Michigan State visits South Bend this week on the heels of a heartbreaking loss at home to Central Michigan. The Spartans, winners of 6 straight in Notre Dame Stadium, will be looking to rebound against a Notre Dame team coming off a heartbreaking loss of its own. Here are some aspects of Saturday’s matchups to watch for.
Jimmy Clausen Under Pressure – Clausen has done a good job handling pressure this year in terms of avoiding sacks and interceptions, but he hasn’t been able to consistently make teams pay for blitzing by checking off into hot routes and burning the defense for big plays. Mark Dantonio said on Tuesday that he wants to get more pressure on the quarterback this weekend and in order for Michigan State to keep its wining steak alive they’ll have to force some bad plays out of Clausen. They simply don’t have the players in the secondary to keep up with Michael Floyd and Golden Tate. If Clausen handles the pressure well again this week and keeps avoiding negative plays, Notre Dame should be able to move the ball well and put up a lot of points.
The Notre Dame Defensive Line Alignment – Charlie Weis hinted that there could be some shuffling around on the defensive line this week. With a power running team in it would make sense for Ethan Johnson to slide over to defensive end. Weis said over the summer that Ethan could see time at defensive end against power running teams and after facing two non-traditional offenses, the Irish will face a power running team this weekend. If Johnson plays defensive end, it will be interesting to see who lines up next to Ian Williams. The most likely candidates would be sophomores Hafis Williams and Sean Cwyanr. Neither has played extensively yet. Darius Fleming has played a lot of defensive end with Notre Dame playing almost exclusively nickel defense the past two weeks. Could we see him lined up off of the line of scrimmage at the SAM linebacker position he is listed at on the depth chart this week? Michigan State is certainly going to try and run the football after the problems Notre Dame has had stopping the run the past two weeks, making the play of the defensive line extremely important this weekend.
How Michael Floyd Plays Early – Michael Floyd took 15 stitches to his knee after cutting it in the fourth quarter of the Michigan loss. Physically he should be fine for the game, but it will be worth watching to see how he reacts the first couple plays and first time he gets taken to the ground since he will be held out of most contact this week.
Robert Hughes – Hughes will most likely be filling in for James Aldridge again this weekend. Last weekend Hughes wasn’t a big part of the gameplan in his first start at fullback. This offense can add another dimension to it if it can get some big plays out of the fullback position. Michigan State saw Notre Dame run a lot of screens last week, and with the Spartans planning on bringing plenty of pressure this weekend, a fullback screen or two could go for big plays.
Kyle Rudolph vs. Greg Jones – Greg Jones is one of the fastest linebackers Notre Dame will face outside of USC this year. He’s a great pass rusher and is pretty good in coverage. Watching he and Rudolph matchup in coverage will be fun to watch. Charlie Weis seemingly forgot that he had an All American caliber tight end on the team last week. Rudolph needs to be a bigger part of the gameplan saturday.
Eric Maust – Maust’s punting against Michigan was very suspect and his shank in the fourth quarter really tilted the field position in Michigan’s advantage. Muast hasn’t been strong to the point where Ben Turk’s redshirt is safe just yet. Weis said this week that the snaps at punter in practice have been split equally this week as they have been the last few weeks. I think it’s obvious that Weis wants to preserve Turk’s redshirt, but if Maust has another week like he did in Ann Arbor we might have two freshmen handling all of the kicking duties in the near future.
Nick Tausch – Speaking of freshman kickers, Nick Tausch looked a little shaky on his first attempt last week by pushing the 28 yard attempt wide right. He was on the money from 34 and 42 yards though. The 42 yarder especially looked nice as it split the uprights almost perfectly. Now that he’s got the butterflies out and will be kicking at Notre Dame Stadium hopefully he can show why he handily won the place kicking duties from incumbent kicker Brandon Walker.
Notre Dame’s Linebacker Rotations – Manti Te’o started last week, but didn’t play a whole lot after that. With Michigan State’s power running attack coming in this week Toryan Smith will likely get a lot of snaps at middle linebacker. It seems clear the defensive staff wants to get Te’o on the field more and more each week so it’ll be interesting to see how they rotate the linebackers.
Notre Dame’s Tackling – Tackling has been a major issue each of the last two weeks. Notre Dame’s had plenty of chances to stop running plays for little to no gain, but couldn’t wrap up and ended up giving up big chunks of yardage. The defense is going to have to do a better job of wrapping up this week, because Michigan State has been a very fundamentally sound football team under head coach Mark Dantonio.
The Notre Dame Pass Rush – Against Nevada Notre Dame had blitzers coming at Colin Kaepernick untouched pretty often. That wasn’t the case last week with those same blitz lanes clogged by the Michigan pass protection. It seems pretty clear that this defense is going to have trouble with mobile quarterbacks this year, but Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins doesn’t fit that mold. Keith Nichol, MSU’s backup who will also play, has some mobility, but nothing like Tate Forcier or Colin Kaepernick. Hopefully this will mean Notre Dame can get to, and bring down the quarterback much more often this weekend.
Shaquelle Evans – With the game on the line Weis had true freshman Shaquelle Evans in the game as one of the primary receivers when Michael Floyd was out with an injury. Duval Kamara is fully healthy but he hasn’t been targeted too often this year. Considering Weis has Evans in the game on the critical third down at the end of the game, it’s clear that he has a lot of faith in the freshman from Inglewood, California. Will we start to see more of Evans as the third wide receiver now that he’s cut his teeth with some game action?
How the Irish Respond to a Loss – With expectations very high for Notre Dame this year, it will be interesting to see how the Irish respond to the early season loss in a game they were favored in. The past couple of seasons this would have been a major cause for concern. Considering this is a much more veteran team though, it shouldn’t be as much of an issue. Weis said on Tuesday that he was very pleased with how many of the players he saw on Monday – the player’s day off.
The Notre Dame Corners – The corners are going to likely be on an island quite a bit this weekend with Notre Dame focusing on stopping the Michigan State ground game. While MSU gained just over 100 yards on the ground against Central Michigan last week, I fully expect them to come out and try to establish the run – especially since Notre Dame has had trouble stopping the run this year. The corners are going to have to make sure to keep everything in front them and not bite on double moves and play action or the Spartans could get an easy score through the air.