Counting down the Irish: 20-16

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This is the second installment of “Counting down the Irish,” our annual ranking of the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. Click here for our ratings of players 25-21.

If you’re looking for a grouping high on expectations, look no further than numbers 20-16 on our list. Youth is served with four true sophomores checking in, as TJ Jones, Louis Nix, Tommy Rees and Prince Shembo join senior Braxston Cave in the rankings.

Of the first ten players listed, only fifth-year senior Taylor Dever is playing his final year of eligibility. Cave is a senior, but has a fifth-year available to him. After a freshman season spent working his way into playing shape, Louis Nix checks in at No. 19, a lofty spot for a guy that’s largest accomplishment in South Bend has been successfully self-coining the nickname “Irish Chocolate.”

Interestingly enough, players 25-21 had three returning starters and Chris Watt, who likely assumes Chris Stewart’s vacant spot. Players 20-16 only have one guy assured of a starting job come USF. Jones is still battling for a starting spot, Nix will likely split snaps with Sean Cwynar, while Prince Shembo enters fall camp neck-and-neck with fellow sophomore Danny Spond. As for Tommy Rees, an undefeated freshman campaign still has him in a four-man quarterbacking race that’ll be the talk of preseason camp.

Once again, here is our esteemed group of panelists:

Frank Vitovitch of UHND.com
DomerMQ of HerLoyalSons.com
Eric Murtaugh of OneFootDown.com
Matt Mattare of WeNeverGradute.com
Matt & CW of RakesofMallow.com

RANKINGS

20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.): Jones burst onto the scene at Notre Dame, wowing the coaching staff in spring practice after enrolling early and then becoming the first freshman to catch touchdowns in his first two games.  After making five catches against both Navy and Tulsa, Jones was hobbled by injuries for the rest of the season, making only one catch after October 30. He’ll likely start his sophomore season as the leading candidate to start opposite Michael Floyd.

Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times).

19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.): The gigantic sophomore is a little less gigantic after spending his freshman season working on his conditioning and weight — a number that ballooned upwards of 360 pounds. Notre Dame hasn’t had a defensive tackle built like Nix in recent memory. What that translates to on the field is anyone’s guess.

Highest ranking: 11th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (once).

18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.): Cave was locked in a tight battle for the starting center job when Dan Wenger suffered a preseason concussion last August, an injury that ended his Notre Dame career, but opened the door for Cave. Learning on the job, the South Bend native got better as the year progressed, and Brian Kelly named Cave one of the team’s best players in spring practice. Cave was named to the Rimington Trophy’s watch list this preseason.

Highest ranking: 12th. Lowest ranking: 23rd.

17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.): Tommy Rees came a long way in 2010. After throwing an interception on his first series against Michigan and looking lost at sea, Rees led the Irish to an impressive drive during some mop-up work against Navy, then powered the Irish to a 4-0 finish after Dayne Crist got hurt against Tulsa. The sophomore won’t wow you physically, but his comfort in Kelly’s spread offense is obvious.

Highest ranking: 9th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times).

16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.): As a freshman, Prince Shembo only made nine tackles, but over half of them were behind the line of scrimmage. Working into the linebacker rotation, Shembo finished third on the team with 4.5 sacks, including two against Boston College. After playing mostly as a pass-rush specialist, Shembo and Danny Spond will battle for the drop linebacker job, with Shembo adding a pass-rush element to the position that neither Kerry Neal nor Brian Smith possessed.

Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (once).

ANALYSIS

After looking at players 20-16, here are a few questions that I posed the group. I’ve highlighted a few answers that I found interesting.

 

TJ Jones burst onto the scene early in the year before coming back down to earth. What are realistic expectations for Jones as a sophomore?

Frank @UHND — I think Jones will improve quite a bit in his second season and will greatly benefit from a healthy Theo Riddick taking attention away from him.  As a third receiver, Jones is match up problem for a safety because of his speed.  I expect more consistent performances out of Jones as a sophomore too.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Jones got banged up big time last fall which is why he spiraled into oblivion as the season progressed. He’s got the tools to be a very good receiver, he’s just not a big guy so he needs to find a way to overcome the weekly grind of D-I college football. My gut says this isn’t going to be the year he breaks out (that will be next year), so the expectation level should be around 35 catches for 500 yards and a couple touchdowns.

We’ve never seen Louis Nix in a game, but he’s obviously expected to do big things. Who spends more time on the field this season: Nix or Sean Cwynar?

Matt @WeNeverGraduate —  I saw Big Lou on the field in the spring game. You couldn’t miss him–he was the dumptruck planted between the hashes on defense. While Nix is going to play a huge role in the defense, his workload will be curbed to keep him as fresh as possible. Ultimately that will mean Cwynar sees more total snaps.

Eric @OneFootDown — Ultimately I think Nix will spend more time on the field. Stamina aside, I think he will prove to be far too talented to not be playing just a little more snaps than Cwynar (who has his own problems coming off injury). I’m thinking that even a tired Nix at 80% is better than the rest of our options at nose tackle…he may be just that good.

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Cwynar. Far be it from me to make any sort of statements about the merit’s of Kelly’s offensive system and the effects experienced as a result by the defense, but ND faced 905 plays last year – nearly 70 snaps/game – as a defense. Nix is a special beast, but if he were a mythical beast, I think the underdog human trying to defeat him would seek to wear him out.

Brian Kelly cited Braxston Cave’s learning curve as one of the reasons why the offense didn’t move at the pace it wanted to last year. Is Cave ready to play at a level befitting the growing expectations?

Frank @UHND — Year two in Kelly’s system and more familiarity with the player he’s snapping too should allow Cave to improve in his final season.  I think Cave might still be a little limited in the offense because he’s more of a power lineman than an athletic one, but I do think he’ll be more comfortable with the pace this season.

Eric @OneFootDown — I believe Cave is ready and all indications are that he’s ready to have a big year. While he didn’t have a great year in 2010, I thought he played a lot better than most people give him credit for. I love his physicality and I believe he has good chemistry with the hopeful starter, Dayne Crist.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — I thought Cave made a lot of solid progress over the course of the year, but I still want to see him use his absurd strength more effectively. He’s one of the strongest guys on the entire team (if not the strongest), but he just doesn’t maul defenders like he should. Maybe that was because he was hesitant as a first year starter in a new offense? I don’t know.

Over/Under: Tommy Rees will start four games for the Irish. What’s your Over/Under for TD/INT for Rees as a sophomore?

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Under. It’s a dangerous choice because basically I’m gambling on whether Crist’s knees will hold up, but I’m in an optimistic mood today so I’ll roll with the Great Dayne. Rees is the perfect back-up, I just don’t think his ceiling is nearly as high as any of the other quarterbacks on the roster. I’ll put the over/under for TD’s/INT’s at 8 and 4. Rees will see the field, it just won’t be often.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — Over. Dayne’s a better athlete, but I’d put money on him getting injured again this season. That said I’d set the over/under for Rees’ TD/INT ratio at 2.5 because he’s a natural fit in this offense.

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — I’ll put Rees as starting 6 games for the o/u. And we’ll call it 12 TDs and 7 INTs in 6 games. That would actually put him right on pace with his ~6 games of PT last year, but 1 INT better. I think the bigger question to his (and ND’s success), is can he improve on his completion % and yards/attempt? In 2010, he finished at ~61% and just 6.7 YPA. In Kelly’s system, he either needs to bump his completion % significantly, or manage a healthier YPA to keep the job.

How confident are you in Prince Shembo’s move from pass-rushing specialist to drop linebacker?

Frank @UHND — There will be growing pains, but Shembo is an animal on the field so any hiccups from Shembo will be more than made up for with the big plays he’ll make.  I think we’ll see Shembo get caught out of position in coverage from time to time, but I think we’ll see him in opposing backfields much more frequently.

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Tough question. He’s obviously explosive, so he’s got an ability to move quickly, but so much of being an effective pass defender is about range – both in lateral motion and wing-span. At 6’2″ and 250lbs, it’s hard to picture him being “rangy.” Still, what he showed he could do on the field last year leaves me feeling comfortable that he’ll at least be serviceable at the position.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — Shembo and Fleming have very similar pass-rushing abilities. I don’t think Shembo’s a natural fit at drop-linebacker and I could see him and Fleming playing both drop and rush during a game. It may be preferable to have two guys who can play both positions on the field together. If there’s one position group I’m really excited to watch this fall, it’s the linebackers. Te’o, Calabrese, Shembo, Fleming starting; Filer, Ishaq, Fox, Moore, Spond, oh the vapors . . . [passes out].

MY THOUGHTS

I’m one of the people that kept TJ Jones and Tommy Rees out of my top 25 lists. I really like both guys as football players — especially Rees — I’m just not sure they’re going to have the production needed to make this list. Rees’ career at ND is going to be a very interesting one to watch. He could become a great college quarterback and a true “winner,” or he could be the next Matt LoVecchio. My question with Jones is whether he’s physical enough to endure a full season or explosive enough to become a true playmaker. I was impressed by his hands and how smooth he was, but playing on the outside is a tougher job than lining up in the slot.

Prince Shembo’s transition to the drop linebacker position may be one of the most important on the roster. The fact that both Spond and Shembo acquitted themselves so well in the spring that Kelly named them the only two candidates for the Dog linebacker job is quite a gamble, as there are less than a dozen tackles between the sophomores. Both are great athletes, and Shembo gives Bob Diaco his best opportunity to present opposing defenses with a defense that actually looks like a mirror image, with both Shembo and Darius Fleming dangerous pass rushers.

Braxston Cave and Louis Nix are two guys on the “show me” team. While I expect they’ll both have successful seasons, I’m not ready to anoint either as impact players just yet.

 

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)

And in That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season

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Michigan State has yet to be tested this season. Certainly, the Spartans have not seen a test the likes of Notre Dame, no matter what one’s view of the Irish may be. To get a better idea of who Notre Dame will face Saturday night, let’s turn to Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press.

Chris, I appreciate you taking the time to educate us here at “Inside the Irish.” First off, how long have you been covering the Spartans for the Free Press?
I have been with the Detroit Free Press since last August, but I spent the previous 10 years following Michigan State for the Lansing State Journal and have been covering the Spartans off and on since 1994 when I was attending MSU.

It is somewhat remarkable how closely Notre Dame and Michigan State have paralleled each other over the last 13 months. Two miserable seasons followed by interminable offseasons, and now hopes of strong returns to success, though yet somewhat unfounded. At least, that is the mood around the Irish. Is it something similar up in East Lansing?
MSU’s situation goes beyond the 3-9 season last year, along with having four players dismissed for their involvements in two separate sexual assault cases and nine others having left the program. The optimism from the 2-0 start is very much tempered based on beating two Mid-American Conference opponents, but fans are warming to the improved efforts on offense and defense. However, coaches and fans alike know this is a young team with a lot of questions remaining to be answered.

I don’t know that the Spartans have realistic College Football Playoff hopes this year, but playing spoiler in the Big Ten certainly seems a possibility, especially with games at Michigan and Ohio State and home against Penn State. (Lucky to dodge the Boilermakers offensive powerhouse this year.) Where does facing Notre Dame fall in a macro view up there?
The next three games against ND, Iowa and Michigan will go a long way to determining both the Spartans’ identity and the course of their season. The game with the Irish really is the start of that trilogy after playing two up-tempo teams. It’s the first traditional, line-em-up, smashmouth game — in primetime on national television, no less — for a team with 19 true and redshirt freshmen playing.

It’s a young but talented collective, and MSU has shown surprising depth despite the aforementioned attrition. This week’s game will show just how deep the rotation will be going into those first two Big Ten games. All that said, after last season’s swoon, the young Spartans know they cannot be looking two or three opponents ahead.

Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke, left, and coach Mark Dantonio react following Lewerke’s 61-yard touchdown against Western Michigan in the Spartans’ season opener. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke saw some work last year, but has become the offensive leader only this season. Through two games, he has rushed for 150 yards and thrown for 411. Has his dual-weapon effectiveness been a result of Michigan State’s MAC-filled schedule so far, or is that kind of playmaking something Irish fans should expect to see this weekend?
Lewerke showed his legs last year at Maryland with 79 rushing yards and against Michigan with a 24-yard run, so it’s a significant part of his arsenal. He runs the read-option better than his predecessors, but MSU needs more from his arm to maintain its successful start. Brian Kelly knows this and, like I expect the Spartans to do with Brandon Wimbush, will attempt to make Lewerke show he can hit throws downfield and make wise decisions when he takes shots deep. He hasn’t shown great accuracy on long passes yet early in his career, but he has a strong arm (as Wimbush does) and is not afraid to take chances and be a “gunslinger” QB.

Maybe I am being presumptuous, but I would have expected junior running back LJ Scott to be the engine behind the Spartans offense. Averaging 5.4 yards per carry and gaining 994 yards in a dismal team campaign catches my attention like that. As Lewerke emerges, is there any chance Scott continues to be the secondary piece or is his assertion something of an inevitability?

Michigan State running back LJ Scott (3) stretches over the goal line for a touchdown against Western Michigan, Scott’s only rushing score thus far this season. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Take out Scott’s 44-yard run on fourth-and-1 against Western Michigan, and he’s averaging 2.5 yards on 32 other carries this season. He had two fumbles in the opener against Bowling Green, and he’s coming off multiple shoulder surgeries in the offseason that were meant to correct a “numbness” he said he would feel when he gets hit that goes all the way back to high school. Of the three running backs, all of whom have been featured at times the past three seasons, Scott provides the most versatility in running styles and ability to catch passes (including a touchdown catch on a wheel route against the Broncos). The staff remained committed to giving him the ball after his fumbling issue in the opener, but Gerald Holmes also showed last year at Notre Dame he can be the bell cow if Michigan State wants him to shoulder the load of carries. Nonetheless, there’s no question the Spartans expect and want Scott to be their feature back.

In Michigan State’s nine losses last year, the defense allowed more than 32 points per game. That would be disappointing for any team, but even more so for a Mark Dantonio-led unit. Before looking at this year, what went wrong defensively a season ago?
First, start at the MSU-ND game a year ago. That’s when Riley Bullough first got injured and missed the first three of a seven-game skid. Then Jon Reschke, who shined against the Irish, got hurt against Wisconsin and missed the rest of the year before leaving the program in the offseason. Malik McDowell was on and off the field all season with one minor injury after another. Demetrious Cox battled leg issues, and then Vayante Copeland was lost for the season. Losing those veterans last year forced MSU to play a number of untested players, many of whom were not quite ready early in the year but improved with experience (showed against Ohio State). Beyond that, MSU managed just 11 sacks all last season with those injury issues and inexperience. The Spartans also struggled to get off the field on third downs and wore down in the second half. They were outscored 220-136 after intermission, including 120-59 in fourth quarters and overtime. That was the first time in Dantonio’s first 10 seasons MSU was outscored after halftime and just the second time the Spartans got outscored in the fourth quarter and overtime in his tenure.

How much of that has changed this year?
The depth through two games has been surprising, even with most of the offseason attrition coming on defense. MSU has rotated six defensive ends and four defensive tackles, and its flipped pairings at both safety and cornerback regularly. That has kept the front seven fresh and quick to stop the run and get more pressure in the backfield. The Spartans’ third-down package has changed to more of a three-man front, with redshirt freshman Brandon Randle and senior Demetrius Cooper the pass-rushing ends. They are first in the country in allowing just an 11 percent third down conversion rate.

A year ago, the Spartans limited Notre Dame to 68 rushing yards (sacks adjusted). These days, as made quite clear last weekend at Boston College, the Irish could not be much more reliant on the run. Presuming Michigan State can’t limit Notre Dame to sub-70 again, will it be able to still force Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to win via the pass?
Dantonio admitted that allowing a quarterback to run for 200-plus yards is a recipe for failure, so expect the Spartans to spy him throughout Saturday night. Linebacker Chris Frey called him a “capture” quarterback as opposed to one who the defense believes it can go for sacks, which means they likely will put more eyes in the box on Wimbush and force him to show more accuracy in the passing game. There could be chances for Wimbush as well. True freshman Josiah Scott has made an immediate impact at cornerback, though the Spartans’ young secondary has benefitted from opposing quarterbacks missing throws and receivers dropping passes when they’ve been burned in coverage. As Kelly showed in the 2013 game, Notre Dame believes it can move the chains by throwing the ball up against Michigan State when it plays press man coverage and simply hoping the Spartans get too handsy and are called for pass interference penalties.

What else am I missing? Who or what should Notre Dame fans be looking for this weekend?
It’s expected to be a hot night in mid-Michigan, which could affect the players and cause cramping. Honorary captain Kirk Gibson’s Ring of Honor ceremony for being elected to the College Football Hall of Fame will amp up the crowd. So, too, will the first game under the new permanent lights at Spartan Stadium — night games in East Lansing create a different intensity Notre Dame teams have survived (2006) and failed (2010) in front of. It’s also worth noting Michigan State has won 11 of the last 18 meetings in the series, and this could be the last time these two teams play again until 2026. Everyone up here is cognizant of those facts, especially Dantonio, who knows it might be his last game coaching against a Notre Dame team he followed as a kid growing up in Ohio.

It strikes me you keep as close an eye as I do on spreads and such. Certainly, those are only for evaluation purposes and no other endeavors. This game opened with Notre Dame favored by 4 or 4.5 points, depending where you looked. It has already fluctuated toward 3 and 3.5 before seeming to settle at 4. How do you see Saturday night playing out?
I expect this to be a close game like most of the Michigan State-Notre Dame games have been during the Dantonio-Kelly era. It very well could come down to which team executes best on special teams. Justin Yoon is experienced, while Spartans kicker Matt Coghlin has yet to attempt a field goal.

While we’re at it, can I get you to commit to a score prediction?
Notre Dame 27, Michigan State 24.