Outback Bowl - Michigan State vs. Georgia

And in that corner…The Michigan State Spartans

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After two straight games where the Irish were expected to win, No. 20 Notre Dame faces the first significant test of the 2012 season when they head to East Lansing as underdogs to take on No. 10 Michigan State. The Spartans are the early favorite in the Big Ten, winning an opening week showdown against Boise State before dominating Central Michigan.

A year after a disappointing loss to the Irish in South Bend, the Spartans seek to enact some revenge. With a defense that’s one of the nation’s best, but some question marks on the offensive side of the ball, we tracked down Ben Wilensky of  The Only Colors and got his take on this year’s Spartan squad.

1. On paper, the Spartans look every bit the Rose Bowl contenders they were expected to be. They gutted out a tough victory against Boise State and breezed to a win against Central Michigan. Take a snapshot after two games. Have there been any surprises or disappointments?

In short, MSU is 2-0, the defense has been terrific, and the majority of the other Big Ten contenders’ play so far can be best described as somewhere between disappointing and dismal. So, yeah, things are a-okay in East Lansing.

To add a bit more detail: the game against Boise State was close – although not nearly as close as the final score indicates, as MSU kneeled on the ball twice inside the BSU 5 yard line to end the game – but MSU was clearly the better team, dominating yardage, time of possession, and nearly every important statistic aside from turnovers. (More about those turnovers in a bit.) Yes, Boise is in rebuilding mode, but they’ve built their entire program on winning early-season games against powerhouse teams … and MSU escaped unscathed. The only real negative from the Boise game was the passing game – which turned around in a big way against Central Michigan, when Andrew Maxwell went 20-31 for 275 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, opponents have scored 20 points in two games against the Spartans. 14 have come by way of pick sixes (one thrown by Andrew Maxwell in the Boise game, and one by his backup, Connor Cook, against CMU), and 3 of the points happened when Boise took over at the MSU 22 yard line. That leaves one solitary field goal that can be fully charged against the defense.

The surprise is that everything has gone so well so far; there really isn’t much to complain about. There have been isolated disappointments – Maxwell’s performance against Boise, the relative lack of pass rush at times, some struggles with pass protection against Boise – but even those have been either improved (Maxwell) or totally nitpicky. The bottom line is that the team has looked every bit as good as Spartan fans hoped it would.

2. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell rebounded after a disastrous start to the season. How confident are you in the Spartans’ passing game, with the first-time starting quarterback tasked with building chemistry with an almost entirely new receiving corps? How often do you see Michigan State throwing the football on Saturday?

“Disastrous” is probably a bit strong. Maxwell definitely had struggles against against Boise, but of the three interceptions he threw, the first was not at all his fault, the second was, at most, partially his fault, while the third was his fault. The interceptions all occurred in the first half. In the second half, Maxwell was 10-15, including 5-5 in the critical last two drives of the game, where, in turn, MSU took the lead and then closed the game out. Against CMU, Maxwell was really quite good. He struggled a bit in the first two series of the game, when the wind was blowing very hard, but after that he was very good.

Many of Maxwell’s errors have occurred when he has thrown fastballs where changeups would do; the coaching staff apparently has been working with him on putting a bit more touch on his passes. He has struggled a bit when under heavy rush, so I’d expect ND to blitz often. Overall, however, he’s exactly what he appeared to be at the beginning of the season: immensely talented, but inexperienced. That inexperience has resulted in mistakes, but taken as a whole, the good has outweighed the bad.

The wide receivers are quite inexperienced, as you described. What they lack in experience, however, they make up for in sheer numbers, as 10 different players caught passes against Central Michigan. Bennie Fowler is probably the best of the bunch; he’s fast and physical and had a big day against CMU last week. Tony Lippett had a nightmare game against Boise State, and (probably as a result) received less playing time against CMU. But, he’s big and fast and will probably still play a role on Saturday. Keith Mumphery took much of Lippett’s playing time against CMU and acquitted himself fairly well. The remaining receivers are young but talented. DeAnthony Arnett is the most well-known, as he was impressive for Tennessee last year and then transferred to MSU. He has only one reception on the year, but it was for 48 yards. Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings are both freshmen who show quite a bit of promise.

The best receiver on the team – and at the very least, Maxwell’s favorite receiver – may be Dion Sims, the tight end, whose 10 catches this season have all resulted in first downs. Sims made some terrific plays in the second half against Boise, and at 6’5”, 285 he presents all kinds of matchup problems.

For obvious reasons, the offense is built around Le’Veon Bell, and I expect that won’t change against ND. However, I think there will be a concerted effort to establish the passing game, particularly given that the secondary seems to be the weakest part on the Irish defense. Bell nearly won the Boise game on his own; I doubt that he can do that against Notre Dame, and I doubt even more strongly that the coaching staff will ask him to do so. I’d expect to see quite a bit of passing on Saturday.

3. That’s two games without giving up an offensive touchdown. Eight starters return on a defense that was already pretty good. How good is this unit? Elite? On paper, it seems rock solid at all three levels — where should the Irish offense attack?

I’d take the MSU defense over any in the country save Alabama and maybe LSU. I suspect that Irish fans are a bit skeptical as ND had quite a bit of success on offense last year. Make no mistake, that was by far the worst game the defense played all season, and they’ve been absolutely terrific since then.

There are very few weaknesses. The linebackers are smart and very, very strong against the run. The secondary is shutdown-quality, and I think Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard may be the best pair of cornerbacks in the country. William Gholston is a terrorbeast at one defensive end – and if anything, Marcus Rush’s statistics at the other end are even better. They were incredible against Boise, repeatedly bailing out the offense. Notre Dame will present a bigger test, and I expect that they’ll give up their first touchdown of the year, but it will not come easy for the Irish.

If there’s one weak point on the defense, it’s probably on the interior of the line. The Spartans really miss Jerel Worthy’s pass rushing skills and big-play ability – though it’s probably unreasonable to expect to replace a player like that. MSU’s defensive tackles haven’t been able to generate much pass rush. So, the two-headed Golson/Rees monster may have more time to throw than you might expect. (They’ll still have to deal with the secondary.)

That said, CMU had some success running the ball to the outside. (CMU’s success was limited, however: all CMU running backs combined for a total of 88 rushing yards). As my co-author KJ wrote, “Given the insanely small rush defense numbers MSU posted against Boise, we’ll chalk that up to the “nobody’s perfect” category.” Furthermore, neither Boise nor CMU were able to run the ball on the inside at all. Still, if you’re looking for something to exploit, that may be it – and given Cierre Wood’s speed, I bet ND will try to run him to the outside.

4. Last year, the Spartans offensive line was learning on the fly. This year, some expected it to be the strongest of Dantonio’s offensive fronts. After putting the game on Le’Veon Bell’s back against Boise State, the Spartans didn’t run the ball as effectively as you’d have expected in their easy win over Central Michigan. A fluke? How will this OL match up with an Irish front seven that’s just outside the top ten in sacks?

I don’t think the sample size is big enough yet to call anything a fluke. But, I’m not particularly concerned. No doubt based on what they saw against Boise, CMU really stacked the box against MSU and dared Maxwell to beat them. Which he did. (And bear in mind, Bell still had two touchdowns before he was effectively shut down during the second half.) Bell was fine, and his carries were limited enough for him to be fresh for the ND game, which was the more important result anyway.

Overall, MSU’s offensive line has been good if not great. More than 80 of Bell’s yards against Boise came after contact, and those yards are all his – but the offensive line put him in a position to get those yards by repeatedly opening up holes for him.

The pass protection is a bit more of a concern – though, again, it’s a limited concern, because Maxwell hasn’t been sacked yet this year. Still, Boise had 7 hurries, and Maxwell made some poor decisions as a result of those hurries. I bet that ND will be able to get some pressure, and it’ll lead to at least one interception.

5. The Spartans are a four-to-five point favorite in Las Vegas. Is that how you see it? What does Michigan State have to do to hold off the Irish?

Given the home field advantage, that seems about right. I know that some Spartan fans are very, very confident about this game. I think MSU has a better team than Notre Dame, but ND is better than Boise State, and MSU didn’t exactly blow out the Broncos.

To win the game, MSU’s offensive line needs to fight ND’s defensive line to at least a draw. I think that’s the strongest unit for the Irish, and if ND wins that battle decisively, I think you’ll see a young quarterback (Maxwell) make some mistakes that MSU may not be able to recover from. Even if things go really poorly, I can’t see the Irish scoring more than 21 – 24 points. So, MSU’s offense doesn’t have to put up huge numbers, but I don’t think Bell can do it on his own – and for Maxwell to be successful, he’s going to need pass protection.

6. Any advice for Notre Dame on beating the Wolverines? Mark Dantonio seems to have the maize and blue figured out.

The best way to beat them is to totally overlook the MSU game and focus entirely on beating Michigan. I wholeheartedly endorse that plan.

More seriously, blitz Denard Robinson like there’s no tomorrow. He’ll probably slip out of the pressure once or twice for big gains, but he also makes terrible decisions under pressure. On offense, my usual answer would be to pound them with the running game, because their defensive line really isn’t good and their linebackers aren’t terrific either. But with the loss of Blake Countess, they’re really thin at cornerback. (The safeties, especially Kovacs, are pretty good.) The Michigan defense is much, much sounder than they were under Rodriguez, but it’s still filled with average players who played way above their pay grade last year, and are now coming back down to earth. (Man oh man do they miss Martin and Van Bergen.) I bet you’ll beat them this year.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)