If anybody is feeling bad for the hard luck 0-2 Fighting Irish, it certainly isn’t Michigan State. The boys from East Lansing have taken great pleasure in being a thorn in the Irish’s side, winning an amazing 10 of the last 14 match-ups between the two teams.
No game was a bigger dagger than last year’s contest, which ended with Mark Dantonio’s “Little Giants” fake field goal, winning the game in spectacular fashion and sinking the Irish to 1-2.
“It came down to one play,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “Michigan State executed the play. We did not.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a close Notre Dame-Michigan State game without some sort of controversy, and last year’s Little Giants also featured a play clock that was expired, but not too expired to matter on that fateful play, adding another wonderful element to a rivalry that’s grown more testy by the year.
It’s been two straight heart-stoppers for the Irish and the Spartans, with both team snatching a victory from the other in the game’s final seconds. As we’ve done the past two years, we tracked down the popular Spartans blog The Only Colors and got their take on this year’s Spartan squad. Ben Wilensky (previously known as the artist called LVS) was kind enough to supply some pretty good answers for my mediocre questions.
Inside the Irish: I’ve got a feeling you saw that Las Vegas has the Irish as a 5.5 point favorite. Michigan State is 10-4 the last 14 times these two teams have played for the Megaphone. The Spartans are 2-0. The Irish are 0-2. Are buying what Vegas is selling?
Ben Wilensky: I don’t agree with the line, but I also know that Vegas oddsmakers aren’t in the business of promulgating baseless odds, and the reality is that Notre Dame would be 2-0 were it not for its rather freakish turnover problem. While the Irish may ultimately be, for one reason or another, a turnover-prone team, it’s difficult to imagine that things will remain quite so dire going forward. There’s no question that ND has significant talent on both sides of the ball, and if the team even regresses slightly toward the turnover mean, there’s good reason to believe that they can be one of the top 15 or 20 teams in the country.
However, I believe that MSU is a substantially better team than either South Florida or Michigan, and while the game’s at Notre Dame Stadium, that stadium hasn’t exactly been a house of horrors for MSU over the past 15 years or so. ND has glaring weaknesses in the secondary and at quarterback, and there’s no question that MSU is well-positioned to take advantage of those weaknesses. Ultimately, I think the talent gap between these teams is very small. Even if you figure that ND is getting 3 points for having home field advantage — and given the character of this series, 3 points is generous — these odds still have the Irish as 2.5 point neutral-site favorites. To me, that’s high.
ITI: The Spartans defense is off to a good start against some pretty meager competition. Are they simply paper champions? On your site earlier this week, there was some pretty enthusiastic praise for the effort against Florida Atlantic. Does ND’s offense, pretty prolific when it isn’t shooting itself in the foot, scare you?
BW: Yes. Michael Floyd has four touchdowns in three career games against MSU, and Theo Riddick caught 10 passes for 128 yards last year. In particular, Floyd terrifies me, as he should terrify fans of every team he plays this year. I didn’t see a ton of Cierre Wood last year, but he certainly looks dangerous this year. The offensive line seemed pretty solid last week against Michigan. In short, there’s a lot to like about the Irish offense; ergo, there’s a lot for me to worry about as a Michigan State fan.
I do think that Tommy Rees is a bit over his head, and certainly not the guy who can get the most out of ND’s talent at the skill positions. Irish fans who have been calling for Rees to get playing time over Dayne Crist also have to acknowledge that while his performance against USF was pretty good, USF helped his stats along significantly by playing the most vanilla defense imaginable in the second half. And, last week against Michigan, Rees simply wasn’t very good; in my recollection, both of his interceptions occurred on horribly telegraphed passes in Floyd’s direction. Crist was pretty good against MSU last season, and I’m relieved that he won’t be taking the snaps on Saturday.
Anyway, Florida Atlantic’s offense is horrid and made MSU look good on Saturday, but 48 total yards allowed is still 48 total yards allowed — a defensive effort that dominant can’t be ignored, no matter the competition. The defensive line was ineffective against Youngstown State, but that’s really because YSU was throwing the ball on two step drops, and there’s no way to get any pressure when the ball is released that quickly. Against Florida Atlantic they were utterly dominant. The linebacking corps is solid, as Max Bullough looks like he’s a more-than-capable replacement for Greg Jones. Finally, I think that the secondary is better than it was last season. Johnny Adams is developing into a true shutdown corner, Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis have settled into their starting roles very nicely, and Trenton Robinson is one of the country’s best free safeties. Notre Dame will score points but the MSU defense is more than capable of holding its own.
ITI: Two years ago, you called Blair White. Last year, you warned us about Edwin Baker. Who is going to torment the Irish defense this year?
BW: Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham. He’s big, strong, has excellent hands, and is now MSU’s all-time leading receiver. In many respects (size, skill, athleticism), Cunningham is comparable to — but better than — Junior Hemingway, who killed Notre Dame last week. Cunningham had 100+ yards and a touchdown against the Irish last season, and I think he’ll exceed that on Saturday.
I also think that TE Dion Sims could have a big day. He was very good last Saturday, and with his size, strength and speed (6’5″, 276) he’s a very, very difficult matchup for any linebacker.
ITI: From my vantage point, it seems like the story of the preseason was filling some holes on the offensive line, with guys from the defensive side of the ball competing for jobs up front. The rushing numbers haven’t been overwhelming for the Spartans against two mediocre teams. Is the offensive line ready to play against a pretty physical Irish front seven?
BW: That’s the big question. The most obvious path to victory for Notre Dame on Saturday is to dominate the MSU offensive line, and in doing so, harass Kirk Cousins and slow down the running game.
The offensive line is a bit of a hodgepodge; like you said, there were numerous position switches during the offseason. Left tackle Dan France is a particular concern, as he played on the defensive side last season, and is now tasked with protecting Cousins’ blindside. He did not have a great game against YSU, but I thought he improved quite a bit against FAU and now seems to have solidified his starting spot.
If MSU can get even halfway decent blocking, the stable of running backs is deep and very talented. Edwin Baker is an all-conference caliber player, Le’Veon Bell was fantastic against ND last year and has shown flashes of excellence, and Larry Caper is a good change of pace on third down. But, yeah, it all starts with the offensive line. Expecting them to be great is probably asking too much but if MSU is going to win, the ND defensive line can’t dominate. I fear they might.
ITI: What do you make of the 0-2 Irish? They’ve racked up over 1,000 yards of offense. Had Denard Robinson and Michigan absolutely stonewalled until imploding in the fourth quarter, and should easily be sitting at 2-0 if they only turned the ball over a half-dozen times instead of ten. What scares you about this team?
Special thanks to Ben for taking the time out for these answers. You can check out TheOnlyColors.com for more about the big game on Saturday, and follow them on Twitter @TheOnlyColors.