Notre Dame faces #8/12 Michigan State this weekend in their first contest of the season against a ranked opponent (at least one ranked at the time of the game). The Irish come into the game a disappointing 1-1 due to its opening weekend loss to now #11 ranked Texas. For Notre Dame to pick up its second win of the season, the Irish have a lot of work to do this week before the Spartans arrive in town.
Here’s a few things the Irish need to work on this week in order to extend their winning streak over the Spartans to four.
Shore up the secondary – as best they can. Heading into the season the secondary was a question mark for the Irish, but it looked like there was good talent and depth at corner. In the last couple months the Irish lost Devin Butler first to a broken foot and then suspension, Nick Watkins with a broken arm, and now Shaun Crawford with a torn Achilles. At this points, Notre Dame could be without all three all season.
Through the first two games opposing offenses have been targeting Nick Coleman and the sophomore hasn’t been passing the test. Coleman looked better against Nevada but even in one instance where he was in position to make a play, he fell down and left the receiver wide open. Donte Vaughn is listed as Coleman’s backup on the depth chart for this weekend and could see the field if Coleman struggles against the Spartans.
Meanwhile, the safety positions look to be a bit more stabilized but with true freshman Devin Studstill protecting the back end of the defense, expect Michigan State to test him. At strong safety, Drue Tranquill has struggled at times this year as well, but Michigan State is the kind of opponent the junior is built for.
Find some sort of a pass rush. Through two games this season, Notre Dame does not have a single sack as a team. Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker had 4.5 sacks by himself in the Seminoles season opener against Ole Miss. We knew coming into the season that the pass rush was the biggest issue facing the defense, but it’s been worse than expected. Notre Dame has gotten some pressure at times, but hasn’t really gotten close to a sack.
True freshman Daelin Hayes got some playing time against Nevada but didn’t generate much of a pass rush. Fellow freshman Khalid Kareem played as well but found himself on the bench quickly after his rushing the passer penalty negated a Cole Luke interception. Notre Dame has also been missing Jay Hayes whose lingering high ankle sprain has limited him for over a month now.
Notre Dame has to find a way to get to the quarterback to help protect it’s depleted secondary. The only problem with that is, if Brian VanGorder starts dialing up some exotic blitzes that don’t get to the quarterback, that same secondary will be exposed.
Rediscover the tight end position. Notre Dame has been referred to as “Tight End U” thanks to its run of successful NFL tight ends. That hasn’t been the case since Troy Niklas decided to leave Notre Dame in 2013 after his junior year. Last year the injury to Durham Smythe limited the effectiveness of the position. This season it looks like the ineligibility of Alize Jones seems to have done the same.
Notre Dame tight ends have caught one pass pass for eight yards combined. With a young wide receiving corps you would think the tight end position would be more involved in the passing game but it hasn’t been. The offense has been running pretty smoothly without it, but adding back the threat of the tight end would add another dimension to the passing game.
Improve the vertical passing game. Notre Dame was one of the best vertical passing offenses a year ago thanks in large part to Will Fuller and his ridiculous speed. Fuller got behind opposing defenses week in and week out and when he did Deshone Kizer and Malik Zaire found him.
This year, the downfield passing game has not been nearly as big of a threat. Last week freshman Kevin Stepherson got behind the Nevada defense but a severely under thrown pass from Kizer got intercepted. Michigan State figures to play a lot of press coverage this week which could open up some opportunity for big plays. Kizer has to hit them this week if they are there.
Work on those wide receiver
pick rub plays. One passing play that looked like it was working working well last week was the “rub” play where crossing routes essentially screen the defender. The problem was the Notre Dame receivers were too zealous in there “rubs” and got called for offensive pass interference. Durham Smythe and CJ Sanders were the guilty parties. Mike Denbrock needs to work with his receivers this week on these plays. It’s a basic play that’s part of every offense these days.
Clean up all the penalties. Speaking of penalties, Notre Dame had seven penalties in the first half alone and nine overall against Nevada last weekend. That’s far too many and a team like Michigan State this weekend will make Notre Dame pay for that lack of discipline. Notre Dame has a lot of new starters this year so some penalties are bound to happen. Heading into the third game of the year though it’s time to start cleaning them up.
Work on the red-zone defense. Nevada didn’t do too much damage to the starting Notre Dame defense in the red-zone, but Texas scored six touchdowns in seven trips to the red-zone. That is down right dreadful. Tyrone Swoopes and the “18 Wheeler Package” did a lot of that damage, but that is no excuse for that kind of defensive futility. Notre Dame very most likely have a “2” in the L column if they allow Michigan State that type of success with that much frequency this weekend.
Playing in their base defense against a more traditional offense should help the Irish this week as the Irish defense is much more suited for an offense like Michigan State’s.
Notre Dame is not going to fix all of these problems this weekend, but if they can improve in all areas this week, they will have a good chance to get out of the weekend with a win at home over a ranked opponent.