Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and his defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi, kept pushing the envelope, and the more Trae Waynes and Darqueze Dennard pressured Notre Dame’s receivers, the more the Irish moved the football down the field.
It was the third weekend of September, three years ago exactly, that the Spartans employed their stickiest man-to-man coverage on Notre Dame’s wideouts.
And why not? It was Michigan State’s preferred modus operandi, and it wasn’t like the Irish were running Jeff Samardzija, Golden Tate, and Michael Floyd out there.
Catching passes for the Irish were standout-in-the-making TJ Jones, his receiver running mate, DaVaris Daniels, spindly freshmen Corey Robinson and Will Fuller, and nondescript local product Daniel Smith.
Irish quarterback Tommy Rees would complete just 14-of-34 passes for 142 yards against the Spartans. But four pass interferences and a defensive holding were enough to spark a pair of touchdown drives as the Irish had claimed a 17-13 victory for Michigan State’s only loss of the 2013 season.
“Twenty times,” said Dantonio of the number of deep throws by the Irish that afternoon.
“Flags came out a little bit, but from my perspective, we made plays on the ball.”
When Cam McDaniel scored from seven yards out within the first minute of the fourth quarter, the Irish had all the points they would need to prevent Dantonio and his team from getting a shot at the national championship.
Three years later, Narduzzi is gone, employing his version of press coverage as the head coach at Pittsburgh. Dantonio remains in East Lansing with co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel. It still works. Michigan State has won 36 of its last 41 games, including a dozen last season.
Make no mistake, Dennard and Waynes – both NFL first-round draft picks – are gone. Current starters Darian Hicks and Vayante Copeland aren’t nearly as established as their predecessors. Hicks was whistled for a pair of interference penalties two weeks ago against Furman.
But the Spartans continue to press the issue at the line of scrimmage against opposing wideouts, regardless how often they’re whistled for pass interference.
“Run,” smiled Irish head coach Brian Kelly when asked to relay the message he gives to his young receivers to combat Michigan State’s press coverage. “Run.
“Back then, we had (Daniel Smith) running at one receiver. He was part tight end, part wide receiver. We had (freshman) James Onwualu as the other wide receiver. We were scaring them to death with TJ Jones. Daniels (three receptions, six yards) played a little bit and Corey was a freshman.
“I think we’re in better position. If they want to press us, we just need to run. Run our routes, do what we do and we’ll make enough plays.”
Torii Hunter, Jr., who is coming off a concussion, and sophomores Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders headline the current top-of-the-depth-chart receivers for the Irish. It’s a group Kelly believes is further along than the 2013 unit.
“If you can’t get off the line of scrimmage, you can’t throw the football,” Kelly said. “I’m not concerned about releases with our wide receivers. We’re going to get off the ball.
“What we have to do is throw the ball and catch it. We’re going to have to make some catches against man-to-man coverage and we’re going to have to be accurate throwing it. But I’m not concerned about getting off the line.”
Neither, for that matter, is Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer, who faced a similar scenario at Pittsburgh last November when Narduzzi’s defensive backfield – not nearly as established as the current Michigan State system – was burned by Fuller for seven catches spanning 152 yards and three touchdowns, including 47- and 46-yarders. Kizer completed 19-of-26 for 262 yards and five touchdowns.
Sans Fuller, the Irish have yet to establish the deep ball that was such a significant part of the 2014-15 offenses.
“I’ve been watching their corners play man coverage since I’ve watched football,” said Kizer, who grew up in Toledo, Ohio, about 120 miles from East Lansing.
“That’s exactly who they are today. We know we’re going to have to match the physicality and challenge those corners. Our receivers will have the same mentality because they’re just as fast and just as strong as the guy across from of them.”
Leading the charge for the Irish receiving corps will be Hunter, who must contend with the Spartan secondary less than two weeks removed from suffering a concussion.
“We’re going to have to make plays,” Hunter said. “They stick to what they know. They don’t try to mix in different looks. They are what they are and they show that every week. They’ve shown it the last couple years on film.
“They’re going to try to push you out of bounds. They’re going to grab and hold. They’re going to do it every time to test your manhood.”
The greatest beneficiary of the Spartans’ press coverage on Hunter and St. Brown could very well be Sanders, who, working from the slot, is more likely to face zone coverage. Junior Corey Holmes also could figure in as Sanders’ X-receiver running mate.
“We have an opportunity to throw the ball to the slide receivers who are getting zoned off all day long,” Kizer said. “But if you can just attack the outside at the right times, you’re going to be able to make the plays that you need to make and move the ball down the field.”
In order to get the football to Notre Dame’s wideouts – the X (Hunter) and the W (St. Brown) – Kizer must be willing to force the issue against Michigan State’s cornerbacks, and that requires accuracy, solid decision-making and the ability to execute back-shoulder throws that can thwart sticky man-coverage.
Playing against Brian VanGorder’s press coverage defense on a daily basis has given the Irish offense a basis for attack.
“We play against press coverage every game,” Kelly said. “We play against press coverage all the time in practice. (Michigan State) likes to play it more than others, but it’s not anything we haven’t seen before. They’re just a team that’s known for it.”
Kizer must also be cognizant of the Spartans sending linebackers after him, which means a cohesive effort by Notre Dame’s relatively inexperience offensive line is necessary.
“Michigan State does a really good job of disguising their blitzes,” Kizer said. “They hold their ‘show’ very well, and as a quarterback, it makes it difficult to predict where it’s coming from. You have to be able to use different techniques throughout the game to figure out hints.”
There are many factors that will determine the winner of Notre Dame-Michigan State circa 2016. “Physicality” is the buzzword for the week. The Spartans held Notre Dame to 3.2 yards per carry in the three games from 2011-13. It’s how Michigan State has risen among the elite nationally.
Notre Dame will counter with sophomore running back Josh Adams, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry as a freshman in 2015, and enters this game averaging 7.1 yards per carry in two games this season.
But the focus will be on Notre Dame’s receivers vs. Michigan State’s press coverage.
“When you play against press coverage, there’s an intimidation factor,” Kizer said. “Quarterbacks generally don’t like to go at them.
“But those guys are out on an island. We have an opportunity with the receivers that we recruit to expose that island.”