So we meet again, Sparty. The Notre Dame-Michigan State rivalry was last seen in an ugly, downtrodden affair in late September 2013 ending in a 17-13 victory for the good guys. Yup, that score is entirely appropriate in hindsight.
It’s been a little odd without the Spartans around, I’m sure we can all agree. The two year absence from the schedule was the first in 20 years and for many young fans 2014-15 was the first time Michigan State wasn’t featured against Notre Dame.
Michigan State (+7.5) at Notre Dame
Notre Dame Stadium
South Bend, Indiana
Date: September 17, 2016
Kickoff: 7:30 PM ET
Series: 48-28-1 Notre Dame
Things have gone pretty well for Sparty since that fateful day in South Bend when they fell to the sword of Tommy Rees. In fact, they’d go undefeated the rest of the way in 2013 and have only lost 4 additional games since then as they head into this weekend. Michigan State has also done some pretty cool things recently like win 2 major bowl games, including their first Rose Bowl victory since 1987.
And yet, skepticism abounds surrounding this Michigan State team in 2016 hence coming into this game as pretty decently sized underdogs at Notre Dame. The winningest quarterback of all time is gone. The No. 2 career receptions leader is gone. Three quality offensive linemen, including a 1st-round pick are gone. If there’s a saving grace it’s that Michigan State’s is posed to have yet another fearsome defense.
3 Matchups to Watch
Notre Dame Offensive Line vs. Michigan State Linebackers
The Spartans had to replace one good linebacker this year in Darien Harris (90 tackles, 9 TFL, 3 PBU, 4 QBH) and have plenty of bodies to fill the void. The unit is championed by All-Big Ten 5th-year senior Riley Bullough who led the team in tackles a year ago while chipping in 7.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, and 2 interceptions. Redshirt junior Jon Reschke (75 tackles, 5.5 TFL a year ago) was back as a starter but was banged up for the opener and is now a backup.
State has moved junior Chris Fey (9 tackles in the opener, but just 1 solo stop) into the starting lineup as well as sophomore Andrew Dowell who made 8 tackles and picked off a pass against Furman. MSU also received more positive news when 6th-year senior Ed Davis was granted eligibility this week. He hasn’t played since 2014 but he was very disruptive (12 TFL, 7 sacks) when healthy and is another quality two-deep player.
Bottom line, the Irish might control the Spartan defensive line pretty well outside of McDowell but it’ll be the aggressive, ball-hawking linebackers who have the ability to cause big problems in the passing game while also clogging running lanes.
L.J. Scott vs. Notre Dame’s Rush Defense
Michigan State was supposed to come into this season with a trio of running backs to choose from and instead have paired things down to two, and really just one main option.
Redshirt junior Gerald Holmes finished second on the team last year in yards and rushing scores but was relegated to special teams duty in the opener and is now the third option. Redshirt sophomore Madre London started at tailback to begin 2015 but sustained an injury mid-season and eventually lost his job when he came back healthy.
It’s now the L.J. Scott show as the high 4-star recruit has been given the keys to the offense as a true sophomore and carried the ball 20 times in the opener to just 5 times for London. The Ohio native in Scott is your typical Michigan State running back with power beyond his age, good vision, and great feet. A huge part of the gameplan will be devoted to slowing Scott and the run game down.
Michigan State’s Physical, Grabby Secondary vs. Young Irish Receivers
If history is our guide it could be tough sledding out there for the Irish run game. In the first 4 meetings between Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio from 2010-13 there wasn’t a single game where Notre Dame averaged over 3.59 yards per carry. The highest total rushing yardage was back in 2012 at 122, as well.
Unless something miraculous happens and Michigan State proves to be vastly overrated there will be big moments when the Irish will have to move the ball through the air. The Spartans secondary was really banged up last year and struggled at times but with that brings back 7 players who started games in 2015. Over the last 3 seasons S&P has loved MSU’s pass defense ranking them 7th, 16th, and 10th. However, in terms of raw numbers they weren’t as productive since we last saw the Spartan secondary. The difference between 2013 and 2015 was almost 1,000 more passing yards, 13 percent better completion percentage, and 1.9 better YPA for opponents.
There’s a lot of belief this will be a very good MSU secondary but with a cupcake opener and still some young bodies to sort through–particularly at corner–we don’t know for sure if this will be a lock down unit.
2 Sides of the Line
Michigan State has been going through a rebuilding project up front and while they get the benefit of a long rest their line hasn’t had time to gel in competitive games quite yet. A pair of returning starters are back to help things out, though. Junior Brian Allen (6-2, 304) is coming off a 2nd-team All-Big Ten season and is an anchor at left guard. The other returning starter is 5th-year senior Kodi Kieler (6-6, 319) who is making the awkward transition from right tackle to center.
The new starters on the line are redshirt sophomore David Beedle (6-5, 314) at left tackle, 6th-year senior Brandon Clemons (6-3, 302) at right guard, and JUCO senior Miguel Machado (6-6, 315) at right tackle. Sluggish would be an understatement for the Spartans’ effort in their opener. They gave up 2 sacks to Furman and were limited to just 122 rushing yards on 26 carries from the running back position. It’s impossible to know how much better they will be (you can count on them being improved) on Saturday night but this wasn’t an impressive performance.
Michigan State is really thin up front on the defensive line and are led by junior Malik McDowell (6-6, 276) at nose guard coming off a big 2015 that saw him rack up 13 TFL and 4.5 sacks. He’s widely considered one of the best at his position in the country. Starting next to him on the interior is 6th-year senior Nebraska transfer Kevin Williams (6-2, 281) who had a productive 2014 but was largely ineffective last year with the Huskers. Also, redshirt freshman Raequan Williams (6-4, 295) is in the mix but beyond that a fourth option will be true freshman Mike Panasiuk (6-3, 309).
The Spartans are likely to rely mostly on two edge rushers. First is redshirt junior Demetrius Cooper (6-5, 253) who was a productive backup in 2015. On the other side 5th-year senior Evan Jones (6-5, 251) adds more length but is inexperienced coming into Saturday with 10 career tackles.
All told, MSU is missing 7 defensive linemen from a year ago. The depth might not be a problem for this game against Notre Dame but one injury could be a problem. This is also a defense that will primarily rely on its linebackers, too. However, outside of McDowell who has All-American potential, this is an old line in terms of age but a largely unproven and thin unit.
I’ve always felt like I had a really good pulse on this matchup in past years. Whether it’s the two-year break in the series or Michigan State essentially having a summer scrimmage while coming into this as their de facto opener with so many new players I’m a lot less sure on this game on Saturday.
I have a not-so-sneaking suspicion that Michigan State’s offense could be quite poor, though. It all starts with 5th-year quarterback Tyler O’Connor who I think is very average for a Power 5 starter. First of all, he’s pretty inexperienced. In fact, O’Connor comes into the game Saturday night with 17 fewer passing attempts than Malik Zaire. He offers a little bit of a different prototype from a typical Michigan State quarterback as he’s generously listed at 6’3″ and a stocky 222 pounds. In many ways, O’Connor looks like someone not quite athletic enough to be a consistent running threat and not developed enough to be the steady pocket passer Michigan State would prefer.
He’s almost stuck in a weird no-mans land. I’m not sure if the chickens will come home to roost against Notre Dame but I would be surprised if O’Connor makes it through the entire season as the starter for the Spartans.
Due to his limitations, State has tried to bridge the gap in O’Connor’s limited snaps by rolling him out and getting him outside the pocket as much as possible. This also masks a deficiency in his game–although O’Connor is in his fifth year he hasn’t developed as a passer and relies heavily on his first read. For someone his age he shows really low abilities to even make simple reads, which goes back to his inexperience in games. Expect a lot of screens, a lot of play-action, and a lot of bootlegs where O’Connor is able to cut the field in half and limit his decision making process.
I don’t think O’Connor can win this game the way Kizer can for the Irish and this is a huge advantage for Notre Dame. For as much as the Notre Dame defense has struggled under VanGorder this Spartan offense is a great matchup. There isn’t a ton of speed at tailback, MSU isn’t adept at moving quickly, and O’Connor lives on underneath routes while simultaneously struggling at delivering balls on time to give his receivers a chance for yards after catch.
Avoid the big play, tackle well in space, and Michigan State should dink and dunk its way throughout the game hoping to convert a bunch of third downs to keep drives alive. Of course, Notre Dame has a torn relationship with avoiding big plays and tackling well so…
I’m sure Michigan State’s defense is going to be very, very good. Perhaps the best Notre Dame faces all season. That is a scary proposition for an Irish offense still searching for a little bit of an identity and maybe relying too much on Kizer to do everything.
At the end of the day, I think the Irish have faced a little bit better Spartan defenses with worse quarterbacks than Kizer running the offense and still able to pull out victories. This gives me a lot of hope for Saturday. What I don’t like is Michigan State having 15 days off, an entire off-season to plan for this game, and with the added benefit of being disrespected underdogs. Mark Dantonio is one of the my most respected coach’s in the country and I’ll be shocked if the Spartans don’t play really well.
This might sound crazy but I just distrust Michigan State’s offense more than VanGorder’s defense in this matchup. It’s completely possible I eat my words on that. Still, I’m expecting stretches of this game where the Spartans are really struggling to put together a coherent offense. As long as Notre Dame avoids the same fate against a tough Michigan State defense the game should be won at home under the lights.