Opponent preview: Michigan State

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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
6.
5.
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.

QB Wimbush & Notre Dame RBs healthy; LB Martini not

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After a week off from most football activities last week and a week off from schoolwork due to fall break this week, No. 13 Notre Dame is near full health for its primetime matchup with No. 11 USC on Saturday.

“We had six days of not being in contact situations after the North Carolina game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “You get the physical rest and then you get the mental rest this week, without having to be in the classroom. It’s clearly a benefit, not only for this game, but the next five games after this.”

Most notably, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has recovered from a grade one right foot strain.

“There are no questions about his health so we can put that to rest,” Kelly said. “He’s 100 percent.”

All of the Irish running backs should be past any ankle concerns, as well. Junior Josh Adams was battling two “cranky” ankles as Notre Dame finished the first half of its season, while junior Dexter Williams missed the victory at North Carolina due to a sprained ankle, just as sophomore Tony Jones did a week earlier against Miami (OH).

The bye week brought one new injury, though. Senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini injured his knee in practice, a status Kelly deemed “day-to-day.” Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated reports the meniscus injury could sideline Martini into November.

Martini and junior Te’von Coney have split time to date, complementing seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill in the linebacker unit. With Martini potentially missing time, Coney will naturally receive more. He has already made 42 tackles this season, trailing only Morgan (by two) and ahead of Martini by three.

Kelly also ruled out an in-season return from Elijah Taylor. The junior tackle suffered a Lisfranc fracture during spring practice.

On Kevin Stepherson
The bye week may have benefited sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson the most. He missed the season’s first four games and had not contributed much in the subsequent two, catching just one pass for a loss of three yards. A year ago, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Kelly attributed some of Stepherson’s struggles upon his return to a version of rust from inactivity.

“What we saw was somebody that needed to get reintroduced into the game and get back up to game speed, game conditioning,” Kelly said. “It was preseason for him in a lot of ways.”

With more time focused on those aspects, Kelly said he expects Stepherson’s role to increase in the season’s second half.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy falls, dropping undefeateds to only Georgia and Miami (FL)

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One of the three heretofore remaining undefeated opponents on Notre Dame’s schedule fell this weekend, largely due to its own mistakes. All in all, Irish opponents went 7-4 but are expected to go 3-5 this coming weekend, not counting Notre Dame’s matchup with USC.

Temple (3-4): The Owls were favored by 9.5 points, but gifted a 28-24 win to Connecticut. Two separate Temple turnovers provided half of the Huskies scoring. A fumble set up a two-play, nine-yard Connecticut touchdown drive, and an interception courtesy of Owls junior quarterback Logan Marchi was returned for a touchdown. Interceptions continue to plague Marchi’s debut campaign as a starter. He has now thrown nine in the last four games.

If he can avoid such a mistake at Army this weekend (12 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network), perhaps Temple can overcome its six-point underdog status. A combined point total over/under of 49.5 indicates an expected final of 28-21.

Georgia (7-0): The Bulldogs ran right by Missouri, to the tune of a 53-28 score and 370 rushing yards on 51 attempts, part of an offensive explosion of 696 total yards. No Georgia rusher gained more than 100 yards, while six ran for at least 30, and freshman quarterback Jake Fromm completed 18 of 26 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns. All in all, the Bulldogs had possession for a whopping 39:36.

Georgia certainly does not need a break, but it gets one this weekend, anyway.

Boston College (3-4): The Eagles finally came out ahead in a tough game against one of the ACC’s better teams, topping Louisville 45-42. The shootout was certainly unexpected: The over/under was a mere 57 points.

Boston College’s record does not do its season justice. The Eagles played Notre Dame close into the second half, hung with Clemson into the fourth quarter and were never phased by Virginia Tech. They just could not put together a complete performance.

Thanks largely to running back AJ Dillon, that changed this weekend. Dillon ran for 272 yards and four touchdowns on 39 carries, most notably including this piece of disrespect:

A quietly-solid Virginia awaits Boston College (12:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network). The Cavaliers are favored by seven with an over/under of 48.5. Quick math hints at a 28-21 conclusion. It is awfully tempting to put some faith in the Eagles in that situation.

Michigan State (5-1): The Spartans’ 30-27 win at Minnesota was not as close as the field-goal margin implies. The Gophers put together two touchdown drives in the final six minutes to turn a blowout into a paper’s version of a tight contest.

Michigan State running back LJ Scott finally broke loose, taking 25 carries for 194 yards and two touchdowns. The Spartans needed his solid performance to help cover up three turnovers. They got away with those mistakes against Minnesota, and may be able to this weekend against Indiana (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) and next week at Northwestern, but such mishaps would likely prove crippling vs. Penn St or at Ohio State in November.

Michigan State is favored by seven against the Hoosiers, with an over/under of 44 pointing toward a 25-19 result. It should not be that close, unless Indiana follows the Gophers’ example with late, meaningless scores.

Miami (OH) (2-5): This is not the season Chuck Martin expected. Without starting quarterback Gus Ragland, the RedHawks fell 17-14 to Kent State, one of the MAC’s two bottom-dwellers. Miami already lost to the other, Bowling Green, just a week ago.

Junior backup quarterback Billy Bahl completed 12 of 29 passes for 174 yards, throwing two touchdowns along with two interceptions.

Martin and the RedHawks will look to save this escaping season against Buffalo (2:30 p.m. ET, Watch ESPN). Favored by three, they would be grateful to be on the right side of a 26-23 afternoon.

North Carolina (1-6): The Tar Heels lost 2017 continued with a 20-14 defeat to Virginia. In this week’s illustration of just how dismal the day was for North Carolina, it managed all of 46 passing yards. The Tar Heels’ next viable hope of a win comes after a trip to Virginia Tech (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and a weekend with Miami (FL). A bye will then precede a Thursday journey to Pittsburgh. That may also be their last legitimate chance of an FBS-level victory this season.

The Hokies are favored by 21 points and will likely exceed that and a hypothetical 36-15 margin.

Junior quarterback Sam Darnold leads a talented USC offense into Notre Dame this coming weekend. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

USC (6-1): The Trojans slipped past Utah 28-27, stopping a Utes’ two-point conversion attempt in the final minute. The win should set up USC to cruise to the Pac-12 title game. Junior quarterback Sam Darnold threw for 358 yards and three touchdowns on 27-of-50 passing. Perhaps more importantly, he did not throw any interceptions, though the Trojans did lose three fumbles.

Running back Ronald Jones took 17 carries for 111 yards and a score.

USC visits Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC) as a 3.5-point underdog. A 31-28 Saturday night would hardly leave anyone lamenting a lack of entertainment.

North Carolina State (6-1): The Wolfpack made it six victories in a row after its season opening one-possession loss to South Carolina. North Carolina State’s defense led the way in the 35-17 win at Pittsburgh, holding the Panthers to 95 rushing yards on 32 attempts. Pittsburgh managed only 5.1 yards per pass attempt and converted just four of 15 third down attempts.

The Wolfpack now enjoys a bye before traveling to South Bend for what could be a top-15 matchup filled with national implications.

Wake Forest (4-2): The Demon Deacons had the week off and undoubtedly used it to prepare for Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU). The Yellow Jackets enjoy nearly a touchdown’s advantage per bookmakers’ projections, prevailing in those views by something akin to 27-21.

Miami kicker Michael Badgley hit the winning field goal in the Hurricanes 25-24 victory over Georgia Tech. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Miami (FL) (5-0): The good news: The Hurricanes again used a last-minute, drama-filled drive to notch a winning score.

The obvious news: Beating Georgia Tech should never be taken for granted.

The forward-looking news: Miami has only one genuine ACC challenge left, Nov. 4 vs. Virginia Tech, meaning an undefeated conference slate and a regular season as a whole are both distinct possibilities. That contest will also likely determine if the Hurricanes bring an unblemished record into their matchup with Notre Dame a week later.

The bad news: This week’s opponent, Syracuse, could not be much more confident after beating No. 2 Clemson on Friday. Nonetheless, Miami is favored by 15 with an over/under of 57.5. Here’s an eye on more points than a 36-21 result includes.

Navy (5-1): The Midshipmen rushed for 314 yards on 68 carries against Memphis. That can cover up most anything, but not, apparently, five turnovers. Maybe four, but not five, as the Tigers topped Navy 30-27 thanks to those repeated giveaways.

Navy travels to Central Florida (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network) staring a two-game losing streak in the face as eight-point underdogs. An over/under of 66 points to a 37-29 final.

Stanford (5-2): Oregon was missing its starting quarterback, and it showed. The Ducks threw for only 33 passing yards in a 49-7 loss to the Cardinal. Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst threw for 181 yards and three touchdowns on 15-of-21 passing while junior running back Bryce Love ran for only 147 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries.

Stanford takes its second bye of the year this weekend, since it started the season a week early overseas.

Questions for the Week: Wimbush’s health & the unpredictability of college football

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How was your weekend off? Did you catch up on some sleep? Perhaps rake those leaves you had been ignoring?

Of course you didn’t, but let’s pretend you did. And as you did, you kept asking yourself …

Will Brandon Wimbush be healthy enough to start against USC? Actually, skip the enough. Will he be back to 100 percent?
No one in this space should play doctor, so offering insights on the recovery time from a grade one foot strain would be duplicitous and likely inaccurate. Rather, let’s turn to the most trustworthy of sources … Twitter.

The Notre Dame football account (@NDFootball) posted a video Thursday morning opening with Wimbush rolling a few steps and throwing a pass. Presumably, the footage was from a Wednesday afternoon practice.

To say the clip is brief is to say bacon tastes good. Nonetheless, the Irish administrators even allowing the inclusion of the junior quarterback in the video is noteworthy. If he was distinctly limited, there is no chance that would have been showcased.

For now, presume Wimbush to be healthy. By the time kickoff comes Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC), he will have had nearly exactly three full weeks of recovery time. If Wimbush is not at 100 percent, he should be close to it. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly will inevitably discuss as much during his Tuesday press conference.

Wimbush will be needed against the Trojans. Sophomore quarterback Ian Book played well — or at least well enough, and there’s that pesky e-word again — to lead the Irish past North Carolina, but Wimbush’s playmaking could be the key to getting past USC. The difference between the two is that simple.

During the bye week, was there any depth chart movement?
If there is a time for more-than-minimal reshuffling of the depth chart, it is during the midseason week off. When a team is 5-1 courtesy of a plus-139 scoring margin, moving things around may seem counterintuitive. On some level it is. On another, though, finding a way to get junior cornerback Shaun Crawford on the field even more often would seem a wise decision. Conceivably, moving sophomore Julian Love to safety alongside junior Nick Coleman would create that opening for Crawford.

Two disclaimers here: One, this is mere speculation. Two, the answer to this may actually wait until after kickoff, running contrary to this piece’s weekly theme, but it is also possible it could show up in the depth chart before then.

Will high-flying Syracuse hand Miami (FL) its first loss two weeks before Notre Dame gets the chance to?
It is still a touch difficult to believe. Underdogs by 23.5 points, the Orange beat No. 2 Clemson on Friday, 27-24. Anyone claiming to have seen that coming can go ahead and check the mirror to see how much their nose just grew.

This space certainly did not expect it. In retrospect, this pondering of Clemson’s fate in the College Football Playoff published Friday morning rings particularly prescient now, even if unwittingly so: “A still-proving-himself quarterback (Clemson’s Kelly Bryant) doubts himself and makes another mistake …”

For that matter, only a few paragraphs later, this space predicted Washington State would cruise past Cal on Friday night. Care to guess what did not happen?

With all that in mind, Syracuse overcoming a 14-point spread to beat Miami (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) is a possibility to be recognized. The Orange have the momentum, if nothing else. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are getting by with nothing to spare, winning each of the last two weekends on last-minute drives hinging on extremely difficult catches.

Will Navy respond to its first loss with a renewed focus on the AAC title?
The Midshipmen host undefeated Central Florida at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network. Favored by seven, the Knights are likely to thoroughly dampen any Naval hopes of winning the American Athletic Conference a year after getting routed in the title game. In falling to Memphis this past weekend, Navy obviously lost the tiebreaker in the AAC West, but knocking off Central Florida would keep the Midshipmen in the mix.

Speaking of which, how will Memphis fare Thursday night at Houston?
A three-point spread in Houston’s favor indicates Memphis could fall behind Navy in the AAC standings before the Midshipmen even face Central Florida. If nothing else, the Tigers and Cougars will fill up the scoreboard (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Bye Week Primer: What to watch & what to read

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This is Notre Dame’s bye week. Any “Who, what, when, where, why and by how much” ponderings do not really apply this week. Instead, it comes down to “What to watch” and “What to read.”

Partly due to the Irish not playing, there are no top-25 matchups this weekend. There are, however, still a handful of good games. If spending this fall Saturday indoors with football on the screen, consider these options:

12 p.m. ET on ESPN2 — Florida State at Duke. A loss here would just about put a wrap on the Seminoles’ season.
3:30 p.m. ET on ABC — Georgia Tech at No. 11 Miami (FL). The triple option is one of worthwhile two hurdles standing between the Hurricanes and meeting Notre Dame undefeated. The other comes the week immediately prior that game, when Miami hosts Virginia Tech.
3:30 p.m. ET on Big Ten Network — Purdue at No. 7 Wisconsin. If watching the triple option hurts your senses, perhaps turn toward the Midwest. Boilermakers head coach Jeff Brohm will be determined not to let this turn into a typical Big Ten rock fight.
3:45 p.m. ET on ESPNU — No. 25 Navy at Memphis. Again considering an Irish outlook, if the Midshipmen can get past the Tigers, they will have only one more difficult contest (next week vs. Central Florida) before traveling to Notre Dame. Those two games could lead to two Navy losses or they could lead to a rolling 9-0 entrance to South Bend.
8 p.m. ET on ABC — Utah at No. 13 USC. Utah may not be ranked, but this is essentially a top-25 game and certainly a Pac-12 indicator. In addition to that, the Trojans will be looking to build momentum before the primetime tilt with the Irish next weekend.
10:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network — Boise State at No. 19 San Diego State. Do not let the time, the network or the school names fool you. This very well could be the best game this weekend.
11:00 p.m. ET on FS1 — Oregon at No. 23 Stanford. The Cardinal are still in the thick of the race for the Pac-12 North Division, but a loss to the Ducks would change that.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Afternoon Leftovers: Notre Dame has already exceeded many of 2016’s totals
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Second half of schedule continues to look even more impressive
A statistical look at Notre Dame’s offense through six games compared to the past
Notre Dame’s defense has limited scoring, but what keys have led to that?
A Notre Dame Bye Week Mailbag: On bowls, momentum & passing game struggles
Friday at 4: 40 predictions updated & 4 more for the next six weeks

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE NORTH CAROLINA GAME
Notre Dame stifles North Carolina throughout 33-10 victory
Things We Learned: Notre Dame can turn to Book, though may prefer not to
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Recover, relax, recruit and ready for USC (and Navy)

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
538 gives Notre Dame an 11 percent chance of finishing 11-1
ESPN’s midseason All-America team
Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen said he would walk away from $12.6 million and he did just that
The NCAA formed a commission to look into the current college basketball scandal. It is led by Condoleezza Rice and also has Notre Dame. Pres. Fr. John Jenkins on it.