What to Watch For – Michigan State at Notre Dame

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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.

If Jimmy Clausen can continue to make smart decisions in the face of pressure and avoid the negative plays that killed the Irish in last year's matchup, the Notre Dame offense should put up some points Saturday. (Photo - Icon SMI)

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.

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  1. Right now ND nation is terribly negative. Everyone is so upset about the loss last week and have, in my opinion, lost perspective. This was a 7-6 football team last season, 6-6 in the regular season. How you can put BCS expectations on this team and really believe they have a shot at being a top 10 team is just not realistic at this point. They have talent, great coaching staff and some big time athletes; however, learning to win is not just physical its mental as well and these players are learning how to win. I believe that they can win 9+ games and wouldnt be suprised if they won 8, however, I would not call an 8 win season or a 9 win season a disgrace by any means. That would be a great accomplishment showing they are getting better and better every year.

    At the end of the day we need to stop being such negative fans and realize that this was a .500 football team last year and ND has not won a national championship in over 20 years so get off your high horse, support these kids who are out working their tails off all year and over the summer and do not take a single win for granted. Go Irish, we can win this game today!

  2. I agree with the secondary comment. What happened to them being a strength this year? Also, what happened to Darrin Walls? It looks like he took 5 years off. I was very excited to see him back on the field this year but now would like to see more Gary Gray!

  3. The defensive front was the biggest question mark and will remain that way all season. It seems to me that our overly aggressive linebackers play themselves out of the play to often with their blitzing and over pursuit. How many times was a sack not made due to over pursuit.

    All said, love the offense and remain optimistic that this team will get better. GO ND!

  4. Blitz is effectitive when it is masked…Tenuta blitzed to much therefore leaving the secondary exposed and the over pursue of our linbackers leaving gaping holes to run.

    It sux that now we finally have a strong offecnce with talent on all 11 postions and strong second team guys…and now our defence is not playing with their hair on fire flying to the ball! Damn it!

  5. Maybe its just me but I see reoccurring themes here – players saying they weren’t prepared for the speed of the game – special team breakdowns – going to sleep in the 3rd quarter which historically for a Weis coached team has been a bad quarter – poor time management – lack of defensive pressure. Its like they just dont learn! The blitz came from all directions during Nevada – they say they blitzed Michigan – if they did it came from the corner repeatedly which MI picked up nicely. Just was not prepared for Michigan. Its unacceptable to a true ND fan.

  6. They need to work Gary Gray into the nickle spot for Sergio Brown…he looks bigger and more focused than any DB we have out there.

    1. Our D-Line has an opportunity to step up in a big game- expect Cwynar to rotate in quite a bit and Ethan will play DE.

    2. Our D-Bs (more specifically corner’s) were suppose to be one of the strong positions this year…they too will have an opportunity to step up. Where in the Blanton swagger…?

    1. We will see which defense shows up this week. They were brutal last week letting a 180 lb freshman QB run all over the field. That was a total breakdown across the board. What the hell is Tenuda doing up in the booth? Where were the halftime adjustments? We don’t even have a kicker who can get in into the end zone! When is the last time we had a good kicker? Im can’t remember. Oh yeah,how about John Carney!

      1. I don’t know what we do to recruit kickers, but it’s not the right thing. I’m tired of watching our kicking game, our kick-offs bearly get inside the 10. I was at the Sam Houston St – North Dakota St (Div I-AA) game this past weekend and both kickers got it to the goal line more than once, including 3 total touchbacks. What the HELL are we doing that NOTRE DAME can’t get the same caliber kickers as SHSU and NDSU. Makes no sense.

  7. Please Irish fans watch the D-line in this game. They are getting pushed around all over the field. Don’t watch Michigan State’s qb when ND is on defense keep your eye on the D-Line!!! And also count how many tackles Sergio Brown misses.

  8. Sergio Brown blocked a punt in the Hawaii game last year, and Toryan Smith scored a touchdown against Navy last year on a blocked punt (can’t remember who blocked it).. Those are the two I can think of off the top of my head.

      1. Trevor Laws blocked a few FG attempts in his day. So to say we never block kicks is a bit misleading.

  9. Why are the special teams so bad? It has been like this year in and year out. Games are lost and nothing seems to change. Didn’t Nate Whitaker kick a 54 yard game winner last week? Seems players go backwards with the ST coach.

    1. A few years back CW went and visited Frank Beamer at VT to get some insight on Special teams. I thought that was a pretty cool move on his part. Beamer and his special team units fully expect to contribute in each and every game. And generally do. Especially in big games.
      I was hoping to see the same for us.
      ND had been leading the country in punt and kick-off coverage.
      (up until last Saturday when Michigan brought one back for a TD)
      I can’t remember the last time ND blocked a kick or punt.
      Armano Allen returned a kick for a TD in last year’s bowl game.
      For a punt return, I think you have to go back to Tom (Zibby) Zibakowski. At least Zibby showed some consistancy.
      Frank Beamer and Virgina Tech have the best special teams year in and year out. A coach could really learn a lot from someone like him.
      Was Charlie not paying attention or taking notes during his visit?
      You would think that a team loaded with linebackers and running backs would have pretty good special teams play.
      You would think.

  10. Its clear ND has many issues on the defensive side of the ball that surprizes me greatly. Both Nevada and Michigan put up big numbers in the running game against the Irish – it appears the opening opinion of ND needing to score lots of points provided Clausen can beat the pressure is accurate as the defense has been absolutely miserable and vulunerable this year. It would not surprize me if ND lost yet another game on Saturday. The excitement and anticipation for something different this year under Weis is gone already – 8-4 may in fact be a blessing. This team continues to be unprepared emotionally and physically to play for 60 minutes at a time. If nothing that has happened in the past 2-3 years has gotten this team motivated by now – it seems apparent it is time to change direction in head coaching. I hope for a win but unfortunately will not be shocked if they lose. And to be able to say that stinks.

    1. What a disastrous loss! Knute Rockne is rolling over in his grave after this one. Defensive coordinator John Tenuda is not what we expected. He needs to be sent packin along with Charlie. We have seen enough of Charlie and his lack of head coaching skills. Michigan State will probably get 150 yards on the ground unless somebody on the defensive side of the ball wakes up. You cannot continue to out score people from week to week. We need to be able to run the football and stop the run on defense.The defense is an embarrassment and Tenuda’s butt is also on the hot seat. I know everybody was exicted about this season before it started.

      1. John Tenuta not Tenuda. Also, He is not at all on the hot seat. At this point in the season NOBODY is on the hotseat they have only played 2 games. You mean to tell me if Weis goes 11-1 he is not coming back because of the loss at Michigan? To early for all of this talk, this team is highly skilled, they have a great coaching staff and I think they have the ability to win 9 or more games this season. Are you seeing a pattern here. 07 3 wins, 08 6 wins, 09 9+ wins (hopefully). Its called progression thats all you can ask for from a coach is if the team is getting better every year and yes they most certainly are.

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