Who, and What, to Watch

Your weekly pre-game points of interest to monitor as Notre Dame welcomes back old rival Michigan State under the lights.

1 – Head-Knocking with the Spartans: “It means you better get yourself ready to start hitting some people.”

The words of senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey earlier this week provided an apt description inherent to Notre Dame vs. Michigan State. And though the game won’t be won solely in the trenches, it’s difficult to imagine the winning team failing to run the ball effectively – or failing to stop the run, to boot.

“Teams try to throw a lot at you in the first half and then kind of go with their mainstays in the second half,” said senior linebacker James Onwualu of the notion of “settling in” as a game progresses. “Physicality-wise I think it starts from the beginning of the game. In the second half I think that Notre Dame just lasts longer when we're playing (opposing) offenses.”

Unlike last week’s contest won by a second quarter Irish explosion, it’s a good bet today’s will come down to plays made – up front – in the fourth.

2 – Better to Strike Second? There’s a good bet the trend below will continue today in South Bend:

Over the last 21 games (dating back to Notre Dame’s epic 31-27 loss in Tallahassee, October 2014), the team that scores the second touchdown in a contest involving the Irish usually prevails…and even if that team doesn’t win, it invariably takes the contest down to the final moments.

The only teams to lose in that span? Notre Dame last season at Stanford (38-36); Temple last year against the Irish (24-21); Virginia against the Irish last season (34-27)’ and LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl (31-28).

Those four close losses perhaps best illustrate the theory, as a game’s second touchdown serves to either:

  1. Balance the ledger for the trailing team (turning 7-0 into 7-7; 10-0 into 10-7, even 13-0 into 13-7, etc.), or
  2. Provide control to the team that already struck first (7-0 becomes 14-0; 10-3 becomes 17-3, etc.)

Don’t worry about which team hits pay dirt first today – the team scoring second is likely to control the tenor of the contest thereafter.

3 – Expect the Expected: Notre Dame’s defense certainly looked the part last Saturday against Nevada. Then again, it was Nevada, and that’s relevant because of the following: The Wolf Pack probably won’t win 8 games this season.

Teams that do eventually win at least 8 games – and that’s 15 of them over the 28-game Brian VanGorder era – usually score at least three touchdowns against his defense.

A whopping 13 of the 15 have done so (Stanford 2014 and Temple 2015 the exceptions) with 11 scoring at least 28 points (four touchdowns) and a stunning 9 of those topping the 30-point plateau.

In other words, if you qualify as “pretty good” in modern college football, aka, an 8-win team, you’ll probably score at least three touchdowns vs. VanGorder’s Irish defense.  

Can the Irish hold Michigan State to just those three touchdowns today?

4 – The Red Zone is for Closers: How to best-apply pressure on a relatively new starting quarterback? Make him convert on third down in the red zone.

To date, Michigan State fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor has won as a starting quarterback against both Furman to open 2016 and late last November at undefeated Ohio State (slightly different scenarios, eh?). But the Spartans have not yet won a football game on the strength of plays made courtesy O’Connor’s arm or legs.

O’Connor is unlikely give anything away in South Bend – he’s steady, reliable, and after winning in the Horseshoe, certainly not going to be fazed by the Notre Dame atmosphere.

But steady and reliable doesn’t always cut the mustard when a play needs to be made, and in this contest, the decisive moments are likely to occur in the red zone, or at least the scoring zone (25- to 27-yard line and closer).

Whether it’s 3rd-and-short, medium, or long in close, passing windows tighten, issues relative to inexperience heighten, and playmakers rise to the fore.

Will O’Connor? And can the Irish defense influence otherwise?

5 – Not-So-Careful Kizer? Detailed. Precise. And very, very accurate. That’s DeShone Kizer two games into the post-Will Fuller era. As Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson detailed earlier this week (story linked below), Kizer is a remarkable 28 for 32 passing on throws traveling 20 yards or less.

As for those in excess of 20 yards? Just 1 for 9.

But can Kizer simply bleed a defense as aggressive as Michigan State’s to death?

“You’ve got to try to get some shots down the field,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of facing the Spartans defense. “There will be opportunities where we’re going to have to win some one-on-one matchups and carve out the best way we can through field position as well.”

One or two shots – successful ones – downfield might hold the key to an (continued) easier operation underneath as the contest progresses.


Tim Prister's 3 Keys:

Pete Sampson's 3 Keys:

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