Forever tied together because of their consecutive tenures at Cincinnati, Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio are nonetheless polar opposites on the coaching spectrum. Dantonio’s teams embody the Big Ten archetype, built around a power offense and an aggressive defense. Kelly made his name at Cincinnati putting up points by the minute, spreading defenses out and turning Saturday afternoons into track meets.
As we’ve spent much of September debating the merits of Notre Dame rivalries, another comes this Saturday as the battle for the Megaphone Trophy comes to South Bend. After losing in gut-wrenching fashion in the first battle of Cincinnati coaches past, Dantonio gutted the Irish will a fake field goal in overtime, with “Little Giants” putting the game in the record books and Dantonio in the hospital with a mild heart attack after the victory. Kelly has had the better of the Spartans in the two years sense then, winning fairly easily in ’10, and then going to East Lansing and shutting down the then ranked No. 10 team in the country in a defensive showdown.
Watching it all has been Chris Vannini, who spends his time writing about Spartan football at The Only Colors and as the lead writer at CoachingSearch.com. Chris was kind enough to answer my numerous questions and pump out some really good stuff that’ll get everybody ready for a game that has plenty of subplots.
Not all 3-0 records are created equal. It hasn’t exactly been easy sledding for the Spartans these first three games, especially offensively. Last Saturday against Youngstown State, things seemed to click. What’s been the problem for the offense? Was last week part of the solution or simply playing Youngstown State?
Problems? Where to start. Just about everything was a problem other than the running backs in the first two weeks. The line couldn’t block, the receivers couldn’t get open nor catch, the quarterbacks couldn’t find guys and the play-calling was odd. Then, against Youngstown State, everything clicked. Sure, part of it was playing Youngstown State, but when the offense couldn’t move the ball against two of the worst teams in FBS, it was a reason to celebrate a little bit.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the offense is fixed or anything, but it was the first time in more than a calendar year that MSU collectively put together a performance to feel good about. Now we know that this offense can actually do something. The ability to perform against better teams is still yet to be seen, though.
Replacing Dan Roushar has been the combo platter of Jim Bollman and Dave Warner. Assess their work so far? If you were Mark Dantonio and needed to find someone to run the offense, who would you go out and hire?
The Bollman hire was a bit odd, but it he had coached with Dantonio at a few others stops, and familiarity is everything with Dantonio. After last year’s offensive struggles, the new coaches promised changes, so there was reason for optimism. Two games into 2013, everything was the same. Last week saw better execution more than anything, and that obviously makes play-calling easier. The hope is that things are figured out. Bollman is a consultant between series, while Warner calls the plays. As for finding someone to run the offense, it’s all about familiarity, as I said. Dantonio loves to promote guys who would have been waiting their turn, as Roushar and then Warner were. If the rest of the season plays out like last year, perhaps a change could be made, but it’s not a guarantee. If Dantonio were to make an outside hire for a coordinator position, I have no idea what he would go for, but it would have to be someone who runs an offense with a mobile QB, as MSU has been recruiting for.
Let’s talk about the quarterback position. Is this Connor Cook’s team now?
It’s his team now, with an asterisk. He’s getting all the first-team reps and is the No. 1 quarterback. But if he struggles beyond belief or is injured at Notre Dame, I believe Andrew Maxwell would take over. MSU knows what it has with him, so first-team reps aren’t as important in practice. It’s not “Cook or die,” but he’s the No. 1 QB about as much as one can be after a quarterback battle.
On the flip side of the ball, the defense has been tremendous and sits at the statistical top of the heap after three game? Is there a regression coming? Or is this just another really, really good Pat Narduzzi defense?
A regression is coming simply because of the opponents, but this will still be a really good Narduzzi defense. It’s a senior-laden group that has been making the negative plays (sacks, TFLs, INTs) that were there in 2011 but were missing a year ago. The front four has been able to wreak havoc on its own, which is important for every team. The young players that have replaced last year’s starters haven’t missed a beat: defensive end Shilique Calhoun, linebacker Taiwan Jones and cornerback Trae Waynes.
The Notre Dame offense has run hot and cold this season. How do you see Narduzzi attacking it on Saturday?
This, to me, is the most interesting storyline. Based on what I’ve seen in the past two weeks, opponents have sat back in coverage and forced Notre Dame to dink and dunk down the field, waiting for the Irish to make a mistake. That’s not MSU’s style. This is a heavy blitzing team that leaves its corners on islands, expecting the pressure to force a bad throw. As a result, the defense can be susceptible for some big plays. You’re not going to dink and dunk down the field against this defense, but a big play or two can lead to scores. Narduzzi is all about not allowing an inch, but the past few weeks have shown that it’s OK to allow inches, just not big yards to ND. I can’t see MSU sitting back and only rushing four, even if those four can get some pressure. It’s just not what they do.
Name one player on offense and one player on defense that should give Irish fans nightmares this week.
On offense, I’m going to go with Cook because of his dual-threat ability. Devin Gardner was able to break contain and make plays against Notre Dame, while Purdue’s Rob Henry was able to move enough to keep plays alive. Cook is a big guy that brings the mobility that Maxwell doesn’t have. Given MSU’s poor offensive line performances against the Irish in recent years, he may be on the move a lot.
On defense, it should be Calhoun. He’s actually a better pass-rusher than Will Gholston, who left early for the NFL. He has two sacks, three TFLs, eight QB hurries, an interception and three fumble recoveries. Through two games, he was almost outscoring MSU’s offense, with two of the fumbles and the one interception returned for a touchdown. He’s a fast guy that gets the edge quickly.
Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio have an “interesting” relationship. After Little Giants, Kelly has gotten the better of Dantonio the past two season, winning by large margins both in South Bend and East Lansing. Is this a game that brings out the best in Dantonio, his staff and the Spartans?
If not for that fake field goal, Dantonio could very well be 0-3 against Kelly. I think you’re going to see MSU throw the kitchen sink at the Irish. How effective that will be is hard to say. As we talked about, MSU only has one good performance out of three games against lowly opponents. But it’s good that it was the most-recent one. There’s some positive vibes around that haven’t been there for quite some time. Whatever the plan is, this game is going to come down to whether or not MSU’s offensive line can hold up. The Irish defensive line has destroyed the Spartans for the past two years. MSU has a full offensive line — it hasn’t in the past two years — but some guys are a little nicked up. If MSU can’t block, it’s over, and there’s not much of a way to gameplan against that. If they can block, then things can open up.