And in that corner… the Michigan State Spartans

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Looking to catch a good football game? Your best bet is to buy a ticket to Notre Dame vs. Michigan State, because this series usually guarantees something dramatic is going to happen, and for some reason the ticket is never as in demand as other Irish rivalries.

Last year’s high-wire escape win for the Irish pretty much encapsulated the last decade of games with the Spartans. Both teams had a chance to win, both nearly gave it away, and this time — the Irish walked away with the victory.

As we did last year, we caught up with LVS of the Spartan blog The Only Colors, who has been paying plenty of attention to Mark Dantonio’s troops in their two opening victories against Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic. He was kind enough to give us all a scouting report, something Irish fans will need as they shake off the hangover from a tough loss last week.

(I also crossed the tracks and answered some questions for him on the Irish, so if you’re interested, give that a read as well.)

Inside the Irish: Assess the Spartans’
season so far. Two wins against underwhelming competition and an offense that
seems to have transitioned to a ground attack. Has anything surprised you after
two weeks?

LVS: The main surprise for me has been the running game.  I expected that MSU would run the ball better
than last season, but the results so far have been above and beyond what even
the most optimistic Spartan fan could have hoped for.  The offensive line is blocking very well, and
Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell have looked superb.  A third option at running back, Larry Caper,
will be making his season debut this weekend, and should make a good situation
better.  Caper was MSU’s best running
back for most of last season, and yet, amazingly, it seems that he’ll be
struggling for carries simply because Baker and Bell have been so good.

 Unfortunately, while the rushing attack has emerged, the
passing game–which, as you implied, was the strength of the entire team last
year–has struggled.  In the first game,
those struggles were at least partially a result of drops.  (5, by my count.)  But that wasn’t the case last week, when Kirk
Cousins was relatively inaccurate, and threw a really poor interception from Florida Atlantic’s 1-yard line.  I’m convinced that
the passing game is going to come around; Cousins proved how good he was last
season, and we still have a horde of talented receivers.  Personally, I think Cousins is going to be
motivated by how this game ended last year, and put together a good performance
on Saturday night.

Earlier in the year,
you guys ranked the ND game as the 4th toughest on your schedule, and thought
ND’s chances hinged on Brian Kelly. Still feel the same way?

Having now seen the messiah-like substance that is Denard
Robinson, I might be inclined to put our game in Ann Arbor ahead of Saturday’s
game, in terms of difficulty.  But, yeah,
I’ve seen both of the Irish games so far, and they seem to be roughly what I
thought they’d be: a talented group that occasionally makes mistakes due to
inexperience.  With that in mind, I’m
glad we’re playing early in the season, and happier still that this will be ND’s
first road game.

I think that Brian Kelly was a very good hire and will
probably have a lot of success in South Bend. 
It’s simply a question of how quickly that success will come.  After beating a Purdue team that looks worse
than advertised, and losing to a Michigan team which is probably good but not
great, I think it’s too early to tell if ND’s big jump will come this
season.  I’d guess that it’ll take at
least another year or so, but this weekend could reveal a lot about that.

Last year you called Blair White’s
breakout game. Anyone you see having a dynamic day this Saturday night?

I’ll choose Edwin Baker; while he’s been great the past two
weeks, playing like that in front of a national TV audience would be a truer
breakout.  Anyway, he’s a powerful runner
who nonetheless has the speed to get to the outside.  And if he gets to the outside, given the
problems ND’s had at OLB, he could very well turn those runs into big gains.  MSU’s offensive line has been outstanding so
far, and if they can give Baker some lanes, he’ll take them.

 I’ll also hedge a bit by nominating Keshawn Martin as well.  He’s an incredible punt returner, and, if ND
kicks to him, I think he’ll do a lot of damage. 
You might see him gain big chunks on end-arounds or trap handoffs, too. 

It’s the first road game of the year for
the Irish. How difficult of an atmosphere will it be to play in this year?

Spartan Stadium gets particularly loud and nasty during
night games, and this Saturday won’t be any different.  Our stadium isn’t the biggest one in the
world (although at 75,000+ capacity, it’s certainly not tiny), but the
double-deck design traps sound and makes for a particularly loud
atmosphere.  I’m sure the Irish players
are expecting a hostile atmosphere, and they’ll get it.


Last year’s team seemed to get away from
the traditional Spartan offensive attack, and the first two games seem like MSU
is trying to turn the offense into a physical football team. What can Irish
fans expect from head coach Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on defense?

You can expect a defensive line that’s solid against the run
and middling in pass rush, one of the best linebacking corps in the country,
and a secondary that’s better than it was last year, but is still probably
sub-par.

 Briefly: Colin Neely had an excellent game at defensive end
last week, and Jerel Worthy is a very solid defensive tackle.  You may see a bit of William Gholston at
defensive end.  He was one of the top
defensive recruits in the country last year; he’s 6’7″, strong, very quick, and
has looked excellent in limited playing time so far this year.  I have a feeling that the coaching staff
might take the wraps off him on Saturday.

 Greg Jones leads the linebackers, and is quite simply one of
the best defensive players in college football. 
Eric Gordon and Chris Norman are the outside linebackers and they aren’t
bad, either.  As a group, they’re
excellent against the run and are deadly on the blitz.  They’re weaker in pass coverage, and I fear
that Kyle Rudolph may be able to exploit them.

 The secondary was a trainwreck of unbelievable proportions
last year, and pass defense (or really lack thereof) destroyed MSU’s season.  I think they’re better this year.  Chris L. Rucker is still vulnerable, but
Johnny Adams has looked fairly good at the other corner, and the safeties
(Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde) have made some nice pass breakups.  That’s not to say that Notre Dame won’t have
success throwing the ball, but I feel better about the secondary than I did
last year.

 The coaching staff has used a very, very basic 4-3 in the
first two games, with very few blitzes and no exotic stuff.  I suspect that we’ll see more variation
against ND; the talk all through the off-season was about how MSU will play a
lot of 3-4 this year.  We haven’t seen
that yet, but this could very well be the week.

Obviously, Notre Dame won a close one
last year. The past eight years of this game have been filled with tight games,
tough defeats for both squads, and a growing intensity to the rivalry. Where
does this game stand for Michigan State?

Firmly behind the Michigan game in the Spartan
consciousness, but very important nonetheless. 
It’s Notre Dame, so whether the game is home or away, it’s a nationally
televised game and a headline-grabber. 
If the 2006 meltdown had come against almost any other team, people
would have forgotten about it after a few weeks.  But it was against Notre Dame, so everyone
remembers.  (Mike Valenti didn’t help in
that regard.  Thanks a lot, pal.)  Each year there are conference games that
mean more to me than this one; for instance, this year the Iowa and Wisconsin
games will be huge.  But this one is always near the top.  The fact that they’ve been very, very good
games in recent years (and also that we’ve won plenty of them) certainly doesn’t
hurt.

What’s your gut feeling for Saturday
night?

I’m usually pretty manic-depressive about predicting MSU
games, so the fact that I’m reasonably optimistic about this one disturbs me
some.  I love the way we’ve run the ball
so far, I think that Kirk Cousins will be highly motivated to atone for his
interception last season, and while I don’t think our defense is going to
dominate Notre Dame, I certainly don’t think they’ll be steamrolled,
either.  It’s always risky to count on a
quarterback playing well in his first road start, and I think we’ll have some
success blitzing Crist and rattling him. 
There are plenty of ways MSU could lose this game: Michael Floyd could
go off, as could Kyle Rudolph (and the latter is more likely, in my opinion), we
could turn the ball over a ton, we could have horrific defensive breakdowns,
and so on.

 But I think the first two games have been perfect for MSU:
challenging enough to keep the team interested, but not challenging enough to
force the coaches to open up the playbook or for the players to be tired/banged
up heading into this game.  Furthermore, playing
this game in East Lansing will make a difference.  From the beginning of spring practice, there’s
been a terrific vibe surrounding this MSU team; they’re talented and ready, and
I think they’ll pass their first big test of the year.  30-24 MSU, or something like that.

    

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
Getty
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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