The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Head-to-Head: Michigan State vs. Notre Dame

Observer Football Beat Writers | Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Michigan State sophomore Connor Cook has thrown for 276 yards this year, 202 of which came last week against Youngstown State. He also threw four touchdowns against the Penguins in a blowout victory.  As a whole, the Spartans have accumulated only 480 yards passing through the air in three games, when three different players have seen time under center.  Senior Andrew Maxwell is 15-for-30 for 114 yards in two appearances and one start, while redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor has entered two games, as well.
The Irish have looked anything but impenetrable on the backline thus far, but Michigan State hasn’t proven it is anything to fear through the air, either. Spartans sophomore Aaron Burbridge earned recognition on the Biletnikoff Award Preseason Watch List and has 80 yards on eight catches this season. Sophomore Macgarrett Kings, Jr., leads Michigan State with 99 yards and one touchdown on eight grabs in 2013.
Notre Dame has the edge in talent, and if the Irish secondary can tighten things up, it could be very difficult for Michigan State. Irish senior tri-captain cornerback Bennett Jackson’s pick-six in the Purdue game could serve as a wake-up-call for the rest of his unit. While far from a sure thing, the talent and experience on the Irish back end give Notre Dame a ceiling well above anything Michigan State could reasonably expect to reach in week four.

  Junior running backs Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill lead the more accomplished dimension of Michigan State’s offense. The Spartans have rushed for 209.7 yards-per-game this year. On 44 attempts, the 6-foot-2, 206-pound Langford has 200 yards on the season and has scored four touchdowns, while the smaller Hill has added 179 yards and one score on 7.2 yards-per-attempt. Redshirt freshman running back Riley Bullough adds a power dimension to the Spartan running game. The 230-pounder has 82 yards on 21 carries in 2013.   
  Although Notre Dame’s defense has struggled mightily in comparison with last year’s unit, the Irish still rank 26th in the nation in rush defense. Notre Dame has only surrendered 112.7 yards-per-game, although last week’s dominant effort against the Boilermakers, in which the Irish held Purdue to only 38 rushing yards, stands in stark contrast to the games against Temple and Michigan, who accumulated 134 and 166 yards rushing, respectively. If Notre Dame can approximate its performance from last week, it should be more than enough.

  Recently-hired co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman brings 36 years of experience, including 11 seasons as the offensive coordinator at Ohio State (2001-2011). Bollman will split the offensive coordinator duties with Dave Warner, who has served as the quarterbacks coach for the Spartans during the past six seasons. Bollman, Warner and the rest of the decision-makers at Michigan State have presided over a quarterback situation in flux, although Cook presumably secured the job for the time being by throwing four touchdowns last week. Field-goal formations might make Irish fans flinch as long as Dantonio still roams the sideline, and Notre Dame is still figuring things out on defense, but Diaco gets the edge here.

  Senior kicker Kevin Muma handles both the kickoff and placekicking duties for Michigan State, and he has handled them well this season. Spartans Junior punter Mike Sadler has sent his punts 41.2 yards on average. The Spartans’ punt returners have averaged 9.6 yards-per-return, most of which has come from sophomore receiver Andre Sims, Jr.              
Aug. 30    Western Michigan     W     26-13
Sept. 7       South Florida                    W     21-6
Sept. 14    Youngstown State    W 55-17                 Sept 21    @ Notre Dame              
Oct. 5     @ Iowa                 
Oct. 12    Indiana            
Oct. 19    Purdue        
Oct. 26    @ Illinois        
Nov. 2    Michigan    
Nov. 16    @ Nebraska
Nov. 23    @ Northwestern
Nov. 30    Minnesota


It certainly hasn’t looked perfect at times, but Notre Dame has put together an impressive passing offense so far this season.  Tommy Rees has recorded three consecutive 300-yard games after reaching the mark only twice in his career before 2013. Senior tri-captain TJ Jones and junior DaVaris Daniels have both shown themselves capable of serving as the main targets this year, while freshman receiver Corey Robinson and junior tight end Troy Niklas bring much-needed size and power to the unit.
Meanwhile, Michigan State leads the nation in both total defense and pass efficiency defense, allowing 177.0 yards-per-game and attaining a 68.14 rating, respectively. The Spartans also rank fifth in the nation in pass defense, having surrendered only 126.7 yards-per-game. They have also shown big-play ability, totaling 83 return yards following four interceptions – two of which went the other way for touchdowns. Spartans sophomore defensive end Shilique Carter has one of those touchdown returns following an interception, and has added two more defensive touchdowns following fumble recoveries. Carter also anchors the Michigan State front, having recorded two sacks and eight quarterback hurries this year. Even if Notre Dame can keep Rees off his back, he will have to be careful to keep the ball out of the ready hands of Spartan defenders and count on Daniels and Jones to make plays down the field.

Michigan State ranks fourth in the nation in rush defense, allowing only 50.3 yards per game on the ground. Notre Dame has not shown itself to be a significant threat running the ball yet this season, even with a backfield that goes five deep in theory. Irish junior running back Cam McDaniel brought a power dimension to the running game against Purdue that had been lacking, but Amir Carlisle turned in a dud following what seemed to be his breakout game against Michigan. Junior George Atkinson, still atop the Irish depth chart at the running back position, has struggled to find a groove so far this year. He has averaged 5.4 yards-per-carry, but has only carried the ball 18 times.  
Against Purdue, the Irish backs often failed to regain the line of scrimmage, as the Boilermakers repeatedly erupted through Notre Dame’s offensive line and recorded six tackles-for-loss. That the Irish failed to eclipse 100 yards on the ground against the same Purdue team that allowed 221 yards rushing to Cincinnati in the opening week should be cause for concern for Notre Dame, even if the pieces are there. Michigan State senior linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough – both of whom have generated buzz as highly-regarded NFL prospects – will make it tough sledding for the Irish backs

Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin have their work cut out for them this week against a defense that has done about as well as it possibly could have through three games, regardless of the opponents. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will serve as the assistant coach for the first time this year. Narduzzi has seven years of experience at the helm of the Spartans defense, a unit that has been the top defense in the Big Ten in each of the past two seasons.

TJ Jones will look for an opportunity to return a punt after calling for a fair catch at his own four-yard line against Purdue. Atkinson has perhaps been the most steady special teams performer for the Irish, averaging 29.4 yards on eight kickoff returns this year. Atkinson could find himself with an opportunity to recreate the magic he brought to Notre Dame Stadium two years ago, when he returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown against the Spartans.

Aug. 31    Temple          W       28-6
Sept. 7    @ Michigan         L       41-30
Sept. 14    @ Purdue         W      31-24
Sept. 21    Michigan State        
Sept. 26    Oklahoma        
Oct. 5    vs. Arizona State       
Oct. 19    USC        
Oct. 26    @ Air Force    
Nov. 2    Navy    
Nov. 9    @ Pittsburgh
Nov. 23    BYU
Nov. 30    @ Stanford