EMBATTLED IRISH HOST SPARTANSposted by John Vannie
The Spartans are 3-0 against the usual preseason array of underwhelming opponents, but first year Coach Mark Dantonio is taking nothing for granted this week. The Spartans have won five straight games at Notre Dame and would love to make it six before entering conference play. Michigan State’s roster does not appear to be as talented as the previous opponents the Irish have faced this season, and many fans believe the team will find a way to win.
Weis has emphasized fundamentals this week, and the question is to what extent his team will improve over its disastrous performance last week in Ann Arbor. Jimmy Clausen has settled into to the quarterback position, but it remains to be seen if he can finally settle into the pocket behind a solid wall of protection.
Defensively, Notre Dame’s linebackers must play more physically and the secondary needs to tighten up after a poor game against Michigan. Derrell Hand returns from suspension to give the Irish more depth up front. The defensive line has exceeded expectations to date, but lack of depth and no help from the offense will take its toll by midseason unless a drastic turnaround occurs.
After a week of unusually hard-hitting practices, Notre Dame will be emotionally charged to take on the Spartans. Although the home crowd will certainly help, the Irish must avoid a turnover or significant negative play early in the game. This young team may not be able to overcome more self-inflicted adversity, regardless of the venue. Therefore, early success and the ability to play with a lead are vital to Notre Dame’s chances of victory.
Meanwhile, Michigan State’s strategy will be similar to other Irish opponents. The Spartans have the ability to pound the ball on the ground and pressure the quarterback on defense. The visitors average nearly 200 rushing yards per game and have recorded 17 sacks in three outings, so they have the weapons to carry out an aggressive plan against Notre Dame.
Notre Dame’s Offense vs. Michigan State’s Defense
End Jonal Saint-Dic was a one man wrecking crew for the Spartans last week, recording two sacks, three tackles for losses and two forced fumbles against Pittsburgh. He is joined on the line by veterans Ervin Baldwin and Ogemdi Nwagbuo, and supported by a talented middle linebacker in Kaleb Thornhill. All will provide another stern test for the beleaguered Irish offensive line.
Notre Dame will have to pay special attention to Saint-Dic, and that may require a tight end to stay home and block rather than become a downfield target for Clausen. First and foremost, however, the Irish will try once again to establish a running game. This week, James Aldridge is expected to get plenty of work on the heels of his determined effort against Michigan last week.
When Weis calls for the pass, Notre Dame’s receivers must do a better job of getting open. On the rare occasions when the line has protected Clausen, he has often been frustrated by the lack of options downfield. Teams have been able to employ tight coverage and take away quick slants and other staples Weis’ offense. The deep pass has been open on several occasions this season, but Clausen has not had the time to make a good throw in those situations. The Spartans have a pair of talented safeties in Travis Key and Otis Wiley, but the Irish should be able to move the ball through the air.
If the Irish are going to be competitive in this game, they must avoid the penalties and mistakes that have continued to put them in impossible situations. Negative yardage plays seem to occur on every series, and there have been as many mental breakdowns as physical. This is because the Irish linemen are tentative and doing a lot of thinking when they should be firing out at their opponent. This should begin to change this week, but the Spartans are going to bring pressure until Notre Dame is able to handle it.
Michigan State’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
Last week, Michigan’s young quarterback did not have to make many plays against the Irish because Mike Hart carried the ball 35 times for nearly 200 yards. Michigan State’s Brian Hoyer has taken over for Drew Stanton this season, and he has the luxury of being able to hand off to the elusive Javon Ringer and battering ram Jehuu Caulcrick. This productive pair will run left behind a pair of massive fifth year senior linemen in guard Kenny Shane and tackle Pete Clifford.
Hoyer has been unspectacular in the three Spartan victories, and he has not faced a second half deficit this season. If Notre Dame can build a lead in this contest and force Hoyer to throw the ball, turnover opportunities may present themselves.
The passing game for Michigan State is certainly not bereft of talent. Wide receiver Devin Thomas has averaged more than 26 yards per catch, and tight end Kellen Davis is an outstanding target. The Irish have not seen a tight end this season as productive as Davis, and his presence is sure to cause them problems.
The greatest fear for Notre Dame remains a continuous pounding by Caulcrick and the outside rushes of Ringer when the defense becomes fatigued. The Irish linebackers have not demonstrated the physicality needed to contain this pair, and it could become another long afternoon once the early game emotions are expended.
Michigan State’s Brett Swenson is a reliable kicker, and freshman punter Aaron Bates has been adequate to date. Thomas also handles kick returns, where his 29 yard average places him among the nation’s best. Another wide receiver, Terry Love, returns punts at a 12.5 yard clip. The Irish have come close to breaking a kickoff return on several occasions. Golden Tate will be the primary returner this week, and Notre Dame could use a big play from him or a Tom Zbikowski punt return to provide a spark.
Brandon Walker has executed his field goal attempts for the Irish this season, and he may get an opportunity to kick with the outcome still in doubt this week. Punter Geoff Price will need to outperform Bates in order to win the field position battle, but Notre Dame fans would rather not see him at all. Price has punted 24 times for over 1000 yards this season, and is by far the leading offensive weapon for the Irish.
Notre Dame knows what is coming from the Spartans. Ringer and Caulcrick will see plenty of work, while Coach Dantonio tries to keep from placing Hoyer in difficult positions. He will take his shots downfield to Thomas and try to move the chains with short tosses to Davis. Defensively, Saint-Dic will lead the charge against Clausen, and Thornhill will key on Aldridge or whoever runs the ball for the Irish.
Special teams are important in that Notre Dame must make Michigan State earn field position. Penalties and pass protection breakdowns leading to sacks are not plays made by successful teams, and the Irish must at minimum find a cure for them if they are to have any hope of winning.
The key elements that will determine the outcome are as follows:
Can Notre Dame finally establish the run?
Will the Irish linebackers neutralize Ringer and Caulcrick?
Which young quarterback will have time to throw?
Will Notre Dame's receivers be able to make plays?
Who will win the special teams battle?
The Spartans are not as good as the teams Notre Dame has played so far this season, and the Irish can go nowhere but up after last week’s rock bottom performance. While the game will be competitive, it is very unlikely that Weis and company can overcome widespread fundamental flaws in seven short days regardless of the intensified practice regimen. Many fans and students believe they can will the team to victory and produce a classic Notre Dame moment by overcoming the odds, but they will have to settle for modest improvements and the first offensive touchdown of the season.
Michigan State 24 Notre Dame 13