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And in that corner… The Michigan State Spartans

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After a brief hiatus, the rivalry with Michigan State resumes. For the first time since 2013, the Irish and Spartans will do battle for the Megaphone Trophy, the return to Midwestern smash mouth football—and a three-game Notre Dame winning streak—a perfect early-season test for both teams.

There’s still much to be learned about the Spartans. Ranked 8th in the Coaches Poll and 12th by the AP, we’ve only seen an ugly win against Furman from Mark Dantonio’s squad, though there’s plenty of talent left from the Spartans’ Big Ten championship squad and College Football Playoff participant.

To get us up to speed on the Spartans, Chris Vannini joins us. A graduate from Michigan State, Vannini is the Managing Editor of CoachingSearch.com, as well as the host and producer of “The Only Podcast,” covering Michigan State sports and the Spartan football team.

One of my go-to experts on all things Sparty, Chris drops plenty of knowledge on a Michigan State team that’ll be answering many questions this weekend as well.

 

Coming off a playoff appearance, Michigan State has lost a ton of talent. How different is this team than the one that won 12 games, The Big Ten and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff?

It’s a lot different in terms of the star power. Connor Cook, Aaron Burbridge, Jack Conklin, Jack Allen and Shilique Calhoun are gone. Those were guys who carried the load for a few years. The faces replacing them have been around, but not in the spotlight, like QB Tyler O’Connor, LB Riley Bullough and RB L.J. Scott. So there were a lot of questions coming into this season — questions that are still unanswered. How will this team handle a big moment? A big game? A tough road environment? A bad call going against them? We still don’t really know. All we know is that it’s a different group at the top.

 

What do you make of that performance against Furman? Ironing out the kinks? A young team developing? A smoke screen to confuse Notre Dame?

Definitely not a smokescreen. That’s something MSU fans like to say a lot, explaining bad non-conference performances by saying MSU was holding everything back. I’m not going to say they didn’t hold anything, but when you’re still battling a bad FCS team in the second half, the problem is the execution, not the playbook. There were certainly kinks being ironed out with a young team. Again, it’s a lot of guys in situations they haven’t been in before. It’s essentially an entirely new receiving corps and big OL changes. MSU teams do improve as the season goes on. There’s a lot of room for growth after one game.

 

It’s another season, which means it’s another good Spartan defense, right? Malik McDowell is back. But walk me through the rest of the crew that’ll make things difficult for Notre Dame on Saturday night.

McDowell is certainly a star and made his presence felt against Furman, but the rest of the defensive line struggled. This group lost several players in the offseason to dismissals, transfers and the like. If not for adding some transfers, there could be even more issues. Furman was consistently getting to the linebackers in the run game. The good news for MSU is that the linebacker group is stacked — and they finally got Ed Davis approved for a sixth season. The All-Big Ten linebacker tore his ACL in 2015 fall camp. It sounds like he’s expected to play some against ND, though it’s been more than a year since the public saw him play, so I’m not sure what to expect yet. This is a front 7 that will have a strong rush defense, but I question if they’ll be able to rack up TFLs and sacks like in years past. The defensive backs are a veteran group, but a group that has questions at every spot. CB Vayante Copeland has been hyped up by coaches, but he only played in 1.5 games last year before a neck injury ended his freshman season. The other three starters (CB Darian Hicks, S Montae Nicholson and S Demetrious Cox) all got burned several times last year. Hicks was hit with two pass interference penalties on deep balls against Furman because he didn’t turn his head around. We know how often ND threw deep when these teams met in 2013, and this secondary isn’t near that level.

 

Conversely, the offense didn’t look all that impressive against Furman. LJ Scott is back, putting up a relatively easy 100-yard game. But what did you see from Tyler O’Connor and the rebuilt offensive line?

Something like 75 of Scott’s 100-ish yards came after contact, so his numbers were because of him, not the offensive line, which was OK, but not great. Madre London didn’t do much in the running game. O’Connor was mostly accurate in his first start as The Guy, but he had a big problem not looking off his intended receiver. If that guy got open, O’Connor was able to hit him, but if he wasn’t, O’Connor struggled to move to other reads and threw a bad interception after staring a guy down. The fifth-year senior knows everything in the playbook, but he’s going to need to work on his reads. A big question was going to be big plays. This team barely got any big plays in the run game last year, and now they have a new passing game. They had only 5 plays of at least 20 yards, including just 3 such passing plays, and one was a bubble screen. Can this team make plays down the field? Texas did against Notre Dame. I don’t know if this MSU team can.

 

For a long time, Michigan State’s identity included a large chip on their collective shoulder for being overlooked. Does it still exist, considering the Spartans ascent nationally, and the fact that they’ve essentially dominated the Big Ten — winning two of their last three against the Buckeyes and seven of eight against Michigan?

This is a program that is respected much more nationally than it is locally. You just have to look at the polls to see that. But locally and regionally, they’re always dealing with Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame coverage, so that chip can be easier to find. When Jim Harbaugh dominates a summer of media coverage, Michigan gets (deserved) preseason hype and Dantonio’s name gets misspelled in a magazine or two, MSU doesn’t have to look far. BTN’s “Green & White Days” camp series showed some players talking about Michigan’s hype, so they’ve got a chip. When it comes to Michigan, they’ll always have it.

 

The Notre Dame – Michigan State rivalry is one of the underrated battles in college football. It’s been a couple years since the two teams have played, and after a dominant run by the Spartans, Brian Kelly and the Irish have had Michigan State’s number. Are Spartan fans happy to be resuming the battle for the Megaphone?

Yes. This is a series that has so much history, and was a big part of MSU even getting into the Big Ten in the 1950s. It’s more of a friendly respect rivalry than the hatred you get with Michigan-Notre Dame. MSU fans love having non-conference series like Oregon, Boise State and others on the schedule (and being friendly with those fans). Since they only get 3 non-conference games now, I’m not sure if MSU-ND has to be every year, but it’s something that shouldn’t have long droughts.

 

Notre Dame fans have their keys to the game — none bigger than Brian VanGorder’s suspect defense. What are the keys for a Michigan State victory? What do the Irish do that worry you?

MSU needs more big plays on offense, both on the ground and in the air. That’s what Texas was able to do against a suspect ND defensive backfield. Can MSU make those plays? I don’t know. On the other side, it’s similar. Is Brian Kelly just going to throw deep ball after deep ball? Against this MSU defensive backfield, it may just work again.

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Give Chris a follow @ChrisVannini on Twitter and check out the podcast at The Only Colors

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

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…)