Head to Head: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, September 22, 2017
The Irish have faced a raft of untested quarterbacks so far this season, with Boston College redshirt freshman Anthony Brown the only quarterback this season to have started before facing the Irish.
That will continue this weekend, as Spartans redshirt-sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke brings only four starts worth of experience before taking on Notre Dame, losing to Northwestern and Maryland last year before starting wins over Bowling Green and Western Michigan in 2017.
Lewerke put up solid numbers against Bowling Green’s porous pass defense, but struggled to move the ball through the air against the Broncos, passing for only 161 yards. In 2016, Lewerke shone when he appeared for two series against Michigan’s top-ranked pass defense — passing for 100 yards and a touchdown in just 10 attempts — but struggled in every other appearance.
Since then, the Spartans lost three starters on the offensive line and the only four players to record more than 150 receiving yards or one receiving touchdown in 2016.
The Irish pass defense raised some doubts after giving up easy short completions to Brown during the first half of their 49-20 victory over Boston College, but improved in the second half, with junior cornerback Shaun Crawford picking Brown off twice.
When the Irish face a proven quarterback like USC redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold, they will have to address those doubts, but Lewerke and his receivers are unlikely to pose too great a test.
Edge: Notre Dame
On a Michigan State team returning only nine starters from last year, two key contributors who are back in East Lansing are the running back tandem of junior L.J. Scott and senior Gerald Holmes, who ran for a combined 1,425 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, while junior Madre London, who added another 120 yards, will also be back. In addition, redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. has proven adept with the ball in hand, rushing for 98 yards on six attempts.
It is Lewerke, however, who may be the biggest threat to the Irish, rushing for a team-leading 150 yards on 17 attempts this year, after 149 yards on 21 attempts in 2016. As the most dynamic rushing threat at the position the Irish have faced so far this year, Lewerke will act as a test of how well the Irish can shut down a mobile quarterback.
Behind a weaker offensive line, the Spartan backs struggled to get going against their Group-of-Five opposition so far this year, running for only 4.1 yards per attempt, but Stewart and Lewerke have picked up the slack and will keep the Irish on their toes. A quarterback with Lewerke’s rushing ability will be a new challenge for the Irish, but the Irish have shut down the running threat of every quarterback they have faced so far, holding each one to negative yardage.
Notre Dame’s defensive line lacked experience entering the season, and showed its first cracks against Boston College by letting junior running back Jon Hilliman run for a career-high 122 yards, but the Irish run defense was vastly improved in the second half and may be capable of playing more like the unit that slowed seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel again.
Head coach Mark Dantonio’s Spartans have been known for their hard-nosed, direct rushing attack, but without their typical strength up front this year, the Irish should win this battle.
Edge: Notre Dame
Spartans Offensive Coaching
With the exception of 2014’s high-scoring unit, Michigan State’s offenses under Mark Dantonio haven’t been known for putting up flashy numbers. But before 2016, the Spartans’ slow, calculated offense remained successful and helped its team grind out wins even if the team’s counting stats were low.
But in 2016, when the Spartan attack recorded its lowest points-per-game total since 2000, Michigan State’s low offensive numbers were signs of an offense that genuinely struggled to move the ball, regardless of the personnel on the field.
Although Michigan State did not bring about any coordinator changes to fix their offense, results look better in 2017, but with a lack of proven defensive opposition, it’s hard to say much of whether there has been real improvement.
Despite by far the shakiest performance from the Irish defense thus far, defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s unit proved itself to still be fairly sturdy, particularly in stopping the Eagles just short of field goal range and stepping up during the second half.
There is a chance co-offensive coordinators Jim Bollman and Dave Warner learn how to bring back gruelling but effective Michigan State offensive football, but Elko has the upper hand.
Edge: Notre Dame
Spartans Special Teams
Mention Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State meeting Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame and one play comes to mind: 2010’s “Little Giants” fake field goal for a touchdown to defeat the Irish 34-31 in overtime, the play that arguably put Dantonio’s squad on the map during their first of five 11-win seasons in six years, culminating in a playoff appearance before last year’s 3-9 capitulation.
Spartans redshirt-freshman kicker Matt Coghlin hasn’t been part of a fake field goal while at Michigan State, or a real one for that matter. Winning the starting job in late August, Coghlin has been a perfect 9-of-9 on extra points but has so far not needed to attempt a field goal, though he did hit a 52-yarder in preseason practices.
Redshirt-junior Spartans punter Jake Hartbarger may not post the most impressive distance stats, but has proven adept at pinning teams deep, landing 41 of his 111 punts inside the 20-yard line and landing 21 inside the 10-yard line.
The Irish have struggled so far to put junior returner Chris Finke in situations where he can make a return, with gunners consistently reaching Finke at the same time as the ball. Against the Eagles, that contributed to consistently poor field position for Notre Dame and a skilled punter like Hartbarger should continue to force the Irish to start drives deep within their own half.
The Irish passing offense was more or less nonexistent against Boston College, as junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush passed for only 96 yards, keeping his total passing yardage for the season below 500 and his passer rating under 100.
Although the Eagles’ pass defense is historically strong, and Georgia before that brought an elite pass-rush, the Irish look incapable of moving the ball through the air, with Wimbush missing receivers even when Boston College defenders gave him a chance.
After the game, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said he would retool the offense more to Wimbush’s strengths, which will likely mean a reduction in the passing attack as anything more than a way to keep defenses honest.
The Spartans’ pass defense was inconsistent in 2016, best exemplified by its final two games, where the Spartans held Ohio State to just 86 passing yards before allowing Penn State sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley a passer rating 268.6 the next week.
The Spartans lost star junior defensive tackle Malik McDowell and five other defensive starters from last year’s team, but have more than shut down the passing attacks they have faced so far, limiting Bowling Green redshirt sophomore James Morgan and Western Michigan sophomore quarterback John Wassing both to passer ratings of below 70, with a completion percentage below 45 percent, no touchdowns and an interception.
Even if the Spartans pass defense can’t keep up their performances from the first two games, Wimbush will need to make a drastic improvement in accuracy to pose them any sort of threat.
Edge: Michigan State
While the passing game struggled in Boston, the Irish ground game dominated, running for 515 yards — the most for Notre Dame since 1969 — with Brandon Wimbush and Josh Adams becoming the first pair of Irish 200-yard rushers in history.
What’s more, all of this came against a run defense that had given up only 3.0 yards per attempt since 2014, and despite a weakness against option quarterbacks, had otherwise limited running backs to only 2.6 yards per attempt this season.
The Irish look set to continue to commit to the run this season, but may have more difficulty against the Spartans. Despite their 3-9 season last year, Michigan State remained consistently strong against the run and limited the Irish to just 2.3 yards per attempt
Still, with the Irish rushing offense averaging 330 yards per game on 7.5 yards per attempt, the big play threat on the ground may be just a little too much for the Spartans to handle
Edge: Notre Dame
Irish Offensive Coaching
Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio built a reputation for stout defenses during his time in East Lansing, after a coordinator career in which he coached the only defensive Heisman trophy winner, Charles Woodson, as Michigan’s defensive backs coach, before leading a national-title winning defense at Ohio State. Even as the team struggled last year, the Spartan defense remained strong, and looks even stronger this year.
The Notre Dame offense is hoping to prove it has found its identity against Michigan State, after dominating Boston College once it switched to a more run-focused game. Chip Long and Brian Kelly may have a better sense of their offense’s strengths and weaknesses now than they did a week ago, but an offense that has only recently figured itself out is not one ready for Dantonio.
Edge: Michigan State
Irish Special Teams
After missing two field goal attempts against Temple and making four against Georgia, junior kicker Justin Yoon had little to do for Notre Dame last week, only being called upon to kick extra points, where went a perfect 7-of-7.
Senior punter Tyler Newsome was far more busy, punting seven times. But regularly being called upon to kick from deep within his own territory, Newsome was unable to use his powerful leg to flip the field for the Irish, giving the Eagles regular short-field opportunities.
Freshman kickoff specialist Jonathan Doerer also made his debut for the Irish, but struggled with his opening two kicks, leading to Yoon’s return to kickoff duties.
Michigan State’s Darrell Stewart Jr. could potentially be a threat on returns, but has little experience with only eight kick returns and five punt returns under his belt.