Last season Michigan State and Notre Dame squared off in a primetime matchup of two undefeated teams with big expectations. The Spartans hoped that LeVeon Bell and their defense could carry them to the B1G title game. The Irish dashed those hopes. The defensive front seven suffocated LeVeon Bell and forced Andrew Maxwell into two key turnovers. Everett Golson played one of his best games of the season and the Irish beat the Spartans handily. The game proved to be a pivotal point for both teams: Notre Dame defeated Oklahoma the next week and continued on to the national championship, while the Spartans lost five of their next 8 games and finished a disappointing 7-6.
Entering this season Spartan fans had low expectations for their offense with the graduation of LeVeon Bell and several offensive linemen. In the season opener against Western Michigan the Spartans scored two defensive touchdowns and still won by only 13 points. The offense managed a rushing touchdown and two field goals, but even those points came on short fields as punt returns and a turnover positioned the Spartans within Western Michigan’s 35 yard line each time. Against South Florida the defense again proved the difference scoring a touchdown on a fumble recovery and interception, while the offense again managed a single touchdown on a short field. In the team’s recent contest against Youngstown State, the Spartans finally found a groove on offense behind sophomore QB Conner Cook and they defeated the FCS team 55-17.
Even with the offensive struggles, Michigan State enters the Notre Dame game 3-0 and they have some offensive weapons that matchup well against the Irish’s defense. Let’s take at look what the Spartans have that can cause trouble for Notre Dame’s defense.
Passing (105th in the nation – 160 ypg)
In the first three games Mark Dantoni rotated between three quarterbacks: senior returning starter Andrew Maxwell, sophomore Connor Cook and freshman Tyler O’Conner. Maxwell’s inconsistency and O’Conner’s youth left the door wide open for Connor Cook to seize the starting job. Cook has improved each game during the season most recently throwing for 202 yards on 15-22 completions against Youngstown State. Cook also has the ability to extend plays with his legs and scramble for first downs. Cook has rushed for only 70 yards on the season, but two of those rushes were for 20 plus yards. At 6’4 220lbs Cook can be a load if he gets up to speed.
One of the biggest problems facing the Spartans is the lack of production from the wide receiver position. In three games no Spartan receiver has accumulated 100 yards receiving. The team expected senior returning starter Bennie Fowler to anchor the group, but Fowler has struggled and was even benched during the South Florida game. Sophomores Macgarrett Kings Jr and Aaron Burbidge have carried most of the load, but at 5’10 186lbs and 6’1 195lbs, respectively, both receivers still need time to add bulk to their frame.
Rushing (44th in the nation – 209.7 ypg)
In a similar story to last season, the Spartans have relied on their muscle up front and talent in the backfield to carry the offense. Michigan State has used a rotation of three running backs thus far in the season: juniors Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill, and freshman Riley Bullough. Langford has carried most of the load rushing for 200 yards on 44 carries (4.5ypc) and scoring 4 TDs. Hill, a speed back at 5’8, 198lbs, has proved effective in limited time (25 carries 179 yards 7.2ypc), while Bullough’s bruising 230lb frame is used primarily for short yardage situations.
Even with the offenses struggles the team has rushed for 181 yards, 171 yards and 277 yards in their first three contests. The return of Fuo Fonoti after a foot fracture has helped the integration of redshirt freshman Jack Conklin (LT) and sophomore Donavon Clark (RT), even though Fonoti has seen limited time, his experience definitely helps. The line has also protected the quarterback well, relinquishing only two sacks thus far this season.
This game seems much more important to the Irish than the Spartans. Notre Dame needs a solid win against a good opponent after the loss to Michigan and the terrible performance against Purdue. Most of this game will be determined by the battle between the Spartan’s #1 ranked defense and Notre Dame’s high powered offense, but the Irish defense needs to show up and prove that they are still an effective unit.
Make no mistake, the Spartans will try to establish the running game early and often, and hope their defense keeps it close. But Mark Dantoni and his staff have, no doubt, poured over Notre Dame’s games and identified their weakness in defending underneath passes and mobile quarterbacks. Conner Cook can scramble and if Notre Dame’s secondary fails to keep the Spartans’ wide receivers in check, expect Michigan State to convert third downs and dominate time of possession at the very least.
Notre Dame’s defense needs to use their outside backers to pressure Conner Cook and force the young quarterback into bad decisions. He does not have the speed of Devon Gardner so Calabrese, Fox and Grace should be able to spy him and close quickly if he exits the pocket. I expect Notre Dame’s defense to stop the traditional rushing attack of the Spartans because the defense has performed well against a straight rushing attack (they have failed at containing mobile quarterbacks). Notre Dame can turn Michigan State into a one-dimensional offense, but the question remains if the pass defense can make plays.
If the Spartans had better receivers and a more experienced quarterback I would put the Irish on upset alert. But given their underdeveloped quarterback and receiver unit, I give the edge to Notre Dame. But the game, big surprise, will be close.