Pregame Six Pack: Return of the Spartans

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It’s a return to the familiar this weekend, with Michigan State and Notre Dame back together again on the football field. A rivalry that’s one of Notre Dame’s oldest and most established returns after a few seasons away, and brings with it plenty of tradition—and even more intrigue—with Saturday night’s kickoff just around the corner.

Fifty years after waging war in a 10-10 tie that’s among the sports most talked about games, Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly return to battle, a big game that should reveal plenty about both teams.

With a 7:30 primetime kickoff on NBC ahead, let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack.

As with every game against Michigan State, a physical battle is expected. But so Kelly’s young team keeping its poise.

Don’t tell Brian Kelly that Michigan State plans to bully the Irish around. Because he expects his team to hold up quite well in a matchup that should test the Irish’s physicality.  

“Our entire offensive line are all physical guys. Josh Adams is a physical player. Drue Tranquill is a physical player, Te’von Coney,” Kelly said. “All of our guys like the physical contact. They’ll rise to the occasion of what the game calls for and the mental toughness to match what Michigan State is all about.”

Michigan State is usually about running the football, and LJ Scott is certainly capable. They’re about a stout defense, a unit that’ll be led by All-American candidate Malik McDowell and defensive captains Riley Bullough and Demetrious Cox.

But Kelly knows matching the Spartans strength and toughness is only one piece of the puzzle. Doing that while keeping your wits about you is the other.

“This is not a boxing match,” Kelly said. “This is not UFC. We’ve got to execute. We’ve got to catch the football. What we can’t get caught up in is the emotion of a game like this. Where words turn into poor actions.

“I’ve talked to our guys about being poised and doing their job. If they do that, our team is strong enough and physical enough to match up with anybody.”

Torii Hunter Jr. may be a little bit rusty. But he’ll be ready to go against a Michigan State secondary that will challenge the Irish. 

After taking the week off against Nevada, Notre Dame’s senior captain Torii Hunter Jr. will be back out leading a young receiving corps. And while the team’s medical staff played things safe last week, Kelly said Hunter is ready to go, though he needed to play a little bit of catch-up this week to get ready for a critical match-up against the Spartans’ physical secondary.

“You take a week off in our offense where there’s so much volume for those wide receivers, you lose a little bit,” Kelly said. “So it was kind of getting the kinks out. Today he looked pretty much back to where he had been.”

That return makes things much easier for DeShone Kizer—and the entire Irish receiving rotation. Because with Equanimeous St. Brown locked in at the W and C.J. Sanders doing very nice things in the slot, bringing Hunter back to the wide side of the field and allowing Kevin Stepherson and Corey Holmes to play supporting roles will get Mike Denbrock’s young position group back in sync.

It’ll also allow us to see if Hunter is capable of attacking an opponent down the field, something we’ve seen in pieces (like the Blue-Gold game), but yet to see in a big-time match-up.

“They’re going to see if their DBs are tougher than our wide receivers,” Hunter said this week. “So it’s going to be that type of game. We’re going to have to make plays and they’re good at what they do.”

While Brian Kelly has expressed confidence in Nick Coleman and his young secondary, he’s pushing to get junior Nick Watkins back from injury. 

With Shaun Crawford’s season finished after an achilles tear, Nick Coleman will once again be given a chance to rebound from a tough first few weeks. Even as freshmen like Donte Vaughn and Julian Love find their footing, Kelly is hoping that junior Nick Watkins can make some progress as he continues to recover from a broken arm.

“He practiced very hard this week. He was in a lot of football this week,” Kelly said.

Watkins looked like the frontrunner to be the team’s starter at cornerback before a broken forearm took him out of commission. And while Kelly mentioned that a medical redshirt is potentially in the cards for Watkins if his training staff can’t stimulate enough bone growth, the fact that the team is practicing him hard enough to monitoring him with their GPS tracking system points to the hope of getting him back to buoy a questionable position during a stretch run.

“He’s a kid who started for us and played pretty good in the Bowl game. He’s in pretty good shape, his volume was really good in practice,” Kelly explained. “We just need to get a green light that we’re not putting him in a position to hurt himself.”

Not much is known about Michigan State’s fifth-year quarterback Tyler O’Connor. But he’s already won a pretty big football game. 

No, the win over Furman doesn’t count—even if O’Connor’s 13 of 18 performance and three touchdown passes was a nice 2016 debut.

It was O’Connor’s work behind center when the Spartans took down Ohio State last year, pulling off a 17-14 victory that nobody saw coming. A windy and rainy Saturday (not to mention Ohio State’s defense) made it tough to show muche statistically, but O’Connor completed 7 of his 12 throws, adding a touchdown and no turnovers. He also carried the ball eight times—including a few critical 4th down conversions on a game-tying touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter.

So after going into Columbus and leaving with a victory, don’t expect the stage to be too big for O’Connor in South Bend. Named a team captain (something Connor Cook never did) even though it’s only his first season starting, the 6-foot-3, 228-pounder comes to Notre Dame with a lot of confidence.

“We can go out there and do anything that we decide to do and what we put our minds to as long as we go as one,” O’Connor told the Detroit Free Press. “When we have that chemistry and mind-set that we’re not going to be defeated and we’re not going to be stopped, we do feel unstoppable.”

Six years later, Mark Dantonio breaks down Little Giants. 

In a rivalry that’s seen plenty of drama, Mark Dantonio broke down perhaps the most dramatic finish of the Michigan State-Notre Dame rivalry, sketching for ESPN the overtime, fake field goal that the Spartans pulled off to win 34-31 in East Lansing back in 2010.

A game that sent Dantonio to the hospital after—he suffered a minor heart attack—remains a sore spot for Irish fans, many convinced that the play clock had hit zero before Michigan State got the snap off.

That win might have kickstarted the Michigan State’s program. Because the 2010 season began a historic run for the Spartans, with Dantonio going a ridiculous 64-16 since then, winning at least 11 games in all but one season.

But he hasn’t beaten Notre Dame since.

Brian Kelly isn’t worried about the lack of sacks. But he does need to figure out how the Irish will make Tyler O’Connor uncomfortable on Saturday night. 

Brian Kelly did his best to tell us that he thinks sacks are overrated. And even if that’s a tough one to believe, the Irish head coach expanded on what his pass rush needs to do to impact Tyler O’Connor. Because if Brian VanGorder’s front seven is going to protect his young secondary, the Irish need to find a way to make things difficult for the Michigan State passing attack.

“You saw how quickly the balls come out the last couple weeks. We’ve harassed the quarterback the last week, forced him into some bad throws,” Kelly said. “What you want to do is, you want the quarterback to feel uncomfortable back there and to be pressured into making some poor decisions and poor throws.”

That happened against Nevada, with the Wolf Pack’s quick passing game ineffective with Tyler Stewart connecting on just 10 of his 23 throws. And while allowing a team to get the ball out quickly and earn their way down the field feels like a great problem for Notre Dame’s defense to have, getting more defenders in the mix who can impact the pass rush is certainly also a priority.

Kelly talked about working junior Jay Hayes and freshman Daelin Hayes into the mix. He also mentioned true freshmen Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones.

So far the weakside defensive end job has been Andrew Trumbetti’s. A high ankle sprain has slowed Jay down, while Daelin is still learning on the job—though he should be motivated to make an impact against a team he once committed to as a recruit.

Kelly’s confident that’ll happen.

“Before it’s all said and done, both those guys will play a role in our defense,” Kelly said. “I’m very confident that you’re going to see both the Hayes play more football.”

***

For your listening pleasure, John Walters and I talk about this weekends game and if a win against Michigan State can serve as a launch point. 

 

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”