Pregame Six Pack: Return of the Spartans

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It’s a return to the familiar this weekend, with Michigan State and Notre Dame back together again on the football field. A rivalry that’s one of Notre Dame’s oldest and most established returns after a few seasons away, and brings with it plenty of tradition—and even more intrigue—with Saturday night’s kickoff just around the corner.

Fifty years after waging war in a 10-10 tie that’s among the sports most talked about games, Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly return to battle, a big game that should reveal plenty about both teams.

With a 7:30 primetime kickoff on NBC ahead, let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack.

As with every game against Michigan State, a physical battle is expected. But so Kelly’s young team keeping its poise.

Don’t tell Brian Kelly that Michigan State plans to bully the Irish around. Because he expects his team to hold up quite well in a matchup that should test the Irish’s physicality.  

“Our entire offensive line are all physical guys. Josh Adams is a physical player. Drue Tranquill is a physical player, Te’von Coney,” Kelly said. “All of our guys like the physical contact. They’ll rise to the occasion of what the game calls for and the mental toughness to match what Michigan State is all about.”

Michigan State is usually about running the football, and LJ Scott is certainly capable. They’re about a stout defense, a unit that’ll be led by All-American candidate Malik McDowell and defensive captains Riley Bullough and Demetrious Cox.

But Kelly knows matching the Spartans strength and toughness is only one piece of the puzzle. Doing that while keeping your wits about you is the other.

“This is not a boxing match,” Kelly said. “This is not UFC. We’ve got to execute. We’ve got to catch the football. What we can’t get caught up in is the emotion of a game like this. Where words turn into poor actions.

“I’ve talked to our guys about being poised and doing their job. If they do that, our team is strong enough and physical enough to match up with anybody.”

Torii Hunter Jr. may be a little bit rusty. But he’ll be ready to go against a Michigan State secondary that will challenge the Irish. 

After taking the week off against Nevada, Notre Dame’s senior captain Torii Hunter Jr. will be back out leading a young receiving corps. And while the team’s medical staff played things safe last week, Kelly said Hunter is ready to go, though he needed to play a little bit of catch-up this week to get ready for a critical match-up against the Spartans’ physical secondary.

“You take a week off in our offense where there’s so much volume for those wide receivers, you lose a little bit,” Kelly said. “So it was kind of getting the kinks out. Today he looked pretty much back to where he had been.”

That return makes things much easier for DeShone Kizer—and the entire Irish receiving rotation. Because with Equanimeous St. Brown locked in at the W and C.J. Sanders doing very nice things in the slot, bringing Hunter back to the wide side of the field and allowing Kevin Stepherson and Corey Holmes to play supporting roles will get Mike Denbrock’s young position group back in sync.

It’ll also allow us to see if Hunter is capable of attacking an opponent down the field, something we’ve seen in pieces (like the Blue-Gold game), but yet to see in a big-time match-up.

“They’re going to see if their DBs are tougher than our wide receivers,” Hunter said this week. “So it’s going to be that type of game. We’re going to have to make plays and they’re good at what they do.”

While Brian Kelly has expressed confidence in Nick Coleman and his young secondary, he’s pushing to get junior Nick Watkins back from injury. 

With Shaun Crawford’s season finished after an achilles tear, Nick Coleman will once again be given a chance to rebound from a tough first few weeks. Even as freshmen like Donte Vaughn and Julian Love find their footing, Kelly is hoping that junior Nick Watkins can make some progress as he continues to recover from a broken arm.

“He practiced very hard this week. He was in a lot of football this week,” Kelly said.

Watkins looked like the frontrunner to be the team’s starter at cornerback before a broken forearm took him out of commission. And while Kelly mentioned that a medical redshirt is potentially in the cards for Watkins if his training staff can’t stimulate enough bone growth, the fact that the team is practicing him hard enough to monitoring him with their GPS tracking system points to the hope of getting him back to buoy a questionable position during a stretch run.

“He’s a kid who started for us and played pretty good in the Bowl game. He’s in pretty good shape, his volume was really good in practice,” Kelly explained. “We just need to get a green light that we’re not putting him in a position to hurt himself.”

Not much is known about Michigan State’s fifth-year quarterback Tyler O’Connor. But he’s already won a pretty big football game. 

No, the win over Furman doesn’t count—even if O’Connor’s 13 of 18 performance and three touchdown passes was a nice 2016 debut.

It was O’Connor’s work behind center when the Spartans took down Ohio State last year, pulling off a 17-14 victory that nobody saw coming. A windy and rainy Saturday (not to mention Ohio State’s defense) made it tough to show muche statistically, but O’Connor completed 7 of his 12 throws, adding a touchdown and no turnovers. He also carried the ball eight times—including a few critical 4th down conversions on a game-tying touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter.

So after going into Columbus and leaving with a victory, don’t expect the stage to be too big for O’Connor in South Bend. Named a team captain (something Connor Cook never did) even though it’s only his first season starting, the 6-foot-3, 228-pounder comes to Notre Dame with a lot of confidence.

“We can go out there and do anything that we decide to do and what we put our minds to as long as we go as one,” O’Connor told the Detroit Free Press. “When we have that chemistry and mind-set that we’re not going to be defeated and we’re not going to be stopped, we do feel unstoppable.”

Six years later, Mark Dantonio breaks down Little Giants. 

In a rivalry that’s seen plenty of drama, Mark Dantonio broke down perhaps the most dramatic finish of the Michigan State-Notre Dame rivalry, sketching for ESPN the overtime, fake field goal that the Spartans pulled off to win 34-31 in East Lansing back in 2010.

A game that sent Dantonio to the hospital after—he suffered a minor heart attack—remains a sore spot for Irish fans, many convinced that the play clock had hit zero before Michigan State got the snap off.

That win might have kickstarted the Michigan State’s program. Because the 2010 season began a historic run for the Spartans, with Dantonio going a ridiculous 64-16 since then, winning at least 11 games in all but one season.

But he hasn’t beaten Notre Dame since.

Brian Kelly isn’t worried about the lack of sacks. But he does need to figure out how the Irish will make Tyler O’Connor uncomfortable on Saturday night. 

Brian Kelly did his best to tell us that he thinks sacks are overrated. And even if that’s a tough one to believe, the Irish head coach expanded on what his pass rush needs to do to impact Tyler O’Connor. Because if Brian VanGorder’s front seven is going to protect his young secondary, the Irish need to find a way to make things difficult for the Michigan State passing attack.

“You saw how quickly the balls come out the last couple weeks. We’ve harassed the quarterback the last week, forced him into some bad throws,” Kelly said. “What you want to do is, you want the quarterback to feel uncomfortable back there and to be pressured into making some poor decisions and poor throws.”

That happened against Nevada, with the Wolf Pack’s quick passing game ineffective with Tyler Stewart connecting on just 10 of his 23 throws. And while allowing a team to get the ball out quickly and earn their way down the field feels like a great problem for Notre Dame’s defense to have, getting more defenders in the mix who can impact the pass rush is certainly also a priority.

Kelly talked about working junior Jay Hayes and freshman Daelin Hayes into the mix. He also mentioned true freshmen Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones.

So far the weakside defensive end job has been Andrew Trumbetti’s. A high ankle sprain has slowed Jay down, while Daelin is still learning on the job—though he should be motivated to make an impact against a team he once committed to as a recruit.

Kelly’s confident that’ll happen.

“Before it’s all said and done, both those guys will play a role in our defense,” Kelly said. “I’m very confident that you’re going to see both the Hayes play more football.”

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For your listening pleasure, John Walters and I talk about this weekends game and if a win against Michigan State can serve as a launch point.