Pete Sampson: Let’s start with that point spread. Seven points in favor of Notre Dame was not what I expected at all. Does it surprise you?
Dave Berk: I don’t think anyone knows what to expect out of Michigan State right now. Playing just one game and that being a 28-13 win over Furman, it was all just so vanilla. I don’t know how else to describe it. Yes, the score could have been a lot bigger in favor of Michigan State and people expected it to be bigger. Mark Dantonio doesn’t run the score up usually and he’s even more likely to not show much in openers like that, especially with the bye week and Notre Dame next. I just think he played it so close to the vest that nobody knows what to think about Michigan State going into this weekend.
PS: Put quarterback Tyler O’Connor’s game in context for me. He’s been there for five years, has barely played and when he has he’s basically just handed the ball off. Is this the next Connor Cook or the next Andrew Maxwell?
DB: He’s not much different than Connor Cook, to be honest. But Cook definitely had more of an attitude about him. Cook expected to be the guy and Tyler has been behind that. Not really been able to show his personality, other than to people around the team and program. People here respect him. He could have left two years ago and chose to stay.
What did he show against Furman? I think you have to go back to Ohio State last year when he wasn’t allowed to show anything (7-of-12 for 89 yards, one touchdown). He’s a better quarterback than that but hasn’t had the chance to show it. He does take care of the ball pretty well, which is important. His line against Furman – 13-of-18, 190 yards, three touchdowns, one interception - was fine but he didn’t look sharp. What happens when you need him to throw 20 times to win? What happens when you need him to throw 30 times to win? I do think there’s a strong arm there. Yes, a lot of people see him as the next Andrew Maxwell, but I think he’s better than that.
PS: It’s clear after a couple games that Notre Dame’s secondary is vulnerable to the deep ball, but that means having a receiver who can get deep. Does Michigan State have that?
DB: I think there are two guys that people need to watch. The first is fifth-year senior Monty Madaris, who looks like that next guy everyone has been waiting on and finally it’s happening late like an Aaron Burbridge, Tony Lippett or Bennie Fowler before him. He was excellent against Furman. Felton Davis is the other guy, a sophomore who’s 6-foot-4. I think he’s a matchup problem for Notre Dame’s secondary with Shaun Crawford out and Nick Coleman really struggling.
Obviously, keep an eye on freshman Donnie Corley. I don’t expect too much out of him this weekend, but I also wonder how much they wanted to show there against Furman.
I’m curious what Darrell Stewart Jr. can bring to the offense as a 6-foot-1, 207-pound receiver who’s really thick. There’s a lot of talent there, but he had one touch against Furman on an end-around and fumbled it. There’s talent there, but he’s more of a multi-purpose guy than a true receiver.
PS: Having watched more than 20 years of Michigan State football, I’m used to seeing four 5th-year seniors on the offensive line basically every time. Is this a vintage offensive line after losing a first-round pick at left tackle (Jack Conklin) and two other starters?
DB: There are still question marks there, even if four fifth-year seniors might play. What’s different is that most of them don’t have much starting experience. The most experienced guy is guard Brian Allen, and he’s just a junior. David Beedle is a really talented tackle, but he’s a sophomore and still raw. Kodi Kieler played right tackle last year but has been moved into center. He’s 6-foot-6, 319 pounds and offers a different dimension than most at the position. That’s an interesting match-up against Daniel Cage and those guys.
The big question is the right side of the line, even though there’s a bunch of fifth-year guys over there. Brandon Clemons and Benny McGowan might both play at right guard. Clemons is actually a sixth-year senior. The weak link, to me, is right tackle Miguel Machado. He has had an opportunity seize this job and hasn’t been able to do it.
PS: Just how good is Malik McDowell?
DB: He’s as good as he wants to be. It’s strange to say that he’s still young, but we’re talking about a true junior who’s probably playing his last year at Michigan State. Even in the Alabama game he looked good in that blowout loss. Alabama center Ryan Kelly, the Rimington Award winner and a first-round pick, really struggled with him. When Malik wants it, he’s almost unstoppable. He’s just so quick for a guy who’s 6-foot-6, 275 pounds. Cat quick, long arms, able to stretch for guys and pull them down. He’s legit. Even Shalique Calhoun, William Gholston, I’d put McDowell ahead of them. And Michigan State will line him up inside and outside, which is a difficult match-up.
PS: How has the defense changed or evolved with Pat Narduzzi being gone for a couple years?
DB: A lot of credit goes to Narduzzi, but remember that this is Mark Dantonio’s defense. There are two co-coordinators on that side and they go all the way back to Cincinnati with Dantonio. So it’s not that much different without Narduzzi. It’s physical. The corners press.
The difference is more so in identity because Pat would come down from the press box to get in your face when things weren’t going well. Harlan Barnett and Mike Tressel don’t do that as the co-coordinators. But the scheme is the same. No question about that.
PS: What really struck me watching Michigan State against Notre Dame the past few years was the corner play and how physical they got at the line. Is there a next Trae Waynes or Darqueze Dennard on roster?
DB: The next guy is Vayante Copeland, but he hasn’t played a lot of football. He got hurt in the Oregon game last year, broke a vertebrae in his neck and was out for the year. He has all the tools, was a four-star recruit out of high school, had a lot of schools looking at him. He was very solid against Furman.
But the Nick Coleman of Michigan State right now is Darian Hicks. He got picked on all last year and Ohio State went hard after him last year. He fought mono in camp last year and you only saw flashes of talent. He did some good things against Furman, but they went after him a lot. It’s not like he seems out of position, it’s more a case where you see him slip like Coleman against Nevada. So that’s a possible weak link.
Michigan State still plays the same style with its corners, come up, press, get in your face.
PS: Give me two or three things that Michigan State has to do well to win.
DB: Offensively, Michigan State has to establish the running game. And it can’t just be L.J. Scott, who got 20 carries against Furman. Michigan State has four running backs who could start most places. Scott is excellent, but I expect to see some of Madre London too. He’s got good power and Michigan State needs to show that to help out O’Connor. To me, it’s all about if Michigan State can establish that power running game.
Defensively, after watching Notre Dame play twice, I really think Michigan State is going to have to attack from the edge. They have to crash down the pocket on DeShone Kizer. I am very impressed with Kizer when he’s moving around in the pocket. I don’t know if Brian Kelly has had a quarterback quite like him. He almost reminds me a little of Tony Pike at Cincinnati. Michigan State has to have its linebackers lead the team in tackles. If it’s anybody else, if it’s the safeties, that means Notre Dame is getting six yards per touch. Michigan State needs a lot from that linebacker group of Riley Bullough, Andrew Dowell and Jon Reschke.