Five things we learned: Florida State 18, Notre Dame 14

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If you could boil down one game to encapsulate a season, you might have something that looks like the Champs Sports Bowl. During Notre Dame’s 18-14 loss, the Irish turned just about every conceivable emotion for a football fan on its head– ecstasy to agony, confidence to frustration, bravado to helplessness.

At times, the Irish looked like the BCS contender many thought they were entering the season. The defense absolutely overwhelmed Florida State’s offensive line, beating quarterback E.J. Manuel to a pulp while limiting the Seminoles to single-digit rushing yards for much of the game. Offensively, the Irish cobbled together just enough in the second quarter to control the line of scrimmage, running Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, targeting Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, even mixing in the running of Andrew Hendrix with the passing of Tommy Rees.

Then the game flipped, and as it did too often this season, the snowball built, and the Irish tumbled out of control. The Irish weren’t able to overcome three interceptions, two coming in the Florida State endzone. The secondary that played so well swarming to the football failed to do its job when the throw went over its head. And after having what looked like a comfortable 14-0 lead, the Irish gave up the final 18 points of the game, turning a potential ninth victory against an impressive opponent into a logic-defying fifth loss of the season.

“The turnovers were again a large reason for us not to be able to win this football game,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “It’s been the case all year. It started at South Florida, and continued to show itself throughout the entire year.”

This football team showed us what it was all season, and then proved it one last time on Thursday night, making the same mistakes that doomed the Irish all year. Let’s find out what we learned during the Champs Sports Bowl, the crushing finale to one of the most frustrating seasons the Irish have played in a very long time.

***

The Irish will never be a successful team if they can’t solve the quarterbacking situation.

There aren’t many teams good enough to turn the ball over three times and beat a good football team. Notre Dame proved that, one-upping themselves by having Rees throw two of the interceptions in the end zone while Hendrix set up the Seminoles deep in Irish territory when he hit Florida State linebacker Nigel Bradham in the chest. Any aspirations the Irish had to be an elite football team went down the drain with the team’s quarterback play, and three crucial interceptions against the Seminoles put the focus straight on that issue for head coach Brian Kelly.

“It’s nice to be able to talk about a Notre Dame football team that plays championship defense, because they did that today,” Kelly said. “Now we’ve got to get our offense to obviously play at that level as well. That will be the next step for our football program. Getting our offense to play at the same level that our defense is evolving to.”

Even if Rees went out and threw for 400 yards and five touchdowns, the competition at quarterback would’ve been open heading into spring practice, and Rees’ struggles against another elite defense adds yet another data-point for those who don’t believe the sophomore quarterback has what it takes to lead the Irish back into the elite of college football.

Kelly sticking with Rees for much of the bowl game shows you that while Tommy still makes maddeningly bad decisions interspersed with some impressive throws, Kelly thought he was the best guy to protect a fourteen point second half lead. But for those thinking that just because Rees was the guy for the Irish throughout the 2011 season he’s the guy for next year, fear not.

“I’m going to evaluate everything that I do and how we do it,” Kelly said. “Because the offense just has to get better.”

Expect all three quarterbacks on the roster to get a shot at running this offense. And while Andrew Hendrix certainly has a skill-set that uniquely qualifies him to take over, the guy that has the most potential still hasn’t taken a snap. In Everett Golson, Kelly has the prototype triggerman for what he needs to run his optimal offense. Whether he’s ready to run the show or not remains to be seen.

The quarterback position got derailed in the season’s opening minutes, and ironically Dayne Crist’s undoing initially wasn’t his own, but rather Jonas Gray’s goalline fumble. From there, the senior quarterback was tentative, missing more throws than he made, and making a critical red zone mistake before going scoreless and into halftime down 16 points in his one half of football.

We’ll never know what Dayne Crist would’ve done if he came back out after halftime. But there’s good reason to believe that whoever was playing quarterback was gap filling for Golson or Hendrix, two guys better suited to run the offense. Even with an Irish win and flawless quarterback play, this would’ve been the top story of the spring. But the Irish collapse behind center tonight all but assured it.

***

After playing aggressively for most of the first half, calling off the dogs killed the Irish defense.

When Lou Holtz questions your strategy, you know you’ve got reason to be second-guessed. But even Dr. Lou was wondering why the Irish stopped blitzing in the second half, giving E.J. Manuel time to throw the ball and an overwhelmed offensive line time to catch its breath.

After spending much of the first half running for his life, Manuel settled down and had a nice second half, completing a few deep circus catches over Irish cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, pulling the Seminoles back in a game that they were dominated in for much of the evening.

After going up two touchdowns, it seems that the Irish were content to go back to their base defense, forcing the Seminoles to earn their yards and they guarded against the big play in zone coverage. But by allowing Manuel time to breathe, they enabled the FSU offense to make the big play, with wide receivers Bert Reed and Rashad Greene catching touchdowns to lead the Seminoles back and Kenny Shaw giving the secondary fits as well.

It’ll be lost in the shuffle, but safety Jamoris Slaughter played his best game in an Irish uniform from a hybrid linebacker position, racking up two sacks as the Irish pass rush pressured FSU relentlessly. Aaron Lynch also dominated the team he almost played for, adding 1.5 sacks and spending much of the evening chasing Manuel down in the backfield. Stephon Tuitt rallied back from an illness that derailed the end of his season to play another excellent game, giving the Irish front seven some really impressive building blocks for next year.

Holding the Seminoles to under 250 yards is a good day at the office and placing the blame for this loss on the defense is particularly foolish, especially considering that Bob Diaco‘s troops put up half the team’s points with a forced fumble by Manti Te’o and scoop and score by safety Zeke Motta. But after two seasons at the helm of the Irish defense, Diaco will need to evolve this defense next season, taking advantage of the horses he has up front, especially when he won’t be able to lean on a veteran secondary.

***

With Michael Floyd departing, the Irish are going to have to find offense from somewhere.

After making a circus catch on a jump ball in the corner of the end zone for his 37th career touchdown catch, Michael Floyd‘s Irish career ended on the sideline when his teammates needed him the most, unable to get back into the game after suffering an injury securing the ball after beating talented FSU cornerback Greg Reid for a ball that seemed destined for Reid’s hands.

The senior wide receiver, who broke the game’s first big play with an early 41 yard punt return that set the Irish up in FSU territory, seemed dinged up before the touchdown catch, after a big collision on the Seminoles sideline with safety Lamarcus Joyner, who collided with Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, sending his teammate out for the game with an apparent knee injury.

“He’s just an incredible competitor,” Kelly said of his star receiver. “This is my 22nd year and I’ve had great players, guys that have gone on to have great careers in the NFL or doctors and lawyers, you remember the guys that overcome. The guys that compete and battle. He did that today.”

Floyd didn’t play the best game of his career, limited to just five catches for 41 yards, dropping a deep ball that could’ve gone all the way early in the game and being overthrown on another deep throw where he had his man beat. But Floyd’s departure from the field in the game’s final quarter gave Irish fans a grim look at what this offense will look like without it’s star receiver.

It might be hard to recognize for Irish fans, but Floyd is the only receiver on the roster that keeps defenses honest. The Seminoles secondary didn’t seem concerned with anybody other than Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert, with the Irish’s all-time leading receiver the number one priority for a secondary that suffered multiple injuries in the game. Yet without Floyd in the game, the Irish couldn’t take advantage of the depleted secondary, and it was John Goodman acting as the deep threat for Rees, targeted in the endzone on the game’s defining interception.

Reinforcements are coming, with Deontay Greenberry one of the most important commitments on the Irish board right now and the Irish still in the hunt for some blue-chip, college ready talent. But after watching four years of the Irish’s most dominant wide receiver in school history, the Irish offense will need to find someone to fill the very large hole Floyd leaves behind.

***

Tyler Eifert has a tough decision to make.

With Floyd graduated and heading to the NFL, the spotlight is now on tight end Tyler Eifert to decide whether or not he’ll return for his senior season at Notre Dame or follow in the footsteps of Kyle Rudolph and exit Notre Dame after three seasons and declare himself eligible for the NFL Draft.

Eifert led the Irish with six catches and 90 yards in a losing effort, taking a few bruising hits while making tough catches for big gains from both Rees and Hendrix. The solid performance capped off a season with 63 catches — and Irish record for tight ends and the best season in the NCAA — while also being named a Mackey Award finalist. Reports say Eifert has heard he’s graded out as a second or third round player, not as good of an assessment Rudolph received last year, but good enough to make the decision difficult for Eifert and his family.

Talking to the Chicago Tribune after the game, Eifert knows he’s got a choice to make.

“I mean, there’s not much more information I can get to make a decision,” Eifert told the Tribune. “I think I have pretty much everything I need. It’s just a matter of what I personally want to do and figuring it out.”

If Eifert returns for just his third season of competition, the Irish will have a proven offensive weapon to build around, and someone to keep defenses honest. He’ll also have a chance to work on his physicality, the area of his game that likely drags his draft grade down a round or so. If he doesn’t, the Irish might look to see if Mike Ragone‘s eligible for an injury hardship waiver and a sixth year, or work quickly to get freshman Ben Koyack and sophomore Alex Welch ready for action, with no tight end currently on the recruiting radar.

Unwilling to make any proclamations after a difficult loss, Eifert has to make a decision before the January 15 deadline.

“I’d like to figure out what I’m doing as soon as I can,” Eifert told the Tribune, “but it’s not really a decision to rush.”

***

After rolling into last offseason with momentum, it’s time to batten down the hatches and get to work.

The unprecedented forward momentum the Irish took into last year’s offseason didn’t propell the Irish to 2011 greatness. So perhaps a stinging ending to a frustrating season will help refocus a football team that absolutely needs to do better at the little things that differentiate a 8-5 football team from one that finds itself in a BCS bowl.

Fans will always grumble and question whether the men in charge are the right ones for the job. Back-to-back 8-5 seasons likely add members to that bandwagon, a group that always has strength in numbers among the Notre Dame faithful. But Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are going nowhere, and while they’ll face lower approval ratings than they had last offseason, they need to continue their dogged chase to transform this football team.

“We know what we need to do,” Kelly said. “We’ve already talked about it. The players that are going to be back for the 2012 football season will be committed to getting that end done.”

After transforming a defense that destroyed Charlie Weis’ career at Notre Dame, Kelly will look at the flaws of his offense. Hired as an offensive innovator, Kelly will now look to improve a unit that played the bowl game short its offensive coordinator and will likely be filling the hole from within.

“We have to get our offense better,” Kelly stated. “When I say better, I’m not talking about the way our guys compete, I’m talking about, we turn the ball over. And we cannot win football games at the highest level if we continue to turn the ball over. The coaches have to get better. The players have to get better. And we need to solve this issue if we’re going to be an elite football team.”

While the next three months will be dedicated to fixing problems that doomed this football team, the next 35 days will be dedicated to finishing strong on the recruiting trail. After identifying the frailty of his defensive front seven, Kelly’s built a unit that can stack up with the rest of the BCS contenders.  Now it’s time to upgrade the deteriorating skill positions on the team, bulking up both the wide receiving and defensive back coffers with hopes that the staff has identified game-ready talent that’s able to step in and compete.

Once again the vultures will swirl above the football program, wondering if Brian Kelly is the right man for the toughest job in college football. That’s what happens when you lose football games the way this team did, and give away a bowl game to a traditional rival like Florida State. But after getting ahead of themselves in a season lost to maddening inconsistencies, the Irish will have five perfect examples (USF, Michigan, USC, Stanford, and Florida State) of why they need to keep focusing on the task ahead instead of what’s behind them. It may be hard for those of us watching on television or the stands, but for a football program with a singular goal, the frustration of 2011 will likely power this group into 2012.

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)

And in That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season

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Michigan State has yet to be tested this season. Certainly, the Spartans have not seen a test the likes of Notre Dame, no matter what one’s view of the Irish may be. To get a better idea of who Notre Dame will face Saturday night, let’s turn to Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press.

Chris, I appreciate you taking the time to educate us here at “Inside the Irish.” First off, how long have you been covering the Spartans for the Free Press?
I have been with the Detroit Free Press since last August, but I spent the previous 10 years following Michigan State for the Lansing State Journal and have been covering the Spartans off and on since 1994 when I was attending MSU.

It is somewhat remarkable how closely Notre Dame and Michigan State have paralleled each other over the last 13 months. Two miserable seasons followed by interminable offseasons, and now hopes of strong returns to success, though yet somewhat unfounded. At least, that is the mood around the Irish. Is it something similar up in East Lansing?
MSU’s situation goes beyond the 3-9 season last year, along with having four players dismissed for their involvements in two separate sexual assault cases and nine others having left the program. The optimism from the 2-0 start is very much tempered based on beating two Mid-American Conference opponents, but fans are warming to the improved efforts on offense and defense. However, coaches and fans alike know this is a young team with a lot of questions remaining to be answered.

I don’t know that the Spartans have realistic College Football Playoff hopes this year, but playing spoiler in the Big Ten certainly seems a possibility, especially with games at Michigan and Ohio State and home against Penn State. (Lucky to dodge the Boilermakers offensive powerhouse this year.) Where does facing Notre Dame fall in a macro view up there?
The next three games against ND, Iowa and Michigan will go a long way to determining both the Spartans’ identity and the course of their season. The game with the Irish really is the start of that trilogy after playing two up-tempo teams. It’s the first traditional, line-em-up, smashmouth game — in primetime on national television, no less — for a team with 19 true and redshirt freshmen playing.

It’s a young but talented collective, and MSU has shown surprising depth despite the aforementioned attrition. This week’s game will show just how deep the rotation will be going into those first two Big Ten games. All that said, after last season’s swoon, the young Spartans know they cannot be looking two or three opponents ahead.

Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke, left, and coach Mark Dantonio react following Lewerke’s 61-yard touchdown against Western Michigan in the Spartans’ season opener. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke saw some work last year, but has become the offensive leader only this season. Through two games, he has rushed for 150 yards and thrown for 411. Has his dual-weapon effectiveness been a result of Michigan State’s MAC-filled schedule so far, or is that kind of playmaking something Irish fans should expect to see this weekend?
Lewerke showed his legs last year at Maryland with 79 rushing yards and against Michigan with a 24-yard run, so it’s a significant part of his arsenal. He runs the read-option better than his predecessors, but MSU needs more from his arm to maintain its successful start. Brian Kelly knows this and, like I expect the Spartans to do with Brandon Wimbush, will attempt to make Lewerke show he can hit throws downfield and make wise decisions when he takes shots deep. He hasn’t shown great accuracy on long passes yet early in his career, but he has a strong arm (as Wimbush does) and is not afraid to take chances and be a “gunslinger” QB.

Maybe I am being presumptuous, but I would have expected junior running back LJ Scott to be the engine behind the Spartans offense. Averaging 5.4 yards per carry and gaining 994 yards in a dismal team campaign catches my attention like that. As Lewerke emerges, is there any chance Scott continues to be the secondary piece or is his assertion something of an inevitability?

Michigan State running back LJ Scott (3) stretches over the goal line for a touchdown against Western Michigan, Scott’s only rushing score thus far this season. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Take out Scott’s 44-yard run on fourth-and-1 against Western Michigan, and he’s averaging 2.5 yards on 32 other carries this season. He had two fumbles in the opener against Bowling Green, and he’s coming off multiple shoulder surgeries in the offseason that were meant to correct a “numbness” he said he would feel when he gets hit that goes all the way back to high school. Of the three running backs, all of whom have been featured at times the past three seasons, Scott provides the most versatility in running styles and ability to catch passes (including a touchdown catch on a wheel route against the Broncos). The staff remained committed to giving him the ball after his fumbling issue in the opener, but Gerald Holmes also showed last year at Notre Dame he can be the bell cow if Michigan State wants him to shoulder the load of carries. Nonetheless, there’s no question the Spartans expect and want Scott to be their feature back.

In Michigan State’s nine losses last year, the defense allowed more than 32 points per game. That would be disappointing for any team, but even more so for a Mark Dantonio-led unit. Before looking at this year, what went wrong defensively a season ago?
First, start at the MSU-ND game a year ago. That’s when Riley Bullough first got injured and missed the first three of a seven-game skid. Then Jon Reschke, who shined against the Irish, got hurt against Wisconsin and missed the rest of the year before leaving the program in the offseason. Malik McDowell was on and off the field all season with one minor injury after another. Demetrious Cox battled leg issues, and then Vayante Copeland was lost for the season. Losing those veterans last year forced MSU to play a number of untested players, many of whom were not quite ready early in the year but improved with experience (showed against Ohio State). Beyond that, MSU managed just 11 sacks all last season with those injury issues and inexperience. The Spartans also struggled to get off the field on third downs and wore down in the second half. They were outscored 220-136 after intermission, including 120-59 in fourth quarters and overtime. That was the first time in Dantonio’s first 10 seasons MSU was outscored after halftime and just the second time the Spartans got outscored in the fourth quarter and overtime in his tenure.

How much of that has changed this year?
The depth through two games has been surprising, even with most of the offseason attrition coming on defense. MSU has rotated six defensive ends and four defensive tackles, and its flipped pairings at both safety and cornerback regularly. That has kept the front seven fresh and quick to stop the run and get more pressure in the backfield. The Spartans’ third-down package has changed to more of a three-man front, with redshirt freshman Brandon Randle and senior Demetrius Cooper the pass-rushing ends. They are first in the country in allowing just an 11 percent third down conversion rate.

A year ago, the Spartans limited Notre Dame to 68 rushing yards (sacks adjusted). These days, as made quite clear last weekend at Boston College, the Irish could not be much more reliant on the run. Presuming Michigan State can’t limit Notre Dame to sub-70 again, will it be able to still force Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to win via the pass?
Dantonio admitted that allowing a quarterback to run for 200-plus yards is a recipe for failure, so expect the Spartans to spy him throughout Saturday night. Linebacker Chris Frey called him a “capture” quarterback as opposed to one who the defense believes it can go for sacks, which means they likely will put more eyes in the box on Wimbush and force him to show more accuracy in the passing game. There could be chances for Wimbush as well. True freshman Josiah Scott has made an immediate impact at cornerback, though the Spartans’ young secondary has benefitted from opposing quarterbacks missing throws and receivers dropping passes when they’ve been burned in coverage. As Kelly showed in the 2013 game, Notre Dame believes it can move the chains by throwing the ball up against Michigan State when it plays press man coverage and simply hoping the Spartans get too handsy and are called for pass interference penalties.

What else am I missing? Who or what should Notre Dame fans be looking for this weekend?
It’s expected to be a hot night in mid-Michigan, which could affect the players and cause cramping. Honorary captain Kirk Gibson’s Ring of Honor ceremony for being elected to the College Football Hall of Fame will amp up the crowd. So, too, will the first game under the new permanent lights at Spartan Stadium — night games in East Lansing create a different intensity Notre Dame teams have survived (2006) and failed (2010) in front of. It’s also worth noting Michigan State has won 11 of the last 18 meetings in the series, and this could be the last time these two teams play again until 2026. Everyone up here is cognizant of those facts, especially Dantonio, who knows it might be his last game coaching against a Notre Dame team he followed as a kid growing up in Ohio.

It strikes me you keep as close an eye as I do on spreads and such. Certainly, those are only for evaluation purposes and no other endeavors. This game opened with Notre Dame favored by 4 or 4.5 points, depending where you looked. It has already fluctuated toward 3 and 3.5 before seeming to settle at 4. How do you see Saturday night playing out?
I expect this to be a close game like most of the Michigan State-Notre Dame games have been during the Dantonio-Kelly era. It very well could come down to which team executes best on special teams. Justin Yoon is experienced, while Spartans kicker Matt Coghlin has yet to attempt a field goal.

While we’re at it, can I get you to commit to a score prediction?
Notre Dame 27, Michigan State 24.