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.