Frank’s Michigan State Preview

After a week hiatus from my weekly previews, I’m back with a full preview of this weekend’s game against the Spartans of Michigan State.  Notre Dame will travel to East Lansing for their first road game of the season Saturday against a team which beat the Irish 31-14 last year in South Bend.  Will the new and improved Irish fare better?

The recent history in this long time series has favored the away team in a big way.  In fact, the road team has won the last seven meetings.  For that streak to continue, the Irish are going to have to play their best game to date since the Spartans pose the toughest challenge thus far for the 2008 Irish.

Since the off-season I have said that Michigan State game will likely be the second toughest opponent the Irish face all season because they are not a great matchup for the Irish.  Michigan State is a physical, run oriented team with an outstanding tailback and the Irish have a rebuilding defense with a patchwork defense line.

The Spartans come into this game with back to back victories at home over Eastern Michigan (42-10) and Florida Atlantic (17-0) after opening the season on the road with a loss at the hands of Cal (31-38).  Like Notre Dame, Michigan spent last Saturday playing in heavy rain when they hosted Florida Atlantic so don’t read too much into that 17-0 score and think the Spartans are weak on offense.  They have one of the best running backs in the country in Javon Ringer and can put points up on most defenses.

Notre Dame on Offense
In order for Notre Dame to have a good chance at winning this game, the offense will have to come out to a fast start.  Michigan State is going to want to run the ball right at the Notre Dame defense and wear out the  thin Irish defensive line.  If the Irish offense, however, could come out to a quick start and get a lead on Michigan State it could force the Spartans to deviate from their game plan and pass the ball more than they’d like.

Getting off to a fast start doesn’t necessarily mean using a “bomb’s away” game plan like Charlie Weis and Michael Haywood used last week against Michigan.  In Michigan State’s only loss of the season to Cal, the Golden Bears were able to run on the Spartan defense to the tune of 203 yards led by Jahvid Best’s 24 carries for 111 yard.  Cal was also able to break some big runs on Michigan State like Shane Vereen’s 81 yard touchdown run in the 4th quarter so the Spartan defense can be run on.

Using the running game effectively early on will greatly increase Notre Dame’s chances in this one for a number of reasons.  First, it will set up the play action pass which Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate have shown can create big plays.  Secondly, effectively using the running game early will keep the Irish defense off the field and fresher as the game wears on.

Last year when these two teams met, Weis attempted to establish the run early and often with James Aldridge and Robert Hughes and had some success doing so.  The Michigan State game was the first game in which the Notre Dame running attack began to see some success so I think you will see Weis and Haywood use a similar game plan this week, with more play action passing mixed in.

It will be important for the Irish offense to keep the chains moving early even if the drives don’t result in points.  Unlike a week ago when the Irish faced an opponent who struggles to sustain offense, the Michigan State offense can keep drives alive and defenses on the field with their rushing attack.  If the Notre Dame offense comes out and struggles early, the Irish defense is going to be sucking wind by half time.

Robert Hughes saw his first career playing time in last year’s Michigan State game and I expect to see a lot of him early in this one as well.  After seeing James Aldridge show a renewed burst last week against Michigan, I wouldn’t be surprised to see quite a bit of him in the early goings of this one as well.
Because Golden Tate has shown the ability to get behind both defenses the Irish have faced this year, Aldridge and Hughes could be looking at fewer defenders in the box than they may be used to.  Michigan State is not going to want to allow a big pass play early and will likely guard against letting Tate run free.  If this is the case, look for Haywood to dial up a lot of runs early and then hit the Spartans with some play action to soften them up.

So far this year though, we have yet to see Notre Dame be able to control the pace of a game with their running game.  While Hughes and Aldridge will see plenty of carries this week, Jimmy Clausen is going to have to have a big game for Notre Dame to win.  He’s been very accurate so far this year, but also has thrown four picks in two games.   Watch for Clausen to target Tate and freshman Michael Floyd on some slant routes early – something tells me this is the game Floyd breaks out.

Cal showed that Michigan State’s defense can be scored on.  They put up 38 points and 467 total yards on Sparty and that was with Nate Longshore tossing two pretty terrible interceptions in limited action.  Notre Dame should be able to move the ball as well and should be able to put up 20+ points on Michigan State this weekend.

Notre Dame on Defense
All week long most people have said that this game will be all about bottling up Javon Ringer and they are exactly right.  As Ringer goes, so does the Michigan State offense.  The only game this season in which Ringer didn’t eclipse the century mark rushing the ball is also the only game the Spartans have lost.

Now, stopping Ringer is easier said than done.  Cal held Ringer to just 81 yards on 21 carries, but since then he has racked up 417 yards and 7 touchdowns in the last two games.   Ringer also has a history of giving the Irish fits.  In 2007 he ran 26 times for 144 yards and in 2006 he ran 14 times for 76 yards.

Notre Dame has had trouble with him in the past because he is exactly the type of back that has given this defense fits for years – he’s small, quick, and can break tackles.  Hmmmm, I seem to remember a running back come into Notre Dame Stadium last week who fits that description who also gave this defense a lot of trouble.  So far this season the Irish defense has shown inconsistent tackling.  More of the same in that department will result in a big day for Ringer.

If Notre Dame can limit Ringer, they should have a pretty good chance.  Quarterback, Brian Hoyer showed against Cal that he can make some throws down field.  In that game, however, he completed just 20 of 48 attempts albeit for 321 yards and for the season is completing just 44.0% of his passes with just 1 touchdown to 2 interceptions.  Through three games though, Hoyer has only taken one sack.  That is a number that will have to change in order for the Irish to win.

Working in Notre Dame’s favor this week will be facing a more traditional offense.  The Irish faced variations of the spread the last two weeks and have been playing quite a bit more nickel coverage than they normally would in Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta’s defense.  Because of this, Michigan State won’t have a whole lot of film to study of Notre Dame in their standard base defense and will see quite a few blitzes from the Irish which they haven’t shown so far this year.

Because the Irish have played a lot of nickel, one player who we haven’t seen  a whole lot of time who will need to be on his game this weekend is Ian Williams.  The sophomore nose tackle will be counted on heavily to be a disruptive force in the middle in order to clog up running lanes and force Ringer towards the Irish linebackers.  The front seven will have to do a much better job wrapping up this week though or Ringer will tear this defense apart.  If David Bruton and Kyle McCarthy are 1 and 2 on the stat sheet for tackles again this week, we’re in trouble.

With Notre Dame’s under sized and under manned defensive front, look for Tenuta and Brown to come out very aggressive.  If they lay back and let Michigan State run right at them, it’s over.  Tenuta talked all off-season about wanting to dictate the pace on defense and this is the first chance for him to really do so.  If Michigan State is able to have long, sustained touchdown drives this defense will be out of gas by the end of the third quarter.  If Tenuta and Brown can pressure Michigan State outside of their comfort zone of running the ball though, the Irish will be in this one till the end.

For Notre Dame to win this game, both Maurice Crum and Brian Smith are going to have to have big games.  If they get their hands on Ringer, they have to bring him down.  It’s as simple as that.  If the linebackers fail to wrap up Ringer whenever they get a chance, he will be on his way to another huge game.

Notre Dame has the secondary to be able to stack the line and force Michigan State to pass.  Raeshon McNeil and Terrail Lambert will likely find themselves in a lot of man coverage this weekend.  So far they have show that they are up to the task and the last time Lambert played in this stadium he had the best game of his career.  Still, Sophomore Mark Dell is a big, fast target for Hoyer and caught 9 passes for 202 yards against Cal.  He also caught a touchdown against Notre Dame last year.

Notre Dame on Special Teams
Considering the conditions last week, the special teams units were solid.  I wish Brandon Walker would have had some opportunities to kick some field goals last week though because he will be heading into this game missing his only field goal of the year.   Eric Maust has been solid punting the ball so far this year and the gunners have been outstanding.

In the return department, Armando Allen came close to breaking open a punt against San Diego State and Golden Tate has looked close to breaking a kick-off.  Michigan State is a pretty solid and disciplined team though so I don’t think we’ll see too many big plays from the return units this weekend.

I think Notre Dame is going to come out quick in this one, but then slowly fade as the game wears on.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we were winning this one at half time, but I think the defense wears down in the second half and Michigan State goes ahead late.  I’d love to see Notre Dame play this same game in a couple weeks once they have a few more games under their belt.

Michigan State 28, Notre Dame 24

Note: Last week I picked Michigan to win and it was the first time I had ever picked against Notre Dame so let’s hope my streak of picking incorrectly continues this weekend.

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