It's fitting that the Michigan State Spartans hosts Notre Dame as they look to solidify a spot in the Top 10 of the AP Poll with a third win to open the 2012 campaign. After all, Sparty's recent run of football success began with a bold call against Notre Dame back in 2010. Since duping Notre Dame with its "Little Giants" fake field goal, Michigan State has gone 22-5.
Rather than relying on trick plays or offensive pyrotechnics, Michigan State will likely call on a stout defense to hold down the Irish. Having turned over the reins to quarterback Tommy Rees late in a win over Purdue, Notre Dame arrives in East Lansing with talented but out-of-sorts offense. While Notre Dame enjoys an overall edge in this rivalry, Michigan State has won 10 of the last 15 gridiron meetings between the two schools.
Will Michigan State dig deep into the playbook for another memorable play? Can the No. 20 Fighting Irish put the No. 10 Spartans in a position where they even need to?
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Gotta love the life of being a Michigan State Spartan... There ain't nothing like taking on the Irish Catholics under the lights, on national television, in front of a prime-time audience, and especially after a recent history of kicking their butt (10 out of the last 15 appearances).
The ES looks forward to the second night game of the year to watch the BEST Spartan defense in a generation. But, is it good enough to make up for a Spartan offense whose passing-game has been, for the most part, offensive?
The oft-mentioned Spartan defense has everything a coach would want -- other than to coach an Alabama defense -- with experience, speed, size, and depth. The Spartan defensive front is Herculean, led by the speedy and mammoth defensive end, William Gholston. Gholston, at 6-7, 280 lbs, is complimented on the interior by 300-lb run-stuffers in Anthony Rashad White and Micajah Reynolds. All of its backers are Big Ten All-Conference caliber: team-leader and three-generation Spartan legacy Max Bullough (11 tackles, 2.5 for loss), speedy Chris Norman, and hard-hitting Denicos Allen. Interestingly, Kyler Ellsworth is another guy to watch, as this guy is a playmaker at LB and special teams, with a history of blocking kicks and picking up fumbles, seemingly always in the right place at the right time during the right play.
While the defense is giving up just 54.5 yards per game on the ground, it hasn't found its mojo in getting to the quarterback, with just one sack on the year. Gholston, who terrorized Georgia in the Outback Bowl on New Years' Day, and Marcus Rush, who can bring the hammer from the other end position, have been more than serviceable in pressuring QBs into hurried throws, but they haven't buried passers. The ES has a reason for this: a lack of inspiration against both an unknown Boise squad and an undermanned Central Michigan team. This will change on Saturday, when the Spartan joy of slapping around a struggling Irish offensive line will lead to bruises, broken body parts, and turnovers.
And, the Michigan State secondary is stellar; it should take advantage, thanks to the push from the Spartan front. The DBs are allowing just 171 yards through the air on just 45 percent completions with three INTs. The secondary returns All-Conference starters Isaiah Lewis and Johnny Adams, as well as the experienced Darqueze Dennard. Spartan defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is licking his chops: expect his athletic corners to play freely by manning-up the tall receivers from South Bend, and turning loose the 'backers to blitz through that Irish line and knock Irish QBs Everett Golson and Tommy Rees senseless. OK, Irish TE Tyler Eifert may be a key to watch here, and it is intriguing to see if Norman can stay toe-to-toe on pass coverage.
On the offensive side of the scrimmage line, RB Le'Veon Bell (280 yards, 4.5 per carry, 4 TDs) reminds the Spartan faithful of one of its greatest players, Lorenzo White, but with speedier legs. At 6-2, 244-lbs, Bell can dance around, or over, but more often runs through opposing linebackers. He is nicely complemented by the speedy Nick Hill and Larry Caper, who started for MSU when Bell was a freshman. The offensive line returns four very good starters, helping to pave the way for this power running game. So far in '12, the Spartan running game has its mojo, but the question is if it can flex its muscle against a sturdy Irish front, including the very large DL Louis Nix and its All-American LB Mati Te'o. One way is through diversification.
Under head coach Mark Dantonio, and with offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, the Spartan offense has diversified -- at least 25 passes thrown in 23 of the last 28 games. It's not Pound Green Pound as the Spartan Nation thinks it knows, or what the Nation may want. Rather, the reality is that MSU is more than a splash of pass with a dousing of run. It is this deliberate play-calling which has helped Michigan State to outwit and outlast opponents during the Dantonio era. Thus, expect newby Andrew Maxwell at QB to be handed enough chances to throw the ball to a burgeoning, yet inexperienced Spartan receiving corps. Yes, this is the Spartan's most exploitable weakness, but it must be only serviceable to be effective enough for victory. Maxwell has shown his rawness with 3 INTs and an overthrown wide-open receiver against Boise State. A let-me-hand-you-a-gift interception dropped at the goal line at CMU (dropped by noneother than Lorenzo White's son, White Jr., who plays safety for the Chips). But, there is as much good as bad: Maxwell has thrown spot-on passes, particularly to his mighty huge tight end, Dion Sims, and their one experienced wideout, Bennie Fowler. Maxwell is showing some Cousins-like moxie in games, with errs early but an upwards-learning-curve late. With time, and with an experienced offensive line providing protection, Maxwell should be serviceable at minimum. The ES expects a pick, or two, by Notre Dame... but it won't be enough.
Of course, the Spartan punting game will be called to service, and Mike Sadler is one of the BEST punters to drop balls inside the 20, three of four so far this year. Senior Dan Conroy has been a bit off, missing a pair of FGs, but he has the experience and distance (long of 50 this year). Nick Hill returning kicks for MSU is due for a breakout return; his speed at RB is not tested often, but he is damaging in the return game with an average 23.4 per return (he is currently eighth in Spartan history with over 1,000 return yards). Indeed, it may be the Spartan kicking and return game that helps to bail out Maxwell's misfires with field position.
Gimme a break... Who is the ES kidding??? In the end, all of this analysis... is crap. We all know the Michigan State defense will do its part, that D will be all jacked-up to throw around the Irish like play toys and to stomp on their jugulars when down. Moreover, it will be the Spartan history and home field advantage that will do in the Irish. Last time, "Little Giants," this time -- well, nothing so fancy. Rather, the Spartan coaching, team experience, and defensive domination will overwhelm the Irish enough for Michigan State to coast to victory. Yes, the ND offense will do what others have not done in 2012 -- get into the end zone against the MSU defense... once. However, Michigan State will do the same with its defense, and a pair more TDs on offense.
'Tis tough to find more enjoyment on God's Green Earth than whipping up on the Irish in Spartan Stadium. The ES will be in attendance, screaming Spartan pride and sporting his Spartan green hair, cheering on the domination. The nation is invited to tune in on Saturday, 8 p.m., on ABC to watch the flogging live. It will be a beautiful symphony.
ES sez: Michigan State 27, Notre Dame 13.
The Enlightened Spartan began in 2001 as the first Big Ten football blog. The ES cheers, cries, and lives Michigan State football... not from the sidelines, nor the press box, but from the upper deck. http://www.enlightenedspartan.com
At the beginning of each college football season, we are reminded that teams will make their biggest improvements from week 1 to week 2. While that may be the standard cliche across the sport, I find it far too general and therefore wrong.
So here we are in week 3, and the 20th ranked Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (2-0) head up to East Lansing to take on the 10th ranked team in the country, the Michigan State Spartans (2-0). Both teams are looking to make a huge splash this season, and that makes this game one of the biggest games of the season for each school.
Offensively the Irish are lacking a real identity, but the same can be said for a lot of good teams with first year starters at quarterback. The Irish would love to run the ball all day long, but Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin are smarter than that and live by the philosophy of "taking what the defense gives you."
So, if the Irish can run they will feed it to Theo Riddick, George Atkinson and newly reinstated Cierre Wood -- who is the best f the three at running back. Notre Dame will then be able to use play-action and rollouts to get the ball to All-American tight end Tyler Eifert as well as their lesser known, but talented wideouts TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels. If they have problems running the ball, they will try to spread it out more and use screens, quick pitches, hitches and shovel passes as an extension of the run game to get the yards needed.
The offense has the capability of putting up a lot of points, but no matter how they try to do it, it all comes down to their offensive line, which is coming off of a sloppy game against stout Purdue defense. Michigan State is even better defensively than Purdue, so Notre Dame's offensive line must step up and play at a high level to let the playmakers move the ball.
On defense, the Irish are very strong in their front seven and have legitimate studs in Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, and of course, Manti Te'o. Notre Dame has also found some very good pass rushers in Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams coming off of the edge. There is, however, a weakness up front and that is at the drop linebacker position. Notre Dame has used several different players there this year, and it appears that they will finally start redshirt freshman Ben Councell this week.
The biggest weakness for the Irish would be in the secondary -- but it's not nearly as bad as we thought. After losing both starting cornerbacks from last year, and having the nickelback/third safety go down with an injury in the spring, this could have spelled disaster. They held their own last week against Purdue which is a better passing team than MSU.
What's going to happen?
In my opinion, it seems as if everyone has forgot about Notre Dame's 31-13 victory over Sparty last year while holding MSU to 29 rushing yards. Seriously, how much better are they without Kirk Cousins and all of their wide receivers? I'm not convinced of this top 10 persona given out by the media. Sparty beat Boise State -- which is still a mid-major team that had six returning starters and not one of them was Kellen Moore. Sparty also got themselves a big road win. That road win was against Central Michigan which was more of a homefield advantage for MSU than the Irish had in Ireland.
Still, despite my disgust for the lack of respect for ND in this game, I still feel it's going to be a close game and a brutally physical game. Notre Dame proved it could gut one out last week against Purdue when they had six starters go out of the game with an injury (all six return this week).
Perhaps this comes down to what defense creates the most pressure on the opposing quarterback -- whether that be Everett Golson or Andrew Maxwell. Or maybe it's that big special teams play like Atkinsons kick return for a TD last year, or Sparty's fake FG the year before.
It all adds up to a close, physical, and often frustrating game while both teams try to pressure a young quarterback on defense and will look to exploit the other teams secondary on offense.
Irish win with guts wide open, 21-17.
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