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.

Friday at 4: Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

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Bowl games are [insert positive adjective here]. Make no mistake about that. They provide players and fans an excuse to head south in December, even if that destination is El Paso, Texas, or Birmingham, Ala. Warmer temperatures are always preferable. That’s science.

For those not making a trek to Shreveport, La., or Orlando, Fla., the 39 games sprinkled throughout 17 days provide a break from primetime reruns or, in the best of times, from mid-day office minutiae. Football is preferable to “Young Sheldon” or remembering to include the new cover sheet on the TPS report. Again, empirical evidence establishes this as a fact.

And for the grinding gambler, bowl games represent one last chance to exit the college football season with a net gain, furthering the dreams of continuing similar growth annually for two decades in order to secure retirement based off a hobby. On a smaller scale, bowl pools establish a chance for bragging rights, and little is better than holiday season bragging rights. That’s a bit shy of sound logic, but it is a reality, nonetheless.

All that acknowledged, bowl games should still not be factored much into long-term views, forward-looking or retrospective. They are the most uncertain of sporting events, having little attachment to either the season prior or the season eight months away.

When else does a team not play for a month on either side of a competition? There is a reason an answer is lacking. It’s an absurd practice. (Albeit, again, a delightful one. There are five games Saturday and only one of those 10 teams is from a Power Five conference, yet this scribe intends to watch each and every one of the five.) (Is that the first sign of a problem? Maybe, maybe not.)

Notre Dame finished 2017 with a 9-3 record and two losses in its final three games. Beating No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in the aforementioned Disney-based metropolis should not change the taste of that November letdown. At most, it can support an argument of the Irish simply being worn down by season’s end, but that would not change the fact of them indeed being worn down when it mattered.

When Notre Dame beat LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, it did not change the tenor of the season, and it did not lead to 2015’s success. Rather, the following year’s breakthroughs came from surprises shown only after injuries. (Getty Images)

Losing to the Tigers is not a greater sign of a program stuck spinning its wheels in the winter’s snow. It is not an indication of failing to win a game when it matters. Notre Dame already went 2-3 in those big games this year. In retrospect, perhaps the victory at Michigan State should raise that record to 3-3, but a big game feels like one as it occurs, and that Saturday evening in September did not hold such weight.

A big game does not come five weeks following the last consequential contest. A big game has some tangible effect on games to come. Outside of the College Football Playoff, no bowl game claims either factor. They are simply enjoyable exhibitions.

Hence, the common practice for coaches with new jobs is to move on, apparently abandoning their team before the season is technically over. It is becomingly increasingly-normal for NFL Draft prospects to sit out bowl games, be it out of precaution or preemptive recovery. They have nothing to gain, no ring, no record, yet much to lose in an injury a la former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl.

To pull from a comment shortly after Notre Dame fell to Miami, dashing any Playoff hopes, “I truly don’t get how you think wins over Navy and a pedestrian Stanford team carry more weight than a win over an Ohio St or TCU or Clemson in a major bowl game. Agree to disagree, I guess.”

A win at Stanford would have sent the Irish to a bowl game of greater note (likely the Fiesta Bowl, in the end), but that would not have been the reason it held consequence. Winning in-season, week-after-week, day-after-day becomes ingrained. A win Saturday creates momentum for a good practice on Tuesday, begetting a consistent showing Wednesday, which leads to attention to detail on Thursday. Before you know it, another weekend victory is in hand.

Concluding the season by knocking off the Cardinal would have set a standard of the revamped Irish being better than their most-similar foes.

Beating LSU will do little except provide fodder for both sides of the “Brian Kelly must go/stay” argument, an inane debate which will undoubtedly proceed unabated for an entire offseason when it should be recognized as utterly pointless absolutely no later than Jan. 9.

This memory should stick with the Irish throughout 2018’s first eight months, not whatever happens in Orlando. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Losing to LSU will not “fester over the winter,” to use another commenter’s worry. Losing to Stanford should. Getting embarrassed at Miami will.

If (when) Central Florida falls for the first time this year, how vocal will the sideways glances toward Scott Frost be, as the head coach splits his time between his new gig at Nebraska and his loyal charges in Orlando? They won’t be vocal at all. Frost delivered a 13-0 season. That is what will be remembered.

When Oregon blows past Boise State this weekend, will the Ducks take solace in thinking they could have challenged Stanford for the Pac-12 North Division if only their quarterback had stayed healthy? No, they will still look at the 7-5 season as the disappointment it was, not to mention they’ll be led by their newest head coach with Willie Taggart gone already in less than one calendar year.

When Arizona and Purdue combine for more than 65 points, will that be a sign their defenses need vast improvements in the offseason? No, the Wildcats giving up 34.1 yards per game already makes that pretty clear. The Boilermakers, contrarily, shouldn’t panic no matter the Foster Farms Bowl result. Head coach Jeff Brohm clearly has them trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball. In addition to a dynamic offense, Purdue gave up only 19.3 points per game this season.

Notre Dame very well may beat LSU. It certainly wants to. But that result will not reflect the 2017 season, and it will not be a catalyst into 2018. Let’s skip the argument of bowl victories set a foundation for success the following season. The data overwhelmingly says there is no distinct correlation to such thinking.

Rather, the Citrus Bowl will simply be a physical and entertaining game. On a day inevitably spent on the couch, likely horizontally, what more can genuinely be asked for?

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.