Opponent preview: Michigan State

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This is the third of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. You can also read previews for South Florida and Michigan.

The Overview:

Those pesky Spartans became more than that last season, charging their way to a share of the Big Ten title by playing… let’s call it opportunistic football. Taking advantage of the fact that Michigan avoided Ohio State on the dance card while upsetting Wisconsin propelled the Spartans to an 8-0 start before being pounded by No. 18 Iowa. Finishing the regular season at 11-1, the Spartans likely felt jilted when the BCS didn’t call their name, but they were ultimately undressed by Alabama, when the Crimson Tide embarrassed MSU 49-7, an ugly black eye at the end of a sparkling season.

Were the 2010 Spartans more lucky than good? At this point, who cares. Mark Dantonio‘s team will once again be anchored by Kirk Cousins and a strong running trio in Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell and Larry Caper, 99 percent of last season’s rushing offense. B.J. Cunningham returns to lead the receiving corp, but the offense will only be as good as the linemen blocking for it, a unit still trying to find an identity. Defensively, Greg Jones is finally done terrorizing opposing offenses, but Jerel Worthy might take over his place on the All-American list. Replacing Jones and Eric Gordon from the linebacking corp will be tough, but Dantonio has options. He also welcomes back Trenton Robinson and Johnny Adams in the secondary.

Last time against the Irish:

Little Giants. It’s no longer just a mediocre Rick Moranis and Ed O’Neill movie about a scrappy Pop Warner football team. Now it’s another memorable chapter in the Irish-Spartans rivalry, with the movie title memorialized by Dantonio’s fake field goal call in overtime, snatching victory away from the Irish. The win took tension to a new level, as Dantonio suffered a heart attack after the game.

The loss erased two breakout games, as Theo Riddick‘s ten catches and 128 yards and Dayne Crist‘s 369 yards and four touchdowns were erased by an uneven performance by both the Irish offensive and defensive units and two redzone turnovers that hurt Notre Dame badly.

After the game, Brian Kelly spoke to the media with somewhat prophetic words.

“This is about belief,” Kelly said. “What do you believe in after a loss as difficult as this? Do you believe in your teammates? Do you believe in your coaches? Do you believe in the preparation? If you do, you’ll come back and we’ll work harder and we’ll continue to work to get better. If you don’t believe, then these are the times when you start to see teams pull apart. It’s about belief at this point.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Michigan State as the fourth toughest opponent on the 2011 schedule.

7. South Florida
6.
5.
4. Michigan State
3. Michigan

The Match-up:

If there’s a below-the-radar star on the Irish schedule, it’s Kirk Cousins, who will likely walk out of East Lansing with his name all over the record book. Cousins is accurate, athletic and a terrific leader. He’ll have a capable array of receiving targets and a deep group of tight ends that’ll easily replace Charlie Gantt. Three running backs that combined to run for over 200 yards against the Irish return, with Baker, Bell and Caper keeping the play-action passing game very much alive. Of course, if the Spartans are going to have any success throwing or running the ball, they’ll need to fill the three starting spots still undetermined along the offensive line, with two of those spots likely going to transitioned defensive players. It’ll be up to new offensive coordinator Dan Roushar to make that work, who takes over for longtime assistant Don Treadwell, who took over as the new head coach of the Miami RedHawks.

Defensively, the Spartans could give the Irish offensive line one of its stiffest challenges, courtesy of All-Big Ten defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. Hell be joined by another Anthony Rashad White, another 300+ pound tackle, who will combine for one of the stouter defensive tackle combinations in the Big Ten. With guys like Tyler Hoover and former blue-chipper William Gholston coming off the edge, the Spartans might be able to protect a back seven that’s talented, but lost more than a few key elements to a very good unit.

How the Irish will win:

Not needing to be reminded about their uneven performance in 2010, Notre Dame’s front seven find themselves tasked with shutting down the running trio of Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell, and Larry Caper, a group that went for over 200 yards last season. Against an offensive line still learning as they go, the Irish are able to neutralize the Spartan running attack and disrupt Kirk Cousins’ playmaking ability, keeping receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin in check after both had 100 yard days last year.

Back in the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Dayne Crist is sharp and both Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray put together nice days, opening up the airways for Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick and Tyler Eifert. The Irish are determined to run the football, something they couldn’t do last season and the result is a comfortable victory over a Spartan team that’s in the midst of a transitional season. After getting beaten on the game’s final play by his predeccesor at Cincinnati, Kelly doesn’t let Dantonio have the chance.

How the Irish will lose:

It’s a story all too familiar for Irish fans. Regardless of how well regarded the Irish seem to be, they’re in for a tight one with the Spartans. Thanks to missed opportunities and a power running game that gives the Irish defense fits, the Spartans hang around, only to have the game hinge on a big play that Kirk Cousins ends up making.

If the Irish are kicking themselves, its because they failed to cash in when they got to the red zone and struggled to flip the field position, not getting any big plays out of special teams while losing the turnover battle for the first time on the season.

Gut Feeling:

There’s never a good feeling in Irish fans’ guts when they play the Spartans, but Michigan State’s inexperience along the offensive line and at linebacker should help the Irish win an annual slugfest. History tells me not to feel too comfortable about this one, but the Irish should be able to handle business if they play up to their abilities.