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Head to head: Michigan State at Notre Dame

| Friday, September 16, 2016

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After getting torched two weeks ago against Texas, the Irish got back on track last week against the Wolf Pack. Notre Dame let up 201 passing yards and held Nevada’s quarterbacks to 12 completions on 26 passes. The Wolf Pack game saw bounce-back performances from Nick Coleman and Drue Tranquill. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones also got into the action with an interception, which set up Notre Dame for a short touchdwon.

However, there are still holes in the Irish secondary and with better throws, the Wolf Pack may have had two more touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Michigan State, through one game, compiled 190 yards of passing against Furman two weeks ago. Senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor may not win the Heisman, but he is more than just a game manager and there is little he hasn’t seen at this stage in his collegiate career. The running game is Michigan State’s bread and butter, but if need be, the Spartan passing attack can come alive.



Michigan State has long been known for its tough, old-school running game and this year is no different. The Spartans rushed for nearly 2,500 yards last season and through one game in 2016, they have 171 yards on the ground. The Spartans have an experienced offensive line with three seniors and one junior in front of sophomore LJ Scott and Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio will go to the ground early and often.

On the other side of the trenches, the Irish front seven are a far cry from the formidable 2012 team. Against Texas, the Irish surrendered 237 rushing yards after switching to a 3-3-5 defensive scheme. While the Longhorns employed a high-empo offense, the Spartans will present the Irish with a more traditional ground attack. Against the Wolf Pack, the Irish held a run-first team to only 99 yards on 30 attempts. How well the Irish control the Spartan ground game will go a long way in determining the outcome of the game.



Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio is one of only six active head coaches to boast a .700 win percentage after 100 games at a school. Dantonio’s teams are known for their hard-nosed, old-fashioned approach and reliance on the run game and the defense. However, the Spartan offense in past years is more two dimensional than many think. Michigan State threw for 26 touchdowns and only eight interceptions last year. Co-offensive coordinators Jim Bollman and Dave Warner have coached three current NFL quarterbacks in Kirk Cousins, Connor Cook and Brian Hoyer.

On the other side of the ball, Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has some work to do to mold his young defense into a top-tier unit. The defense had a much stronger showing against Nevada as the Irish limited big plays and came up with a key fourth -down stop en route to allowing only 10 points to the Wolf Pack. A solid performance against a legitimate top-15 team will go a long way towards VanGorder’s job security.



Michigan State went 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less last season and senior kicker Michael Geiger is a big reason why. Many will remember his most famous kick — a 41-yard game-winning field goal as time expired agaisnt then-No. 2 Ohio State on Nov. 21. Geiger went 12-for-19 in field goal attempts on the year.

It is rare that defensive special teams  make an impact in a game, but against Texas, the Irish blocked an extra-point attempt and returned it for a defensive two-point conversion.



Though the number of yards may not show it, the Irish had a successful day passing against Nevada. DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire threw for a combined 205 yards, and Kizer completed 15 out of his 18 passes, including two touchdowns and one interception. Sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown continues to emerge as a standout target for Kizer, hauling in six receptions for 85 yards  Saturday, and with Torii Hunter Jr. returning from a concussion, the Irish receiving corps has depth and will continue to improve as it gains experience.

Michigan State has historically been a good school for defensive backs, including recent standouts Darqueze Dennard and Trenton Robinson. The Spartans are one of the few teams known for an aggressive press coverage that has the potential to give Notre Dame fits. Last season, the Spartans allowed 234 yards per game through the air. Two weeks ago, the Spartans held Furman to just 139 yards passing.

The biggest difference between the two offenses is the play at quarterback. DeShone Kizer is a Heisman candidate and the speed the Irish have at reciever wil be miles ahead of what Michigan State saw versus Furman.



While Michigan State may be the team more traditionally associated with the running game, Notre Dame is no slouch in this department. The Irish are averaging 222.5 rushing yards per game so far this season behind a strong offensive line and the backfield of Tarean Folston and Josh Adams. Adams was especially effective against Nevada, accumulating 106 yards on only 10 carries.

The Spartans possess a strong run defense, having allowed Furman only 87 yards on 33 carries. The Spartans also had three players with eight tackles or more against  the Paladins, with junior linebacker Chris Frey leading the way with nine. Last season, the Spartans gave up 3.6 yards per rush and 116 yards per game.



With DeShone Kizer taking snaps, Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford have hit on something that works. Look for Kelly to put the ball in Kizer’s hands in big situations. Kelly also seems to have Michigan State’s number, winning four of the last five games against Michigan State, with the last loss coming by way of a fake field goal in overtime back in 2010.

Defensively, Michigan State’s continuity is a strong suit. Spartan co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and  Mike Tressel have been with Dantonio since his arrival in East Lansing in 2007 and in fact, coached under Dantonio when he was with Cincinnati from 2004-2006. The Michigan State staff has a wealth of experience and it will be up to the Irish to out-execute the Spartans since they won’t confuse them.



The Irish continue to struggle with consistency on special teams. Punter Tyler Newsome has not been fantastic, averaging 44.8 yards per punt against Nevada, but only 38.3 versus Texas. A smooth day for special teams was also marred by a missed extra-point on Saturday by Justin Yoon, although the hold on the play was subpar.

On the bright side for the Irish, sophomore C.J. Sanders has boosted the Irish return game, averaging 37 yards per kick return in the Nevada game.

Michigan State’s special teams can also make an impact. Most visibly, the Spartans blocked a punt in the final seconds of a game versus Michigan and returned that ball for the game-winning touchdown.


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