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 lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.

During Notre Dame’s retrospective awards, Tranquill & Weishar set focus forward

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Notre Dame spent Friday night giving out awards to recognize 2017’s top players, but the night’s attention went to two pieces of news received regarding next season. Both linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar announced intentions to return for fifth seasons in 2018.

Tranquill especially seemed increasingly unlikely to return after a career season and a two-year stretch of health set him up for NFL consideration. The idea of what could have been, of what could be, proved too much for him to bypass his remaining season of collegiate eligibility.

“I think it started after the Miami game, just on the busses, realized that we probably weren’t going to make the College Playoff anymore and realized everything everyone had put into this thing,” Tranquill told Irish Illustrated. “I felt I owed it to this team in my heart to come back and finish what we started.”

Tranquill’s return will stymie what could have been a decimating linebacker exodus. Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are both out of eligibility. If Tranquill had joined them in pursuing an NFL future this spring, Notre Dame would have lost three of its top four tacklers, and perhaps all four. Leading tackler, junior linebacker Te’von Coney and his 99 takedowns including 13 for loss and three sacks, is still considering an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Weishar’s return will provide a baseline at tight end following the departure of current fifth-year Durham Smythe.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame is & was: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame is & was: Tight Ends

As for the Echoes awards, senior left guard Quenton Nelson received Most Valuable Player honors, only the third offensive lineman to be named MVP in Irish history.

Along the lines of Tranquill’s and Weishar’s returns, only a couple of Friday night’s awards portend future developments. Freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons performed well enough behind the scenes to claim Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. With Nelson presumably heading to the NFL, Gibbons could insert himself into the competition to fill the left guard spot.

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman spent the season following his transfer from Navy leading the scout defense. His success there only furthers the likelihood he will be starting in the defensive backfield when Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1.

With few surprises — perhaps naming junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner the offensive and defensive newcomers of the year, respectively, was too obvious to be widely-considered beforehand — the full listing of the awards …

— Most Valuable Player: Sr. left guard Quenton Nelson.
— Offensive Player of the Year: Jr. running back Josh Adams.
— Defensive Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Nyles Morgan.
— Impact Player: Jr. linebacker Te’von Coney.
— Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jr. quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
— Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Sr. defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner.
— Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
— Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Jr. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
— Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Fr. lineman Dillan Gibbons.
— Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: So. safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.
— Special Teams Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Greer Martini (eight special teams tackles).
— Walk-On Players Union Player of the Year: Jr. linebacker Robert Regan.
— Next Man In: Sr. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
— Father Lange Iron Cross, for weight room presence: Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
— Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Sr. captain and former walk-on Austin Webster.
— Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Sr. linebacker Drue Tranquill.
— Irish Around the Bend, for community service: Sr. tight end Nic Weishar.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers
Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, and the early signing period
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
SI’s 2017 All-America Teams
LSU RB Derrius Guice on NFL decision: ‘I will not know until after the bowl game’
RB Mark Walton leaving Miami early for the NFL