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Opponent preview: Michigan State

Aug 24, 2011, 7:40 PM EDT

Kelly Dantonio

This is the third of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. You can also read previews for South Florida and Michigan.

The Overview:

Those pesky Spartans became more than that last season, charging their way to a share of the Big Ten title by playing… let’s call it opportunistic football. Taking advantage of the fact that Michigan avoided Ohio State on the dance card while upsetting Wisconsin propelled the Spartans to an 8-0 start before being pounded by No. 18 Iowa. Finishing the regular season at 11-1, the Spartans likely felt jilted when the BCS didn’t call their name, but they were ultimately undressed by Alabama, when the Crimson Tide embarrassed MSU 49-7, an ugly black eye at the end of a sparkling season.

Were the 2010 Spartans more lucky than good? At this point, who cares. Mark Dantonio‘s team will once again be anchored by Kirk Cousins and a strong running trio in Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell and Larry Caper, 99 percent of last season’s rushing offense. B.J. Cunningham returns to lead the receiving corp, but the offense will only be as good as the linemen blocking for it, a unit still trying to find an identity. Defensively, Greg Jones is finally done terrorizing opposing offenses, but Jerel Worthy might take over his place on the All-American list. Replacing Jones and Eric Gordon from the linebacking corp will be tough, but Dantonio has options. He also welcomes back Trenton Robinson and Johnny Adams in the secondary.

Last time against the Irish:

Little Giants. It’s no longer just a mediocre Rick Moranis and Ed O’Neill movie about a scrappy Pop Warner football team. Now it’s another memorable chapter in the Irish-Spartans rivalry, with the movie title memorialized by Dantonio’s fake field goal call in overtime, snatching victory away from the Irish. The win took tension to a new level, as Dantonio suffered a heart attack after the game.

The loss erased two breakout games, as Theo Riddick‘s ten catches and 128 yards and Dayne Crist‘s 369 yards and four touchdowns were erased by an uneven performance by both the Irish offensive and defensive units and two redzone turnovers that hurt Notre Dame badly.

After the game, Brian Kelly spoke to the media with somewhat prophetic words.

“This is about belief,” Kelly said. “What do you believe in after a loss as difficult as this? Do you believe in your teammates? Do you believe in your coaches? Do you believe in the preparation? If you do, you’ll come back and we’ll work harder and we’ll continue to work to get better. If you don’t believe, then these are the times when you start to see teams pull apart. It’s about belief at this point.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Michigan State as the fourth toughest opponent on the 2011 schedule.

7. South Florida
4. Michigan State
3. Michigan

The Match-up:

If there’s a below-the-radar star on the Irish schedule, it’s Kirk Cousins, who will likely walk out of East Lansing with his name all over the record book. Cousins is accurate, athletic and a terrific leader. He’ll have a capable array of receiving targets and a deep group of tight ends that’ll easily replace Charlie Gantt. Three running backs that combined to run for over 200 yards against the Irish return, with Baker, Bell and Caper keeping the play-action passing game very much alive. Of course, if the Spartans are going to have any success throwing or running the ball, they’ll need to fill the three starting spots still undetermined along the offensive line, with two of those spots likely going to transitioned defensive players. It’ll be up to new offensive coordinator Dan Roushar to make that work, who takes over for longtime assistant Don Treadwell, who took over as the new head coach of the Miami RedHawks.

Defensively, the Spartans could give the Irish offensive line one of its stiffest challenges, courtesy of All-Big Ten defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. Hell be joined by another Anthony Rashad White, another 300+ pound tackle, who will combine for one of the stouter defensive tackle combinations in the Big Ten. With guys like Tyler Hoover and former blue-chipper William Gholston coming off the edge, the Spartans might be able to protect a back seven that’s talented, but lost more than a few key elements to a very good unit.

How the Irish will win:

Not needing to be reminded about their uneven performance in 2010, Notre Dame’s front seven find themselves tasked with shutting down the running trio of Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell, and Larry Caper, a group that went for over 200 yards last season. Against an offensive line still learning as they go, the Irish are able to neutralize the Spartan running attack and disrupt Kirk Cousins’ playmaking ability, keeping receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin in check after both had 100 yard days last year.

Back in the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Dayne Crist is sharp and both Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray put together nice days, opening up the airways for Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick and Tyler Eifert. The Irish are determined to run the football, something they couldn’t do last season and the result is a comfortable victory over a Spartan team that’s in the midst of a transitional season. After getting beaten on the game’s final play by his predeccesor at Cincinnati, Kelly doesn’t let Dantonio have the chance.

How the Irish will lose:

It’s a story all too familiar for Irish fans. Regardless of how well regarded the Irish seem to be, they’re in for a tight one with the Spartans. Thanks to missed opportunities and a power running game that gives the Irish defense fits, the Spartans hang around, only to have the game hinge on a big play that Kirk Cousins ends up making.

If the Irish are kicking themselves, its because they failed to cash in when they got to the red zone and struggled to flip the field position, not getting any big plays out of special teams while losing the turnover battle for the first time on the season.

Gut Feeling:

There’s never a good feeling in Irish fans’ guts when they play the Spartans, but Michigan State’s inexperience along the offensive line and at linebacker should help the Irish win an annual slugfest. History tells me not to feel too comfortable about this one, but the Irish should be able to handle business if they play up to their abilities.

  1. ndfanwabashman - Aug 24, 2011 at 8:47 PM

    After receiving such a warm reception in East Lansing this year, I’m ready to welcome Spartan fans with open arms.

    Seriously I hope Notre Dame wins by 17 touchdowns and every MSU fan gets herpes.

    • ndfanwabashman - Aug 24, 2011 at 8:48 PM

      should have been “last year”

  2. irishtemper419 - Aug 24, 2011 at 9:32 PM

    If the Irish r 2-0 I think home field and momentum take them to 3-0 .however if they fall on there face in the first 2 games this could b ugly? Who knows ? Trying to predict a Irish season is like trying to predict the weather … However imma look at the glass half full n say Irish 34-21 W Floyd having a big day (3td)

  3. danno27 - Aug 24, 2011 at 10:49 PM

    Whoa, whoa, KA. Little Giants was much more than mediocre. Annexation of puerto Rico? Anyone?

  4. jerseyshorendfan1 - Aug 24, 2011 at 11:32 PM

    Very nice article Mr. Arnold, well written and you make some very salient points. I agree with the analysis and I, too am fearful of Cousins’ big play ability. Let’s hope he is on his back early and often. Irish defenders could be in a real groove by the time they play Sparty and some nice pressure on Cousins could disrupt their whole game plan. If this one comes down to a FG attempt in OT, I hope we keep a few guys back who can tackle. Wabash, I love the sentiment but you have to realize, most MSU fans already have herpes, both simplex and duplex (and genital warts usually). GO IRISH!!!!!

  5. gman3410 - Aug 24, 2011 at 11:43 PM

    Hey Keith,

    The last few years the “Notre Dame Central” web page on NBC featured full game replay cutups. It showed just the plays from start to finish and cutout everything else so you could watch an entire game in around 45 minutes. I would watch games several times, but now its a struggle to watch the full three hour game without it being cutup. I was really disappointed that it was not done this last year. Do you know anything about that or if it can happen again this year? I would really appreciate it if you could give some influence to bringing that back.

    Thanks and Go Irish!

  6. trbowman - Aug 25, 2011 at 3:09 AM

  7. irishfan2791 - Aug 25, 2011 at 12:13 PM

    Have you guys seen Louis Nix? how about Manti Te’o, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, KLM, Ethan Johnson, or Aaron Lynch? because if the terrific trio of Baker, Bell, Caper, haven’t yet, I’m suer they will get well acquainted rather quickly! the Spartans play Florida Atlantic, then Youngstown State, so that new line won’t have had a real challenge until they venture down to South Bend. I know MSU is never goes as planned but I have a hard time believing that a new line, without having a real test before playing our front seven is going to rise to the occasion. Kirk Cousins jersey is going to be green and brown by the time the game is over. which will completely destroy the play action pass attack that MSU relies so heavily on. As for the other side of the ball, the line last year especially at the end of the year was able to bust open holes and win at the line of scrimmage, I expect them to do the same thing this year, and knowing Greg Jones isn’t back there running wild makes it all the easier to run on MSU. I think our boys have something major to prove this year and with a solid win over the Spartans would go a long way in doing that. my prediction is Irish 35, Spartans 17!

  8. gtizzo - Aug 25, 2011 at 11:51 PM

    Nice article Keith, but consider this:

    With the loss of Dell Michigan State wide outs should be handled with little problem by the Irish secondary. Cousins also ran 196 yards in the wrong direction last season…running around to avoid getting sacked. That offensive line wasn’t solid last year (a fact Alabama pointed out) and against the Irish front seven on defense advantage Irish. The Michigan State secondary will have no answer for Floyd or Riddick or even Brain Kelly if he decided to suit up. They also ranked 90th in country in sacks so Crist should be able to eat a sub and drink soda while reading the coverage. I know this game is usually a crazy one, but the Irish should roll…I hope.

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