Scouting Report and Prediction: Michigan State vs. Notre Dame
A look at this week’s opponent…
The Irish come into this game with a 2-0 record. As usual, Notre Dame is loaded with great athletes. As usual, the Irish are over-rated. They are #20 in the nation. They beat up a bad Navy team in Dublin and hung 50 on the scoreboard, and then came home to reality limping by Purdue 20-17. They face their first real test of the season tomorrow at the High Cathedral of the Spartan Nation: Spartan Stadium.
The MSU and Notre Dame connection is legendary. From coaches to players and simple fact to that without them, MSU wouldn’t be in the Big Ten. This rivalry has a long and storied past, with deep questions about the future.
Mark Dantonio summed up this game when he stated, “The Notre Dame game to me is a game built on tradition. Very humbled to be a part of that game. It’s a game that I think has sort of stood the test of time at Michigan State, all the way back to ’66 and probably even before. Very excited about being a part of that, having it in Spartan Stadium again this next Saturday night should be a very interactive atmosphere for our fans and for our players alike.”
Irish head coach Brian Kelly tried all week not to look ahead to the game. He wanted to focus on the Irish, but that was hard to do. He said, “We are excited about what that challenge brings, a Top‑10 team, one that is a perennial Top‑25 team and challenger for a championship every year; national television, those are all exciting.”
When MSU has the ball…
The Spartans have a luxury that most teams don’t. They not only have the B1G best defense, but also the best punter. Andrew Maxwell can win this game, but he doesn’t have to. MSU can throw the ball away and just punt and let the defense stop the Irish.
Even dating back to when he committed to MSU, I have never wavered on Maxwell. He is a not a good QB, he is a great QB. He has the ability to win a game. We saw that on the last two drives of the Boise game. He doesn’t have to and that takes a ton of pressure off him.
The Spartans biggest key is going to simply be doing what they want and not being forced by Notre Dame. The Spartans need to just be patient. Sure Notre Dame will stack the box and when they do, Maxwell will deliver. They just have to play their game. This isn’t about the Irish defense; it is about the MSU offense.
Even Irish head coach Brian Kelly had great praise for Maxwell. With Notre Dame stacking the box they are going to pick their poison and they would much rather have Maxwell than LeVeon Bell. Guess what? Michigan State is fine with that.
Kelly said of Maxwell, “Very strong arm. He’s got good vision, tall guy that can see down the field. I really just think it’s game experience that he’s gaining each and every week. You can see that there was a big difference in his play from week one to week two, I’ll tell you that. And you can see that they put him in very good position to run the offense. So I think what we’re seeing is a guy developing his confidence from week one to week two.”
The Irish are young on defense at many spots, but they are good. Dantonio reflected on that side of the ball for Brian Kelly and said, “Defensive side of the ball, big, physical up front, very active linebackers. Obviously No.5 Te’o is an outstanding player, makes it all work for them. Their secondary (is) a little bit retooled because they lost one guy, but they’re playing with a true freshman. Good players, tackle very well, good ball skills. I think they’re structurally very sound. They play with great technique.”
I think that Maxwell summed up the Spartans advantage on offense very succinctly when he said of the Spartans attack, “So with the depth and the strength that we have there (OL) and the depth and the experience that we have at tailback that, really allows us to have good, efficient plays at first and second down and ideally keeps us out of third and long situations, or second and long situations, where we can really open up the passing game and we can have a lot more freedom there.”
LeVeon Bell is not a young man who will all of a sudden become loquacious, but he is a great quote and he put the Spartans offense attack in great and simple terms. He said, “We always wanted to run the ball. Now we have the all-star lineup to do it and these guys are experienced up front, we want to get back to running the football and help get pressure off of Maxwell and when teams start to crowd and box, really stop that run game, we have guys on the outside that can get open and make throws for him. We just want to be a balanced offense and help everybody on offense.”
When MSU is on defense…
The word here is dominate. The Spartans join the Florida State Seminoles as the only defense in college football not to give up a touchdown yet this season. Earlier in this article when I talked about the Spartans offense, I made the statement that it isn’t about the Irish D. MSU simply had to do what it does.
The same is true on this side of the ball. The Spartans are not going to come into this game and change anything. You will see some new things only because the play book is always evolving, but the Spartans D is so good Notre Dame must adapt to them and not the other way around.
MLB Max Bullough said of the Irish offensive attack, “Now going into this game, obviously they have tremendous players at Notre Dame but they do, they spread it out a little bit, they share the wealth. And to be able to stop a team that has talent all over the place, that’s just about everyone being prepared and everyone knowing their job and being disciplined enough to stick to it.”
Dantonio didn’t waste too many words saying about Notre Dame and their offense, “You look at them offensively, a lot of things are geared around their tight end, Eifert, some of their other skill players. They’ll get Cierre Wood back. Theo Riddick is a guy that has been around for a long time, played very well. Physical offensive line. Quarterback freshman, exciting player.”
On defense I have no concerns about the Spartans ability to stop the Irish. The concerns I have enter into the guys trying to do too much and making mistakes. This defense is a rare thing. They don’t come around often. With so many playmakers there can be an attempt to do too much. If MSU limits mistakes, they are fine.
The MSU vs. Notre Dame Rivalry is deep, going back many decades as an elite rivalry. There are many eras, but years from now when historians write about this era it will be Dantonio vs. Kelly. They don’t like each other. Why? That is for another day, but it is true.
MSU is looking at possibly changing some things on the OL. Do they move Fou Fonoti over to the LT and Skyler Burkland to the RT? Does Blake Treadwell take over at LG for Jack Allen? There are a lot of intangibles.
Can the fans reproduce the magic that was the best atmosphere in the history of Spartan Stadium against Boise? I have been in that stadium for big games my entire life. Never was it as good as the Boise game. It was a game changer. Can the fans bring that energy? How will the Notre Dame young players handle it?
Remember the rule of five. If MSU wins that, this game is over. For those who don’t remember it, it has to do with sacks and turnovers. If the Spartans have three sacks and give up two that means they are plus one. If they then get four turnovers and give up only one that means they are plus three. That would give them a plus four for the day. They want to get to a plus five ratio at least every game. In a game like this where the Irish get rid of the ball so fast, sometimes it isn’t sacks, sometimes it is rushing a throw and getting a pick or blocking a pass.
I have been frustrated all week as people question the Spartans defense and their “lack” of sacks. I get it when fans ask, but when I hear people who are supposed to be informed it makes me want to puke. Boise and CMU stayed with three step drops primarily to avoid that pass rush. The Michigan State D has been able to force teams to change what they do to avoid it.
Sure they don’t have the numbers, but that is because people aren’t taking the chance. Kelly is stubborn. He already runs a lot of three step, but I know Brian. He doesn’t like being told he can’t. He will run some five and seven stop drops. He will see if his Irish can withstand the barrage of this Spartan D. He would love to leave Spartan Stadium exposing this MSU D on national TV. It won’t happen.
The Irish will throw new wrinkles, but you will see Maxwell check and audible out of plays more often this week than you did the previous two combined. In fact, Maxwell summed it up great, “So as a quarterback in this offense, you always have got to be thinking and you always have to be processing information and realizing, are we in the best play we could possibly be in, is this going to work, and if not, getting us to a better play.”
Make it MSU 27 and Notre Dame 6!
Normally, after I give the score my prediction and scouting report article end. Not this week. I have a very sad note to add that frankly is a lot more important than a football game. Within a span of 24 hours this week, Notre Dame superstar LB Manti Te’o lost his grandmother and his girlfriend.
Brian Kelly told my buddies from the South Bend Tribune, “He lost some people very close to him and it’s obviously taken a toll on him.” Again, that quote is courtesy of the South Ben Tribune.
I get a luxury with my job whether it is through the recruiting process or through covering them at their college to get to know so many kids and coaches. Some you cover enough to get a great read on and some not.
I have interviewed Te’o many times and have got to know him. He is nothing like he plays on the field. On the football field he is an elite physical player that any opponent would love to have on their team. He is a gentleman, kind, and wonderful with people. I respect him as a player, but I like him personally.
This is a big game and in this time of tragedy he will stay with his teammates and play the game he loves to try to deal with the pain. I ask all of you while cheering for MSU, to say a prayer for Te’o. Losing a grandmother is one thing and sad, but part of the circle of life. Losing your girlfriend, Lennay Kekua to leukemia is another.
On behalf of all the Spartan Nation we send our thoughts of condolences to the families and our prayers for comfort in what is a terrible time. This is why we love football. For three and a half hours on Saturday night Manti Te’o will play the game he loves, while his heart grieves. A warrior for sure, but a hurting human being first is Te’o.