Notre Dame vs. Michigan State Preview

What can Irish fans expect from the Michigan State Spartans?

#10 Notre Dame vs. Michigan St.
Fighting Irish   Spartans
Saturday, September 17th
South Bend, IN.
2:30 EST

Last 5: MSU leads 3-2   Last 5 at ND
2004 ND 31-24 East Lansing     2003 MSU 16-22
2003 MSU 16-22 South Bend     2001 MSU 10-17
2002 ND 21-17 East Lansing     1999 MSU 13-23
2001 MSU 10-17 South Bend     1997 MSU 7-23
2000 MSU 21-27 East Lansing     1993 ND 36-14

Quick Hitters:
Michigan State University: East Lansing, MI.
Spartan Stadium Capacity: 75,005
Spartan Stadium Turf: Grass Turf
Conference: Big Ten
Founded: 1855: Full-time Enrollment: 43,836
Head Coach: John L. Smith, 3rd Season
Overall Record: 15-12, .555
J.L. Smith vs. Notre Dame 1-1
Michigan State 2004 record: 5-7
Returning Offensive Starters: 8
Returning Defensive Starters: 3
Notre Dame leads series: 43-24-1
Last 10 games: Michigan State leads 4-6
First game played between MSU and Notre Dame: 1897
Notre Dame won the first 8 games in the series
MSU is Notre Dame's fourth most common opponent (68 games)
Notre Dame hasn't beaten MSU at home since 1993

This will be an emotionally filled day as Charlie Weis leads his team into Notre Dame Stadium for the first time in his career. So far the Irish have looked like a solid program in their two opening wins against Pitt and Michigan. But Michigan State brings an entirely different challenge to this Notre Dame squad with John L. Smith's spread offense. The Spartans have been a thorn in the side of the Irish in their past ten meetings, as Sparty holds a 6-4 edge. Over the history of this series, it hasn't mattered what team the Irish have put on the field, the Spartans always come to play. Notre Dame hasn't won a game in this series on its home field since 1993.

Looking back at the last several meetings between these two teams, it's pretty clear to me that Notre Dame hasn't been prepared walking into this game. Whether it has been an emotional letdown, the team lacking focus or an issue with the game plan, the Irish just haven't come ready to play, while the Spartans have.

This Saturday both teams will be riding high as the Irish are coming off a huge win in Ann Arbor against one of their biggest rivals, and the Spartans are coming off two blow-out wins against undermanned Kent State and Hawaii squads. Notre Dame probably has better personnel, but Michigan State as the ability to stay with Notre Dame.

For the first time this year the Irish will be entering a game as a favorite, as they are picked to beat Michigan State by seven points. I expect this to be bulletin board material for the Spartans, as I'm certain they will feel they deserve more respect. That's also a big number for this game since the Irish have lost the last four to the Spartans on the Notre Dame Stadium turf by an average of nearly 10 points.

Michigan State On Offense:

Category '05 Rank Per Game
Rushing Offense #6 276.00 yards
Passing Offense #10 316.00 yards
Total Offense #2 592.00 yards
Scoring Offense #13 45.50 points
Pass Eff. Offense #7 189.5 yards

The "spread offense" is where the "run-and-shoot" meets "the option." Where the option was designed to stress a defense at the line of scrimmage, the spread is designed to stress the defense across the entire field. It's a fairly simple offensive philosophy that is driving defensive coordinators crazy, and its making old-timers cringe at the sight of an offense without a fullback.

The spread does several things to stress a defense and improve the chances of success for the offense. By spreading the field, it makes it difficult for the defense to disguise its coverages. This allows the quarterback to check into a play that will be successful against the defensive call.

By spreading the field, the offense creates space between defenders. The more space, the more room the quarterback has to throw and the more room a ball carrier has to run. The extra space also makes it paramount that the initial tackler brings down the ball carrier. If he doesn't, there may not be another defender around to make the play.

The spread also challenges the defense to play away from their personnel strengths and allows the offense to isolate a defensive player they think they can take advantage of.

The spread is a pass-first offense, predicated on short, quick passes – at times, an extended hand-off to the wide receiver. A good spread offense will also use the run effectively to take advantage of a defense that is spread across the field and has fewer players around the line of scrimmage.

Drew Stanton is a near perfect quarterback for John L. Smith's offense. He's an accurate passer, 64 percent completion rate in 2004, and he's a dangerous runner. More importantly, he's a smart football player that understands this offense. When healthy he will cause teams fits. In last year's contest Stanton relieved an ineffective Stephen Reaves and really frustrated the Irish defense with his ability to run and throw the ball. While the Irish controlled the game, Stanton kept the game respectable. During the off-season Reaves transferred to Southern Mississippi, which leaves two very green quarterbacks behind Stanton. This could be trouble for the Spartans because Stanton is injury prone.

A good spread offense needs a solid group of receivers and Michigan State has a veteran group led by Kyle Brown, Matt Trannon, Jerramy Scott, and Terry Love. Not one of these guys will make the All-American list, but it always seems like the Irish have difficulty with a solid group of veteran receivers.

The offensive line is good but not sensational. They have three veterans returning from a group that was inconsistent last season. They do a really nice job run blocking as the Spartans averaged 5.7 yards per carry last season and they are averaging 5.8 yards per rush and 275 yards per game this season. They won't give up many sacks, but that can be attributed more to the offensive philosophy of relying on quick passes than their ability to protect the passer.

Anticipated Depth Chart. Returning starter = +.

  + Drew Stanton Jr. 43-55-598 5/1 78.2
  Brian Hoyer Fr* 4-5-28 0/0 80.0

Stanton (6-3/222 Jr*) is an outstanding athlete and competitor. He's gritty yet has the physical tools to run John L. Smith's spread offense to perfection. He has good size and very good mobility, so he'll kill you running the ball(15 attempts - 75 yards). He can also throw the ball with very good accuracy, but he will struggle with the deep ball. If he gets into a rhythm and starts clicking, the Michigan State offense is nearly impossible to stop. He will get himself in trouble at some point because he tends to challenge tacklers. He missed the second half of the Michigan game and the entire Ohio State game due to a separated shoulder. Absolutely no real experience is behind Stanton so he needs to make sure he avoids contact.

Brian Hoyer (6-2/204 Fr*) received some valuable playing experience against Kent State and Hawaii. That will come in handy later in the year, because Stanton will get dinged up at some point.

  RB Hgt/Wgt Rushes-Yards
  + Jason Teague Sr 5-9/193 15-92/1TD
  Jehuu Caulcrick So. 6-0/245 34-231/ 3TD
  Javon Ringer Fr. 5-9/195 22-159/ 4TD

Teague (5.9 yads per attempt) will be remembered as the guy Tommy Zbikowski striped the ball from and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown in last year's contest. He missed last week's game agaisnt Hawaii due to an undisclosed suspension. Teague is a decent back, but he won't scare many defenses. He's a grinder, but doesn't break many tackles, and he doesn't appear to run strong. In 2004, he was second on the team in rushing with 688 yards on 150 attempts (4.6 per attempt) and eight touchdowns. He also added 28 catches for 219 yards and two touchdowns.

Caulcrick (6.7 yads per attempt) concerns me more than Teague. He is a big back that seems to really put the hammer down. Caulcrick is the player that nearly brought MSU back into the game last year by running for 85 yards on 15 carries, mostly in the second half. The Irish were protecting a big lead, so they were guarding against the big play, but he was picking up large chunks of yardage. He finished 2004 with 619 yards rushing (5.5 yards per attempt) and five touchdowns.

Javon Ringer (6.8 yads per attempt)is true freshman that we will likely see at some point. He leads the teams in touchdowns. Ringer is an interesting prospect that I really like. He is a hard-driving runner that continually moves forward. He's gotten some carries early, but against inferior competition. I doubt he'll be a factor against Notre Dame, but he'll likely see a couple plays.

  WR Hgt/Wgt Stats
  +Kyle Brown Sr. 6-1/210  12-133/ 1TD
  +Matt Trannon Jr.* 6-6/227  6-90/ 1TD
  +Jerramy Scott Jr. 5-10/186  11-155/ 2TD
  Terry Love So. 5-11/173  8-164/ 1TD
  Kerry Reed Jr. 6-2/198  3-32
  Carl Grimes Fr.* 5-9/171  - -

This is a very experienced, solid group of players, and a group that can really hurt the Irish. Notre Dame will likely see most of these guys since MSU will likely use three and four wide receivers on Saturday. None of these players are spectacular, but they understand the offense and they will catch the ball.

Kyle Brown, a three-year starter, is the most reliable of the receivers. He has good size, speed and terrific hands. I expect him to give the Irish some trouble and I think Stanton should look for him more often. He had 23 receptions for 302 yards in 2004.

Trannon is the guy that gets his number called most often. He's in the mold of Notre Dame's Maurice Stovall, but he doesn't have the physical tools of Stovall. He has struggled at times but he is dangerous and a difficult match-up if he comes to play. In 2004 he had 36 receptions for 405 yards and two touchdowns.

Jerramy Scott (5-10, 186) is the third guy in the rotation at receiver, and this is the guy you don't want to lose in the defensive backfield. He'll make the big play and stress the defense. Last season he led Michigan State with 39 catches for 444 yards and three touchdowns.

Terry Love is most likely the first guy off the bench. John L. Smith likes his play-making ability. If the name Grimes sounds familiar to Irish fans, Carl is the older brother of Irish receiver David Grimes. Carl will see action in the return game and should also be in the receiver rotation.

  TE Hgt/Wgt Stats
  Ryan Woods 5th 6-4/259 1-2
  Kellen Davis So. 6-6/241 1-20
  Dwayne Holmes Fr.* 6-0/254 - -

Kellen Davis is the guy that will catch your eye, but John L. Smith will go with the more experienced Ryan Woods in crunch time. Davis is the athlete and Woods is the lunch bucket guy. There isn't anything flashy about Woods, he doesn't do anything exceptionally well, but Smith knows what he will get from him. He's a plodder who will catch the balls thrown his way. He's is an average blocker.

The fact that Woods is starting is more of an indictment of Davis than what Woods gives you at tight end. Davis is a kid Notre Dame offered. I think MSU needs Davis' athletic ability against the Irish even if they don't get him the ball. He does struggle with his blocking which is likely what prevents him from getting more playing time.

  Offensive Line Hgt/Wgt Experience
  +LT Stefon Wheeler;5th 6-5/330 24 Starts
  +LG Kyle Cook Jr.* 6-3/295 14 starts
  +C Chris Morris 5th 6-4/305 27 starts
  RG Gordon Niebylski 5th 6-3/312 7 starts
  RT Mike Gyetvai So.* 6-7/307 No Experience

You think of the spread offense as a passing offense, but last season MSU averaged 238.5 yards rushing per game. For those that aren't aware, that is 111 yards more per game than Notre Dame averaged last season. Much of that has to do with Drew Stanton and the style of the offense, but the MSU line was able to move the ball against some good defenses last season; 430 yards against Wisconsin, 368 yards vs. Michigan and 204 against Iowa. In addition to the impressive rushing numbers, the MSU line only gave up eight sacks on the season. From last year's line they return three solid players Stefon Wheeler, Chris Morris, and Kyle Cook.

Morris is simply solid. Nothing stands out, and he won't push guys all over the field, but you won't likely make very many plays against him.

Wheeler will be making his 25th start at left tackle against the Irish, and MSU likes to run off his side or use him to lead on a sweep. Chris Frome will line up across from him and I expect MSU to attempt to test him early. I haven't always been impressed with Wheeler's ability as a run blocker, and I believe Frome will be up to the test.

Cook is a solid player and similar to Notre Dame's Dan Santucci. He has no problem sticking his nose into the play. He finishes his blocks. He has good mobility and should present problems for Derek Landri and the Irish linebackers.

The right side on the line will be the concern, with Gordon Niebylski (6-3,312) and Mike Gyetvai (6-7, 307) getting the starts. Niebylski has only started three games, but he has played in a number of games throughout his career, so he shouldn't be considered inexperienced. Regardless, he's getting the call more by default and he will have difficulty handling Trevor Laws.

Gyetvai has the unenviable task of going up against Victor Abiamiri. This is a player Victor should dominate. Gyetvai is trying to find his feet early. I'd like to see Victor knock him down and beat him early and often.

Pete Clifford (6-7, 327) is the only other player who has any experience along the offensive line.

Michigan State On Defense:

Category '05 Rank Per Game
Rushing Defense #21 68.50 yards
Pass Eff. Defense #47 113.62 yards
Total Defense #49 337.00 yards
Scoring Defense #24 14.00 points
Pass Defense #90 268.50 yards

Like the offense, it's very difficult to judge what the defense is going to look like against the Irish. I don't think this is your father's Michigan State defense that was gritty and incredibly physical. Those defenses were predicated on tough guys along the defensive line and linebackers that laid the wood. I don't see that in this group. MSU runs a based 4-3 defense with a bandit linebacker that is comparable to Notre Dame's apache linebacker. MSU allows the bandit to freelance so they will switch things up to give the offense several different looks. They will go to a 3-man front with six defensive backs at times.

If you looked solely at defensive numbers this season, you'd expect this team to be strong against the run (68.5 yards per game) and fairly soft against the pass (268.5 yards per game). I believe those numbers are misleading because Michigan State went up early in the games against Kent State and Hawaii, so these teams needed to abandon the run a go to the air to stay in the game. Hawaii throws the ball a bunch anyway so you'd expect their passing numbers to be higher than their running totals.

Up front the Spartans don't have guys who will make plays in the backfield and they aren't going to put a lot of pressure on Brady Quinn. Defensive tackle Brandon McKinney was supposed to be the guy this season, but he came in out of shape and suffered an ankle injury that has kept him off the field in 2005. The other three players upfront are decent players, but this is a group the Irish front should do some damage against.

The defensive front has yet to register a sack even though they knew the opponent was going to put the ball in the air. Notre Dame struggled picking up the blitz against Michigan, so if the Spartans are going to pressure Quinn, it's going to come from the linebackers. If Notre Dame has corrected their blitz protection issues, the Irish will be able to pick apart a solid, but less than spectacular Spartan secondary.

Anticipated Depth Chart. Returning starter = +

  Defensive Line Hgt/Wgt Experience
  +DT Brandon McKinney 5th 6-3/320 18 starts/ 16 games
  DT Domata Peko Sr. 6-2/320 2 starts/ 14 games
  + DE Clifton Ryan So* 6-2/302 14 starts/ 29 games
  DE Michael Bazemore 5th 6-3/270 5 starts/ 24 games

This group isn't filled with stars, and I would describe them more a patchwork group. MSU has brought in a number of JC transfers to attempt to plug holes, but I'm not sure it has had the success that the MSU staff was hoping. Brandon McKinney has been a big disappointment. He's big, probably far too big. He possesses a lot of potential but not much production. The coaches wanted him to come in around 300 pounds, instead he showed up above 320 pounds. He has missed the first two games with and ankle injury. He is expected to start, but I wouldn't be surprised to see JC transfer David Stanton in here.

Domata Peko is one of the junior college transfers. He was a defensive end that the Spartans turned into a down lineman. He played in 12 games last year, recording 14 tackles, in mostly late-game action. His knock is that he hasn't been physical enough and he doesn't use his leverage well enough to handle the double teams inside.

Clifton Ryan is the best of the defensive lineman at the strong-side defensive end. He had 41 tackles last season. He doesn't have the sack numbers, but he plays the corner very well and he'll make it difficult for the Irish to run his way. He's a battler.

Michael Bazemore is a guy Notre Dame recruited. Coming out of high school he was a linebacker, but he's eaten himself into a defensive end. I'd have to say that he has been an underachiever thus far at MSU getting most of his playing time as a back-up. When a coach describes a player as "consistent" as the MSU coaching staff has of Bazemore, it generally isn't a compliment. After a difficult match-up last week with LaMarr Woodley of Michigan, Ryan Harris should have an easier time with Bazemore.

Nick Smith (6-6, 265, So.), Joe Toth (6-2, 292, So.) and Bobby Jones (6-4, 299, Jr.) could mix in throughout the game, but this is an undermanned group that the Irish offensive line should be able to move off the ball.

  Linebackers Hgt/Wgt Experience
  SLB SirDarean Adams So 6-0/222 Limited Exp.
  +MLB Kaleb Thornhill So* 6-1/240 6 starts/ 14 Gms
  +WLB David Herron Sr.* 6-1/246 13 starts

The bandit, or strong-side linebacker is very similar to Rick Minter's Apache linebacker, it's a hybrid safety-linebacker. Jaren Hayes (5-9, 180, Sr.) was expected to start at the bandit position, but he was suspended during fall camp. He's back with the team and he played last week, but he was used as a nickel defensive back. Hayes is a converted running back, and Irish fans will remember him as the back that scampered 71 yards for a touchdown against the Irish in 2003. Last season Hayes was moved to cornerback. I'm not certain where Hayes will be, but we will see him somewhere.

I think Adams will start at the bandit position, as he's played very well in the first two games. Adams leads the team in tackles (16) and has three tackles for a loss. He's bigger than Hayes, so I think he fits the position better. MSU will need the added size to defend Notre Dame's rushing attack.

Thornhill and Herron are the experienced players here. Herron is a real good football player that puts himself into position to make plays. He's isn't spectacular, but he can have spectacular games. Thronhill is a decent player, but he won't make plays behind the line of scrimmage. He's a solid player, but nothing special.

Tommy Zbikowski's former teammate Eric Andino has gotten some action this season and we could see him spell Herron.

  Defensive Backs Hgt/Wgt Experience
  CB Demond Williams Jr. 5-9/174 JC Transfer
  CB Ashton Watson Sr. 5-11/189 7 starts/33 Gms
  +SS Eric Smith 5th 6-1/202 27 starts/33 Gms
  FS Greg Cooper Jr. 5-11/189 7 starts/24 Gms

The defensive backfield is probably the strength of the defense. There is a lot of experience with this group that allowed just over 200 yards passing per game last season. It gets even better for the Spartans if Jaren Hayes is tossed into the mix. He tends to find himself around the ball, which is why the coaching staff wanted to fit him into the bandit position. I expect Hayes to get the start at one of the corner spots.

Ashton Watson is the guy Notre Dame will go after. He has experience, but there's a reason he hasn't been in the starting lineup prior to his senior year. He tends to give up the big play. After that, he'll start to question himself and his play will become erratic. He has good size, but he doesn't like to tackle.

As a three-year starter, Eric Smith is the gray beard of this group. He's a solid leader, and he finds himself around the ball. Last year he was second on the team in tackles with 115. Smith is a football player. He isn't exceptionally fast, so he will give receivers some space in front of him, but his instincts allow him to make plays. His leadership is his biggest asset.

Cooper might be the best player in the secondary because he can cover and he plays the run very well.

Williams is a JC transfer and penciled in as one of the starters at cornerback. He is supposed to be good, but he hasn't been tested thus far in his career at MSU. The Spartan coaches auditioned several players here, but really didn't find anyone they really liked, so as I mentioned above, I think we'll see Hayes in his spot.

Final Thoughts: Every game brings different challenges to a team. This week it will be Michigan State's spread offense. As I mentioned above, the spread offense is designed to stress a defense by spreading it out. The best way to defeat the spread is to have a fast, attacking defense, and that starts up front. It isn't important to sack the quarterback, but you want to create pressure up front, and disrupt his passing lanes. You need a front that is quick off their blocks so they can slow down the running plays. Then you need speed at the linebacker position. Rick Minter's installed the apache linebacker for this specific reason. Maurice Crum will be tested often throughout this contest. Finally, you need a secondary that can 1) tackle and 2) punish receivers when they make a catch. It think both Zbikowski and Ndukwe can to that.

Offensively, I think the Irish will create a lot of problems for the Spartan defense. This isn't like the hard-hitting MSU defenses of the past, and their personnel doesn't match up well with the Irish. The Notre Dame offensive line should be able to control the Spartan front four and I think the MSU linebackers are average. If Notre Dame can have two long sustained drives early against this defense, they will get frustrated and turn on each other. The defensive front just doesn't have the horses.

Additional information

  2005 Michigan State Schedule
  1-0 W Kent. St. 33-17
  2-0 W Hawaii 42-14
  9/17 A Notre Dame -
  9/24 A Illinois -
  10/1 H Michigan -
  10/15 A Ohio State -
  10/22 H Northwestern -
  10/29 H Indiana -
  11/5 A Purdue -
  11/12 A Minnesota -
  11/19 H Penn State - Top Stories