Prister’s Preview: Michigan St. @ Notre Dame

After failing to stop the Texas rushing attack with an unorthodox defense, Notre Dame went back to basics against Nevada, which should assist in the challenging task vs. MSU.

INSIDE MICHIGAN STATE-NOTRE DAME

• Who: No. 12 Michigan State (1-0) @ No. 18 Notre Dame (1-1)
Where: Notre Dame Stadium (80,795); Notre Dame, Ind.
When: Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016; 7:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
MSU head coach: Mark Dantonio (105-50 career, 88-33 at MSU)
2016 record: 1-0
2015 record: 12-2
Last meeting: 2013—Notre Dame 17, Michigan State 13
Series record: Notre Dame 48-28-1

MICHIGAN STATE FIRST-RATE

Overall ND/opponent rank: 3rd
Rank by position: QB (8th), RB (4th), WR/TE (7th), OL (3rd), DL (2nd), LB (1st), DB (2nd), ST (9th), C (1st)

2016 SEASON REVIEW

The Spartans opened the ’16 season with a shaky 28-13 victory over Furman, an FCS program that finished 4-7 in 2015, and followed up its setback to the Spartans with a 19-14 road loss to The Citadel.

Michigan State led 21-13 with under 12 minutes remaining when the Paladins picked off Tyler O’Connor – a fifth-year senior starting just his second game – to begin a potential game-tying drive at the Spartans’ 44. But linebacker Andrew Dowell returned the favor with one-handed interception, and O’Connor found Jamal Lyles for a 12-yard touchdown pass and the final points of the game.

O’Connor, Michigan State’s starting quarterback in last year’s upset victory over Ohio State, completed 13-of-18 for 190 yards and three TDs against Furman. WR Monty Madaris, who caught seven passes the last two seasons combined, had a team-high five grabs for 85 yards while L.J. Scott carried 20 times for 105 yards and a score.

Michigan State recorded 361 yards total offense while limiting the Paladins to 226, including 87 yards rushing on 33 carries. Michigan State committed 10 penalties for 120 yards.

The Spartans had a bye on Sept. 10.

KELLY’S CALL

“(Michigan State is) more than just a physical football team. They have athletes. They have very good schemes. This isn’t some Neanderthal, let’s-hit-you-in-the-mouth football team. They’re not going to line up in a box formation, shift around, and hand the ball off to the Four Horsemen.

“This is a team that went to the playoffs and beat Oregon and beat good football teams that do other things. You’re underselling them to say it’s a physical football team. We have to do other things well.”
-- Brian Kelly

IRISH ADVANTAGE

Identity development: Notre Dame has played two games, one of which was particularly challenging with extreme adversity (a loss at Texas) and the other against a capable, mid-level non-Power 5 team (a home win vs. Nevada).

Whereas the pre-season view of Michigan State playing FCS Furman and then taking a bye week before traveling to Notre Dame was considered a huge plus for the Spartans, it doesn’t look that way now.

At least the Irish have had an opportunity to play numerous young players – including 12 freshmen – and have a decent idea of what they have and who they can count on moving forward. The Spartans are still guessing a bit as to the personnel they can rely upon after losing significant parts of their offense and defense.

Michigan State inexperience: Tyler O’Connor at quarterback, just two returning starters along the offensive line, and a green receiving corps (much like Notre Dame’s) has the Spartans still trying to create a blueprint – not so much how they’ll attack the Irish – but with whom.

The loss of first-round draft choice Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen are equivalent to Notre Dame’s losses along the offensive line (Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin). Connor Cook threw for more than 9,000 yards and 71 touchdowns in his career with the Spartans.

The back seven on defense is good and experienced; the front four remains a work in progress with the loss of DE Shilique Calhoun, a third-round draft choice, and a pair of NFL free-agent signings.

Home Field: A seven-game home winning streak isn’t exactly a dominant run, particularly with wins over Georgia Tech (3-9), UMass (3-9) and Wake Forest (3-9) in ‘15, and the Mountain West’s Nevada to open the ’16 season. An additional sound barrier – the new press box on the east side of Notre Dame Stadium – should help make this a louder environment for an inexperienced opposing quarterback.

IRISH CONCERNS

Mark Dantonio: The predecessor to Brian Kelly at Cincinnati has rewarded the Spartan brass by winning 87 games in nine seasons, including 65 in the last six. Michigan State landed in the four-team college football playoff last year, won the Big Ten in 2013, and has claimed at least 11 victories in five of the last six seasons. Dantonio is the best/most successful coach on Notre Dame’s 2016 slate.

Michigan State physicality: A couple of Notre Dame’s players bristled at questions pertaining to the Spartans’ “physicality” in the aftermath of Saturday’s home-opening victory over Nevada. Perhaps it was because of the violation of Notre Dame’s 24-hour rule of celebrating a victory; perhaps it was because the notion of Michigan State being a more physical program than Notre Dame’s was a burr under their saddle.

The Spartans have allowed 4.0 yards per carry just once since 2006 (4.1 in 2008), including as much as 3.6 just once (last year) since 2011. On the other hand, the Irish haven’t held opponents under 4.2 since 2012, including an alarming 4.6 in 2015.

Fact: Notre Dame hasn’t been nearly as physically tough in the trenches as Michigan State in recent years, and yet the Irish won three in a row from 2011-13.

Michigan State’s press coverage: When Notre Dame defeated Michigan State in 2013 to hand the Spartans their only loss of the season, the Irish benefitted greatly from four pass interference penalties and a defensive holding. That’s how the Spartans play pass coverage in the secondary with plenty of press at the line of scrimmage and jostling with the football in the air.

Michigan State boasts a quality secondary in 2016, although not along the lines of that ’13 unit that featured cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes. Its mode of operation on the back end hasn’t changed. Cornerback Darian Hicks picked up a couple of interference penalties two weeks ago against Furman. He also accounted for three of Michigan State’s six passes broken up. (Notre Dame has just four in two games.)

The Spartans feel as if they were robbed by incorrect pass interference penalties in that 2013 game against the Irish. The Michigan State secondary will be facing a mostly young and inexperienced Irish receiving corps this Saturday night. The winner of this battle likely wins the game.

Tackling L.J. Scott: The 6-foot-0, 238-pound sophomore running back created a highlight play for the ages with his game-winning score against Iowa in the Big Ten championship game when he refused to be denied. He rushed for a team-leading 699 yards (4.9-yard average, 11 TDs) in ’15 while sharing time with Gerald Holmes and Madre London.

Scott played the lead role in Michigan State’s season-opener against Furman when he carried 20 times for 105 yards and a touchdown.

Considering Notre Dame’s tackling issues against Texas, although the Irish cleaned it up against Nevada, Scott is a huge challenge for the Notre Dame defense.

NT Malik McDowell vs. Notre Dame interior DL: The word on the 6-foot-6, 280-pound nose tackle is that he’s as good as he wants to be, which isn’t every game let alone every snap. He is a disruptive force in the middle of the Michigan State line and a huge challenge for Notre Dame’s interior offensive line of LG-Quenton Nelson, C-Sam Mustipher and RG-Colin McGovern.

MICHIGAN STATE @ NOTRE DAME PREVIEW

The margin for error in this game would have been manageable had the Irish come away with a victory in Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium two weeks ago. A loss to the Spartans would have been a barrier easily overcome with the Irish entering the game at 2-0 and numerous opportunities to atone for an early-season bobble to a quality program like Michigan State’s.

Instead, this is a crossroads game for the Irish whose playoff/national title hopes would be shattered with a second loss on Sept. 17. Notre Dame joins USC (vs. Stanford), LSU (vs. Mississippi State), and Mississippi (vs. Alabama) among teams whose playoff hopes rest uneasily this weekend.

That makes this a “must-win” game for the Irish while the Spartans, who have scored just 29 points in their last three losses to Notre Dame (2011-13), have a margin for error with the upcoming Big Ten schedule commencing at home next week against Wisconsin.

To maintain playoff hopes, the Irish will have to a) defeat the only program in the FBS to finish in the top six of the last three AP final polls and b) defeat a team that has won nine of its last 12 games against ranked opponents, including five of the last six.

The buzzword for the week is “physicality” with the Spartans among the stingiest defenses in the nation since 2011. Yet last year’s Michigan State defense showed some vulnerability, and without defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who has moved on to the NFL, the Spartans may have to generate a pass rush against DeShone Kizer with some linebacker blitzes.

Michigan State forced an incredible 90 turnovers over the last three seasons, including 50 interceptions. That’s a direct correlation to the control of the line of scrimmage, plus a philosophy that emphasizes press coverage on the wideouts. This will be a great test for Notre Dame’s young receiving corps that looks like it has a chance to really excel in ’16 with senior Torii Hunter, Jr. (returning from a concussion) and sophomores Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders.

Even in victory three straight years (2011-13) against the Spartans, Notre Dame struggled to run the football with just 32 carries for 114 yards in 2011, 34 attempts for 122 yards in 2012, and 32 totes for 82 yards in 2013 (106 yards per game, 3.2 yards per carry). The Irish need Josh Adams (7.1-yard average) to loosen things up on the ground.

Notre Dame should be able to generate a turnover (or two) against mostly untested fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor, who has been intercepted three times on just 72 career passes. The Spartans would prefer to pound the football with 238-pound L.J. Scott, who will test Notre Dame’s base run defense after the Irish rebounded from a poor effort in a funky defensive alignment against Texas.

The last three games against Michigan State have produced scoring totals of 30 (17-13 in 2013), 23 (20-3 in 2012) and 44 (31-13 in 2011). This has the makings of a similar game, although with Kizer at quarterback and the uncertainty of a Spartan pass rush, this also could be a real national awakening of what the junior (red-shirt sophomore) signalcaller can do.

The Spartans were an atypical 85th in the country in red-zone touchdown percentage in ’15 while the Kizer-led Irish offense has converted 8-of-11 red-zone penetrations into six-pointers this year. (Furman scored one touchdown in three red-zone trips.)

The kicking game is critical as well as Michigan State’s Michael Geiger is known for his game-winning field goal at Ohio State last year, but is, in fact, just 12-of-20 since last year, including a 43-yard miss in the opener against Furman. Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon is 17-of-20 in his career, but had a critical 36-yard attempt blocked at Texas.

Under the lights in Notre Dame Stadium, this should be one of the jewels of the college football slate in Week Three. Physicality will count for a lot. So should Notre Dame’s offensive advantage.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 8; over-under 50½  
Prister’s Prediction: Notre Dame 26, Michigan State 23
Season Record: Straight-up 1-1, vs. points 2-0, over/under 0-2


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