To put things briefly, this game is up for grabs—and 60 minutes of football could well end in a tie.
Presumably, the MSU that played Furman was an MSU with two weeks of preseason prep remaining. Two weeks to develop its personnel and units. Two weeks to perfect a classified arsenal of formations, schemes, and plays.
Well, that time is up. The real season begins with a rescue operation for one sorely missed Megaphone Trophy.
The 18th-ranked Irish have been well scouted. They have ample talent across the board. They are two FBS games more seasoned than the Spartans. Their coach knows how to beat MSU. Their stadium will be louder than ever. They have the potential to win big if State does not bring its A-game.
But they are every bit as inexperienced in years as the Spartans are. Some of their talent is not playing up to par. And they are vulnerable.
Both teams will try to establish the run—and to stop the run. But it is passing that will animate this game. Both teams have one of the nation’s most efficient passers—and both have poorly-esteemed pass defenses. Notre Dame’s secondary is more depleted than MSU’s was at any point last year. But baiting officials worked for the Irish before, and may work again.
Receiving yards will pile up. Chains will be moved. The Spartans will show a few surprises. And a 20-20 tie will hardly survive the third quarter.
But given how little is really known of MSU, this is ultimately anyone’s game.
EXPANDED REMARKS AND ADDITIONAL DETAILS
Arguments abound, of course, for selective people to assert victory or doom for either team. The Report suspends consideration of the Furman game except to note it was a poor showing for MSU. In that superficial context, note that when Coach Dantonio’s Spartans have entered a bye week after what is perceived to be a poor performance, they have come out markedly stronger. This was especially true after the 2013 loss to the Irish. The Spartans lost 17-13—in part because the Irish threw “twenty” deep passes, by Dantonio’s count. The main problem, though, was an anemic, mistake-prone offense. After the bye week, the Spartans proceeded to beat Iowa and eight other B1G teams by at least 10 points in a march to a B1G title more dominant than any seen since 1943. This is the metamorphosis MSU fans are hoping to see tomorrow night.
But history is not so simple. MSU is a seven-point Las Vegas underdog in this game. And while Dantonio’s Spartans have a reputation of beating the odds, those beatings never start until October. Since 2007, MSU has been an underdog in early (August/September) games six times. MSU has lost all six of them—including three to Notre Dame. In fact, Dantonio’s teams have under-performed the point spread by an average six points per game against Coach Brian Kelly’s Irish; in four games, Kelly’s teams have outscored MSU 99-63. Dantonio speaks of mountains; the September Underdog Hump remains one of the few his Spartans have yet to scale.
Additionally, Dantonio’s Spartans have usually under-performed in night games played on enemy turf. (The exception was at Maryland in 2014.) Most recently, this happened after a bye week—when the Spartans lost a high-scoring game at Nebraska last year.
Tomorrow night, the challenge will be exacerbated: Notre Dame Stadium will be louder than ever because of new buildings erected astride the stadium.
In summary, the Irish have seasonal, environmental, and historical head-coaching advantages over the Spartans—on top of an extra game’s debugging against tougher competition. Furthermore, MSU is at best unproven in most of its competitive aspects. One would think the Spartans were sure to be blown out.
Those that have seen Notre Dame know better. Spartan fans are particularly itching to see State get a crack at the Irish defense—and while they might underestimate Notre Dame in some ways, even the Irish coaches recognize a conundrum. The trouble sprouts from a loss of Notre Dame’s best safety and its 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-best CBs over the last several weeks. Cole Luke [jersey #36] is one of the best corners MSU will face this season and will likely contain whomever he covers. Moreover, their SS should be strong in run-D support. But their free safeties and backup CBs are all true freshman—and the starting CB opposite Luke has been pathetic. Having a nickel back for damage control helps—and Kelly likes to have one in on third downs as a rule. Without a nickel back, the Irish will have to forego man-to-man coverage much of the time.
There is the rub. Job One for Kelly’s D is to stop the run. His front seven is designed and built to limit pro-style power runners like MSU’s. But the secondary as it is cannot withstand much early-down passing—and MSU should know it. On the other hand, playing zone (or an extra DB) effectively takes away the blitzes that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder relishes—and that bodes ill for a D that has zero sacks on 53 pass attempts this year. Inevitably, it opens up room for MSU to run.
The Irish D’s problems have mostly been on first downs; they are much better on later downs, and no one should think they are nearly as porous as a typical Big 12 team. In particular, do not assume that the Texas success on the ground will translate to MSU. Still, even if O’Connor’s deep ball and the Spartan receivers turn out to be merely serviceable, a balanced Spartan attack can score in the 30s—particularly if, as Kelly seems to think, the back seven have a few tackling issues.
There are, nonetheless, some front-seven Domers to watch for. Their nose tackles, Daniel Cage [#75] and Jarron Jones [#94] are approximately All-B1G-second-team level (and would be really dangerous if they played simultaneously). Jones has blocked five kicks in his career. DE Isaac Rochell [#90] is also projected at about that level and will be a good first test for MSU left tackle David Beedle.[#59]. The LBs are average by B1G standards, but CFB Film Room notes that Nyles Morgan [#5] has 18 tackles and zero misses this year. (N.b.: If O’Connor checks down, he will probably find his tight ends especially handy.)
Note: One of the Irish players may be wearing #1 instead of his regular number this week.
The Irish have other concerns, too. They may have the best tackle-guard duo on MSU’s schedule, but it did not grade up to expectations against Texas. The Irish may have the best kicker-punter combo on MSU’s schedule, but they have not always looked like it, either. Domer tight ends should be absolutely no problem for MSU. And playing 12 true freshmen so far this year suggests that their lack of overall experience may have eclipsed MSU’s.
But Notre Dame has a definite edge on special teams. Wide receiver CJ Sanders [#3] is averaging 25 yards per punt return, and is already being compared to the likes of Golden Tate and Theo Riddick. (Look for him on a trick play from scrimmage.) Kickoff coverage is excellent. The punter has put the ball inside the 20-yard line 1/3 of the time this year—with zero touchbacks.
And the offense, while it is not Baylor or vintage Oregon, can certainly move the ball. Notre Dame should have one of the better O-lines MSU faces this year—although Kelly seemed to imply this week that it was his single biggest concern against the Spartans Its RB corps is on a par with MSU’s; Josh Adams [#33] and Dexter Williams [#2] are both averaging over seven yards per carry. Baseball scion Torii Hunter [#16] may be among the best WRs MSU will face this year; he returns after missing the last five quarters due to concussion concerns. And 6’5” Equanimeous St. Brown [#6] is a favorite target. All in all, Kelly seems confident in his receivers’ ability to succeed against MSU’s man-to-man coverage.
If QB DeShone Kizer [#14] gets hurt, the Irish have a fine replacement. But Kizer has won the starting job and is completing 70% of his passes inside and outside of the red zone. MSU co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel raved about him on Wednesday: “I recruited him… He has an NFL arm and you’ve seen the film. You know he can run the ball and he’s athletic and he’s a big ol’ body. He really won’t go down easy. But, he has the ability that if his read is not there, he can keep the play alive like a Roethlisberger…” He has 23 carries for 112 net yards and two rushing TDs over two games. He does, however, tend to migrate away from his protection at times; a good pass rush could cash in on that.
For its part, Dantonio indicated that MSU’s bye week included more conditioning than in previous years’ bye weeks. Tressel indicated they had “a couple pure fundamental practices” as well. The Report finds this encouraging. The apparent fitness of WRs RJ Shelton & Felton Davis and LBs Ed Davis & Jon Reschke to play tomorrow is also good news. These LBs will back-up Chris Frey and Andrew Dowell, respectively.
Two true freshmen (WR Donnie Corley and DT Mike Panasiuk) played vs. Furman; Tressel indicated that one or two more might play tomorrow. These are DEs Auston Robertson [#94] and Josh King [#12]. Notably, Lindy’s magazine ranked King #2 on its list of “Best Future NFL Prospects” for all incoming B1G freshmen.
Kickoff is at 7:42 P.M. EDT tomorrow. It will be telecast nationally on NBC with Mike Tirico, Doug Flutie, and Kathryn Tappen.