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

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

Notre Dame travels to East Lansing Saturday to face their third consecutive Big Ten opponent and annual foe Michigan State. The Irish are coming off a tough loss to Michigan, the second in which a young Wolverine quarterback was the nail in the coffin. It will be imperative for Notre Dame to avoid a hangover, and head coach Brian Kelly believes his troops are equal to the task.

In contrast, the Spartans enter the contest riding the momentum of a two-game winning streak, having bested Florida Atlantic and future Irish opponent Western Michigan by an average margin of almost three touchdowns. The Broncos and Owls certainly aren’t the Boilermakers and Wolverines, but Michigan State has enjoyed the luxury of working out some kinks in their early action.

Michigan State, Version 2009 and Beyond

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio’s teams are typically marked by three characteristics—physicality, a strong running game, and stout defense. Last year was the exception.

While the defense was stout against the run (24th in yards per carry and rush yards per game, 15th in rushing touchdowns per game), they struggled against the pass (ranked 100th or worse in eight pass metrics) and allowed more than 26 points per game. Offensively, Michigan State was never able to establish a ground game (101st in attempts per game, 73rd in yards per game), but did throw the ball effectively and efficiently (28th in yards per game, 13th in pass efficiency).

Michigan State also struggled with discipline (72nd in penalty yards per game) and generating turnovers (116th in forced turnovers). The offense protected the ball fairly well (37th in turnovers lost), but the inability of the defense to force fumbles and interceptions led to a poor -6 turnover margin.

Offense

The Spartans have very few question marks on offense. Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell returns for his fourth season under Dantonio, leading an offense that could be his most prolific since he arrived in East Lansing.

Last year Michigan State averaged nearly 30 points (36th ranking) and 406.2 yards per game (38), at a clip of 6.3 yards per play (16). As noted above, most of the success came through the air, as the Spartans posted only 4.3 yards per carry (61), 6.5 rushing first downs per game (100), and 16 rushing touchdowns (79). The lack of rushing production was felt most on third down (36.7 percent third down efficiency), as the inability to pick up solid rushing gains early in play series led to unfavorable down and distance situations.

The primary challenge for Treadwell will be to improve the sputtering ground game. The offense returns the personnel needed to continue the passing production, but the tough rushing offenses that are a staple of Dantonio-coached teams would be a potent complement.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins returns after a solid 2009 campaign in which he ranked 25th in the country in passer efficiency. He shared snaps with Keith Nichol early in the year, but his play down the stretch and progress in the off-season was good enough to permanently secure the starting job and allow Nichol to move to wide receiver. Cousins also has personal motivation in Saturday’s contest—his errant throw to a wide-open end zone target and subsequent interception were the deciding factors in the closing moments of last year’s meeting in South Bend.

Cousins will have plenty of skill talent around him. Blair White, last season’s leader in receptions and receiving yards, is gone. But wide receivers B. J. Cunningham, Mark Dell, and Keshawn Martin are back. All three contributed significantly to the passing game in 2009 (92 receptions, 1501 receiving yards, six touchdowns combined), and are more than capable targets.

Additionally, Michigan State has a potent tight end combo in Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum. Both are veteran, experienced players with the versatility to be effective blockers and weapons in the passing game (combined for 42 receptions, 614 receiving yards, and four touchdowns in 2009).

In the backfield, the Spartans return their two leading rushers from 2009—Larry Caper and Edwin Baker—plus explosive freshman Le’Veon Bell. Caper, who has missed the first two games of the season with an injury, will get his first action Saturday while Baker and Bell have been productive in the early going with 490 rushing yards and six touchdowns on only 52 carries (9.4 yards per rush attempt). Perhaps most impressive, Baker has an 80-yard run while Bell has a 75-yard scamper.

About the only position unit that isn’t swelling with proven talent is the offensive line. The left side of the line features D. J. Young and Joel Foreman, two players with 38 combined starts. But center John Stipek, guard Chris McDonald, and tackle J’Michael Deane only have limited game experience (10 combined starts). Stipek and Deane are veteran players, but, particularly along the offensive line, there is no substitute for playing under the lights.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2009 Spartan offense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Michigan State’s 2009 opponents).

2009 Michigan State Offensive Efficiency
StatisticMichigan St.Michigan St. RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency36.68338.357
4th down efficiency53.8454856
Red zone appearances/game3.4703.351
Red zone efficiency862978.844
Red zone TD efficiency56.86453.949
2009 Michigan State Total Offense
StatisticMichigan St.Michigan St. RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game29.73623.351
Touchdowns/game3.6492.849
Plays/game64.88867.158
Yards/game406.238355.256
1st downs/game19.95518.554
Yards/play6.3165.354
2009 Michigan State Rushing Offense
StatisticMichigan St.Michigan St. RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game32.210135.957
Yards/game136.97314056
Yards/attempt4.3613.955
Fumbles8251150
Attempts/fumble52.44146.553
TFL allowed/game5306.153
1st downs/game6.51007.753
Touchdowns/game1.2891.355
2009 Michigan State Passing Offense
StatisticMichigan St.Michigan St. RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game32.55031.262
Completions/game19.3411856
Yards/game269.428215.260
Yards/attempt8.3136.957
Yards/completion14131261
Interceptions12511353
Attempts/interception35.34835.457
Sacks allowed/game1.1142.249
Attempts/sack allowed30.21015.251
1st downs/game11.8289.761
Touchdowns/game2.2121.244
Completion %59.34757.553
Pass efficiency145.113122.157

Defense

Michigan State struggled to defend the pass last year, but the defensive problems weren’t limited to the secondary. The Spartans ranked 98th in third down efficiency, 102nd in red zone touchdown efficiency, 67th in points per game, and 73rd in yards per game. About the only bright spot was the aforementioned ability to defend the run.

The defense was hit hard by a host of off-season disciplinary suspensions. The defensive line was the most affected unit, and fourth-year defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has adapted to his personnel. Narduzzi has operated out of a 4-3 alignment in the past, but has shifted to the 3-4 this season.

While part of the impetus behind the switch was a relatively thin defensive front—only sophomore tackle Jerel Worthy and senior end Colin Neely return with any significant experience—a strong linebacker corps also provided motivation.

The strength of the Spartan defense is, without question, the linebackers. And it all starts with Greg Jones. The four-year starter led the team in tackles each of his first three seasons and was third in the country last year. His 154 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, and nine sacks led all Spartan defenders and was good enough to earn him consensus First-Team All-American honors.

But Michigan State’s linebacker talent doesn’t stop with Jones. Fellow linebacker Eric Gordon posted 92 tackles last season to go along with 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. So far this year, Jones, Gordon and first-year starter Chris Norman are the top three tacklers with 47 combined stops.

Upfront, Worthy and Neely anchor a defensive line with one goal—tie up blockers and let the linebackers run. The two combined for solid production in 2009 (61 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks), with Worthy leading all defensive linemen in tackles for a loss and sacks despite it being his first year of action. This year the defensive line production has dipped, but it is as much by design (scheme) as anything else.

The secondary is another matter entirely. Coming off a less than stellar 2009 campaign, the 2010 Spartan defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 60 percent of their passes and throw for 247 yards per game. Safeties Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde return after seven starts each, and corner Chris L. Rucker is back after starting 11 games. But despite this experience and the ability of the front seven to pressure opposing quarterbacks (2.7 sacks per game in 2009, 18th in the country), the Spartan secondary hasn’t played with a great deal of consistency.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2009 Spartan defense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Michigan State’s 2009 opponents).

2009 Michigan State Defensive Efficiency
StatisticMichigan St.Michigan St. RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency439842.443
4th down efficiency56.28648.261
Red zone appearances/game3.2363.850
Red zone efficiency9512083.150
Red zone TD efficiency68.210261.948
2009 Michigan State Total Defense
StatisticMichigan St.Michigan St. RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game26.36728.154
Touchdowns/game3.2693.553
Plays/game70.38870.240
Yards/game380.973397.846
1st downs/game20.38321.142
Yards/play5.4635.754
2009 Michigan State Rushing Defense
StatisticMichigan St.Michigan St. RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game33.33135.565
Yards/game113.224143.368
Yards/attempt3.424466
Fumbles8851163
Attempts/fumble52.4774668
TFL/game5.3815.656
1st downs/game6.9338.163
Touchdowns/game0.8151.660
2009 Michigan State Passing Defense
StatisticMichigan St.Michigan St. RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game3711534.745
Completions/game22.511521.444
Yards/game267.6112254.543
Yards/attempt7.2727.454
Yards/completion11.95612.162
Interceptions61111366
Attempts/interception80.212037.661
Sacks/game2.7182.168
Attempts/sack13.74217.758
1st downs/game11.711011.739
Touchdowns/game2.51181.843
Completion %60.98160.944
Pass efficiency141.1101133.252

What Does It Mean for 2010?

The compelling question for 2010 is whether or not the Spartans will return to Dantonio’s blueprint. If the first two contest are any indication, the answer is yes. Michigan State has allowed only 15.5 points and 312 yards per outing, and the offense rushed for 522 yards at a clip of nearly eight yards per carry. Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic are admittedly weak competition, but the performance has been pretty exceptional as well.

On paper, the Spartan offense may be the most complete unit the Irish face in 2010. They don’t necessarily boast the explosive potential of Michigan—although the long runs by Baker and Bell certainly give pause—but Cousins distributes the ball well and has weapons at every skill position, forcing opponents to defend the whole field. Couple that with Treadwell’s desire for balance, and Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco certainly has his work cut out for him.

The Spartan defense, however, may not be as formidable as they appear. The unit continues to be able to get after the quarterback (three sacks, six quarterback hurries in their first two games) and post solid numbers against the run (65 rush yards per game, two yards per carry), and now appears to be able minimize big gains through the air (5.5 yards per pass attempt, 9.2 yards per completion). But third down has been a struggle (38.5 percent efficiency) and allowing so many passing yards to two relatively weak opponents isn’t indicative of an improved secondary.

Keys to Winning

Offense

  1. Engage at the second level. Michigan State’s linebackers are very good, some of the best the Irish will face. It will be imperative for the front five to get to the second level and block well. Jones and Gordon are instinctive, active and athletic. Left unblocked the two Spartan linebackers will have a big impact on the game.
  2. Keep an eye on Jones. Jones is equally adept against the run and pass, and Narduzzi likes to move him around which makes him even more difficult to handle. Tackles in the backfield are his specialty, and the Irish cannot afford to play behind the chains against a team that can pressure the quarterback. This is particularly true running the ball as 48.4 percent of Irish rushing attempts this season (excluding sacks) have gone for two or fewer yards.
  3. Attack through the air, but don’t press it. The Spartan secondary was the weakest Spartan defensive unit in 2009 and doesn’t appear markedly better this year. So far Narduzzi has employed a lot of soft coverage that concedes underneath throws. It will be important for quarterback Dayne Crist to be patient and make good decisions about when and where to go downfield.

Defense

  1. Exploit the offensive line, particularly the right side. The weakness of the Spartan offense is the front five and Notre Dame needs a solid performance from their defensive front. The Spartans employ a more traditional offense than Purdue or Michigan, and Diaco will almost certainly rely on his outside linebackers to pressure the quarterback and support against the run. To date, this unit hasn’t impressed—linebackers Darius Fleming, Kerry Neal, Brian Smith, and Steve Filer have only tallied 21 tackles and one sack—and better play will be needed to secure a win.
  2. Play fundamentally sound, assignment football. Michigan State has the offensive personnel to attack on the ground and in the air. Treadwell will likely try to keep the Irish off-balance by mixing the run with the pass so it will be imperative for Notre Dame to minimize mental errors, play solid first down defense, and force third downs. The Irish excel in these situations (22.4 percent third down efficiency) while Michigan State struggles (22.2 percent). Mental errors and first down defense were problematic against the Wolverines (7.2 yards per first down snap, only 16 third downs on 36 play series), and improvement is needed to beat the Spartans.
  3. Limit the big play. Last week 21 of Michigan’s 28 points came directly or indirectly from big gains. Without these plays the Irish allowed a paltry 4.1 yards per play, only 308 yards of total offense, and one touchdown. Michigan State may not have Denard Robinson, but Baker and Bell have proven they can go the distance and Martin is a capable playmaker—the speedy junior led the team in all-purpose yards and averaged 17.5 yards per touch in 2009. Limiting big plays could very well be the difference between a win and a loss.

Prediction

The Irish certainly want to avenge last week’s loss, but Michigan State is a formidable opponent. Dantonio is 2-1 against Notre Dame, the Spartans have won nine of the last 13 meetings, and the game is at night. As those who have attended a night game in Spartan stadium can attest, the fans can get rowdy after all-day tailgating.

These factors all go against the Irish, and a fast start will be critical. Michigan State will undoubtedly come out ready to play, and Notre Dame must match the intensity level.

This could be another high scoring affair, particularly if the Irish defense can’t limit big plays. The Notre Dame offense matches up well with the Spartan defense, Crist should be able to exploit an unproven and inconsistent secondary, and Kelly’s spread running schemes should open up space for the backs. The critical factor will be the front five who must engage at the second level and effectively pick up the blitz.

Defensively, the battle in the trenches is equally as important. The Irish defensive front played well against Purdue but sometimes struggled against Michigan’s front five. Notre Dame must control the line of scrimmage, free up defenders to play against the run and drop into pass coverage, and negate the Spartan offensive skill talent.

In a contest that matches offensive and defensive fronts, the victor is most often the team that can run the ball and stop the run. The Irish are certainly improved in both areas, but not enough to handle a Spartan squad that excels in both.

Notre Dame 24, Michigan State 28

Furthermore

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