Scouting Report

The Irish travel to East Lansing to renew a rivalry that goes back to 1887. There have been some memorable games with the Spartans in a series where ND hold a 44-26-1 advantage. That one tie is the famous 10-10 showdown between the one and two ranked teams in the country in 1966 that culminated in a national championship for ND. No such drama exists this week, but this is a rivalry game.

Sadly, for Irish fans, the Spartans have won eight of the last eleven meetings. However, on a positive note, Notre Dame hasn't lost in East Lansing since 2000, and who could forget the 2006 game and the great Irish second half comeback.

Interestingly enough, the Irish and the Spartans are similar in that both are young teams with similar sized senior classes. The Spartans start six sophomores and one freshman to the Irish's seven sophomores and one freshman.

A few Big Ten scribes felt the Spartans could challenge Ohio State on October 18 for the conference title and both could be undefeated, being 7-0 that day. That clash for the league title may yet happen, but, as we know, there will be no unblemished record for either team.

Spartan Offense

The Spartans are averaging 389 yards per game in a balanced offense, passing for 196 yards per game and rushing for 193 yards per game. Fifth year senior quarterback, Brian Hoyer is in his second year as a starter. Senior tailback, Javon Ringer is third in the NCAA rushing statistics, averaging 166 yards per game.

Brian Hoyer, a graduate from Cleveland St. Ignatius, alma mater of Irish players John Ryan and Robbie Parris was a 59% passer for MSU last year with twenty touchdown passes versus eleven interceptions. Hoyer would probably admit he's not having a good year as he entered the Florida Atlantic game with a 49% completion rate with one touchdown pass and two interceptions. His completion percentage dropped to 44% after the defeat of Florida Atlantic on the basis of a five completion day in fifteen attempts with one interception in monsoon conditions. Conversely, the Owl's quarterback, Rusty Smith, who some tout as NFL material, was only eight for thirty-four Saturday. Still, Spartan coaches must feel concern about Hoyer's 2008 performances.

Javon Ringer became the Big Ten Back of the Week, for the second week in a row, based on last Saturday's 308 total yards performance. He shared the rushing load last year with the departed Jehuu Caulcrick, averaging nineteen carries a game, as both carried the ball over two hundred times. This year Ringer carries the load basically alone by averaging thirty-five carries a game. Against Florida Atlantic he had 282 yards, lugged the ball forty-two times, and had a fifty yard screen pass for a touchdown called back as well. He also returns kicks. Ringer has the great ability to bounce an inside play to the outside for big yardage.

MSU has a dangerous receiver in sophomore Mark Dell, who is averaging nearly twenty-five yards per catch with the lone touchdown pass for MSU's offense. Equally as dangerous is, B.J. Cunningham who averages seventeen yards per reception and is a threat on the reverse as well. As if that's not bad enough for the Irish, MSU will have Ringer going to the slot, going deep as well, and being a home run threat on screens.

The tight end with the most receptions is sophomore Charlie Gantt, with four receptions. The other tight end is Garrett Celek with one reception. Both are primarily blockers in MSU's power running attack. Both fullbacks, Andrew Hawken and Jeff McPherson, are also primarily blockers, even to the extent of having both of them in the game at the same time. It's not unusual for the Spartans to bring both fullbacks and a pulling guard to the point of attack in blocking for Ringer.

The Spartan offensive line replaced three starters from last year. The bulk of their offensive line goes the whole game with Joel Foreman starting and former starter Mike Bacon seeing action at left guard. Foreman, who didn't start the year as number one at left guard has been coming on the last two games and is a physical player often pulling, trapping, and leading the way for Ringer. He also gets out well on screens. The Spartan offensive linemen are in the second year of their transition from zone blocking to a power running scheme, and a 282 yard rushing performance by Ringer indicates a successful changeover.

Spartan Defense

The guys from East Lansing rank one point below the Irish in scoring defense giving up sixteen points per game, allowing 345 total yards per game, 137 yards through the rush, and 207 yards via the pass.

MSU still employs the four-three, or even front, and often uses the three-four, or odd front, in passing situations. Even with the odd front they will rush at least four most of the time. The Spartans do blitz, but if they are picked up the weakness of their secondary is often glaring.

The Spartan linebackers are quick, shed blocks well, and the SAM backer, Greg Jones, is their best defensive player. He reads well, runs well, and takes good angles to the ball carrier arriving with the proverbial bad attitude.

MSU entered the season with question marks in the secondary. A projected starter was asked to leave the team and senior Kendell Davis-Clark, a former corner was moved to free safety to begin the season. He was injured against Cal and junior Danny Fortner, the backup at strong safety, was moved into Davis-Clark's spot.

Special Teams

Coach Dantonio's punt return philosophy is to first allow no fake punts, then to have no penalties, and any yardage gained is a plus. It's working as the Spartans' Otis Riley, is averaging nearly fifteen yards per return while MSU only allows their opponents four yards per return. MSU's punter, Aaron Bates, averages nearly 40 yards per boot, despite a one yard punt versus Florida International, has had one blocked, has six punts inside the twenty, and a longest punt of 53 yards.

The Spartans average 19 yards per kick off return with no touchdowns and allow 22 yards per kick off return with no touchdowns. Spartan kick off specialist, Todd Bolseski, usually gets the kick off down to the goal line to the five yard line, but also has four touchbacks out of seventeen kick offs, with three occurring under the ideal conditions enjoyed in the Eastern Michigan game.

Javon Ringer has averaged 22 yards per kick return with a long of 33 yards. He seems to want to take a path down the sidelines even on middle returns though that may be just responses to what he sees on the run or an extension of his great ability to bounce outside when it gets congested.

Notre Dame special teams vs Michigan State special teams

I see the special team battle as a push. Anything could happen and there's big play potential on both teams, but both Irish and Spartan special teams have not scored or given up a touchdown and both have contained well so far this season. Hopefully that doesn't change Saturday unless it changes in favor of the Irish.

The only advantage I see here is with the Irish as Michigan State's Otis Riley has surely seen film of Mike Anello and David Bruton, Notre Dames gunners, bearing down on punt returners. MSU's gunners, Kendell Davis-Clark and Andre Buford are good, but the Irish tandem comes out ahead allowing .06 yards per return. May they continue to do so.

Notre Dame defense vs Michigan State's Offense

In order for the Irish to successfully defend Michigan State I think they will have to succeed at three things.

First, they must identify the formation and the personnel that the Spartans use. Against Cal the Spartans used a different formation on the first 14 plays. Against Florida Atlantic they were more basic, but the elements had a lot to do with that. I'd lean to them presenting the Irish with a formation cornucopia similar to the Cal game. For the Irish defense identifying the formation and personnel is vital. Also, Where's Waldo becomes Where's Ringer. He doesn't move around much, but one move could lead to one play that affects the game adversely for Notre Dame.

Secondly, the Irish have to stop the run. As if you, the reader, didn't know that. To my mind Notre Dame has yet to prove they can stop the run. Michigan's McGuffie averaged 5.2 yards per carry against the Irish and winless San Diego State's top running back averaged 6.6 yards per rush.

In the Michigan game the tackling of McGuffie often left much to be desired. It made me think of the old Lombardi line of "Grab, grab, grab! Everyone's just grabbing out there!" That aspect of the game needs to be much improved this week. Wrap, wrap, wrap!

This Saturday, in Ringer, the Irish face a stronger, more physical back than McGuffie so they better be fundamentally strong in tackling. Ringer squats 620 pounds and does an excellent job of bouncing to the outside on runs that initiate up the middle. He has speed, strength, vision, and experience. He must be met in the hole and wrapped up all game long. His personal best of 282 yards last week could have been a lot more as several times he was barely being brought down by ankle tackles with open real estate ahead.

Thirdly, the Irish front has to be physical. That's nothing new, but Coach Dantonio and his staff place a great emphasis on the Spartans being physical, want them to be a power running team, and want them to have pride in doing so. Notre Dame has to match that physical attitude and play.

If the Irish master those three things I don't think that MSU can hurt them with only a passing game and there are three reasons why I feel that way.

One, both Cunningham and Dell were banged up last week against Florida Atlantic. How healthy they will be this week is up for speculation with Coach Dantonio being very tight lipped about injuries. They have talent, but I don't think they have the talent that Michigan has at wide receiver and the Notre Dame secondary is a strength for the Irish.

Two, Hoyer hasn't come close to his success from last year. Be it injury or confidence he doesn't seem the same. His percentage of completions was significantly down from last year before the Monsoon Bowl against Florida Atlantic. Also, he has been off target high against Cal and Florida Atlantic. Off target high, against David Bruton and Kyle McCarthy would scare me were I a Spartan coach. Last of all I don't see the MSU line keeping the Irish off Hoyer. Their strength and their emphasis is their run blocking. I expect a lot of roll outs by Hoyer this week to avoid Irish pressure.

Notre Dame Offense vs Michigan State Defense

The Irish are ranked 96th in total offense among Division I teams. They are 112th in third down conversions. They've attained those rankings despite playing the 98th ranked defense, San Diego State. Those are disturbing statistics.

A team can't count on turnovers to win. A team can't count on three quarters of blah offense and a hot fourth quarter to pull out a win too many times in a season. The Irish have to improve offensively. There's no doubt that the tools are there for improvement. Notre Dame has the talent to do much better. I believe they will.

Robert Hughes, James Aldridge, and Armando Allen all bring different skills to the mix at running back and all are running hard. The offensive line is decidedly better and should improve each week. Improvement in the rushing game has been shown over last year. Another step towards a more successful running game needs to take place this week. Florida Atlantic hurt MSU with the draw especially when they weren't being penalized. Hope to see the Irish do the same sans the penalties.

Michigan State has holes in their defense. The defensive line could be better in their pass rush and the secondary has its own problems. Against Florida Atlantic the defensive line put forth more pressure than against Cal, but had their lapses. The Owls had a number of wide open receivers, but their quarterback, even with time, failed to get them the ball and they dropped a ton of passes too. Cal went against MSU after graduating 454 career receptions, starting young receivers, and lit the Spartans up for 264 yards. The Irish should present bigger problems for the Spartans.

Jimmy Clausen is starting to show the star quality that made him the number one recruit at quarterback. He'll get better each week too. What can I say about Golden Tate that hasn't already been said? Duval Kumara definitely picked it up against Michigan. Michael Floyd will only get better and steady, dependable David Grimes rounds out a solid corps of wide receivers. MSU presses quite a bit. I'd like to see them do so this Saturday. Also, it's time to include Kyle Rudolph in the offense as both a short yardage receiver and by him running a seam or skinny post deep down the middle, testing the MSU safeties. I think the Irish have a big, big edge here.

Another reason to believe in Irish success this week is that Florida Atlantic had their chances and self destructed by their mistakes more so than from Michigan State's defense. A 74 yard touchdown run for the Owls was called back by a penalty behind the play and a field goal snap was fumbled by the holder, all in the first quarter. A beautiful screen was set up only to have the back drop the pass. A seventy-one yard play to the tight end got FAU close, but the Owl's quarterback fumbled a snap inside the five yard line. That's a potential seventeen points or more tossed away in a 17-0 ball game.

FAU's quarterback was obviously no mudder, a fact attested by his eight for thirty-four day. Many of his passes fluttered like ruptured ducks, were often not even close to his receivers, who were usually open, and when he was on target there were too many drops. Yes, the weather was lousy, but a little less than average competence would have put them in the ball game to the end. FSU also averaged nearly five yards a carry against MSU. Not bad for a team that is primarily a passing team.

A while back I wrote that the first three games of the season would tell a lot about the 2008 Irish. I still feel the same way, even after Michigan. Notre Dame isn't completely over the hump of last year. Also, this team only won two road games last year. The Irish are on the right track, but a loss this week could be devastating.

Michigan State enjoys beating Notre Dame as much, if not more, than any team the Irish face. They will play their best and won't easily quit as they proved against Cal. However, Notre Dame, in my opinion, should continue the streak of the visitor winning in the opponent's house and come home with a win. Hopefully it's a win that puts most of the pre-season questions to rest.

Notre Dame 38 Michigan State 10


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