Notre Dame sits at 0-2. Michigan State, ranked 15th in this week’s USA Today and AP Poll, is 2-0. Then why would Las Vegas have the Irish opening as a 3.5 point favorite, only to see the spread extend up to five and even six points in some places? Could it be possible that the wiseguys that build casinos haven’t given up on the boys in blue and gold?
Here are a few quick reasons for Irish fans to hope this weekend might be different than the last two heart-stompers:
The Schedule: The Spartans haven’t exactly challenged themselves in their first two games, playing I-AA Youngstown State in week one and then non-AQ Florida Atlantic.
Against Youngstown State, the Spartans got off to a sluggish start and took a touchdown lead into halftime, before pulling away 28-6. The Penguins struggled to move the ball, putting up only 254 yards in the game, but did run for 4.25 yards a carry if you take away a fumble and a kneel down at the end of half.
Florida Atlantic, sacrificial lamb to Will Muschamp’s Florida team in the opener, took one on the chin to the Spartans, getting drubbed 44-0, but the mighty Michigan State running game never truly got on track, carrying 51 times for 188 yards, a modest 3.7 yards per carry.
Notre Dame’s Brian Hardin mentioned earlier today that the Irish are one of only six FBS teams to have scheduled BCS automatic qualifiers in their first three games. The only team that’s walked away undefeated so far is USC, who won nail-biters against Minnesota and Utah.
The Stats: Believe me, I’m sick of them too. That said, it’s just difficult for anyone to fathom that the Irish can continue to shoot themselves in the foot at this pace. The Irish have already turned it over more times than Wisconsin did last year. Eric Hansen points out they’ve also turned it over more than the Irish did in 2000, when the Irish relied on quarterback Matt LoVecchio and a rock-solid running game to pilot an risk-averse offense into a BCS bowl game.
The Spartans are ranked among the top five defenses in the country after two weeks. That said, the offenses they’ve faced are Florida Atlantic (rated dead last, 120th in the country) and FCS team Youngstown State, who did rack up 77 points against Valparaiso last week.
The Irish, for all their warts, are ranked No. 13 in total offense. Michigan State, is ranked 49th, not exactly awe inspiring against the schedule they’re facing.
The Luck: If the Irish ever think they’ll just walk past a Michigan State team that always seems to have Notre Dame’s number, they’ll be sorely mistaken and end next weekend 0-3, but it just seems like the Irish are much more likely to not make disastrous mistakes when close to the goal line after two weeks of finding every possible way to mess up.
While some fans are ready to recreate history and tag Brian Kelly as a terrible red zone coach or someone that’s always been turnover prone, a quick look at the actual numbers (Kelly’s red zone offense at Cincinnati was in the Top 25 twice and never lower than 63rd) tells a different story.
The Irish are playing at an unsustainable rate when it comes to futility and mistakes. There are plenty of ways they can lose on Saturday, but the odds are definitely decreasing in the favor of turnovers and self-induced mistakes.