Notre Dame faces a daunting task this weekend with a trip to East Lansing, Michigan to take on the #10 ranked Michigan Spartans in the yearly matchup with their long-time rival. Notre Dame cruised to an easy victory in South Bend a year ago, but haven’t left Spartan Stadium victorious since the class comeback thriller in 2006.
For Notre Dame to get back to South Bend on Saturday with an unblemished record, they will need to play their most complete, most disciplined game of the season. Here are the keys to whether or not that Irish return home undefeated or unsure of what type of team they are in 2012.
Let the Kid Play
Brian Kelly has a potential Ferari at quarterback, but so far he hasn’t let Everett Golson out of the garage without training wheels on through two starts this season. Kelly has taken things very slowly with his sophomore quarterback to ease him into the starting role after the South Carolina native spent all of last season on the scout team. Well, that may have worked against Navy and Purdue, but it’s not going to work against the 10th ranked Spartans.
Michigan State’s defense is going to want to do all that it cane to disrupt and rattle Golson and won’t allow Kelly into a position where he can wait to see what the defense is doing before he calls his play. Kelly is going to have to take the training wheels off and let Golson run with the offense a little bit this week if the Irish are going to score enough points to come out on top.
Reestablish the Offensive Line
Will the real Notre Dame offensive line please stand up? After two weeks of games I think it’s safe to say that the Irish offensive line is not as strong as it looked against Navy and I hope its also safe to say that they aren’t as weak as they looked against Purdue. With the experience and talent Notre Dame has across the offensive line, there is no reason the line should not be a strength for the Irish going in to almost any matchup.
Last week though the Irish offensive line looked overmatched and lost at times missing assignments and letting Purdue defenders slice through the line untouched. They just can’t happen again this weekend if Notre Dame has any chance of leaving East Lansing with the upset. Hoipefully some of the things we saw last week that were cause for concern were more of just some growing pains with the new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s system. Remember, against Navy the Irish had such an overwhelming size advantage that they could get away with a lot more than they could against Purdue.
Continue to get Pressure with the Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt has 4 sacks in the first 2 games of the season while Louis Nix has another 1.5 of his both. Both have been instrumental in getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks without forcing Notre Dame to commit too many blitzers thus allowing for some extra protection for the young corners. Notre Dame will have to do the same again this week in order to keep pressure off of Kei’Varae Russell, Bennett Jackson, Elijah Shumate, and Jalen Brown.
The injury status of Kapron Lewis-Moore could play a role here. Not much has been said on KLM’s status for this weekend. If he or Sheldon Day are unable to go, Notre Dame loses a lot of talent and depth up front which would allow Michigan State to focus some extra attention on Nix and Tuitt. If they are healthy though and Tuitt and Nix can play like they did last week, Notre Dame should get some solid pressure without having to blitz too much.
Keep Le’Veon Bell in Check
Michigan State’s offense pretty much starts and finishes with their star running back Le’Veon Bell. He was quiet last week with just 70 yards against Central Michigan, but he was unstoppable in week 1 against Boise State. Against the Broncos, Bell wracked up 210 yards on the ground (on 44 carries) and another 55 through the air while running for 4 touchdowns.
Like the Notre Dame offensive line, the answer as to how good Bell is going to be this year probably lies somewhere in the middle of those two performances. Notre Dame did a great job bottling up the Michigan State ground game last year and if they can do it again this year, the Irish will be in a position to come away with a W this weekend. While Bell had that monster performance against Boise, he average a mere 3.9 yards a carry last week and had a long of 8 yards – yeah 8 yards.
Tackle, Tackle, Tackle
Tackling last week left a lot to be desired – specifically from the linebackers and corners. Notre Dame gets Danny Spond back which allows Notre Dame to have the two deep it wants across the board at linebacker, and that should help shore up some of the tackling issues since some backers might have been lined up out of place last week. Still, there was a lot of sloppy tackling that needs to be cleaned up in order to slow down Le’Veon Bell.
In the secondary, the Irish are going to have some growing pains in the tackling department with all of the young players – especially since Russell played offense last year in high school and Jackson played sparingly as a reserve. Notre Dame will benefit from getting Jamoris Slaughter back after the senior missed most of last week’s game after delivering a punishing hit.
Special Teams Magic
Last year’s game against Michigan State really tuend on George Atkinson’s kick off return for a touchdown and I think the Irish are going to need a similar big play out of the special teams units this weekend to have a similar outcome. Atkinson set up Notre Dame’s game winning drive last weekend with a great return and is certainly capable of busting another long one this weekend. Davonte Neal might be about ready to break loose on a punt return too. He hasn’t gotten a chance yet where he has had a lot of space to work with. If he does this way, I think he gets loose for a big return.
Remember, last year Notre Dame had two turnovers to none for Michigan State at the time of the Atkinson kick return and yet that play gave the Irish a 14-3 lead. A big play from the special teams can make up for a lot which could come in handy if Kelly does indeed start to take the training wheels off of Golson.
So here’s hoping we see a little of this again this weekend…
Get Healthy in a Hurry
Notre Dame got banged up pretty bad last weekend. By the end of the game, Notre Dame was without Tyler Eifert, Davaris Daniels, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Jamoris Slaughter, and Sheldon Day. The good news is it looks like most of these guys will play this weekend. Kelly sounded very optimistic about the chances of Daniels playing yesterday, he specifically said that Slaughter will be full go, and I will be shocked if Eifert doesn’t play.
KLM, however, has not had much said about his status for this weekend which is reason for some concern. Notre Dame has to be able to not just get pressure up front with the defensive line, but they also need all of the bodies they have up front to keep Bell in check.