Plenty for Notre Dame to Work on Before Michigan State

Nick Coleman - Notre Dame CB
Notre Dame CB Nick Coleman has been picked on a lot this year.  (Photo: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports)

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.


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  1. @ Mike, with all due respect, BDB is too much of a drag on the defense. Usually results in a lopsided time of possession in favor of the offense, wearing down our D. Our best option would be to successfully limit MSU’s runs on first and second downs (loading up the box) then pressuring the QB on third and longs. Force the QB into having to pass on early downs. Want our D off the field as quickly as possible. Charlie Strong did that when MZ came in for his ‘series’ of downs. We saw the result. No secret to regulars here, I’m a big MZ fan and believe he wasn’t given a fair shot.

    What i don’t get is, now that BVG has had enough time to successfully recruit the type of personnel suited to his D and time enough to prepare them, why aren’t they prepared?

  2. Like many others, my primary concern is the defense. I don’t think BVG will do this but…because the secondary is so depleted and ND already lacks a pass rush, I think they should play more of a bend but hopefully not break defense. Keep the play in front of them and make MSU have to march the length of the field in order to score points. Do what it takes to avoid giving up the big plays. If that means no blitzing, then so be it. Drop a bunch of guys into coverage and play zone. If ND can keep the play in front of them and avoid poor tackling, the defense should do enough for ND to win the game.

  3. A plan B (other than Malik) would be great. Ara had a plan B after losing the Cotton Bowl to Texas. It was the “mirror defense” and it stopped Texas (still undefeated with their wishbone) in its tracks the next year.
    Lou had a plan B for Florida in the Sugar Bowl. It was a “two man rush” on certain downs. It worked.

    The jury is still out as to whether or not we need a plan B. We’ll know after Saturday.

    Bruce Curme

  4. Rough game on the line of scrimmage. Just hope that my Irish are tougher than those Spartans. ND has better skill players on offense. Secondary for Irish worries me. Big back worries me like with the Texas big backs. Special Teams should be better for Irish. Home field should be an advantage. Irish win.

  5. We need to clean up the penalties, first and foremost.
    We also need to keep these guys, and later Stanford, Miami and others out of the red zone entirely. Unlike Texas, these teams will try to throw over our d-backs, throw jump balls, and throw fades. Looking at the heights of our guys, I would too.
    I’m going to go out on a limb and say our d-backs will be OK when there is a lot of field – but I really am worried about 15 yards or closer to the goal line. Now would be a good time for a pass rusher to show himself. You don’t need a lot of sacks: just make the MSU qb throw sooner than he wants to.
    If BVG has a solution to this looming problem, we’ll see it Saturday. On the other hand, if MSU scores as easily in red zone through the air as Texas did on the ground, it could be a long year.
    Bruce G. Curme 77′ 82′
    La Crosse, Indiana

  6. Um King, just curious of your 8 pt OT victory. I’m assuming you think it will go into the 3rd OT, where ND gets the ball first, scores a TD and connects on the must-attempt 2 pt conversion. Then our D stops MSU on either a TO or 4th down stop. Just can’t believe you predict 3OT. That will be intense 🙂

  7. Modern football schemes pressure QBs if they are to achieve any D’ success. The only INT this year came from pressure on the TX QB, as did his few other poorly thrown passes. Dropping back to help cover gives the QB time to play catch with his receivers, what they’ve done in practice the last six months or so, and seldom works. The Super Bpwl champ Broncos pressured Cam Newton, the difference in that game, and they did as well already this season in the NFL opener. Winning elite teams pressure QBs, with blitzes if they can’t get to the QB with a three or four man rush. If you have mediocre or young DBs, all the more reason to pressure their QB, giving them less time to cover (remember Stanford the last 35 seconds last year?). Zero sacks and one forced TO after two games says a lot about what’s been wrong with the D’. NDs best chance at stopping the TX QBs were errant snaps from their center. If we finish the third game with zero QB sacks and still just one forced TO, ND will likely be 1-2. It’ll be very physical, and the fourth and fifth years seniors from MSU remember their only 2013 loss was vs. ND. Revenge can give a team an energy and focus. Ask Kevin Hogan at Stanford last year.

  8. Its Notre Dame 42 Mich. St 34 in OT. The refs are not gonna make the same mistake with Ok. St. and Cent. Mich. They are gonna have it drag out as long as possible.

  9. I could care less that Khalid Kareem committed a penalty against Nevada. In that situation, you keep him in the game. Punishing a player for committing a foul (or for fumbling) is an ….. wait for it, Burgundy…. antiquated strategy that has been proven to be ineffective. But hey, we’re talking about BVG here.

  10. I’m less concerned with the offense then I am with the defense. The offense will score points (though I agree there’s always room for improvement).

    But defense is a big question mark. I read and heard many in the media stating how ND turned things around in the Nevada game. But it was NEVADA. Let’s not get carried away. Yes they kept Nevada to 10 points (7 of which in garbage time against back-ups). There’s reason to be hopeful, yes. But I wouldn’t say the concerns are washed away by one game against a lesser opponent. One concern as noted above is penalties. Now ND did come out after halftime and seemed to have that cleaned up much more, but I want to see that trend continue.

    Now if they come out against Michigan State and play a strong game, then I’ll start feeling more comfortable. Maybe they should look at 2012 as a model. Our secondary was suspect that year so the defense was adjusted to strengthen the backfield. They went to a bend but don’t break model that was very effective. Our offense this year is good enough to score touchdowns, so if all you give up is some field goals, those should be wins. I’d of course rather not give up any points, but ND needs to work with what it has. And if the offense does it’s job you force the opposing teams into a situation where they can’t settle for FG’s and then the defense has to stuff the offense in the red zone.

    We’ll see. I figure this game is 50/50. Michigan State has only played on game against an FCS team so the jury is still out on how good they will be. This will be a test for them as well.

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