The Irish stole a victory at East Lansing last year on a Pat Dillingham 60-yard pass to Arnaz Battle to give the Irish 21-17 win. The Spartans had beaten Notre Dame five straight times prior to the Irish victory in 2002.
The psychology of this game should be interesting to watch. The Irish offense is ranked 116th out of 117 teams in total offense and their once stout defense showed signs of cracking in the Michigan game. The Spartans lost a heartbreaker and had many wounded in the process.
To be honest, we really have no idea what to expect. Starting quarterback Jeff Smoker might not be available for the Spartans. If he can't play, nobody knows what to expect from their offense. Also, nobody knows what to expect with the Irish offense at this point. This will be one very difficult game to predict.
Coach John L. Smith has some weapons. Agim Shabaj is a slippery and speedy wide receiver that is their go-to guy. He will remind many of Joey Getherall as he is similar is size, stature and speed to Getherall. Running back Jaren Hayes has been very effective running out of the one-back set averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Smoker has been impressive completing 63 percent of his passes and six touchdowns in three games but he might be out with a toe injury.
The Spartan defense is probably better than most give them credit. The Spartans have 13 sacks in just three games led by Matthias Askew with five. They also are allowing just 21.7 yards rushing per game and 0.8 yards per rush. The Spartans haven't played top quality teams in Western Michigan, Rutgers and Louisiana Tech but these are impressive numbers against anyone.
We all know the problems with the Irish on offense and now defense so we won't bother going into the statistics or the reality of their problems.
Let's take a look at what we might see.
Irish Offense VS Spartan defense
The Irish must find a way to get back on track against a very good Spartan defense. The Irish would love to line up and just pound away at the Michigan State defense with their running game. We don't think they will be able to do that at this point.
For the Irish to have success, they are going to have to throw the football to open up the running game. The Spartan defense is giving up an average of 345 passing yards a game and has surrendered seven touchdowns through the air. The Irish should be able to throw the football and open up opportunities for their running game.
Will offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick take the chance with Holiday and an inexperienced offensive line? We don't feel the Irish will have much of a chance if he doesn't. Michigan State will sell out to stop the run just as every team has this year. Every team seems to have the same defensive game plan against the Irish lately and most are very successful with it. The Irish will have to find a way to move the ball and we think that can be done by throwing the football early.
Spartan Offense VS Irish Defense
We will have a very hard time predicting what Michigan State will do if Jeff Smoker cannot play in this game. Drew Stanton will be Smoker's replacement if he cannot play. Stanton hasn't thrown a pass this year and has very little experience in his career.
If Smoker can play we expect to see much the same with Michigan State. They run a one-back set on offense and find ways to get the ball in Shabaj's hands. They also love to get the ball in Hayes' hands both running and catching passes out of the backfield. They spread the ball around to a number or receivers and try to spread the field attacking all areas of the field.
If Stanton is playing we don't expect much different from the Spartans. They will try to stay true to their scheme but will probably be a little more conservative in their play calling and we might see more running from Hayes.
Irish defense VS Spartan offense
The Spartans have scored just one rushing touchdown all year. They haven't played against traditionally good rushing defenses as Western Michigan, Rutgers and Louisiana Tech rank 76th, 58th and 70th in the country in rushing defense. All three are allowing an average of at least 140 yards per game on the ground. The Spartans average 133 yards per game on the ground. The Irish defense should bounce back and have a strong showing against the run against Michigan State.
The Spartan passing game could give the Irish trouble especially if Smoker is playing. Shabaj is averaging 101 yards per game and has 19 catches in three games. Hayes has 11 catches in three games and is averaging 14 yards per catch out of the backfield and two touchdowns—impressive numbers for a running back.
If Smoker plays, Michigan State could cause the Irish defense problems all day. If Stanton plays, they might struggle a bit with his lack of experience. Regardless, we expect Michigan State to do what they've done all year—get the ball in the hands of Shabaj and Hayes. Watch out for trick plays run to feature both players.
Spartan defense VS Irish offense
Do we really need to address this? The Spartans will do the same thing Michigan, Washington State, North Carolina State and USC have done and would be foolish for trying anything else. They will load the line of scrimmage with bodies and blitz and zone blitz to confuse the Irish offense and Holiday. Irish fans will see this until the Irish prove they can beat this defensive scheme.
So who wins? Both teams are coming off devastating losses. Smoker could be out and we wonder how effective he could be if he does play. A toe injury on your planting foot is not conducive to a good passing game. Somehow, some way, the Irish find a way to win again. Notre Dame 21 Michigan State 17