Five things we’ve learned: Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6

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You never expected it to be easy. If Notre Dame was going to finally beat Michigan after three years of heart-stopping defeats, you didn’t think the Wolverines were going to lay down and go quietly into the night, did you?

That’s why in spite of six turnovers — four interceptions and a fumble by Denard Robinson — Michigan kept coming after the Irish, picking themselves off the ground like a villain you can’t kill in an action movie. But Notre Dame’s defense stood tall, pushing back the Wolverines’ attack until the Irish offense did just enough, and the No. 11 Fighting Irish escaped Notre Dame Stadium with a hard fought victory over No. 18 Michigan 13-6.

“I thought both football teams played awfully hard,” Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said after the game. “I think one played better when it came to execution and taking care of the football.”

Better was a relative term on Saturday night, as Notre Dame’s offense did the defense no favor. Everett Golson threw an interception deep in Notre Dame territory on his first snap of the evening. The Irish only managed 14 first downs on 239 yards of total offense. The running game the Irish hoped to rely on was shut down, running for just 94 yards on 31 carries.

But a win is a win, especially over Michigan. On another Saturday where two teams in the top ten lost (future Irish opponent Oklahoma being one of them) and LSU hung on for an ugly 12-10 victory over an Auburn team that was taken to overtime last week by Louisiana-Monroe, Notre Dame doesn’t need to compete in college football’s beauty pageant. They’ll be happy winning and moving on to a well deserved bye week.

After holding both Michigan and Michigan State without touchdowns for the first time since 1909, let’s find out what else we learned in No. 11 Notre Dame’s victory over Denard Robinson and No. 18 Michigan.

***

After letting Denard Robinson beat Notre Dame single-handedly for two straight years, the Irish defense shut down the heart of the Wolverines.

Denard Robinson has played football games that will be remembered forever in Michigan lore. Saturday night was not one of them.

After propelling Michigan to dramatic victories the Irish the past two seasons, the Irish absolutely shut down Michigan’s Heisman Trophy candidate, forcing five turnovers from Robinson as the Irish defense shut down the Michigan offense.

“Defensively, what can I say,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “Six turnovers. Limited who we felt is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the country to no touchdowns. Just an incredible performance by our defense.”

After giving up almost 1,000 yards of offense to Robinson the past two seasons, Notre Dame shut down the quarterback, holding him to 13 of 24 passing for just 138 with four interceptions. On the ground, the Irish limited Robinson to just one run of 20 yards, and he needed 26 carries to gain 90 yards, a pedestrian 3.5 yards a carry. In a match-up many thought favored Michigan, the Irish defense absolutely killed the Wolverines, at one point intercepting five straight Michigan passes, and the inexperienced Notre Dame secondary stood strong.

“I think the key to stopping such a dynamic player like denard is everybody has to get to him,” Manti Te’o said after the game. “Everybody has to get to the ball. You have to really emphasize eleven guys to the ball and I think our coaches have done a great job in stressing the importance of everybody getting the ball.”

The ball was certainly up for grabs Saturday night and the Irish capitalized. Notre Dame held Robinson to the lowest passer rating of his career as a starter, all while holding him below 100 yards rushing. While nobody is ready to put the Irish defense in the same class as Alabama’s, the numbers are worth comparing.

Robinson vs. Alabama
11 of 26 for 200 yards. 1 TD, 2 INT (104.2 QB Rating). 10 rushes for 27 yards, 1 TD.

Robinson vs. Notre Dame
13 of 24 for 138. 0 TD, 4 INT (69.1 QB Rating). 26 rushes for 90 yards, 0 TD, 1 fumble.

After crumbling at the end of two straight losses to Michigan, Robinson was unable to do anything against the Irish, and it was a crushing blow to the senior quarterback that’s had so much success against Notre Dame.

“I’m disappointed in myself,” Robinson said. “The 22 years I’ve been living, this is the most disappointed I’ve been in myself.”

***

Notre Dame’s secondary is proving that you’d rather have a lack of experience than a lack of talent.

Saturday night was the night Notre Dame’s green secondary was going to get exposed. A running back (KeiVarae Russell) and wide receiver (Bennett Jackson) were starting at cornerback. A safety (Matthias Farley) that redshirted last year as a wide receiver was filling in for one of the defense’s best players. And anchoring the unit was a guy (Zeke Motta) many thought should turn into a linebacker. On paper, this was a disaster waiting to happen. In reality? Well, it might be the most talented secondary Notre Dame’s had in quite some time.

“I think after tonight, we all feel that we’ve got some young guys back there that can play at a high level,” Kelly said after the game. “I think our coaches have done a great job of getting the back end of our defense to the point where there’s a lot of confidence.”

Notre Dame went into the season with a secondary that many believed needed to stay healthy just to play serviceable football. But that didn’t happen. Tee Shepard, who many expected to battle for a starting job, didn’t make it to spring ball in South Bend. Austin Collinsworth, Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter are all lost for the season. Yet Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott have turned a talented but untested  group of players into a confident group, encapsulated by freshman Nicky Baratti, a high school quarterback learning defense on the fly, stepping in front of a halfback pass and making a huge interception in the end zone.

For the third straight week, the Irish secondary has held a Big Ten opponent under 200 yards passing. Notre Dame’s seven interceptions is one less than the Irish had all last season with first round draft pick Harrison Smith roaming centerfield and returning starters Gary Gray and Robert Blanton at cornerback.

The young group certainly needs to keep learning and get better. But this game should put an end to the belief that there’s no talent in the back-end of the Irish defense.

***

While Everett Golson remains Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, it’s time for the youngster to grow up in a hurry.

After impressing on the big stage with a calm and collected performance against Michigan State, Everett Golson took a huge step backwards on Saturday night, failing to recover from the interception he threw on his first passing attempt. The future of the Irish is still very much in Golson’s hands, but it’s hard to fault Kelly for pulling the young quarterback and relieving him with junior Tommy Rees.

Golson’s stat line was a scary one: Just 3 of 8 passing for 30 yards with two interceptions. Golson’s second pick got him pulled, after the sophomore rolled right on second and goal and threw a jump ball into the end zone when throwing it away was the play the Irish coaching staff drilled into the quarterbacks’ heads all offseason. From there, Kelly kept the offense in Rees’ hands, and the junior completed 8 of 11 throws for 115 yards while running for the team’s only touchdown.

“I think we saw that the defense is such that we want to make sure that we limit turnovers,” Kelly said. “Early on we turned the ball over and that’s ultimately why we made the change at quarterback.”

Golson watched the games final 38 minutes on the sideline, a fate that has many wondering if the young quarterback will suffer a crisis of confidence. Kelly isn’t one of them.

“I don’t really believe it’s a matter of confidence as much as he just has to settle down,” Kelly said of Golson. “He was not as comfortable as I would have liked after playing the Michigan State game where he was in an incredible environment. He needs to settle down a bit and he’s going to be just fine.”

Kelly quickly named Golson his starter for Miami but didn’t take away the option to play Rees if he feels like the offense needs him.

“I think we’re fairly comfortable if we need Tommy to come in and handle some of the offense for us, if we feel like it’s necessary, we will,” Kelly said. “He’s a great asset to have if you need him to close out a game, and we’ll continue to go that route. We’d like to continue to develop Everett so we don’t have to do that, but we’re still going to try to win football games anyway possible.”

Winning games cures a lot of ills, and it’s also the key to keeping a potential thorny quarterbacking situation contained.

***

Notre Dame’s relentless front seven took Michigan out of its game plan early.

It didn’t take long for Al Borges to throw the kitchen sink at Notre Dame. Setting up a trick play from the first snap, the Wolverines relied on gimmicks from the start, hoping to catch Notre Dame’s defense out of position. It earned an early pass interference call against Danny Spond when wide receiver Devin Gardner tried to complete a throw-back pass, but it bit the Wolverines later, with Michigan relying on running back Vincent Smith to throw a halfback pass after a 12 play drive marched Michigan down to the Irish ten yard line.

Michigan’s first two trips into the Irish red zone netted zero points, thanks to the ferocious play of Notre Dame’s defensive front and Michigan’s unwillingness to go toe-to-toe in the red zone. After Golson’s early pick set up Michigan 1st and Goal at the Irish 10, the Wolverines proceeded to go backwards. First the Irish stuffed Fitzgerald Toussaint for a loss of two. Then it wasa  Prince Shembo sack of Robinson for a loss of three more. On 3rd and 15, it was Stephon Tuitt that made another big play, dropping Robinson for a 10 yard loss. First and Goal was now a 43-yard field goal attempt that Brendan Gibbons pushed wide.

With three more sacks tonight, the Irish now have 14 sacks on the year, averaging 3.5 a game through their first four. That rate would have been good for second nationally in 2011 and has the Irish more than half way past their total of 25 last season. (It’s also a rate that’s likely to improve, considering Navy, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan were four of the stingier teams in the country when it comes to sacks — giving up an average of just 1.48 a game last year.)

More importantly, the Irish front seven is powering this football team as it grows. With an offense seeking an identity and a secondary learning on the fly, the physical front of the defense is powering this team to historic levels. The Irish haven’t won a football game scoring less points since 1990. They haven’t allowed six points or less to top-20 opponents in consecutive weeks since 1943. That’s a total of 36 points the Irish have given up in the first third of the season. That’s better than any Lou Holtz defense, and the best since 1975.

Many laughed when Bob Diaco openly stated that his goal was to have the best defense in America. The Irish might not be there yet, but they’re on pace to have one of the best defenses Notre Dame has fielded in over 20 years.

***

It might just be time to throw Manti Te’o’s name into the Heisman Trophy race.

It’s been 15 years since Charles Woodson was the only defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. But it might be time to give Manti Te’o serious consideration for college football’s most prestigious award. Notre Dame’s star middle linebacker filled up the stat sheet once again, making eight tackles, one tackle-for-loss, and intercepting Denard Robinson twice on Saturday night. In a stadium where thousands of fans wore Hawaiian leis in support of Te’o after a horrible week of personal hardship, the senior linebacker from Hawaii followed up a dominant performance against Michigan State with another one against the Wolverines.

“He’s the guy in there,” Kelly said of his senior captain. “I mean, it all evolves around him, his personality, his strength. He’s a special guy. Take advantage of him when you’ve got him now, because I’ve never been around a kid like that.”

After turning down the opportunity to head to the NFL after his junior season, Te’o has returned with a vengeance, cleaning up an all-around game that was already considered to be one of the strongest in college football. Always known as a strong sideline to sideline player, Te’o fought the one knock on his game of not forcing turnovers, having never recovered a fumble nor intercepted a pass. Through four games, he’s got three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

But perhaps more important than anything he’s done on the field, Te’o has taken over at the undeniable face of the Fighting Irish. After a decade filled with mostly offensive stars, the Irish take their cues and play to the likeness of their Hawaiian leader. His quiet strength and forceful will powering Notre Dame to their best start in a decade.

With thousands of fans chanting his name after the Irish’s victory, Te’o has also worked his way into a more hallowed status: Irish legend.

“Man, I said it before. Four years ago when I decided to come here, I didn’t know why,” Te’o said. “It’s starting to unveil itself why, why I felt that I was told to come here. I can’t thank my team enough. I can’t thank the students and just the fan base around the world, Notre Dame and non-Notre Dame fans. They’ve just been great. It’s very humbling for me and my family.”

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.