Pregame Twelve Pack: Michigan State edition


Round three of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits,
leftovers, or miscellaneous musings as we head into the Michigan State

1. Charlie Weis may have been a Bon Jovi guy, but Brian Kelly is a Van Halen man.

While the real news should be that defensive line/special teams coach Mike Elston has been released from the hospital, Brian Kelly gave everybody a snap-back to the 80s moment by comparing Elston’s return to the band dynamics of Van Halen.

“Van Halen was just OK with Sammy Hagar,” Kelly said. “David Lee Roth was still what
made Van Halen. So we had Sammy Hagar in this week. Wasn’t too bad. But
David Lee Roth is back. He’s the rock star around here.”

Not sure Kelly would be wise to start playing “Running With the Devil” at the LaBar practice fields, but as one reporter pointed out, it might have been the first Van Halen reference by a football coach in Notre Dame history.

Elston received a standing ovation from the team when he returned to The Gug this afternoon. He’ll be joining the team in East Lansing, but won’t do so in a coaching capacity, with Lorenzo Guess filling in at tight ends coach and Mike Denbrock shifting down to defensive line while also spear-heading the special teams.

2. Dan McCarthy returns as the safety position slowly heals itself.

Last week we took the time machine back to November of 2007 to find out more about walk-on safety Chris Salvi, who was suddenly thrust into the two-deep at safety with injuries to both Dan McCarthy and Jamoris Slaughter. This week it looks like we’ll finally see the younger McCarthy brother roaming the secondary.

“McCarthy moved around pretty good today. He’s a go,” Kelly said. “Slaughter is
probably emergency backup. That’s the way it looked today. He got, for
the first time, McCarthy, real reps in seven-on-seven. And I know our guys were
excited in practice that he’s ready to go.”

Kelly described McCarthy’s injury as a soft-tissue problem that’s befuddled the Irish training staff as they’ve tried to find a solution. It’ll be interesting to finally see Dan McCarthy in the secondary. He clocked only one minute of playing time last year and made 15 special teams appearances, but all reports had McCarthy as an elite high school athlete and a guy who has all the tools to be a playmaking safety. Getting on the field was the first step, and with Slaughter injured and only three scholarship safeties available, this could be the breakout game needed for Dan to make his mark.

3. They will be battling for the Megaphone Trophy.

While many people don’t associate Michigan State as a true rivalry, the Irish and Spartans will be battling for the cherished Megaphone Trophy, a keepsake that has been sponsored jointly by the school’s alumni clubs in Detroit since 1949.

The megaphone is half-blue with a gold ND monogram on it and half white with a green MSC for Michigan State. Every game since 1949’s score is printed on the Megaphone, with the winning team holding onto the trophy for the year.

After 36 consecutive years of playing for the Megaphone, the Irish took a two year break in 1995 and 1996. The next interruption is scheduled for 2014 and 2015.

4. Playing under the lights is a rare occurrence in Spartan Stadium.

There have only been nine night games in the 87-year history of Spartan Stadium, and the Irish have been a part of three of them. Notre Dame holds a 2-1 record at night against Michigan State. Here’s a recap of the three primetime face-offs:

September 9, 1998: MSU 45, No. 10 ND 23 — After springing the upset on the defending national champs in Michigan, the Irish got drilled by Nick Saban’s Spartans, who had a staggering 42-3 lead at half before cruising to a 45-23 victory. “I’m embarrassed, this football team’s embarrassed,” head coach Bob Davie said. “There’s
not going to be a whole lot of talk about it. I think we came in here expecting
to play well and we didn’t. We had no chance because of our execution.”

September 18, 2004: ND 31, MSU 24 — The Fighting Irish defense forced six turnovers and Brady Quinn threw and ran for a touchdown. Tommy Zbikowski’s fumble strip and return for touchdown and Matt Shelton’s 123 yards on three catches helped pace the Irish win. “When we come into the team meeting and look at the film, we’re going to be very ill,” Michigan State coach John L. Smith said.

September 23, 2006: ND 40, MSU 37 — Cornerback Terrail Lambert’s interception return for a touchdown capped off a miraculous rally to help the 12th-ranked Irish escape with a narrow victory. The Irish trailed 37-21 halfway into the fourth quarter when they stormed back in a driving rainstorm. Brady Quinn threw for five touchdowns and Jeff Samardzija had two of them as Notre Dame mounted an epic comeback. “I think at halftime the guys realized the season was starting to fall away for us… It was basically ‘Hey fellas, what’s it gonna be? Are we going to be a bunch of also-rans or are we going to come out here and give it a chance to win the game?” Charlie Weis said after.

5. The new kids are alright.

Asked this afternoon about the first-year starters that were performing well, Kelly pointed out a few players that just two weeks ago were some of the biggest concerns on the team.

“After two weeks, taking both games into account, there’s a couple
players I would point out. Defensively, I’d say Carlo Calabrese – very
little experience coming in, has played consistent for two weeks in a row,” Kelly said.
“Offensively, I’d say Zack Martin – very little experience, but at the
left tackle position has done a really nice job. You could throw TJ
(Jones) in there, I think you could make the case for Taylor Dever. I
think our tackles, as first-time starters, have done a really nice job.”

The fact that we haven’t noticed Zack Martin is one of the best compliments I could give the rookie left tackle. There’s a very good chance that in three years Martin is one of those Irish players that is getting talked about weekly by guys like Mel Kiper and Todd McShay.

6. Want to beat Michigan State? Better stop the running game.

While the wins that the Spartans have put up haven’t been all that impressive, the way the running backs are putting up numbers has been pretty eye-popping. Both Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker are averaging over 9 yards per carry, with Baker running for 300 yards and 3 TDs in just two games and Bell pounding his way for 190 yards on only 20 carries. That’s all been done without presumed starter Larry Caper, who is returning from injury this week. Kelly knows it’ll be a test for his defense.

“We’ll know where we are defensively against the run, because we’re going
to get challenged,” Kelly said. “In the 3-4 defense, they’re going to run right at
us. We’ll find out a lot about ourselves after this weekend relative to
the running game.”

Baker is the defending CFPA National Running Back of the Week after dicing the Florida Atlantic defense for 183 yards last week. For the Irish to win, the defense will rely on the front of Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore to step up their game.

7. It wasn’t all negative for Bob Diaco’s defense last week.

Adding to the legend of Denard Robinson wasn’t in anybody’s plans on the Notre Dame sideline last weekend, but there were plenty of positives to take out of the defensive performance, even if they did give up 502 total yards of offense to the Wolverines’ quarterback.

The Irish defense was able to force 10 punts last weekend against Michigan, the most by an Irish opponent since Rutgers punted 10 times in 2002. Michigan was only 3-for-16 on 3rd down, and the Irish forced five three-and-outs. Final stat that’ll have Irish fans kicking themselves: The Irish held Michigan scoreless for 31:24 from the second quarter until the game’s final drive.

“If we make a stop against Michigan, all that would be talked about was the 32, 33 minutes of shutting out Denard Robinson,” Kelly said.

8. The defense might not have closed, but the coaching staff did on the recruiting trail.

David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross gave us the immortal line, “Coffee is for closers.” Well, there’s no coffee in the defensive team meeting room, but there should be in the coaches lounge. Recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin and personnel man Dave Peloquin certainly did their jobs off the field this weekend with the commitments of Stephon Tuitt, and George and Josh Atkinson. Defensive line coach Mike Elston handles Georgia for the Irish, so Tuitt is likely the fruits of his labor, especially coaching the position that Tuitt plays. As for the Atkinsons, credit needs to go to tight ends coach Mike Denbrock, who pulled the brothers out of California, always a victory when you’re recruiting against coaches like Lane Kiffin, Rick Neuheisel, Chip Kelly, and Steve Sarkisian.

With 19 recruits committed after just the second week of the season, expect the coaching staff to swing for the fences with their final few spots and start targeting some high-profile juniors for next season.

Just to put an issue to rest, it’s pretty certain that Brian Kelly and his coaching staff will be able to recruit just fine at Notre Dame.

9. Irish win the tale of the tape against the Spartans

Here’s an interesting comparison of the two rosters breaking down the heights and weights of the starters by position groupings.


                                                                  Michigan State          Notre Dame
       Offensive Line & Tight End                 6-5, 293                    6-5, 300
       Offensive Backs & Wide Receivers    6-1, 214                    6-1, 210
       Defensive Line                                    6-4, 277                    6-3, 291
       Linebackers                                        6-1, 231                    6-2, 244
       Defensive Backs                                 6-0, 191                    6-0, 197

The Irish have a pretty distinct advantage on the front line, as well as against the undersized Michigan State linebacking corp, so it’ll be interesting to see if Notre Dame tries to pound the ball themselves.

10. Armando Allen has a shot at going down in the Notre Dame record books.

The first two games of the season have shown Irish fans a new and improved version of Armando Allen. And it’s that new running back that’ll likely go down in the school’s record books as one of the most versatile backs in Notre Dame history.

Right now, Allen sits at 8th on the all-time list for most career all-purpose yards for Irish running backs. He trails Julius Jones by nearly 1,600 yards so getting to the top of the charts might not be doable for Allen, but making his mark as the top receiving back very well could be. Armando only needs 433 receiving yards to pass Joseph Heap as the yardage leader for running backs, and only needs five catches to pass Darius Walker as the running back with the most catches in Irish history. He’s got a chance to pass Walker on Saturday, and should be able to pass Heap with a great season.

11. Common ground at Cincinnati doesn’t give either coach an upper-hand.

You’d think that Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio’s paths would have crossed somewhere along the line, especially considering that Kelly succeeded Dantonio at Cincinnati. But according to Dantonio, there’s not much of a connection between the two coaches.

“I don’t really know him that well,” Dantonio said of Kelly. “I really don’t know him. I know of him, I know his reputation, I know he’s a great football coach, but as far as the Cincinnati thing, to me it’s sort of a non-issue. The fact that he went to Cincinnati and was able to win championships there, to me, he helped make the dreams come true for some of the players I recruited.

“When we recruited some of those players, we were just entering the Big
East, we were just getting new facilities. We recruited them with the
idea that they could do something special. The fact that they were able
to recognize that dream, and [Kelly] had a part of doing that, I think
is a huge statement for what he did for that program and what he did for
those young people. So I applaud him for that.”

12. If you’re looking for a showcase position, look no further than middle linebacker.

Most Irish fans are familiar with the exploits and potential of Manti Te’o. But if you’re looking for the class of the football field at middle linebacker, check the opposing defensive huddle. The Irish might not play a finer defensive football player this season than the Spartan’s Greg Jones, the reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year, and a returning first-team All-American. Jones has started 35 games for the Spartans, ranks second among all active players in college football with 379 career tackles, and was named to the preseason watch list of six major national awards.

Last season against the Irish, Jones had nine tackles, a total that’d rank among the top performances for Irish players this year, but a game that ranked as one of his least productive over the last two seasons.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.