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.
Give Chris a follow @ChrisVannini on Twitter and check out the podcast at The Only Colors.