The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

80 Comments

There will be no playoff for Notre Dame. Brian Kelly’s football team may well be less than six combined points away from being ranked No. 1 in the country, but they’ll watch four other teams play for a national title.

That’s not to say all is lost. Eleven win seasons don’t grow on trees, and Notre Dame is now the belle of the ball as New Years Bowl games look to court a fanbase that has sold out every game it played in this season.

We’re a little late getting the good, bad and ugly up. So without further ado, let’s rip off this band-aid and get right to it.

 

THE GOOD

Josh Adams. Notre Dame’s freshman running back was dominant on Saturday night, out-performing Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey as he ran for 168 yards on just 18 carries, including a 62-yard touchdown.

He held up in pass protection, and also threw TWO great blocks on a long DeShone Kizer run. Adams did everything you could ask for from your running back—doing so as a true freshman who looked destined for a redshirt as the Irish left spring practice.

Adams has made him mark on the Irish program early. He broke Jerome Heavens rookie record for most yards in a game by a freshman. He notched his fourth 100-yard effort of the season. And his 757 rushing yards put him in position where he’d likely have been Notre Dame’s leading rusher in six of the last eight seasons.

 

DeShone Kizer. We’re running out of good things to say about Kizer (I said a whole bunch of them in the Five Things). But as a runner, passer and clutch performer, the young quarterback did everything you could ask for from a leader—especially when you remember he (like Adams) is a freshman.

Accuracy wise, Kizer’s numbers may have been a tick lower than usual. But you can credit that to coaching—understanding that a throw away is far better than a forced pass. And while some early struggles in the red zone and the fumble before halftime stick out as negatives, nothing was more impressive than Kizer’s final 15-play, 88-yard touchdown drive.

“The moment is never too big for him,” Kelly said postgame.

 

Will FullerAfter laying an egg against Boston College, Fuller turned on the jets and caught another home run deep ball, this time a beautiful 73-yarder that turned into Fuller’s ninth touchdown catch of 30 yards or more this season.

Fuller’s six catches for 136 yards led all receivers on Saturday, and essentially matched the rest of the Irish receiving corps. It was his sixth 100-yard game of the season and tenth of his career.

 

Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker played like one on Saturday, notching 15 total tackles and one TFL. He was especially stout against the run, playing exceptionally at the point of attack as the Irish shut down Christian McCaffrey.

After a season where we saw Smith flash plays of brilliance in 2014, Brian Kelly talked postgame about Smith’s consistency this season.

“Normal day. That’s Jaylon’s normal effort,” Kelly said. “He’s all over the field and he has been every single week that he’s played. I don’t think he’s had an off week. He may have had a play that he didn’t make once or twice, but each and every week he has had that kind of impact to our defense.”

 

Stopping Christian McCaffrey. The Irish defense—and Brian VanGorder—definitely deserves credit for designing a game plan that didn’t allow McCaffrey to beat them. Stanford’s Option A (and B and C) got his 30+ touches for the game, but only managed one 11 yard run and a 14 yard catch. Return-wise, he was held to a long of 26 yards.

After the game, I asked Joe Schmidt if there was a “risk-reward” type of scenario when it came to defending a player like McCaffrey, especially considering that McCaffrey’s struggles went hand-in-hand with the success of Devon Cajuste and the passing game.

“With every play call, there are pros and cons to every defense you call,” Schmidt said. “And it was a little different with some of the calls we made. We obviously mixed it up and there were some different calls all night. It wasn’t something that throughout the game we were going to do [solely man coverage]… but you’re right about the pros and cons of each defense.”

 

QUICK HITS: 

* How clutch was CJ Sanders kickoff return touchdown? The freshman notched Notre Dame’s first since George Atkinson in 2011, and now has both a punt and kickoff return for a touchdown this season, joining Vontez Duff (2002) and Allen Rossum (1996) in the club.

* It was a big day for the offensive line, dominating at the point of attack in the run game and also only giving up two TFLs to a Stanford scheme that may be down, but certainly still capable.

* In addition to Sanders’ return, Notre Dame’s special teams were excellent. Two long punts for Tyler Newsome. Justin Yoon cashing in on each of his chip shots. But most importantly, the kickoff coverage kept Christian McCaffrey in check, even as they kicked deep in the final minute.

* The running Game dominance was pretty insane. The Irish averaged a ridiculous 8.5 yards per carry with 299 yards on 35 attempts. They only had five yards lost in the ground game, a stat that usually is double-digits for ND.

* All those probability experts that were second-guessing Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two probably ignored that converting that play would’ve had Stanford kicking a game-tying field goal and not a winner. You still have to convert it, but credit Kelly for not coaching scared and understanding—before anybody else did—that those points could matter.

 

THE BAD

Stopping Kevin HoganA year after ruining his final appearance in Notre Dame Stadium, Kevin Hogan sliced and diced the Irish’s secondary. He completed 17 of 21 throws, none more critical than the 27-yarder up the seam to Devon Cajuste.

Without KeiVarae Russell, the Irish cornerbacks were limited. Devin Butler played 46 snaps with Matthias Farley playing 30 and Nick Watkins taking five. Looking for numbers to back up what we all saw? ProFootballFocus grading had Devin Butler, Cole Luke, Max Redfield, Elijah Shumate and Matthias Farley all with negative scores.

 

Red Zone Struggles. It’s hard to talk about Notre Dame’s incredible offensive output without digging into the inability to cash in touchdowns in their early red zone appearances. Justin Yoon kicked three field goals under 30 yards. Those aren’t victories.

On the other side of the ball, Stanford was the exact opposite. Five times inside Notre Dame’s 20-yard line? Five touchdowns. In a game this close, Notre Dame getting blown away in such a critical part of the football game explains just how well the Irish did other things (offensively) to even have had a chance to win this game with 30 seconds left.

Offensively, it was a mixed bag. Certainly play selection can be questioned, though a deeper dig into this part of the game usually makes those gripes sound more like fanboy complaints (hindsight always being 20-20) than viable question marks.

The run game got nine yards on three plays when it needed ten, and then came off the field after Nick Martin’s “snap infraction.” Stanford got away with what looked like an offsides on another, and Kizer missed his shot on second down to follow his blockers for what could’ve been a big gainer. Credit the Cardinal for a sellout blitz that forced a throwaway. And then there’s the missed opportunity—Amir Carlisle couldn’t hold on to a pass that looked like a sure first down and likely a touchdown.

Defensively, Stanford’s David Shaw didn’t choose to go with the battering ram attack. Four of the Cardinal’s five scores came via the pass. The first series, a playaction to McCaffrey allowed Remound Wright to slip out of the backfield for an easy score. Cajuste posted up Cole Luke for the second score. Devin Butler’s worst play of the game cost the Irish a score when Michael Rector slipped out of an easy tackle and waltzed into the end zone. And a nice design had Austin Hooper sliding out late, only to see Max Redfield trip up Jaylon Smith and the Cardinal get another easy score.

 

The wrong side of the stripes. Just about everybody in the press box expected offensive pass interference to be called when Cajuste stiff-armed Devin Butler as they chased down a long pass. Instead, Butler got called for 15 yards and there was a gigantic swing to the game.

Notre Dame got the tough end of the officiating on Saturday night, called for six penalties and 65 yards while Stanford was only flagged once for five yards. From way above the play I saw multiple times where a Cardinal offensive linemen kicked off the line a split-second early. The refs somehow didn’t. I also thought Sheldon Day drew his share of holds that stayed in the pocket.

It’s crying over spilt milk. And there certainly wasn’t any shadowy conspiracy theory. But that’s a tough break—especially if refs are flagging snap infractions early and missing basic procedural calls later.

 

Third Down defense. Stanford’s ability to convert its first five third downs and eight of 12 killed Notre Dame’s defense. It’s also the reason why the Cardinal were able to put together scoring drives of 75, 78, 75, 76 and 74 yards.

Big plays still happened to the defense, mostly in the passing game. But while Notre Dame minimized them, they just couldn’t do anything to get off the field on third down.

 

THE UGLY

The Final 30 seconds. Where to begin? Perhaps with the replay officials decision to allow Kizer’s touchdown run to stand? What seemed like a break for the Irish actually turned out to give Stanford more time to come back and kick a field goal.

From there, it all happened rather quickly. First the bad luck—another incidental facemask by the Irish as Isaac Rochell chased after Kevin Hogan. That provided just enough room for the game’s clinching play—a seam route that looked way too open.

Here’s what Shaw said postgame when asked about the play.

“Well we always look at what they do in the two minute,” Shaw said. “They were a couple different options. We tried some shots early on, they did a really good job defending it. But we thought there were some lanes inside. So we weren’t trying to score a touchdown, we were just trying to get into field goal range…Kevin did a great job, looking off the safety coming back and then he through a bullet. Devon caught it, got positive yards after the catch.”

Kelly audibly groaned when asked to give his evaluation of what happened.

“We’ve got to close down inside out on that seam route,” Kelly said. “I thought we probably played it a little bit too much, too much outside in, worried about backing up. We’ve got to be more aggressive to the seam route.”

In reality, Notre Dame’s defensive personnel deficiencies couldn’t have been exposed more on that play. Devin Butler was out of the game with a concussion, bringing in Nick Watkins to play outside cornerback. Lined up three across underneath the four-deep shell were Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley.

Romeo Okwara, Notre Dame’s best pass rusher, was relegated to making sure Hogan didn’t scramble. That left Andrew Trumbetti to chase Hogan opposite Day, with Isaac Rochell on the nose. Trumbetti’s outside route to the quarterback was never a factor.

Hogan put a very good throw in a hole between Schmidt and Farley, with the linebacker drawn inside by a curl and Farley surrendering the middle of the field too easily.

But more frustrating? The depth safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate got. Neither had a clue that Stanford was just one big play from being in field goal range. There was more than 10 yards between the underneath coverage and the safeties over the top. Redfield was still in his backpedal at the 25, Shumate not much better as he finally broke on the ball at the 30. Bad Football IQ play by two guys who haven’t showed a ton of it.

There were so many great things that this football team did. But from day one, safety play has been a struggle. Game 12 that deficiency ended up breaking the team’s back.

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

Getty Images
11 Comments

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

Getty Images
59 Comments

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

Getty Images
22 Comments

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

Associated Press
30 Comments

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.