Notre Dame buckles down for Michigan State defense
Daniel O'Boyle | Friday, September 22, 2017
“I think they’re good. I think the offensive line is improved from last year.”
“It’s interesting you say that because they have four new starters on their offensive line. How are they better than last year’s line, which was a little bit more experienced?”
“Just from watching them, I think that’s just kind of what the coaches have told us, and so I’m just kind of relaying that. I don’t really … yeah.”
Irish senior linebacker Greer Martini’s praise for Michigan State’s line doesn’t come across as confident.
An offensive line with four new starters should ordinarily be worse than they were the year before.
A team ranked 124th in the nation in returning production should ordinarily expect a drop-off.
A team that goes 3-9 and chooses not to replace a single coach or coordinator should ordinarily expect more of the same, at best.
The 2017 Michigan State team is not ordinary, because the 2016 team wasn’t ordinary.
When Notre Dame, averaging a little over nine wins per season from 2010 to 2015, dropped to just four wins in 2016, it was a shock. The Spartans averaged just under 11 wins since 2010, before winning just three games last year. One of those was a 15-point win over Furman, an FCS team who themselves went 3-8. Another was against Big Ten bottom-feeders Rutgers.
The remaining win was at Notre Dame Stadium.
Martini said the Spartan offensive line should be better, but couldn’t say why. Martini — who arrived at Notre Dame in 2014 — has yet to play at Michigan State. Irish head coach Brian Kelly, though, has faced head coach Mark Dantonio’s Spartans teams before, and having seen Dantonio win 11 or more games in four out of the six years since Kelly arrived at Notre Dame, the Irish coach said he has to treat the Spartans like the powerhouse program they appeared to be before last year.
“This team looks a lot more similar to some of his earlier teams,” Kelly said. “Extremely disciplined, hard-nosed, play to the echo of the whistle, just resembles a lot more of the teams that I’ve seen — ’10, ’11, ’12, ’13, those were supremely talented teams the last few years. This team reminds me of some of his earlier teams.”
Mark Dantonio’s reputation was about more than simply wins, however. The Spartans head coach — a national championship-winning defensive coordinator under Jim Tressel at Ohio State before becoming a head coach — built a signature style of play in East Lansing. The Spartans became famed for winning with an old-fashioned kind of football, with stingy defenses and physical, run-heavy offenses. Kelly said he’s more than familiar with the way the Spartans play.
“You know there’s a style of offense and defense that has been his hallmark, trademark, whatever you want to use, that is part of who he is as a coach,” Kelly said. “It’s hard-nosed, physical football. Run the football, certainly feature a very physical defense, man-to-man on the back end of the defense.
“When you see Mark Dantonio’s football team, you’re not playing a finesse team. It’s physical, hard-nosed, and our guys know what to expect when they play Michigan State.”
The question of how the Spartans have bounced back remains partly because the team has yet to face Power-Five opposition. Dantonio’s team defeated Bowling Green 35-10 and Western Michigan 28-14, holding both opposing quarterbacks to passer ratings of below 75 and both opposing rushing attacks to less than 3.3 yards per carry. Dantonio said his team has been taking the rebounding process slowly.
“I think our football team, we’re just taking things one step at a time as we go,” Dantonio said. “You know, the first two steps have been completed. Now it’s a third step. Obviously you have a national game. It’s a little bit more intensity around it, I guess. I can’t really say that from an internal perspective because I think that’s how we’ve been in every football game. But we just keep taking steps. Next week it’s going to be another challenge.”
The Spartans rushing attack, which returns junior running back L.J. Scott and senior Gerald Holmes from last year, brings a new dimension that Dantonio’s teams have generally not had in the past, however: a dual-threat quarterback. Redshirt sophomore Brian Lewerke has rushed for 150 yards on 17 carries so far this year, and Kelly said he could make it much more difficult than normal to defend the Spartans attack.
“Certainly everybody knows about the backs, Scott and Holmes,” Kelly said. “They ran all over us last year, and certainly we’ll have to play a lot better to contain those two backs. And I’ve been very impressed with Lewerke. He’s very poised, he can run, you know, if you fall asleep in zone option he’s going to pull it and he’s capable of running out. He had a nice long run against Western Michigan. He’s more than just a manager of the offense. He can throw it, highly accurate. I think has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”
However, it’s the Spartans’ defense that Kelly said is still the biggest challenge.
“They’ve got two of the finer inside linebackers that we’ll face,” Kelly said. “They do what they do. They’re stingy against the run. Very physical on the back end, play tight man coverage, mix it up very good with their pressure package, and, again, led by Coach Dantonio’s philosophy, they’ve always been really good defensively.
“This is a team that we’re well aware of and aware of what they’re capable of. I Have a lot of respect for Mark Dantonio and what he’s accomplished at Michigan State. They’re a team just a few years ago that, like us, was vying for in our instance a playoff spot, for them being part of the playoffs.”
The Spartans were not just vying for a playoff spot in prior years. They made it to the Cotton Bowl in 2015. Then they went 3-9. How many games Dantonio wins this year may be hard to predict, but Kelly said he’s sure of a couple of things about the way his opponents will play.
“You’re fighting for every inch when you’re playing Michigan State because they’re going to take care of the football on offense and they’re going to play really good defense,” Kelly said. “That will have to be the case for us too on Saturday.”