Settling a Score

IrishEyes offers its preview of what could be a wild afternoon Saturday in South Bend.

Throughout Tuesday's press conference and Wednesday's captains meetings, the local and national media harped on a familiar refrain: are the Irish finally ready for the physical play of the Spartans?

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio preaches physical football, and there's no better example of his philosophy and vision translating onto the field than last year's 23-7 victory over Notre Dame in which (now-departed) running back Javon Ringer gashed the Irish defense for 201 yards on an old-school 39 carries.

In fact, both Dantonio and deposed former Spartans head man John L. Smith have preached physical play vs. their September rival to the south, as the '05, '06, '07, and '08 Spartans rushed for 161, 248, 219, and 203 yards against Charlie Weis' squads in four games.

To hammer home the point, the Spartans have out-rushed the Irish in nine of the last 12 meetings between the teams and are 8-1 vs. ND in those nine contests (losing to Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija and Terrail Lambert, 40-37 in '06).

The line of questioning and resulting answers were not unexpected this week. Irish SS Kyle McCarthy correctly observed of the Spartans recent history, "It's their mentality; something they have in their program – they get hard-nosed kids."

But two MSU game reviews offer contradictory evidence. It's early, but these don't appear to be your father's Spartans, at least not offensively through the season's first two contests.

Ringer has moved onto the NFL; bruising runner Jehuu Caulcrick, he of the 111 rushing yards on just eight carries vs. the Irish in '06, has exhausted his eligibility.

And though the Spartans boast an offensive line tailor-made for grinding out hard-earned yards on the ground, their best offensive players – a trio of skill position receivers and two quarterbacks – are much better-suited for an aerial attack.

Since 1997, Irish fans have been informed (usually post-game) that the Spartans were "more physical" and certainly more experienced than were the Irish (a head-shaker for long-time ND fans). If there's a season in which that maddening coach-speak crutch should not prove true, it's 2009.

Below is a closer look at the matchups that will help decide Saturday's contest between the Irish and the Spartans:

Irish Center Eric Olsen vs. Spartans MLB Greg Jones

Olsen is well aware of Jones, referring to the junior tackling machine as "one of the best linebackers in the country" on Wednesday. Jones has posted double-digit tackle totals in nine consecutive games (averaging nearly 13 stops per contest in that span).

At 6'1" 228 pounds, Jones is far from the classic, plodding MIKE linebacker and therein lies the challenge for Olsen, who'll often be asked to explode into space, find Jones; and execute the key block that will allow Irish halfback Armando Allen to get through the second level of tacklers.

But Olsen's presence could also be necessary in an effort to contain vs. Spartans nose tackle Oren Wilson, a space-eater inside that commands double-team attention, thus allowing his speedy LB teammates freedom to make plays.

The Jones assignment would then fall to the Irish fullback, either converted halfback Robert Hughes, in which case the Irish running attack would suffer (not a knock on Hughes, but he has just one game of fullback experience – totaling fewer than 10 snaps – at the college level); or to tight end Bobby Burger, who's proven to be an excellent lead blocker in his brief field appearances this season.

Look for Olsen, Burger, and motion tight end Mike Ragone to handle most of the heavy lifting vs. the athletic Jones. If there's one matchup to watch when the Irish have the football, it's the All-American LB vs. Notre Dame's three most competitive blockers.

Advantage: Jones, but the key is that the Irish don't allow him to win by knockout.

Spartans Cornerback Chris Rucker vs. Tate/Floyd

Rucker mans the short side of the field…the near hash/boundary (in other words, he's more likely to play against whichever Irish WR has less room with which to operate).

At 6'2" 195, Rucker seems to have ideal size to battle with the aggressive Tate and the physical Floyd. But Rucker struggled mightily last week vs. Central Michigan – failing to locate the deep ball and reacting awkwardly on a deep pass to Chippewa's wide receiver Antonio Brown (10 receptions for 71 yards).

Rucker posted a career-high 9 tackles vs. the Irish in last year's meeting. He's aggressive in run support and possesses the physical tools necessary to limit Floyd and Tate after the catch – a situation that will present itself to the junior DB on at least 10 occasions Saturday afternoon

Advantage: Tate by knockout; Floyd by brutal, Clubber Lang-reminiscent knockout.

Spartans WR Blair White vs. McNeil, Blanton, and Walls

Raeshon McNeil is listed first as I believe that matchup – McNeil vs. White in the slot – will be a key development in the secondary.

White, a former walk-on and now team captain is the Spartans most dangerous offensive weapon. The senior from Saginaw finished the 2008 season with 30 receptions and 500 yards in his final six contests and picked up where he left off, catching 16 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns (as well as another deep ball marked short at the goal line) in two games this season.

Kyle McCarthy, Notre Dame's defensive captain, has taken note of White's skills:

"He's a very polished receiver; you can tell he's an excellent athlete, has good size, great hands…we're going to need to be ready for him. We've been watching him; we're well-aware of him and he's going to be a big part of this game."

White does most of his damage from the slot as a shifty route-runner with the ability to bait his defender before slipping behind him for deep routes down the seam (for long-time Irish fans, White reminds me – both with the ball and while he's in his route – of former Irish tailback Lee Becton). White's more quick than fast and using an economy of movement – note how often his simple cut affords the 6'2" receiver yards after the catch on Saturday – but his greatest asset is reminiscent of Golden Tate: White competes for the football.

When White is slotted, it is essential that Raeshon McNeil (and not "starting" nickel defender, safety Sergio Brown) draw the assignment on the deceptive pass-catcher.

Split wide, Darrin Walls has an athletic advantage over White, though the receiver's size could give Walls problems, while Robert Blanton, ND's most physical cornerback, will likely matchup vs. Spartans sophomore B.J. Cunningham – a strong player that can burn a defense after the catch.

The Spartans offense could receive a boost with the return of junior Mark Dell (4 receptions for 80 yards vs. ND last year) who missed the first two contests of the '09 season with a shoulder injury. Dell is the team's leading returning receiver (899 yards in '08) and possesses downfield speed that could necessitate a matchup with Walls if he returns at full strength.

Advantage: White in the slot over McNeil; Blanton and Cunningham should offset; Walls, who is much better than he showed last week, over the returning Dell.

Backup QB Keith Nichol vs. Irish Tacklers

Sophomore Kirk Cousins will start (and he's started well, with 657 yards, 6 touchdowns, and just 1 interception in two games this season). He's a solid drop-back passer with poise in the pocket and the ability to escape pressure. The Spartans will get their yards through the air tomorrow, and the majority will arrive via Cousins right arm.

But a key matchup will be Irish outside linebackers Brian Smith, Darius Fleming, and Manti Te'o as well as SS Kyle McCarthy vs. backup QB Keith Nichol. While Nichol, an Oklahoma transfer, doesn't possess the rare elusiveness of last week's opponent, Tate Forcier, he's nonetheless a mobile, slippery runner and creative passer on the move.

When Nichol enters the game the Spartans will turn to designed roll-outs, bootlegs or quick passes off the line. If the Irish defense allows Nichol to escape the pocket (he can't beat them as a drop-back passer at this stage of his career), feel free to boo from your sofa. There's no excuse for losing outside containment vs. a quarterback that has bounced more short (drop-back) passes than he's completed vs. FBS competition.

Advantage: The Spartans will throw for in excess of 300 yards tomorrow – it's up to the players listed above to create turnovers and lost-yardage plays vs. the MSU QB duo.

Spartans tight ends vs. Irish DE and Darius Fleming

MSU junior Charlie Gantt and has backup, sophomore Brian Linthicum fit the mold of the physical Spartans player that has often made the difference in recent matchups vs. the Irish. Both players are aggressive blockers in space, especially when set in motion prior to the snap, and both, especially Gantt, finish blocks well.

It will be up to Irish defensive ends John Ryan and Kerry Neal to meet the duo's physical level of play in running situations.

Fleming has tussled with right tackles for most of the season's first two contests – Gantt and Linthicum, despite their desire to block anything in a different-colored hat, will likely offer a welcomed respite for Fleming who spent his last eight quarters fighting off blocks by players that outweigh him by 60-plus pounds. Fleming will have to control Gantt at the line of scrimmage on passing plays as the junior has developed into a quality receiver when called upon.

Advantage: Gantt and Linthicum over Ryan and Neal; we'll call it a wash vs. Fleming, who should be in position to play his best game of the season as he returns to a more traditional defensive role.

Myths, Truths, and a Must-Win

Irish fans view Michigan State as a physical group that deliberately moves the football with a disciplined running game; a group that stops the run; and a team that's on the upswing in the struggling Big 10.

I agree with the final point, as Mark Dantonio is one of my favorite coaches – a winner that will bring sound defensive principles and toughness to every program and player he encounters.

But beginning with Week Six last season (after the Spartans had destroyed the likes of Eastern Michigan, Florida Atlantic, Notre Dame, and Indiana on the ground), the Spartans managed to rush for more than 100 yards in three of their last eight contests. Their average-yards-per carry in those eight contests: 2.6, 2.9, 2.4, 3.4, 0.8 (not a typo), 2.8 (vs. Purdue), 1.4, and 0.9.

In other words, the Spartans couldn't run the football vs. BCS-Conference teams...other than those located in the great State of Indiana. And that's carried over to 2009, especially last week with a 30-carry, 101-yard effort in a loss to Central Michigan (apparently should have scheduled Indiana State, instead).

A consistent Michigan State rushing attack tomorrow would be a development that suggests a long year of high-scoring, angst-ridden Saturdays in South Bend.

Defensively, the Spartans return eight from last year's squad that held the Irish to 7 points and an embarrassing 16 total rushing yards. It's also the same group that allowed 9 opponents to rush for more than 100 yards – five of which topped the 175-yard mark. The Spartans stuffed the Irish in '08 and went on to post the nation's 67th-ranked rushing defense.

Last week, MSU limited Central Michigan to 66 yards on 29 carries (CMU was the nation's 72-ranked rushing offense in '08). It's difficult to draw a conclusion from those 66 yards (just over two yards per carry) as the Chippewas completed 34 of 47 passes for 352 yards and three touchdown (maybe the Chip's 29 rushes were used as a nice 60-second break in an effort to keep quarterback Dan Lefevour's arm from falling off).

But the 2009 Spartans can move the ball through the air. Their two-headed quarterback monster offers complimentary styles and their passing attack mixes quick throws immediately off the line of scrimmage (reminiscent of Weis' approach to soft coverage) with well-designed combo routes downfield in an effort to give their receivers one-on-one matchups in the secondary.

White, Cunningham, and Dell are far and away the best group of receivers the Irish will face over the season's first five games.

I still expect the Spartans to challenge the Irish with the power running game, and to occasionally employ the stretch play with zone blocking up front rather than their traditional pulling/power attack (as I assume they have access to recent game film). But ultimately MSU's offensive focus will return to the pass as the game evolves into an exciting, back-and-forth shootout.

The Spartans secondary is prone to coverage errors; the Irish O-Line is protecting Clausen, and the tandem of Tate and Floyd will remain unstoppable until (and possibly including) October 18.

Charlie Weis has lost to ND's third scheduled opponent in each of his four seasons at the helm. The Irish have lost to Michigan State in each of the Spartans last six trips to South Bend (as detailed here.).

This is a contest the Irish should win. More importantly, it's a game this program must win as the margin of error for the current staff has reached dangerously low levels.

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