Mike Tirico talks ND-MSU, his move to NBC, and one crazy summer

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Mike Tirico is a busy man. And in the middle of one of the craziest 11-week stretches you’ll ever see, he was kind enough to talk shop with me for the Inside the Irish blog.

As he bounced between East Lansing and South Bend, and still made it to his son’s soccer game in-between, he was kind enough to chat about his move to NBC, his return to college football, his first time at a Notre Dame football game, and the upcoming Ryder Cup.

Hope you all enjoy.

 

You’ve had quite a summer. Going between the British Open to the Olympics to ND Football. How are you holding up?

It’s been great. And the pace of it all has helped with the workload for sure. It’s an 11-week stretch with the Open Championship golf, hosting the Ryder Cup, three Notre Dame games, two NFL preseason games, getting started on Football Night in America three Sundays in a row, and then, of course, 17 days at the Olympics, including the closing ceremony. Throw that all in the hopper and it’s been a lot of travel and a lot of good TV the last 11 weeks on my end.

I think by this point, most people will start to associate me with NBC as I’ve been on a decent amount of time these last 11 weeks.

 

Has that been helpful, considering your footprint at ESPN? Was that a big part of the decision to come to NBC? 

The Olympics were right up there, along with being a part of Super Bowl coverage in the years that we have it. Those were big pieces of me coming to NBC, the most attractive things. But all these other events have been phenomenal. The NBC golf team with Dan (Hicks) and Johnny (Miller) and Tommy Roy leading that group, they’re as good as there is in the sport and to be welcomed by them and be a part of their big events is huge.

And this Notre Dame package has turned into a great opportunity for me to revisit my college football roots. I’ve stayed involved in the sport each year at ESPN but to get back and be on campus and to do three games in a row at one of the cathedrals of the sport in South Bend, it’s just been phenomenal on my end.

 

What’s been your experience with Notre Dame Football? Have you called a game here? Been to a game as a fan?

I have never been to Notre Dame, it’s was my first time there. Quite simply, NBC has had the Notre Dame contract for the last 25 years, this is the 26th, and I’ve worked at ESPN the last 25 years. So a home game in South Bend wasn’t in the cards for any of us who called games. So I never had a chance to go to a game there.

I was thrilled to tour the campus, soak up some of the vibe and call a game from that stadium. It’s a bucket list thing for any of us who broadcast college football, to call a game in South Bend, and I’m lucky enough to be in a place where I can do that now. And I’m absolutely looking forward to a primetime game there, with a great rival in Michigan State and the 50-year anniversary of one of the legendary games in the history of the sport.

Both teams are ranked and it’s an important game for both. You couldn’t ask for anything more in terms of an environment to celebrate and enjoy college football.

 

So what were your first impressions?

I drove to campus on Wednesday night, spent Thursday 3 or 4 hours just touring the campus and walking around and getting a sense of the place. I think if you’re doing a home game for three weeks there, it’s good to have a sense of what makes it special. I had been there before for basketball games, but the football experience is different and I never really had a chance to see the campus. So to be able to soak all of it up was great.

It’s one of the great campuses in America in terms of where the students live, where they go to school, the religion roots of the campus, the meaningful places on the campus, all of those things are part of the fabric.

And then when you get to sports — most of the great venues in sports are gone. Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Lambeau Field. Madison Square Garden, although it’s been redone several times. Those are really it, except for college venues.

And in college football, in terms of venues, there are very few where you can say all these great players — Heisman Trophy winners, All-Americans, first-round picks, NFL guys — played here. And because of Notre Dame’s legacy and the school’s they’ve played over the years — like Michigan, USC, Michigan State and Army and Navy — you’ve got a lot of the great players in college football played in that stadium. So you have that plus the winningest school in college football in terms of winning percentage.

The prior Saturday, I went to a Michigan home game, the night before that I went to Syracuse. So in a nine-day stretch I got to go to my alma mater to watch a game, to Michigan, home of the biggest crowd and the program with the most wins, and then the next Saturday go to the place and school that’s No. 1 in terms of all-time winning percentage, at Notre Dame. To experience college football in those places in a week, as a fan, a true fan of the sport, it doesn’t get any better than that.

 

So let’s talk about Michigan. It’s somewhere you’ve been around, living in Ann Arbor. And it’s a place that’s always interesting to Notre Dame, especially with Jim Harbaugh there. What do you make of Harbaugh? What’s the best thing about him coming to Michigan? And do you think he’ll eventually change?

Within the framework of tradition, he has brought new, he’s brought innovative, he’s brought energy, he’s brought edge. And it’s all working because there are results on the field to back it up. I think they’ve lost two games in the first 14 or 15 as a coach.

The guy is getting results. He got results in San Francisco with the 49ers and he gets results here. At the end of the day that’s what gives you the runway to do what you want to do and put your spin on the program.

I think it’s great for college football. I think it’s great that Michigan State has just been awesome the last three years. When you look at the circle around the Great Lakes, those of us who live up here love football. We love football. For 51 years in the NFL, the Vikings, the Packers, the Lions and the Bears have all been in the same division. Those four teams all around the Great Lakes, they’ve all been within the same division. So they have a great rivalry.

Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame. Four great schools in terms of history and legacy — we’re talking Heismans, national championships, we’re talking over 500 wins, the winningest programs in the sport — when they’re all good, it’s great. So when we see Notre Dame intersect with Ohio State or Michigan State or Michigan when they come back onto the schedule, it’s great for the sport and those are the games that inspire the kids who live up this way to play ball. And that just feeds to future generation.

So it’s a long-winded answer, but Michigan getting good again is great for the sport because in a couple of years when they meet again, if Michigan and Notre Dame are really good, then the football fans will get a great Saturday and a great weekend. That’s all they want.

 

You’re probably one of the only people who has actually watched the entire Michigan State-Furman game. What do you expect to see from the Spartans this weekend? 

I don’t think we know. And I don’t think they know just yet. I think they’ll have a much better answer come Sunday morning.

Here’s what we know: They are in the mold of the Dantonio teams that have turned this thing around to where they’ve finished in the top five or six here for the last three years in a row. They’re physical, they’re well coached, and they run a great program.

We just spent the day there. You’d want to send your kid to Mark Dantonio to play football. He is a task master. He’s hard on the guys, but they love him. And that’s when you know that the guy is really good. And he is.

We don’t know how Tyler O’Connor, the quarterback, is going to play for a whole year. We know he won his first road start at Ohio State. I told Tyler today that if you win at Notre Dame you should walk right out that tunnel and end your career. If you start two road games and it’s a win at Ohio State and a win at Notre Dame, you’ve done it all.

It’s probably not going to be too big for him. He’s a fifth-year senior, he’s only got one year to play but it’s really great the leadership role that he now has. They can run the ball, they’ve got a good offensive line, and running backs. On the defensive side of the ball they’ve got guys who can make some plays, a very good linebacking corps. So even though the names have changed, there’s still the blueprint for what has made them very good.

We don’t know, and candidly they don’t know, if their best players are good enough to be a top five team or not. I think we’ll start getting those answers this week and then they still play Michigan and Ohio State, among others. There’s plenty of runway to find out how good the Spartans are this year. I think they’re a really good team and they’ll play a physical game as they always do.

 

What’s your experience with Brian Kelly?

I’ve been around Brian at Cincinnati and maybe at Central, too. I was trying to piece that together and I think I might have done a MAC game when he coached at Central. Certainly at Cincinnati a few times and our paths would cross at a couple of other events during the year, and then when he coached Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship game against Alabama, I called that game for ESPN Radio. So I spent time around Brian in the lead up to that as well.

I know him a little bit, but not very well. But certainly know him and know why his style of football has helped Notre Dame return to being one of the college football’s most watched teams.

 

How do you think he handled the quarterback situation? Do you think he regrets playing two guys before deciding on DeShone Kizer, who is quickly ascending as one of the premier guys in the country?

I don’t think there are any regrets at all. I thought he handled it really well. When you’re in a situation with two quarterbacks, it’s always very delicate. And I think this one is made more delicate because Malik is coming off of an injury. And you don’t want to see a guy lose his starting spot because he got injured. So they tried to figure out how to manage that. And by giving them both an opportunity to play, DeShone Kizer was clearly the better quarterback in that game and he proved to be a better thrower.

So in this day and age with the way the offense is spread, that’s probably the best place to go for your No. 1 quarterback. And DeShone proved that on the field. I thought Brian handled it very well. I thought he approached it the right way and things sorted out over time. So it all works.

I will say this: Malik was terrific in terms of trying to accept the role and we saw him last week as we left practice and Malik was staying to throw extra footballs. He knows that he’s just a play away, that’s how he lost the job. And I give that man a lot of credit for embracing what the role is for the moment. That showed me that he can handle it well.

 

You’ll leave Notre Dame and then head out to host the Ryder Cup. What makes you so excited about the event?

When Al Michaels left ABC and the Disney family to go to NBC, part of the trade to allow Al out of his deal was Oswald the Rabbit, some extended rights to Olympic highlights I believe, and ESPN got the first day of the Ryder Cup. So in ‘08 in Louisville at Valhalla and in 2010 in Wales and in 2012 at Medina, I got to do the Friday at the Ryder Cup, and the ‘08 day at Valhalla is still one of my favorite and will remain one of my favorite days ever at work.

The two captains were Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo, who a few years before that in the run up to it were both my partners in the 18th tower. So two guys who I sat alongside for three years in the booth are now out there as the captains of the Ryder Cup.

It was such a cool event, the atmosphere in Louisville was incredible that day. We were on the air from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and you didn’t think once that you were tired. It was a great day and I love the Ryder Cup. I think it’s special because you never talk about salaries, you’re talking about guys who are playing for continent or country, and every shot really matters.

People may watch Thursday and Friday at a major, but you know most of the guys are kind of jockeying around to get in contention for the last nine on Sunday, but here your second shot on the second hole on Friday could be the difference in the match. And the point could be the difference in retaining, winning or losing the cup.

I love it, I cannot wait to get there on Wednesday, and to be around it and then host the coverage while the guys call it on Friday and Saturday.

 

So who do you put as the U.S. Team’s fourth captain’s pick?

Davis has enough guys in his ears, but Bubba is still out there, right? I’ve got a guy with two majors who represented the United States of America when other guys were saying no thanks about the Olympics. But not only did he represent us by going, but he represented us by how he comported himself there. Bubba wasn’t having a good first nine holes on Thursday’s first round and he’s walking off the green and opening up his bag and giving Olympic pins and golf pins to kids who were watching.

Bubba sat one row behind me on the night that Michael Phelps won two gold medals. And with 50 meters to go, Phelps flips to turn to beat Chad le Clos, who was talking trash beforehand, and Bubba is up right behind me screaming, “Come on, Phelps! Come on, Michael!” He’s rooting like a fan.

A guy who when many people in the golf world turned their backs on the Olympics, Bubba embraced it and represented the country. He’s a damn good golfer. He’s won the Masters twice. I take him on my side anytime. If there’s a pick and he’s still out there, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

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. 

 

Talking Irish: Breaking down MSU with JJ Stankevitz

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A week after our spot-on analysis (kinda) led to a Notre Dame victory, we reunite and come to shockingly DIFFERENT conclusions about this Saturday’s matchup.

JJ and Keith chat, part two. Hope you enjoy.

 

JJ Stankevitz: Alright, so Michigan State: A top-12 team that we don’t seem to know much about. But we do know this, Mark Dantonio’s teams are 1) always going to play physically and 2) are generally pretty good. So what can you make of Sparty coming into Saturday night?

Keith Arnold: I’ve got nothing. And I’m not sure Michigan State fans do, either. I did my best to watch some of that Furman game — and asked Chris Vannini if it was one of those typical sleepwalk/smoke screens that the Spartans usually have before their September date with Notre Dame. He didn’t think so.
But I think that the DNA of the program is what it is. But the players filling those roles are still up for debate.

JJ: Well, outside of Malik McDowell and LJ Scott. But yeah, MSU is still going to press in coverage and try to force long, extended offensive drives. And their offense is going to be deliberate, trying to slow the pace of the game with four-yard gains and the occasional play-action pop. #B1G

We know opposing teams are going to pick on Nick Coleman — but how confident are you in A) Coleman’s ability and B) Michigan State’s ability to successfully challenge him?

KA: Coleman scares me. Kind of a lot. I have tweeted as much, but I think it’s only a matter of time before they hand this over to Donte Vaughn.

Now on the flip side of that, it wasn’t as if Tyler O’Connor was all that effective against Furman. But when you add suspect cornerback to very limited pass rush it doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy. What do you do about the ND pass rush?

JJ: Yeah, the lack of sacks is concerning.

KA: It’s kind of statistically insane.

JJ: And with an inexperienced corner, either Coleman or Vaughn, plus a freshman safety in Studstill, Kelly kind of alluded to it — you can’t run as many nickel packages as you would in normal circumstances. Which means putting the onus on getting sacks mostly on the front four and not on as many exotic blitzes, though it’s not like those have worked super well in the VanGorder era anyway.

I think this front four can be pretty strong against the run – especially if Jay Hayes cracks the rotation — but there isn’t that Day or Okwara on here who has a knack for getting to QB, at least not yet. And that is worrisome given the inexperience in the secondary. We saw it in 2012 – having a good D-line/front seven can do a lot to cover for an inexperienced secondary.

KA: BVG has his hands full. He’s already on the hot seat of every fan/writer/pundit, and now he’s forced to simplify things for a young secondary and generate a pass rush with a group that hasn’t shown that ability. I’ll ask you a rather rough question: Why is Notre Dame still running Andrew Trumbetti out there? Is it because Jay Hayes is still hurt? Or because they think he’s the best option?

JJ: Good question. I’ll say this: If the coaching staff thought Hayes was better and/or 100 percent healthy, he’d be out there. He took so many first-team reps during spring and preseason camp that it’s hard to imagine him not getting those as the season goes on.

KA: High Ankle Sprains.

JJ: They tend to linger.

KA: So impactful, even if BK had us thinking otherwise…

Notre Dame’s an 8-point favorite right now after opening at slightly less than a touchdown.

JJ: And S&P+ and FEI have ND winning, too, which surprised me a bit.

KA: Apparently those guys weren’t impressed by the Furman game, either. Is that hard to understand for you? What with the Spartans the higher ranked team — as high as No. 8 in the polls?

JJ: Yeah, but I think it goes to us not knowing much about Michigan State outside of that blah Furman game, and probably a public trust of the team with the better QB, which Notre Dame certainly has. Add in the home game and bam, you have a wildly high spread.

KA:  Put in order your trust of ND position groups:

A) Secondary
B) Wide Receivers
C) Pass Rush
D) Run Stop
E) Run Game
F) Pass Protection

JJ: 1. Run Game 2. Run stop 3. Pass Pro 4. WRs 5. Secondary 6. Pass Rush

And as an aside — run stop is so high because out of the 4-3, it’s actually been pretty good this year. Stick with base and it’s fine.

You?

KA: Pass Pro, Run Game, Wide Receivers, Run Game, Run Stop, Secondary…

In case you can’t tell, I’m still a bit wishy-washy on the whole defense, and I can’t shake that shock from watching a beat-up Texas OL stomp the Irish front seven.

JJ: Which is fair! It’s hard to trust this defense after that Texas game. But if we’re searching for positives, holding James Butler to 50 yards on 17 carries was pretty good, and Michigan State might try to run half the plays Texas did.

KA: I think the slo-mo offense will be huge for the Irish. But I also think you can’t look at Notre Dame’s defense (if you’re Michigan State) and not take a shot or ten at Nick Coleman and the young safeties. Add in a veteran (but reshuffled) OL, and a QB that’s got a lot of time in the system, and I think there’s some serious issues that still need to be solved. At least compared to Nevada.

JJ: It would, quite frankly, be irresponsible for them not to. It’s like when a pitcher is injured a bit – you bunt against them to make them prove they can field their position.

KA: I read something last week about Lane Kiffin / Nick Saban finding the weak link and just attacking it. Worked pretty well against USC for Bama. And expect MSU to do the same thing.

JJ: I’m guessing we won’t see Brian Kelly ripping Mike Denbrock/Sanford a new one if they’re up by 28 points with 43 seconds to go, though.

KA: Ha. No, think that one is safe.

JJ: But your point is exactly right – MSU has this offensive profile, but any good coach (which Dantonio is) is going to ID a weakness and try to exploit it.

So with all this being said — what’s your prediction? I went first last week, so you’re on the spot.

KA: Can you remind me how we did last week? I thought pretty good considering a goose-egg in the first quarter.

JJ: Pulling it up now…

KA: A pro’s way to buy time, obviously.

JJ: hahahaha. So last week we settled on Notre Dame 52, Nevada 24. Guess we gave Nevada too much credit and Notre Dame not enough. But we pretty much nailed the margin of victory! So at least there’s that.

KA: I’ve got this one: Notre Dame 27, Michigan state 17

JJ: I’m going to take Michigan State by a hair: MSU 27, ND 26.
/ducks

KA: Bold! What makes you go that way?

JJ: I think it’s just that general distrust in the Irish defense unless they prove otherwise.
And I think Michigan State is able to dictate the tempo both offensively and defensively that’ll ultimately be beneficial in the end. But if Notre Dame does win this one, you can bet I’m going to be picking them pretty frequently from here on out.

KA: The man in the black hat: JJ Stankevitz.

JJ: I hear there’s a sale on pitchforks at Lowe’s.

KA: Win and it’s 5-1 and a really big evening against Stanford.

JJ: Yes sir.

KA: Lose, and I’ve got no clue what’ll happen — but it’ll be less toxic than USC, that’s for sure.

JJ: Well, pretty much everything is.

KA: Well – there you have it. Another chat down, and KA going duckies and bunnies and sunshine and rainbows while JJ is the merchant of death. Or something close to that – not sure if I’m taking creative license or not.

JJ: Hey, picked ND to lose in Week 3 last year, and things turned out pretty great.

KA: I’ll direct all feedback to your personal email account.

JJ: Just not twitter. My mentions have already been on fire once from Texas Twitter and I’d prefer to avoid anything similar.

KA:  Unless you’d rather share your parents’ home phone number.

JJ: Of course! Feel free to reference this and throw it back at me if ND does win.

KA: Until next week my friend! Thanks for the good chat.

Dantonio ready for another rivalry game with Notre Dame

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Mark Dantonio is ready for Notre Dame. With just one game under his belt and six weeks of practicing since opening training camp, he’s ready to measure his Spartans against an opponent he hasn’t faced since 2013.

Even with a gap in the rivalry, there’s familiarity. Whether it be the common path the coaches took or the geographical connection that comes with sharing a border and a recruiting base, Dantonio knows Notre Dame as well as the Irish know Michigan State.

And that should make for an interesting weekend for the Spartans head coach, as he sees how ready his young team is for a big challenge.

“I think we have to learn a lot about our football team. I don’t think there is any question about that. We’ve only played one game,” Dantonio said. “We’ve been working for six weeks, one game. You don’t know a lot about it.

“You know there is going to be growth. You have some people that are going to fail, some people are going to be successful in this game. I mean, that’s the nature of it. That’s what football is.”

The Spartans have failed three-straight times against the Irish, their last victory courtesy of the Little Giants fake field goal game-winner in 2010. And while Irish fans remember very clearly a play clock that had struck zero, Michigan State faithful remember the unfriendly penalty flags that helped buoy an Irish offense in 2013, when the Spartans defensive backs were called early and often as Tommy Rees tried to attack Michigan State downfield.

It took Dantonio a split-second to recall that game and Notre Dame’s game plan of throwing the ball vertically. Twenty times, per Dantonio’s count.

“From my perspective, we made plays. You know, flags came out a little bit, but from my perspective, we made plays on the ball,” Dantonio said, ten total flags and four pass interference calls not withstanding. “Sometimes those are bang-bang type situations… But at the same time, regardless of what happens, you need to move on and play the next play. I think that’s the most important thing.

“I think we did do a good job of that. We held them to 17 points, I think it was 17. That was a positive. So we need to continue to play like we do. We need to be who we are, too. We can’t let somebody take us out of who we are.”

The Spartans identity under Dantonio is well established. The players asked to step into those defining roles are still to be determined.

Because both programs are at different stages than where they were in 2013. And a year after earning an invite to the College Football Playoff, Dantonio’s program will face their first challenge of the season.

“I think we have a good football team. I think we’ve got players,” Dantonio said.  “We’re looking forward to this opportunity.”

 

 

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