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Notre Dame vs. Michigan State: Keys to an Irish Win

By · September 18th, 2009 · 0 Comments · 2,548 views
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Notre Dame vs. Michigan State: Keys to an Irish Win

Notre Dame returns home Saturday to meet Michigan State for its third game of the season. Both teams enter the contest at 1-1 and coming off tough losses. Last week the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the Big House as freshman quarterback Tate Forcier exposed a porous Irish defense. The Spartans, on the other hand, suffered an uncharacteristic loss to Central Michigan. It will be interesting to see how both teams respond from these disappointing outings.

Michigan State is coached by Mark Dantonio, who is 2-0 against Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis. Dantonio preaches fundamentals and believes in a good running game, strong defense, and physical play. Subsequently, his teams are nearly always disciplined and well-prepared. His team Saturday should be no different.

Michigan State Version 2008

The Spartans return 15 starters (seven on offense and eight on defense) from a 2008 team that finished 9-4 against the 26th most difficult AV Ranking strength of schedule. While the bulk of the team is back from last year, several key pieces are missing on both sides of the ball from units that performed at a fairly average level.

Offense

Dantonio likes to run the ball but it will be tough, if not impossible, to replace running back Javon Ringer’s durability (390 carries) and production (1,637 yards, 4.2 yards per attempt, 22 touchdowns) in the running game.

Moreover, tight end Charlie Gantt and wide receivers Mark Dell and B. J. Cunningham are all back from productive 2008 campaigns. Reserve receiver Blair White also returns after leading the team in receptions a year ago.

These four combined for 139 receptions, 2,168 yards, and eight touchdowns in 2008, and should help ease new starters Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol into the starting quarterback job.

All these signs point to a Spartan offense that favors the pass more than in the past, such that the numbers from last season may not be all that meaningful. Nevertheless, a quick look is in order.

Simply speaking, the Spartan offense was below average in 2008.

Michigan State averaged 25.1 points (53rd ranking) and gained 4.9 yards per play (93) for just under 345 yards per game (74). The offense featured a relatively balanced attack with 130.2 rushing yards per game (77) and 213.3 yards per game through the air (62). Production in both categories is mediocre, but the rate of production was below average.

Spartan quarterbacks threw 10 interceptions—compared to just 11 touchdowns—and completed just 53.6 percent of their passes (96) at a rate of 6.9 yards per attempt (60) and 13 yards per completion (25), but only allowed 24 sacks (60). With the exception of a fairly potent deep ball, the passing game was lacking.

The running game wasn’t much better and averaged only 3.3 yards per rushing attempt (99). Ringer and company did, however, manage 24 touchdowns (38) on the ground.

Red zone and third down efficiency wasn’t much better. Michigan State converted only 35 percent of their third down tries (98) and scored touchdowns on only 55 percent of red zone opportunities (84).

Defense

The defense returns a good core of players but gone are veteran defensive tackle Justin Kershaw (28 tackles, 8 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks) and standout safety Otis Wiley (78 tackles and four interceptions).

These returning starters include linebacker Greg Jones and defensive end Trevor Anderson. After finishing the 2008 season with 127 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, and 2 sacks, Jones has made several pre-season awards lists. Anderson comes back after recording eight sacks a year ago.

These two players should provide a strong nucleus for 2009 and improve upon a 2008 defensive story that was only slightly better than the offense.

Dantonio’s defense allowed 22.1 points (41) and 355.8 yards (58) per game last year. Opponents ran for 142.5 yards per game (67) at 4.1 yards per carry (76) and scored 16 rushing touchdowns (45).

The Spartans also surrendered 213.4 passing yards per game (69). However, the yards in the air didn’t come efficiently. Opposing quarterbacks completed roughly 53 percent of their passing attempts (17) for 6.6 yards per attempt (47). Only the 12.4 yards per completion (85) stands as an indicator of the secondary’s susceptibility to big plays in the passing game.

Michigan State’s defense didn’t do well on third down, as they allowed a 41 percent conversion rate (74). The red zone was a different story as only 76 percent (19) of opponent appearances resulted in points, with 54 percent ending in touchdowns (33).

Michigan State Version 2009, Limited Edition

The early data suggests quite a different team in 2009.

Offensively, the rushing numbers are pretty similar to last season (138 yards per game, 3.9 yards per attempt). But the passing numbers are dramatically improved (57 percent completions, 266.5 yards per game, 8.7 yards per attempt, 15.2 yards per completion, and seven touchdowns) as Cousins has settled into his role and is playing particularly well (65.7 percent completion for 347 yards and four touchdowns).

The increased ability to throw the ball has led to good third down efficiency (50 percent) and red zone offense (10 touchdowns and two field goals in 14 tries).

The defense is also improved, allowing only 64 rushing yards per game at 2.2 yards per attempt. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 64.4 percent of passes but for only 225 yards per game (6.2 yards per attempt and 9.6 yards per completion). Perhaps most impressive are the six sacks through only eight quarters.

This translates to allowing only a 34 percent conversion rate on third down and six touchdowns in 10 red zone trips.

These numbers have come against rather pedestrian competition, but it appears the team the Irish face this year is quite different from the one they faced in East Lansing last year. Michigan State is more capable in the passing game, can stop the run, and has the ability to pressure the passer.

So how does all this add up and what must the Irish do to win?

Offense

  1. Diversity in the ground game. Whether it was personnel flexibility or spreading the field, the Irish have had good production running the football in the early part of the season. This diversity in the running game will be needed again this week. The Irish must establish the run to control the clock and keep the defense off the field. Against Michigan the lack of depth in the defensive front seven led to poor first down defense that plagued Notre Dame in the second half. Additionally, Weis will need to maintain balance and keep the Spartan pass rushers from pinning their ears back and getting to quarterback Jimmy Clausen.
  2. Swallow ’em up at the second level. Jones leads a solid Spartan linebacker corps that poses a unique challenge for the Irish offensive line. The unit is small (roughly 228 pounds per man), but athletic. As noted above, running the ball effectively will be important, so the front five must get to the second level, engage and finish blocks. The athletic linebackers will test the agility of the Irish offensive line, and this will be a crucial battle during the game.
  3. Continue the trend, but cut out the penalties. Against a disciplined squad like Michigan State, minimizing mistakes is very important. Clausen and company have done an excellent job with turnovers (only one through eight quarters) and negative plays (10 in two games), but penalties were especially costly in the loss to the Wolverines. Notre Dame will need crisp play this weekend, with minimal turnovers, negative plays and penalties.

Defense

  1. Don’t blitz your way out of position. In the prior two contests aggressive Irish defenders have blitzed and stunted themselves out of position. On a few occasions Wolfpack quarterback Colin Kaepernick made the Irish pay. Last week, however, over-pursuit and playing out of position cost the Irish dearly, as Forcier used his legs to improvise and extend plays for big gains. For co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s blitz-heavy scheme to work, Irish defenders must stay under control and maintain proper spacing. Both will be counted on against an efficient quarterback and experienced receivers.
  2. Favor the right. Michigan State likes to run left behind returning starters Rocco Cironi, Joel Foreman and Joel Nitchman (or John Stipek). All three linemen are experienced, talented and have good size (nearly 6-5, 305 pounds). The defense must be aware of this, hold the edge, and force the Spartans to run away from their strength. Even against a mediocre running team, Notre Dame cannot afford to be soft against the run.
  3. Zip it up. Last week Forcier scrambled as an apposite reaction to the Irish blitz. But Cousins does not have the mobility of Forcier. Rather, the Spartan signal caller will look to unload the ball quickly when the Irish blitz. This makes tight secondary play critical. Getting pressure on the passer can easily be negated if quick, easy throws are surrendered with consistency.

Summary

Michigan State’s last loss in South Bend was 1993. The Spartans always play tough in Notre Dame Stadium and the Irish must match their intensity. Coming off a deflating loss to Michigan, this figures to be a significant challenge.

With a strong secondary but suspect run defense, it will be crucial for Notre Dame to execute a team strategy throughout the year. The Irish offense must possess the ball, build an early lead, keep the defense off the field, and force opponents to throw to play catch-up. This week is no different.

Stopping the run is always a priority, but Michigan State has struggled to move the football on the ground against relatively weak competition. In theory, this should make the job easier.

Nevertheless, Dantonio is sure to test Notre Dame’s defensive front seven and battle in the trenches with the Spartan offensive line may determine the outcome of the game. The game will likely remain close if Michigan State can run the ball and control the clock. The longer this occurs, the more the advantage goes to the visiting team.

Notre Dame must rise to the occasion. Starting 1-2 would be an underachieving beginning to a season with high expectations.

Furthermore

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