After starting quickly against Temple, the Irish offense took some time to get started against Michigan and Purdue, with defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and Greg Hudson getting their troops to play well early. That challenge will continue this weekend when the Irish face off against Pat Narduzzi, the architect of the blitzing, aggressive 4-3 scheme that has turned the Spartan defense into one of the top units in the country.
While the Irish have had success against the Spartans defense, scoring 30 or more points in three of the last four, a game within the game is likely to break out on Saturday, with Narduzzi’s pressure defense and man coverage going head to head with Tommy Rees and the Irish offense.
With a quarterback and system that looks to isolate and find man-to-man coverage, there is a lot of room for boom or bust plays, as Brian Kelly’s preferred offense is a hurry-up-and-wait system, with Rees often looking at what the defense is presenting, and then putting the team in a preferable look from there. When talking about the team’s success so far pass blocking, Kelly hit on some of the reasons for success, mainly Rees’s ability to give the team the proper look.
“Tommy gets us into the right protections nine out of ten times,” Kelly said. “Whereas last year, Everett was still learning and sometimes he wasn’t able to slide the right way and give us the best look possible.”
That will be a key to Saturday’s game, with Michigan State in the top ten in sacks and turnovers forced. Last year, the Irish beat the Spartans despite only gaining 300 yards of total offense, hitting on a big play to John Goodman on an athletic scramble from Golson, who otherwise played a very conservative game, completing only 14 of 32 throws for 178 yards.
Looking closer at the box score from last year, you get just how good of a chess match this was between the Irish offense and Narduzzi. Notre Dame took a 14-3 lead into half and then relied relied on their defense for the third quarter, going three and out on their first two possessions after the break before a roughing the kicker penalty helped the Irish get the ball to midfield where Ben Turk pinned the Spartans inside their five yard line.
But after another three and out opened the fourth quarter, Kelly turned to Cierre Wood, who anchored the ground game, running for 45 yards on five carries that resulted in a Kyle Brindza field goal, before Le’Veon Bell’s fumble turned into three more points for the Irish. Outside of some success running the football in crunch time, Narduzzi’s unit was all the developing Irish offense could handle.
(Funny to think about now, but Notre Dame’s workhorse runner, Theo Riddick, only managed 2.5 yards a carry, even with a 15 yarder among his 12 totes.)
It’s too early to tell just how good Narduzzi’s defense is this season, especially having to replace three front-line players in William Gholson, linebacker Chris Norman, and cornerback Johnny Adams. But they’ve scored four touchdowns already in three games, out-pacing the offense in the first two weeks.
After watching Rees do some damage down the field this year — Notre Dame fans will be shocked to find out that Rees is averaging 9.1 yards per attempt, good for 21st in the country, even with this offense’s proclivity to throw screen passes — it’s setting up a wonderfully juicy collision course between Notre Dame’s receivers and a Spartan secondary that hasn’t been tested yet.
So something will have to give this Saturday, with Narduzzi likely challenging Rees to beat a Spartan defense that will do its best to pressure Rees and challenge him to make a mistake.