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And in that corner… The Michigan State Spartans

Sep 14, 2011, 3:11 PM EST

Little Giants Michigan State

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.

  1. westrat2 - Sep 14, 2011 at 4:40 PM

    I feel this is the week, not sure why people think msu is so good, played nobody. yes, these games have been close over the years, but this is angry nd team right now who knows they should be 2-0 and that spells danger for sparty. If notre dame plays how they should i could actually see a woodshed beating here. MSU has no chance of stopping floyd and cousins is no threat running the ball like robinson, nd front will be all over as well as teo.

  2. ndgoldandblue - Sep 14, 2011 at 5:19 PM

    I love our players. I think that we have some incredibly talented guys. I also like our coaching staff. I think that they have done a much better job of developing the players at Notre Dame better than Weis did. I don’t think that player development was a real strong suit for Weis and his staff. But, as Keith pointed out after the Michigan loss, this Irish team has gotten to the point where they’re just scary, not good. Meaning, they are scary for the opposition and can’t be taken lightly. However, they can’t seem to put together a complete game. Good teams can take players with less talent and win. Mediocre teams can have all the talent in the world and manage to lose. Sometimes, I think that this Irish team has more talent than the two BCS teams of ’05 and ’06. The difference is Weis did more with less, and Kelly is doing less with more. Granted, I think Kelly is getting solid production out of his own recruits (the ones that play, that is), but he can’t seem to make winners out the remnants of the Weis regime. Wilensky is right. The Spartans are a more talented and all-around better team than either USF or Michigan. The Irish would need to play a pretty flawless game in order to win, and after the last two weeks, I have no confidence that they will do that this Saturday. It takes more than a week to fix the mental problems that the Irish have. I think that they will get there eventually, probably in the second half of this year. I have all the support in the world for this team. I will cheer them on every week and hope for victories. But after the last two weeks, I don’t think I will ever “expect” a victory again. As Harrison Smith said today, there’s no point in talking. They have to go out and show that they are a good team.

    • pjm79nd - Sep 15, 2011 at 12:01 PM

      Please tell us how you can assess Kelly’s player development after only one season.

      • ndgoldandblue - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:23 PM

        I meant physically. He has developed the players from a physical standpoint. All the players talk about the

      • ndgoldandblue - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:24 PM

        I meant physically. He has developed the players from a physical standpoint. All the players talk about the strength and conditioning program. Plus, look at the job the staff has done getting players bigger while not increasing their body fat. They also did a great job getting Nix down to a decent playing weight.

  3. comeonnowguys - Sep 14, 2011 at 5:32 PM

    0-3!

    • oldestguard - Sep 14, 2011 at 5:57 PM

      Watch out my friend,.. we owe somebody an azz-kicking, and I think the time is now.

      • tersignind - Sep 14, 2011 at 9:14 PM

        I agree, now is the time, feel the anger ND, bring the heat

  4. ndphx - Sep 14, 2011 at 6:52 PM

    Hmm. All due respect to Ed Wilensky, and Rees certainly did make bad throws on the picks, but did Mr. MSU not watch the rest of the game last Saturday? As for finding secondary receivers, Riddick had two TD catches last week, and Jones another. Here’s hoping that the MSU coaches and players also dismiss our quarterback position as a “weakness”.

    And by the way, not only did the fake field goal last year come after the play clock ran out, but one of our defenders was tackled on the key “block” that sprung the run. (Whew, been waiting a year to vent over that one.) Go Irish! 1-2 with a bullet after this weekend.

  5. jerseyshorendfan1 - Sep 14, 2011 at 9:48 PM

    Couple of things:

    1) I don’t see Dantonio using muck trickeration this year since it landed him in the ER last year. Do it again Mark and you’re looking at a CABG with a prolonged recovery.

    2) If they try, even try to plant their flag on our field again, I say Manti should implant it in the arse of that retarded looking Spartan mascot.

    3) If the game comes down to a FG attempt by MSU in overtime, please keep about 4 good tacklers back and watch for the fake.

    4) Can we get some pressure on Cousins, pleeeeaaasssse??? You Frosh know what I’m talkin’ about.

    5) As long as I’m asking for favors, a win would be nice.

    GO IRISH, BEAT SPARTY!!!!!!

  6. ndfanwabashman - Sep 14, 2011 at 9:56 PM

    A point I made earlier in the season but it bears repeating:

    Betting lines are not a prediction of a score. They are not intended to convey the message: “Notre Dame will win this game by ‘x'”.

    Their ultimate goal is to get 50% of the money on one side of the line and 50% of the money on the other. That way the betting money is cancelled out and the casino takes the vigorish.

    Saying you don’t “agree with the line” is a poor choice of phrasing. Your beef is not with the line, if you ran a casino you would be happy with this line even as a State fan. What you don’t agree with is the 50% of bettors who are thinking the Irish will win by 6 points or more.

    Stat geeks are going to like the Irish because, statistically speaking, Notre Dame cannot possibly continue to turn the ball over five times a game (this is not a challenge Tommy).

  7. no1ndfan - Sep 15, 2011 at 12:01 PM

    Too bad about Ragone.

    I hope that we win this week, but I don’t like our chances.

    Michigan State has better athletes on both sides of the ball.

    Last year, Michigan State proved that it had better coaches than us too.

    We have to be demoralized coming off the heartbreaker to Michigan.

    I wonder if the wheels will come off if we go 0-3.

    I am still not sold on Kelly.

    Anyway, go Irish!

  8. mike223420 - Sep 15, 2011 at 3:34 PM

    All of this confidence is real cute guys. Can’t wait to hear your sorry excuses again… Wake up, your team blows. You’re over rated, not us. And Rudy sucked, he was offsides.

  9. no1ndfan - Sep 15, 2011 at 5:33 PM

    This season started with so much promise. I was so excited. But now I wonder how good this team actually is.

    Losing 2 games in a row to mediocre teams is certainly not a good sign.

    Michigan State has more talent than us, especially at the QB position.

    Plus, Kelly’s teams seem snake bit.

    The “loser” psychology has to be at work after last week.

    Kelly did well at Cincinnati, but at ND, he has to recruit athletes who can actually pass classes and earn degrees.

    I think that we are in for a lengthy period of mediocrity with him at the healm.

    If Gruden or Meyer signaled that they would take they job, how fast would you dump Kelly, given all the coaching miscues of the past 2 years?

    The bumbling of the QB position is his fault too. Right?

  10. ekalderf - Sep 15, 2011 at 6:36 PM

    Random pleases….Please let George Perles make a guest appearance as MSU coach…..Irish defense, please don’t help up opposing players after you tackle them and pat them on helmet….Irish offense, please mix it up on 3rd and short….

  11. kazmar619 - Sep 15, 2011 at 11:39 PM

    Kelly’s game coaching has taken a turn for the worse. Do they feed dumb pills to the coaches at ND? At Cincinati, I don’t ever remeber Kelly runing it on 3rd and 1. At Cincinati, I don’t remember Kelly using a prevent defense the whole game, he always mixed in some blitzes. I don’t care what anyone says about turnovers and bad playing, I still see bad game plans and bad play calling this year. If Kelly doesn’t get back to the game plans and play calling that won him games at Cincinati, ND is in for a real tough year. Kelly’s is beginning to coach the games like Weis.

  12. indy49ersfan - Sep 17, 2011 at 9:14 AM

    As confident I am that ND can pull this out, I’m also very nervous about this game. I still think that BK can turn this around, but 0-3 looks really possible. I hope I’m wrong.

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