Little Giants Michigan State

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.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal