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And in that corner… The Michigan State Spartans

Sep 18, 2013, 6:01 PM EDT

Tyler Hoover, Micajah Reynolds, Kurtis Drummond, Max Bullough AP

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 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.


Read more from Chris and the team over at The Only Colors, or follow on Twitter @TheOnlyColors or @ChrisVannini.

  1. 25kgold - Sep 18, 2013 at 8:08 PM

    17-10 Irish

    • dickasman - Sep 18, 2013 at 9:14 PM

      You might be onto something here

  2. NotreDan - Sep 18, 2013 at 8:30 PM

    Will have to wait and see if I can get 4 usernames banned at sparty’s blog again this year.

    • dickasman - Sep 18, 2013 at 8:59 PM

      Lololololol. Boy do I know what that feel like.

  3. 4horsemenrideagain - Sep 18, 2013 at 8:53 PM

    not sure what this has to do with anything, but if mcdaniel doesn’t get 15 carries this week i will assume bk has permanently relegated him to the status of the running back equivalent of the 2 a.m. booty call girl. you know the one. she may not be flashy. she never gets asked to go out to a movie or taken to dinner and you definitely wouldn’t take her home to meet the rents, but when it’s 2 a.m. and you need old faithful, she’ll answer the call, show up and not disappoint.

    say what you will, but there’s something to be said for being reliable.

    • dickasman - Sep 18, 2013 at 9:03 PM

      I dunno horseman. I think that’s all he is. Honestly, can you really stand there at the urinal and say, dam it, we have a great running back. Can you see him starting for any other BCS team not that we are one but we certainly have better talent at RB than him. I’m not trying to knock him here. Just feel like the position needs more dynamic runner than him in order for us to beat solid teams

    • nudeman - Sep 18, 2013 at 9:31 PM

      Cam is 7/11 coffee when you’re absolutely dying for a Starbucks vente latte. OK, but …
      Cam is a donut when you need a jelly filled bismark. Donuts are cool, but sh**, bismarks ROCK
      Cam is a Miller Lite in a bottle when you’re looking for a cold micro brew draft in a frosty mug. Meh …
      Cam is a fully clothed photo of Jamie Leigh Curtis when you’re looking for frontal nudity of Sofia Vergera
      Cam is Ethel when you need some Lucy. Hey, I loved Ethel, but …
      Cam is Aykroyd without Belushi, the Dead without Jerry, Tiger without Stevie, and Iraq without Saddam.

      You get the point

      Whatever …

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Sep 19, 2013 at 12:55 AM

        Wow, a Jamie Leigh Curtis reference. I remember seeing her show her “assets” in Trading Places when she was quite a fox. Now she just does commercials for some yogurt that makes you poop better. If you have an erection for more than four hours and consult your physician, your doctor will actually show you an Activia commercial. But your point is well taken, give me the exciting stuff, give me Bryant, give me Folston. I never can understand why other programs can use true freshmen skill players with relative ease while we treat them like they need to pass some neurosurgery boards first. I know they have to acquaint themselves with a new system, but it’s football not brain surgery. It’s a game they’ve been playing for years. Whats wrong with handing them the rock and telling them to run that way?

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Sep 19, 2013 at 12:58 AM

        Oh, and what is a bismark? The NY craze is now the Cronut.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Sep 19, 2013 at 10:11 AM

        i can dig bismarks, sofia vergera in the nude, “i love lucy,” and just about any beer, but lattes!#$%@?

        come on now, let’s keep this all above board, about football and/or naked sofia vergera. even with dick’s flashbacks to his drug-fueled disco days getting us a bit off-track, there’s no need to discuss lattes, unless of course that’s to serve as a segue into a later discussion about yoga, which will then lead into a long discussion about yoga pants, and maybe even some links to sites that have sofia vergera wearing yoga pants.

    • don74 - Sep 18, 2013 at 9:46 PM

      Did she weigh less than Cam?

  4. NotreDan - Sep 18, 2013 at 9:51 PM

    I think we should an ITI commenter gathering someday

    • nudeman - Sep 18, 2013 at 10:08 PM


    • North of Denver - Sep 18, 2013 at 11:02 PM

      I’d travel for that. On a bragging personal note, had dinner with Lou Holtz last night. One of the best/coolest experiences of my life.

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Sep 19, 2013 at 1:03 AM

        Sounds like an unbelievable evening, pls share more details. Is Lou a big eater? Did he use the right dinner fork? What kind of war stories did he share?

      • mtflsmitty - Sep 19, 2013 at 1:10 AM

        Well come on, Mr. Westminster/Brookfield/Louisville/Boulder/Longmont/Ft. Collins/Cheyenne. If you’re going to tell us, you’ve got to give us some deets. What was the occasion? What was your connection? Was he there to be “on”, or was he just sharing a meal? Finally, at what point in the evening did you think to yourself, “I cant wait to tell the guys at Inside The Irish?”

      • bb90grad - Sep 19, 2013 at 10:23 AM

        Heard his lisp clears up with a few drinks, please confirm.

      • North of Denver - Sep 19, 2013 at 1:25 PM

        1) yes, used correct fork
        2). Not a big eater. Skipped salad, ate filet.
        3) war stories? A lot of them. From his days with Woody Hayes to his rivalry with Bo Schembechler to Jerome Bettis coming back to school and how he got to the Steelers to dealing with Hesburgh and then Malloy.

        1) he was keynote speaker at a conference in North Dakota.
        2) I’m on the board of the council hosting the conference and am only alumni on board.
        3) when I got my salad.

        1) no.

  5. seadomer - Sep 18, 2013 at 11:50 PM

    Hopefully, this is the game that we see our D gel into something that I can enjoy in the red zone versus screaming at all the misses.

  6. yaketyyacc - Sep 19, 2013 at 6:26 AM

    this Is going to be an answer game for the Irish and the Spartans. are the Irish as bad as they seem, and is Michigan State as good as it seems.
    I’m going with the Irish, as they have, good or bad, played football for three games, while Michigan State has played at football for three games.
    unfortunately, the rankings only consider the score, and not strength of schedule. so teams like Alabama, Ohio State can soar to the top, playing high schools and one or two college teams, or to borrow nude’s comparisons, basically they play munchkins.
    so Go Irish, and show them how real running backs play, and receivers receive, and quarterbacks handle the feared blitz.

  7. alsatiannd - Sep 19, 2013 at 7:06 AM

    Make plays!!

    • ibleedirish - Sep 19, 2013 at 10:40 AM

      classic valenti

      • alsatiannd - Sep 19, 2013 at 12:40 PM

        Pucker, pucker, pucker.

  8. ndcanuck - Sep 19, 2013 at 8:54 AM

    Interesting points about the “big play” offense versus the dink and dunk approach and how Sparty matches up. Seems like this ND team has been a big-play offense so far – most of the scoring drives have been big play driven; and we do have several big play weapons out there this year – Daniels, Amir, Troy N, TJ and even GA3 always has a chance. Not to mention the freshmen like Robinson, as well as guys like Brown or Procise. Might bode well for Saturday.

  9. 4horsemenrideagain - Sep 19, 2013 at 10:13 AM

    i was going to say “knock cook out early” but i hope this doesn’t happens, because if it does Maxwell’s coming in and he’s better than cook. so maybe just rough cook up a little and get him hearing footsteps to throw off his timing.

  10. tsombanj - Sep 20, 2013 at 3:43 PM

    MSU always plays ND well in the Bend. Expect a nail biter. Brindza hits a late field goal to win 27-24

  11. ndirishfan63 - Sep 20, 2013 at 11:38 PM

    31-24 Irish!!!!

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