And in that corner… The Michigan State Spartans

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If anybody is feeling bad for the hard luck 0-2 Fighting Irish, it certainly isn’t Michigan State. The boys from East Lansing have taken great pleasure in being a thorn in the Irish’s side, winning an amazing 10 of the last 14 match-ups between the two teams.

No game was a bigger dagger than last year’s contest, which ended with Mark Dantonio’s “Little Giants” fake field goal, winning the game in spectacular fashion and sinking the Irish to 1-2.

“It came down to one play,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “Michigan State executed the play. We did not.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a close Notre Dame-Michigan State game without some sort of controversy, and last year’s Little Giants also featured a play clock that was expired, but not too expired to matter on that fateful play, adding another wonderful element to a rivalry that’s grown more testy by the year.

It’s been two straight heart-stoppers for the Irish and the Spartans, with both team snatching a victory from the other in the game’s final seconds. As we’ve done the past two years, we tracked down the popular Spartans blog The Only Colors and got their take on this year’s Spartan squad. Ben Wilensky (previously known as the artist called LVS) was kind enough to supply some pretty good answers for my mediocre questions.

Here goes:

Inside the Irish: I’ve got a feeling you saw that Las Vegas has the Irish as a 5.5 point favorite. Michigan State is 10-4 the last 14 times these two teams have played for the Megaphone. The Spartans are 2-0. The Irish are 0-2. Are buying what Vegas is selling?

Ben Wilensky: I don’t agree with the line, but I also know that Vegas oddsmakers aren’t in the business of promulgating baseless odds, and the reality is that Notre Dame would be 2-0 were it not for its rather freakish turnover problem.  While the Irish may ultimately be, for one reason or another, a turnover-prone team, it’s difficult to imagine that things will remain quite so dire going forward.  There’s no question that ND has significant talent on both sides of the ball, and if the team even regresses slightly toward the turnover mean, there’s good reason to believe that they can be one of the top 15 or 20 teams in the country.

However, I believe that MSU is a substantially better team than either South Florida or Michigan, and while the game’s at Notre Dame Stadium, that stadium hasn’t exactly been a house of horrors for MSU over the past 15 years or so.  ND has glaring weaknesses in the secondary and at quarterback, and there’s no question that MSU is well-positioned to take advantage of those weaknesses.  Ultimately, I think the talent gap between these teams is very small.  Even if you figure that ND is getting 3 points for having home field advantage — and given the character of this series, 3 points is generous — these odds still have the Irish as 2.5 point neutral-site favorites.  To me, that’s high.

ITI: The Spartans defense is off to a good start against some pretty meager competition. Are they simply paper champions? On your site earlier this week, there was some pretty enthusiastic praise for the effort against Florida Atlantic. Does ND’s offense, pretty prolific when it isn’t shooting itself in the foot, scare you?

BW: Yes.  Michael Floyd has four touchdowns in three career games against MSU, and Theo Riddick caught 10 passes for 128 yards last year.   In particular, Floyd terrifies me, as he should terrify fans of every team he plays this year.  I didn’t see a ton of Cierre Wood last year, but he certainly looks dangerous this year.  The offensive line seemed pretty solid last week against Michigan.  In short, there’s a lot to like about the Irish offense; ergo, there’s a lot for me to worry about as a Michigan State fan.

I do think that Tommy Rees is a bit over his head, and certainly not the guy who can get the most out of ND’s talent at the skill positions.  Irish fans who have been calling for Rees to get playing time over Dayne Crist also have to acknowledge that while his performance against USF was pretty good, USF helped his stats along significantly by playing the most vanilla defense imaginable in the second half.  And, last week against Michigan, Rees simply wasn’t very good; in my recollection, both of his interceptions occurred on horribly telegraphed passes in Floyd’s direction.  Crist was pretty good against MSU last season, and I’m relieved that he won’t be taking the snaps on Saturday.

Anyway, Florida Atlantic’s offense is horrid and made MSU look good on Saturday, but 48 total yards allowed is still 48 total yards allowed — a defensive effort that dominant can’t be ignored, no matter the competition.  The defensive line was ineffective against Youngstown State, but that’s really because YSU was throwing the ball on two step drops, and there’s no way to get any pressure when the ball is released that quickly.  Against Florida Atlantic they were utterly dominant.  The linebacking corps is solid, as Max Bullough looks like he’s a more-than-capable replacement for Greg Jones.  Finally, I think that the secondary is better than it was last season.  Johnny Adams is developing into a true shutdown corner, Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis have settled into their starting roles very nicely, and Trenton Robinson is one of the country’s best free safeties.  Notre Dame will score points but the MSU defense is more than capable of holding its own.

ITI: Two years ago, you called Blair White. Last year, you warned us about Edwin Baker. Who is going to torment the Irish defense this year?

BW: Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham.  He’s big, strong, has excellent hands, and is now MSU’s all-time leading receiver.  In many respects (size, skill, athleticism), Cunningham is comparable to — but better than —  Junior Hemingway, who killed Notre Dame last week.  Cunningham had 100+ yards and a touchdown against the Irish last season, and I think he’ll exceed that on Saturday.

I also think that TE Dion Sims could have a big day.  He was very good last Saturday, and with his size, strength and speed (6’5″, 276) he’s a very, very difficult matchup for any linebacker.

ITI: From my vantage point, it seems like the story of the preseason was filling some holes on the offensive line, with guys from the defensive side of the ball competing for jobs up front. The rushing numbers haven’t been overwhelming for the Spartans against two mediocre teams. Is the offensive line ready to play against a pretty physical Irish front seven?

BW: That’s the big question.  The most obvious path to victory for Notre Dame on Saturday is to dominate the MSU offensive line, and in doing so, harass Kirk Cousins and slow down the running game.

The offensive line is a bit of a hodgepodge; like you said, there were numerous position switches during the offseason.  Left tackle Dan France is a particular concern, as he played on the defensive side last season, and is now tasked with protecting Cousins’ blindside.  He did not have a great game against YSU, but I thought he improved quite a bit against FAU and now seems to have solidified his starting spot.

If MSU can get even halfway decent blocking, the stable of running backs is deep and very talented.  Edwin Baker is an all-conference caliber player, Le’Veon Bell was fantastic against ND last year and has shown flashes of excellence, and Larry Caper is a good change of pace on third down.  But, yeah, it all starts with the offensive line.  Expecting them to be great is probably asking too much but if MSU is going to win, the ND defensive line can’t dominate.  I fear they might.

ITI: What do you make of the 0-2 Irish? They’ve racked up over 1,000 yards of offense. Had Denard Robinson and Michigan absolutely stonewalled until imploding in the fourth quarter, and should easily be sitting at 2-0 if they only turned the ball over a half-dozen times instead of ten. What scares you about this team?

BW: Michael Floyd, the (presumed) desperation of the team, Brian Kelly’s coaching ability (I still think he’s very good), Michael Floyd, Tom Zbikowski and Arnaz Battle somehow regaining amateur status for one game only, Tommy Rees realizing that he has capable secondary receivers, Manti Te’o in general, Carlo Calabrese too, Michael Floyd, turnovers somehow regressing to the mean, positive karma resulting from Tom Hammond’s return to the broadcast booth, any lingering bitterness from last year’s game in East Lansing, Michael Floyd.  And also Michael Floyd.
ITI: How good is Kirk Cousins?
BW: Very, although he’s overrated by sportswriters too busy fawning over his (phenomenal) character and makeup to notice that there are flaws to his game.  Give him time in the pocket and he’s utterly deadly.  Effectively rush him, and he’ll start a) throwing off his back foot, b) making poor snap decisions, and c) turning the ball over.  All of which make the questions about MSU’s line even more salient.But, he sells a play action fake better than any quarterback in America, he’s got an NFL-caliber arm, and he throws to one of the best receiving corps in the Big Ten.  The last time he was in South Bend, he effectively ended the game by making one of the worst throws of his MSU career.  I’m sure he’s very strongly motivated to atone for that.

ITI: I don’t think either of us could have called Little Giants. How do you see this one playing out?
BW: I think the Spartans take it (knock on wood), because I think they’re the better team.  I love the matchups of MSU’s receivers versus the ND secondary, and while I think Cousins will be sacked 2 or 3 times, I also think that the offensive line will give him enough time to make the plays he needs to make.  I like that MSU is coming off the easiest, least physical game I can recall, while ND lost an emotionally draining game in demoralizing fashion.    I have a hunch that ND’s desperation is going to be a net negative, particularly if MSU can get some early scores, and while I haven’t ever seen a Notre Dame Stadium crowd boo the Irish, I think the unrest and unease will be palpable if the Irish are slow out of the gates.I like MSU by a touchdown, but considering the madness we’ve seen over the years in this series, it’s tough to be confident in any prediction.  At the very least, here’s to yet another highly entertaining game.

***

Special thanks to Ben for taking the time out for these answers. You can check out TheOnlyColors.com for more about the big game on Saturday, and follow them on Twitter @TheOnlyColors.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.