second half Notre Dame should have control of the game. Michigan still has an undersized defensive line, and if you seen their spring game each defense gave up at least 40 points to their sub-par offense who in some respects have talent at the quarterback and receiver positions, as well as the O-line. Coming into East Lansing 2-0 the Irish will get beat by a small margin and become 2-1. I think the Spartan revenge will be too much to handle up at Spartan Stadium, especially with the hostile State fans who always are up for brawl. I see Dane Crist passing for over 300 yards and throwing for 3 TD’s with 2 INT’s. Kirk Cousins and Larry Caper each had the Irish in the last minute, and I think the Spartan team is gonna want the win more.

  9. Aaron - Aug 23, 2010 at 1:55 PM

    Honestly, I have to agree with Anthony. I grew up and still am a huge Irish fan but I did my doctorate at MSU. I actually saw a few of the games from the stands at both places during the last 8 years. These games are always tough game and it is very emotional especially at MSU. I would say next to the UM v MSU game this is MSU’s biggest game. I think William Gholston will be a great linebacker and is MSU’s version of Manti Te’o. I definitely believe that MSU’s secondary is questionable but so is ND’s. I believe that ND comes out of the first three games 2-1 though I am always torn with this game. I don’t know if anyone else cheers as loud as I do in this area for either one of these teams but for this game I always agonize over it. Though it can’t happen anymore… Here’s to a tie!

  10. Eric - Aug 23, 2010 at 4:55 PM

    This is not a Charlie Weis coached team, no team will want to win more than the Irish this year after underperforming for 3 years straight. There is a new attitude in South Bend this year. And it’s to kick a** and take names. This team is going to be electric, you’ll find out quickly in 12 days when the season starts…

  11. #1irishfan - Aug 23, 2010 at 5:08 PM

    @Anthony; Revenge??? I’m not able to agree with that sentiment at all!! Floyd’s TD was good but overturned, and Golden’s leaping into the band… I would say cancel each other out and we still haven’t avenged the flag incident so revenge will remain on Irish eyes until further notice! The game should never have came to the last minute it was the Big Ten officiating that even kept it close. I know this is a new season and we have a very trim and fresh start so if you think Sparty wants this more you’ll be in for some thunder! GO IRISH!!!

  12. J - Aug 25, 2010 at 11:55 PM

    Haha, ZERO chance ND beats MSU. PERIOD.

  13. MSUlaxer27 - Aug 26, 2010 at 1:17 AM

    For the record:
    Johnny Adams was a medical red-shirt last year with a shoulder injury.

  14. witless chum - Aug 26, 2010 at 9:02 AM

    I feel pretty good about the game on paper, though my Spartan’s recent history of night games vs. ND in Spartan Stadium makes one want to rant. Yeah, #1irshfan, didn’t 2006 tear out the hearts of the whole MSU fanbase game count as revenge for the flag-planting? Especially since John L. Smith really hated Notre Dame and he’s currently enjoying his second career as a Louisville radio host.
    Pedantic notes:
    It’s Larry Caper, no s. Understandable, given that I’ve heard Mark Dantonio say it that way in a news conference. It’s Jerel (single r) Worthy and, yeah, Johnny Adams had a medical redshirt and also got time off to deal with a death in the family. Probably worth correcting. Mr. Chris L. Rucker (we also have a Chris D. Rucker) was the corner who missed the Alamo Bowl for being involved in the scuffle with the frat.

  15. MSUChris1992 - Aug 26, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    Although I disagree with your conclusion, thanks for brining the stats, it’s sadly missing in most of these conversations.
    The Conclusion
    With such a close game last year, the question from a Spartan fans perspective is, “Will the combination of playing the game in E.L. combined with the relative improvement of MSU vis-a-vis ND result in an MSU win.” And I think the answer is yes.
    I think Vegas often says that home field is worth 3 points. If that’s reasonable, then we’re back to even (33-30 last year) and it’s all about who got more better (yes, I recognize my grammatical mistake, but thought it was funny).
    Coaching – MSU – One could argue that Kelly’s success at Cinci was a Dantonio gift, but I’ll leave that for another thread. Kelly will be better than Weis, but the first year after the change is frought with learning curves and other challenges that make me believe that for 2010 the transition will be a push. Dantonio is now in his fourth year, with more of his own players and program in place, if they don’t get measurably better this year, it’s Dantonio’s failure. I believe they will, I think he’s a very good coach, not great, but very good. Yes it’s an if, but if that pass to Caper is a little lower we’re talking about Dantonio’s brilliant gutsy special teams call that won the game.
    Offense – MSU – Ok, I’m not an expert on the ND offense, but relatively inexperienced QB’s on the road in night games early in the year? ND has had a top 5 recruiting class every year for the past 2,300 (Jesus was a crazy wide out and DB) and they have still lost games. 5 stars don’t always translate into wins. MSU is deep and solid at all the skilled positions and good enough on the line. MSU’s quality TE’s, ability to run, pass and execute a few trick plays with Keith Nichols (former QB now reciever) will keep the defense guessing and help the O Line. If we avoid OL injuries through this game, they’ll be good enough.
    Defense – Push – MSU’s secondary is still weak (although they should be better than last year), but will an inexperienced QB really be able to cut them up? MSU’s DB’s got beat last year by a bunch of guys who are now in the NFL or are considered some of the best QB’s in college football. Do you have one of those in Crist? MSU’s D Line is solid and the pass rush may be substantially better if Gholston gets moved to DE because we have one of the best LB corps in the nation.
    Points Allowed by the Defense
    20+ 30+
    ND 3 6
    MSU 2 5

  16. MSUChris1992 - Aug 26, 2010 at 10:08 AM

    Formatting goof.
    Last year ND had 6 games where they gave up 30 or more, MSU 5*.
    Last year ND had 3 more games where they gave up 20 or more, MSU 2.
    My point is that everyone talks about MSUs D getting torched, and it did, but we had 2 more regular season games with under 20 points allowed than you.
    *MSU gave up 41 in the Alamo Bowl.

  17. GoGreenMSU2011 - Aug 26, 2010 at 12:34 PM

    Victory for MSU

  18. Green Steve - Aug 26, 2010 at 4:42 PM

    ND is my favorite rival. I live in the SF Bay Area and even here UM attitude is the object of disgust and derision, while I’m been 99% delighted in my conversations with ND fans. Maybe TD Jesus does help moderate the most sadistic practices held sacred in Ann Arbor. And, Detroit is crawling with booger-picking Wal-Mart UM Homers who can’t conjugate the present tense of the verb “to read.” Compliments on the civility I’ve experienced between us (and please don’t correct me if I’m wrong).
    I think both school have gone through a monumental upgrade in coaching; ours were inept starting the year after Saban left and until Dantonio. Kelly will improve ND in an enviroment where all Big Ten teams are making rapid improvement, which will accelerate with the addition of Nebraska. State will be better this year, possibly a lot better, because we’re not patching much of John L Smith’s ineptitude anymore and Dantonio’s system is moving from the learning curve into “body memory” on the backs of good talent.
    To me it seems Coach Kelly is the wild card. MSU passed on him because he would always have been looking over our shoulder for a glamour job. Dantonio is not a glamour guy, but rather the embodiment of state of Michigan blue-collar decency (raised in Ohio, nonentheless). He’s not visiting East Lansing, he IS East Lansing. Who’s the winner between us in the next few years comes down to which coach lifts their program the fastest. With MSU coming on really fast in recruiting, the playing field has gotten much more level. This is going to be fun! Good luck in your other games.

  19. MC - Aug 27, 2010 at 10:39 AM

    I know it is only a few ND fans that said so, but how in the world does anybody predict a blowout in this game? I am a State fan who thinks we will win, but I’m not dumb enough to think this game will be decided by even double digits, let alone 24 or 21 points (two post above). This rivalry is NEVER a blowout. Our 23-7 win a few years back is the biggest margin of victory I can remember recently and that was just because ND was in the middle of their extremely forgettable season. Both teams should have potent offenses and questionable defenses. Our defense tends to step it up in night games at Spartan Stadium (see Iowa last year), and I think that will be the difference. We will be more pumped up, hitting harder and force an extra turnover or two and that will be the difference. Kirk Cousins has been thinking about this game since his dreadful int last year (we were well within fg range to tie that game and send it to OT at the worst), and he will not let MSU lose it. Especially not at home, under the lights.
    MSU-31, ND-28 on a late MSU TD

  20. gond22 - Sep 2, 2010 at 2:34 PM

    I cant stand MSU. I cant stand their fans. But this is a great rivalry. Yes, the Spartans are a huge thorn in ND’s side (and my side). As much as I hope we demolish MSU just once from beginning to end…I know thats not gonna happen. So…I hope its just a great game in general…even greater if ND wins. Go Irish.

  21. Sparty84 - Sep 19, 2010 at 12:53 AM

    Some of the MSU fans and alumni can’t stand Notre Dame and it’s fans either. 😉 I’m just glad that when we had Nick Saban, he started the trend of MSU winning some games against the Irish. It was very painful to lose so many games during most of the Lou Holtz regime.
    BTW, you do have a very beautiful church there, The Basilica of the Sacred Heart. I’ve been there for a friend’s wedding. You’re stadium’s not bad either.

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