The way too early 2012 starting lineup: Offense

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We’ve had our fifteen-window look heading at the 2012 Fighting Irish, culminating in Saturday’s spring football game. While the roster will see the infusion of 14 freshman this summer, let’s take a look at the way too early 2012 offensive depth chart, updating it with what we learned this spring.

OFFENSIVE LINE

With Braxston Cave spending most of spring recovering from a late season foot injury, the Irish trotted Mike Golic out as the center. Whether Golic stays in the starting lineup after Cave returns is likely up to guys like Tate Nichols, Christian Lombard, and Nick Martin.

The left side of the offensive line is rock solid with Zack Martin returning for his third tour of duty protecting the quarterback’s blind side and Chris Watt looking to build on an impressive season. With Cave the third member of this line that’s expected to play at a championship level, the two jobs that still need to shake out are the replacements for Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever.

One thing we’ve learned this spring is that Christian Lombard has seized one of the jobs. Lombard, who the staff thought highly enough of last year to let Matt Romine walk with a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, is going to start the season in the starting lineup. Whether that’s at guard or tackle is likely up to Tate Nichols. Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand have already decided that Lombard is one of the four best linemen on the team. If Nichols shows himself to be the fifth, and can handle the edge of the offensive line, the Irish should be set.

Early Projection for opening day:

Zack Martin, LT
Chris Watt, LG
Braxston Cave, C
Christian Lombard, RG
Tate Nichols, RT

Thoughts: This might be what I’m hoping for as opposed to what’s been decided because the first-string offensive line was featuring Lombard at tackle, with Golic and Nick Martin leading the battle at guard. That said, regardless of the physical improvements Golic has made, he’s still not the type of mauler that Nichols can be, and while Lombard will handle right tackle if needed, a road-grader like Nichols is a much better fifth starter than the physically limited Golic. In an ideal world, Golic turns into this season’s Andrew Nuss, a super-sub type that backs up the three interior positions. (That said, don’t be surprised if Nick Martin is the guy to beat at guard, with Lombard shifting outside.)

TIGHT END

A quick viewing of the Blue-Gold game gives you the feeling that Tyler Eifert will likely be a tight end by name only. Split wide, he’s the Irish’s top receiving threat. Paired with an inline blocker, it’s a mismatch waiting to happen. (Take a look at the deep post Eifert ran, it was a two-man route with Ben Koyack running the under route.) Even with Troy Niklas missing the spring’s final week with the flu and then concussion-like symptoms, he’s got to be the leader in the clubhouse to be the Irish’s top attached blocker.

Alex Welch, who had been passed by Ben Koyack last season, had a nice spring, fighting his way back into the mix and showing just how good the depth chart looks behind Eifert. Koyack is expected to do big things next season and into the future. Jake Golic, who along with Eifert is the elder-statesman of the group, reportedly has come down with mono, but he’ll likely only contribute on special teams.

Early Projection for opening day:

Tyler Eifert (never coming off the field)
Troy Niklas
Ben Koyack
Alex Welch
Jake Golic

Thoughts: Expect Eifert to play as many snaps as he can handle. I fully expect Niklas to become a weapon by the end of the season, and the Irish have taken a look at every snap of the New England Patriots’ tape to see how to use Eifert with Niklas, or whoever else can step up and make an impact. With plenty of two-tight sets, expect the top four on this depth chart to see plenty of playing time, and Golic do his best to get in the rotation.

OUTSIDE WIDE RECEIVER

If tight end is an embarrassment of riches, the outside receiver is quite the opposite. While John Goodman was voted most improved by the coaching staff this spring on the offensive side of the ball, believing that the fifth-year senior is ready to tap into all of his bottled promise is a leap I’m not yet willing to make. Same goes for Daniel Smith, who made it through spring practice healthy, and passes the eyeball test, but doesn’t look to be an explosive option. Davaris Daniels is the guy the Irish staff likely wants on the field, and might hope is flying under the radar. TJ Jones doesn’t look to have the physicality needed to be a top-flight outside wide receiver at this level (or at least he hasn’t shown it yet), but he’s taken a lot of snaps and needs to be a leader. Chris Brown and Justin Ferguson, not on campus until this summer, are true wildcards, with the staff believing Brown has the speed and athleticism to get on the field quickly. The loss of Luke Massa to a knee injury, after he looked good during spring drills, can’t help from a sheer numbers perspective either.

This is still a spread offense, regardless of how good the tight end depth chart is. The Irish are going to need two or three of these guys to be ready to go from day one, and the loss of Floyd, not to mention the late defection of Deontay Greenberry, will have Irish fans quickly wondering what could’ve been. That said, Mike Denbrock has done nothing but good things since he stepped back on campus, and he and Chuck Martin taking the reins of the passing game should open things up.

Early Projection for opening day:

Davaris Daniels
TJ Jones
John Goodman
Chris Brown
Daniel Smith
Justin Ferguson
Luke Massa (injured)
Andre Smith (walk-on)

Thoughts: This group doesn’t give you much confidence, but there is some talent here. Past numbers certainly won’t show that, but Goodman has a chance to be this season’s Jonas Gray, and Jones has shown flashes of being a starting-caliber player. While we’ll talk about the quarterback being a game manager, the Irish coaching staff will need to call the right game and play the best scheme to bring the most out of this group, as it’s not going to wow you with its athleticism.

SLOT RECEIVER

This is where we see the versatility of the Irish offense. On paper, there looks to be only Robby Toma currently on campus that plays the position. Davonte Neal, who was among the top recruited skill players in the country, could immediately make his mark, but he’ll need to learn the concepts and the playbook first. The same goes for KeiVarae Russell, who might be the forgotten man in this recruiting class, but someone people think could be a game-breaking talent. The versatility of the roster, where Tony Alford coaches both slot receivers and running backs, and Martin’s redesign of an offense that got way too vanilla last year, make this position a true mystery.

George Atkinson, Cierre Wood, and Theo Riddick all looked very good this spring, with the Irish running attack truly three-deep during the spring game. All three can play some version of slot receiver, with Riddick leading the team in catches during the scrimmage and Atkinson making some explosive plays in the passing game as well. We’ve only seen him with crutches, but the Irish believe they have another elite talent with Amir Carlisle, who dominated during the All-Star game circuit as a blue-chip recruit at wideout and was USC’s most versatile running back before transferring to South Bend.

It may be difficult to classify these guys correctly, but from this point going forward, who cares. The staff knows they are going to need to get the ball in their best players hands. How and where they do it will be fun to track.

Early Projection for opening day:

Robby Toma (could be a breakout player)
Amir Carlisle
Davonte Neal
George Atkinson
KeiVarae Russell

Thoughts: This group is going to be the most fun to watch. I could make a good argument that every guy listed here is going to have a huge season. The upside potential on all of these guys is tremendous and Chuck Martin is committed to finding interesting ways to get these guys touches. That’s all you can ask for.

RUNNING BACK

When Jonas Gray went down last season, the Irish’s biggest depth-chart deficiency on offense was revealed. With only freshmen Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson available as back-ups, Brian Kelly returned Theo Riddick to the backfield, where he’s stayed after looking natural at the position against Stanford and Florida State.

The addition of Amir Carlisle, the recruitment of Will Mahone and KeiVarae Russell, and the ascension of Atkinson this spring has turned this into one of the strongest positions on the Irish roster, and led to McDaniel getting reps with the depleted cornerbacks. Top-lined by returning starter Cierre Wood, the Irish can easily trot out four starting caliber running backs, before ever knowing what Mahone or Russell bring to the table.

With the balance of power in the offense tilted to running back and depth at tight end, expect all these guys — whoever is starting — to get carries.

Early Projection for opening day:

Cierre Wood
Theo Riddick
Amir Carlisle
George Atkinson
KeiVarae Russell
Will Mahone

Thoughts: The running game is going to power this offense. Call me crazy, but each of the top four guys listed could put up thousand yard seasons when you tally up rushing and receiving yards. That’s a scary proposition, especially when you know that Tyler Eifert is going to get his fair share of touches, too. For as much as people complain about the Irish’s weapons, this position grouping is definitely BCS caliber, and should remind Irish fans of the running game Lou Holtz used to trot out on the field.

QUARTERBACKS

Of course, it all is going to come down to the man behind center. The Blue-Gold game showed that the position battle, likely a three-man race between incumbent Tommy Rees and challengers Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix, is far from over. It might be so unresolved that it gives Gunner Kiel a chance to fight his way into it, too.

The spring game was a microcosm of all three starting candidates problems. Rees forced a ball into coverage and threw a bad interception. Hendrix locked on a receiver, never even noticing a dropping linebacker that was there to pounce, too. Both are mistakes that upperclassmen can’t make. Golson, who looked the best of the three, struggled to get the team in alignment quick enough, burning two timeouts in more than comfortable circumstances.

This battle could go any way before the Irish board the plane to Dublin. But as of now, here’s my gut on where things will end up.

Early Projection for opening day:

Everett Golson
Tommy Rees
Andrew Hendrix
Gunner Kiel

Thoughts: Chuck Martin will earn his salary, and likely his first major head coaching opportunity, if he can get this group to play up to its potential. Admittedly, this depth chart is based around what we saw during the spring game, and the coaching staff had 14 other opportunities to evaluate the position. During his postgame press conference, Kelly made it clear that Golson, while he looked good, needed to put in the time during voluntary workouts to win the job. Never one to shy away from playing multiple guys behind center, there’s a high likelihood that we’ll see three (and maybe even four) of these guys.

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.