It’s not uncommon for the media to force a theme down the throats of 22-and-younger Notre Dame football players for the sake of a sound bite. This week, with the Irish renewing the series against Michigan State three years removed from the previous match-up, the “rivalry” has been emphasized.
Let’s consider how silly this storyline is. The only players on the team who actually “played” against Michigan State were the seniors and fifth-year seniors. Well, they were on the team in 2013 when the Irish defeated the Spartans, 17-13, but most of them didn’t play.
Mike McGlinchey and Colin McGovern didn’t. Torii Hunter, Jr. was injured. Jarron Jones played a couple snaps. Isaac Rochell was a backup who didn’t play a meaningful snap. Cole Luke was on special teams.
The only guy who really played a significant role among the current players on the team was James Onwualu, a receiver at the time, who threw a key block on Cam McDaniel’s go-ahead/game-winning seven-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
The most “interviewable” person still around – besides the coaching staff – is Corey Robinson, who is a student assistant that hasn’t been made available to the media this season.
Robinson caught three passes for 54 yards and picked up a couple interference calls that helped lead the Irish to victory despite notching just 14 first downs as quarterback Tommy Rees completed 14-of-34 passes for 142 yards.
Why would anyone ask Daniel Cage, Jerry Tillery, Nick Coleman, Drue Tranquill or Corey Holmes about the significance of Michigan State as it pertains to a rivalry? They’ve never played against Michigan State. (It’s somewhat pertinent to Cage, who was verbally committed to the Spartans before choosing the Irish.)
How about learning about Michigan State – the 2016 team – and asking questions that actually pertain to the people you’re interviewing? How about talking to the players about what’s on their mind – the 2016 Michigan State team -- as opposed to what’s on the media’s mind?
The media – trying to fit a size 8 shoe on a size 11 foot.
A personal footnote: My first recollection of Notre Dame football was the 1966 game against Michigan State – the famous 10-10 tie. Watched the game from the rectory of the St. Mary Assumption on the south side of South Bend with Fr. Thomas Doriot, my dad and my brother. I was six-years old.
I still didn’t ask one question of the players pertaining to the game played half a century ago because none of them care. For perspective, that would be the equivalent of asking me in college about a Notre Dame baseball game that was played in 1932.
The Furman name was spoken with general disdain this week as Michigan State’s first and only opponent of the 2016 season. After the Spartans defeated the Paladins, 28-13, Michigan State had a bye week.
While opening with Furman is not akin to playing at Texas and Mountain West conference middle-of-the-packer Nevada, Bruce Fowler – he’s the Furman head coach – put a focused, determined, undeterred team on the field against the Spartans.
It was a bit of a surprise that Furman won just four games last year. There was no intimidation factor. Michigan State had 19 first downs to Furman’s 18. Their quarterback, P.J. Blazejowski, is kind of a side-winding gunslinger. Darius Morehead rushed 20 times for 83 yards and Andrej Suttles was targeted frequently, although he came up with just four catches for 32 yards.
Furman won the turnover battle, 2-to-1, and the time of possession was nearly identical.
Mark Dantonio probably wishes his Spartans had played this past weekend. He and his staff likely are a bit confused as to what kind of team they have and whom they can rely upon this weekend.
COMING OUT PARTY
It took a freshman season in which he played in just two games, both in mop-up roles, a red-shirt sophomore season, a million miles of progress in between, and then another two games in 2016 – his junior year – for Corey Holmes to notch his first career catch with the Irish.
It’s been an incredible journey for the 6-foot-0½, 190-pounder from Pembroke Pines, Fla. The four-star prospect out of Notre Dame pipeline St. Thomas Aquinas finally reaped the benefits of his hard work and adaptation to the fast-paced college game.
His first catch in a Notre Dame uniform was an impressive one. He ran a great route on a 3rd-and-14 against Nevada late in the second quarter. DeShone Kizer drilled it to him, and Holmes made a Wolf Pack defensive back miss just enough to register the first down.
The drive ultimately turned into a 13-play, 88-yard touchdown march that capped a 25-point second-quarter run.
In the 28th game since his arrival, Holmes had his first catch.
“I definitely feel like I’m capable of making plays like that,” Holmes said. “It was just a matter of me making one in a game.
“It was real cool. To have my first catch here at home, and it being at a crucial point of the game, was also great.”
Holmes credits his father, David, a former defensive back at Syracuse and a fourth-round pick of the Miami Dolphins, as well as his teammates for helping keep him on the path to playing time.
“I just trusted there was a plan for me,” Holmes said. “I talked to my dad all the time. He kept me up. Guys like Will Fuller and Amir Carlisle kept me on the right path and taught me how to treat practice as a game so I could get better every single day.
“My dad followed a similar path. He was red-shirted his freshman year and it wasn’t until his junior year when he started to become a factor. He reminded me to keep my head up, to keep my head in it, and treat practice seriously every day.”
We knew Michigan State’s defense has been really good this decade with a slight downturn in 2015. Yet we didn’t realize just how opportunistic the Spartan defense has been.
In the last three seasons, Michigan State has forced 90 turnovers. Ninety! Forty fumbles recovered and 50 interceptions. Thirty turnovers per season over three years.
Compare that to Notre Dame. The Irish forced 54 turnovers from 2013-15 – 16 fumbles recovered and 38 interceptions. That’s 18 per season. In other words, Michigan State has averaged one more turnover per game (or thereabout) over their last 41 games.
Great defense is the foundation of a great college football program…and another explanation why Notre Dame is a hit-and-miss program with a cap on how good it can be until the defense becomes a more permanent, dominant fixture.
It got me wondering about the Stanford defense from 2010-14 when the Cardinal truly had one of the best units in the country. During that five-year span, Stanford forced 116 turnovers, or 23 per season – better than Notre Dame but not as dominant as Michigan State.
The Cardinal compensated in other ways such as four straight seasons of completely dominant run defense (3.0 in ’11, 3.0 in ’12, 2.9 in ’13 and 3.1 in ’14). From 2012-14, Stanford had an incredible 147 sacks. That’s an average of 49 per season.
In the six years under Brian Kelly, the Irish have 158 sacks or 26.2 per season. Through two games this year, the Irish do not have a sack, which means Notre Dame has averaged less than two sacks per Kelly’s 80 games as head coach. In the last six years, Stanford has 256 sacks – 98 more than the Irish – with an average of 3.1 per game. That’s one more sack per game.
TALKING TURNOVERS II
A truly astonishing stat from the first two weeks of the 2016 season that involves two future Irish opponents – Duke on Sept. 24 and Virginia Tech on Nov. 19.
Duke ranks 127th – second to last – in fumbles lost with seven. Virginia Tech ranks 128th – dead last – with nine fumbles lost. None of the other 126 FBS teams has lost more than four.
Between Duke and Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils and Hokies have fumbled 18 times, losing 16.
Notre Dame is tied with 34 other teams that have yet to lose a fumble.
A RANT FOR THE AGES
Does the name Mike Valenti ring a bell?
Ten years ago, Notre Dame overcame a 16-point deficit in a driving rainstorm in Spartan Stadium to claim a 40-37 victory over Michigan State.
Valenti, an East Lansing sports radio personality and a Michigan State graduate, went on one of the all-time great rants about head coach John L. Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton (who turned it over in each of Michigan State’s last three possessions), and the state of the Spartan program in general.
On the 10-year anniversary of Charlie Weis’ greatest comeback, listen and enjoy.
Kevin Harlan has been doing play-by-play work, mainly in the NBA and NFL, for the past 35 years. Anyone familiar with his work has to be impressed with his made-for-the-airwaves voice and quality work.
None was finer than this description of a wayward fan streaking across the field in San Francisco late in Monday’s snoozer against the Los Angeles Rams.
It’s Harlan at his very best, impromptu style.
Since Brian Kelly took over as head coach of the Irish in 2010, Notre Dame has been a home favorite 28 times. Among the opponents who were favored over the Irish in recent years was Georgia Tech (-2) in 2015, Stanford (-3) in 2014, Oklahoma (-3) in 2013).
The Irish covered against the Yellow Jackets with a resounding victory, pushed versus Stanford (but won), and lost to Oklahoma.
It raised some eyebrows this week when the Irish opened as a seven-point favorite. It’s gone up to 7½ and 8 on some boards.
Why so high?
It tells you something about where the Spartans are. They had just 10 starters returning. The pass rush from the defensive line pretty much went out the door when Shilique Calhoun (10½ sacks in ’15) was tabbed in the third-round of the NFL draft.
The offensive line is older but not experienced or meshed. The receiving corps is similar to Notre Dame’s in that they have one experienced wideout back (R.J. Shelton) and mainly inexperience around him.
And then there’s Tyler O’Connor, whose 72 passes, 47 completions, 564 yards and seven TD passes is just a tad behind his predecessor, who threw for more than 9,000 yards and 71 TDs in a Spartan uniform.
But just as giving the points on the road to Texas was a risky proposition – the Irish are now 5-10 as a road favorite under Brian Kelly – it’s no easy bet taking Notre Dame as a home favorite.
This marks the 29th time Notre Dame has been favored at home under Kelly. The Irish are 13-14-1 vs. the spread. Prior to last year, when the Irish covered four out of five, their record as a home favorite was 9-13-1.
Enough pointspread talk…after our Week 3 picks below.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
After our second straight 2-1 week, not feeling much with this weekend’s upcoming games, other than a couple of high-scoring affairs.
• Over 76 ½ Texas at California
• Over 64 Florida State at Louisville
Season Record: 4-2