Looking at the MSU-Notre Dame match-up, the Spartans have had their number in recent years, winning the last five years in South Bend. However, by the same token, the Irish have won the last two in East Lansing, so home field advantage may not be the factor for the Spartans some might expect.
Last years game was a memorable one in which the Spartans won in overtime as running back Jason Teague went around the end, and scampered in to the endzone for the game winner. That game saw the Spartans go up by two touchdowns, only to see Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn carve them up via the air waves in the fourth quarter. Quinn threw for a whopping 487-yards in the Spartans 44-41 victory, and he promises to test the Spartan secondary in this game.
This season, the Irish have started with a 2-1 record as Georgia Tech gave them all they could handle in the opener. Notre Dame went on the road and ran into a Tech defense coached by one of the premier defensive cordinators in the game in Jon Tenuta. Tenuta's fast defense was able to keep the Irish in check with an aggressive, attacking approacch that was difficult for the Irish to handle.
Tech limited the Irish to 138-yards rushing, and a respectable 246-yards passing in Notre Dame's 14-10 victory. The surprising key was that Notre Dame did even a better job on defense, limiting Tech to 259-yards in total offense after giving up almost a 400-yards per game average last year (397).
Notre Dame also had a 10:50 time of possession advantage in the game, especially in the fourth quarter when they held the ball for 10:10 compared to Tech's 4:50. In part, this was accomplished by converting 7 of 16 third down conversions.
It should also be noted, that even though Notre Dame only scored 14 points, they did have 21 first downs. It also speaks to Notre Dame's ability to overcome adversity in coming back from a 10-0 deficit to score the games last fourteen points.
The next week saw Penn State come into South Bend, only to see Brady Quinn light up the Nittany Lion offense with three touchdown passes, including a solid second quarter that saw Quinn connect on 12-of-16 passes for 150-yards, as the Irish went up 20-0 and never looked back.
Irish Head Coach Charlie Weis was especially impressed again with his teams ability to control the clock as they did against Georgia Tech. The Irish also surprised the Penn State defense by controlling the ball with a short passing game, and not going deep as often as expected. In fact, the Irish had time of possession of the football for almost nineteen minutes in the first half against the Nittany Lions.
Four Notre Dame receivers had five receptions in the game, led by Darius Walker with seven catches, as the Irish utilized their gameplan of controlling the ball to perfection.
Penn State on the other hand was able to move the ball on Notre Dame, but was unable to capitalize on this, as the Notre Dame defense scored a touchdown, and exhibited a bend but don't break style of play.
Spartans fans will remember Tom Zbikowski wrestling a ball away from Jason Teague on a 75-yard football fumble return for touchdown a couple of years ago that led to a Irish victory. Well, he's back and as good as ever.
Against Penn State, Zbikowski took back a fumble 25-yards for a touchdown and continues to make big plays for the Irish. Travis Thomas also faked a punt that led to a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Thomas. So the Irish are getting contributions from all phases of the game.
SCOUTING THE NOTRE DAME OFFENSE
Head Coach Charlie Weis runs the Irish offensive juggernaut with almost the same precision he used in cordinating the New England Patriots to three Super bowl victories as he has the penchant for breaking defenses down and finding correct match-ups.
He also uses the clock and game situations wisely as Penn State found out in calling a timeout when the Lions had the ball on third down. Because of the the new clock rules, Weis had his offense ready to go on the change of possession which lead to a score at the end of the first half. It was an excellent use of time management. Weis is not a guy to get frazzled by live game decisions.
Quarterback Brady Quinn runs the show on the field, and has been starting since his freshman year. Quinn threw for a school record of 3,919 yards last year while hitting on 64.9% of his passes. He has always had poise, in fact, even as a freshman before Weis stepped foot on campus, he directed the Irish on a late 89-yard touchdown drive against the Spartans in 2003 before MSU recovered an onsides kick to seal the victory by the score of 22-16.
He has come a long way from his freshman year when he had a nine touchdown to fifteen interception ratio under Ty Willingham, to last year, when he had a whopping thirty-two touchdown to just seven interception ratio.
In fairness to Willingham, his 2004 ratio was 17 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions. So progress was made each year, even while Willingham was the coach, and yet, he nearly doubled his touchdown passes under the offensive wizardry of Weis.
Weis has often talked about Quinn's desire to be great, and the fact he practices how he plays. Quinn has been hyped as a Heisman Trophy candidate and had not let the pressure get to him until the Wolverines came to town.
What a treat the Irish have in dual threat running back Darius Walker. Walker ended last year with 1,196-yards rushing, with 43-receptions for another 351-yards.
Walker was instrumental in the Irish victories over Georgia Tech and PSU with his ability as not only a runner, but as a receiver in keeping the Tech and Nittany Lion defenses off balance. In the opener Walker went back to home state of Georgia and rushed for 104-yards on 22-carries, and added 18 receiving yards.
Walker caught seven balls for 72-yards and ran for another 65-yards on 20 carries to help chew up the clock so Notre Dame could control the ball against PSU. In fact, Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny said the Irish attack surprised them because he expected the Nittany Lion defense to be attacked deep more often. Walker was held to 27-yards on ten carries by UM. He did have seven receptions against the Wolverines, but it went for a mere 35-yards.
Travis Thomas has the ability to spell Walker, he had 19-yards in the opener, and ran for 44-yards on three carries including a fake punt play that he later turned into a 1-yard touchown run. Thomas is prone to fumble, so the Spartans will have to be aware of that. Asaph Schwapp is the 250-pound blocking fullback who has been slowed by injury. Depth is added by impressive true freshmen Munir Prince.
Some were concerned with the slower than expected start of the Irish offense but they also took some graduation hits to the receiving corp. TE Anthony Fasano, who set a school record for receiving yards by a tight end and caught 47-passes, has graduated.
They also lost seconding leading receiver Maurice Stovall (69-receptions, 1149-yards, 11-touchdowns), as well as fiesty receiver Matt Shelton. Shelton caught 28-passes last year after setting a school record with a 25.8-yards per catch average in 2004.
However they do return their leading receiver Jeff "The Shark" Smardzija (77 catches for 1249-yards and 15 touchdowns in 2005). He especially was a pain in the side of the Spartans last year, catching three touchdown passes against the Spartans as they made a late rally to challenge MSU. He caught six passes for 74 yards in the opener, added six more catches for 57 yards and a touchdown against PSU. Against Michigan he was held in check until the game was out of reach and finished with 4 catches for 30 yards and one touchdown.
They also welcome back wide out Rhema McKnight who had 42 receptions in 2004, but took a medical redshirt for 2005 aftering injuring his knee. Weis has said that McKnight is a capable go to guy if teams try to clamp down on Smardzija this year and that seems to be the case. In the opener, McKnight caught 8 passes for 108-yards, and had five receptions for 59-yards and a touchdown against the Nittany Lions. McKnight had 5 catches for 76-yards and a touchdown against UM but also had his shares of drops in this game.
Don't feel too sorry for the Irish for losing Fasano at tight end, as the Irish have two guys who have made big time plays and catches in the first few games. John Carlson actually had 6 starts in 2005 in the two tight end attack and caught seven passes.
This year as the main target, he caught four passes for 36-yards against the Rambling Wreck, and against PSU, he hauled in six passes for 98-yards. Those numbers may seem a bit innocous, but don't be fooled, he made huge receptions in both games at key times.
However, Carlson had a huge error in that a ball deflected off his hands against UM, and was returned for a touchdown. Carlson had 3 catches for 42-yards against the Wolverines. The other tight end is Marcus Freeman, and he does has experience playing in 12 games prior to this year. He has caught a pass in each of the first two games, but did not grab one against UM.
The offensive line took a few graduation hits that may have led to a slower than expected start. They lost two starters in right guard Dan Stevenson, and right tackle Mark Levoir.
However, this is Notre Dame, and there is plenty of talent here. John Sullivan returns as the center, Dan Santucci is the left guard, and Ryan Harris is the left tackle. Former center Bob Morton is the right guard, and the right tackle is freshman phenom Sam Young, the former Florida Gatorade Player Of The Year.
There is enough in the two-deep to get the job done, even in the face of adversity or injury. This unit did struggle to run the ball in 2005, as the Irish averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, and gave up 21 sacks.