#20 Notre Dame (2-0) at #10 Michigan State (2-0)
Spartan Stadium – East Lansing, Michigan 8:00 PM EST on ABC/ESPN
Remember back when this game was where Notre Dame Football 2012 was supposed to get "real". Will we look back on Purdue and point to the finish as a major stepping stone in developing a winning team mentality? Or was the performance a sign of what was awaiting an overmatched Irish team during the rest of the schedule? Notre Dame didn't necessarily play awful, but the tape has clearly shown that Purdue is a team that could have and should have been put down early and outscored. Everett Golson missed a few throws during an otherwise solid outing and our bend, don't break defense from Saturday broke down at the worst moment before Tommy Rees & Brian Kelly combined on one of the oddest victory finishes in recent memory. Keith Arnold's words are worth reiterating – "there are no style points on this schedule". A successful 2012 Notre Dame team will take what is given them on every snap for the next 2.5 months and they better like it.
This Week's Down the Line Notre Dame podcast featured chatter from two ESPN.com bloggers: Adam Rittenberg, who runs the Big Ten Blog, and Matt Fortuna – ESPN's Notre Dame insider. Former Irish Captain and NFL veteran safety Gerome Sapp broke down the Notre Dame defensive backs so far and told some fantastic stories about playing Michigan State and their "classless" fans and athletic department. The lovely Melissa Henderson also gave her game preview and updated the fans on the current state of Notre Dame soccer and their ACC benefits. Henderson was a 2-time Notre Dame All-American and National Champion. Enjoy below or on iTunes:
"Hindsight is 20/20" may be cliche, but the farther I've gotten away from Saturday's final drive with Tommy Rees at the helm, the more I have found myself respecting the decision and performance on entirely new levels. Kelly showed all of his 25+ years in coaching might have taught him a few things and experience instilled the confidence to pull the trigger on a decision that put Rees in an impossible situation and opened the coach up to criticism no matter the outcome. Golson, quality game stats aside, was out of rhythm during the 4th quarter and had inexcusably fumbled the ball with a 4th quarter lead inside his own twenty. The sophomore was rattled mentally from an afternoon of constant abuse and it's worth noting again Everett hadn't finished four quarter game in 2 years. Tommy then gets on the field and makes the right throw on every single play. Tommy was "lucky" to get the 3rd down ball to John Goodman, but it was 100% the correct read. Golson is just as "lucky" he didn't have 1-2 more easy interceptions grabbed. I'll defend the call and maybe start thanking my lucky stars Tommy Rees is there in a pinch for the next few weeks of Everett Golson's development. The outcome was a blessing on multiple fronts.
Five Things to Watch
5. Irish OL v. Spartan DL – Surely you've been privileged to the praise being heaped on the Michigan State defense for the past week. Zero allowed TDs gets you that. The program's more astute observers readily admit that the interior of the defensive line isn't their strongest link on that side of the ball and ND's offensive line is the best they'll have faced early in the season. If we are to believe Purdue's DT tandem is as dominant as they played against the Irish, then we can sell ourselves on a belief that the interior run game with Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick & George Atkinson III will make a dramatic return to the playbook. They should at least try. The unit's best player, Zack Martin, has quite a bit to prove after a sloppy performance last weekend.
4. Troy Niklas & Davonte Neal - I could throw Theo Riddick into this group which we'll call "parts of the offense we haven't really seen yet". Matt Mulvey told me on Sunday "we've seen 20 pages of Kelly's 400 page playbook." If MSU's defensive backs are as dominant as we've heard and Tyler Eifert is commanding a double team on passing downs, it's time to see why Kelly moved Niklas to TE and why Neal, the only elite high school cornerback in this class, remains on offense. It's clear that Niklas is open when he's standing on the field and there should be multiple big play opportunities when Eifert is drawing the defense. Riddick's role as the slash or slot back can be developed with Cierre Wood on the field holding down the RB1 slot.
3. Has Le'Veon Bell Gotten THAT Much Better? - The monster back has jumped out to a fast start (335 Total Yards, 4 TDs in 2 games) but he was in a true 50/50 split last season and was only handed the ball 7 times in the Spartans blowout loss to Notre Dame. He only had a single 20 carry game heading into 2012's opener where he toted the ball 44 times in the win over Boise State. Boise didn't just lose Kellen Moore this offseason – the Broncos fielded an inexperienced defense that held State to 17 points at home. Louis Nix & Stephon Tuitt will be the best linemen the Spartans have seen and the pair could dictate this game as much as any other players on the field.
2. Outside Linebackers – Count me among many who thought we'd have seen much more of sophomore linebackers Ben Councell & Jarrett Grace (ILB) at this point. With Carlo Calabrese returning from suspension, it was former ILB Dan Fox manning the Dog OLB against Purdue instead of Councell. Danny Spond returns from injury at the Dog this week – a spot which will see plenty of Bell coming right at it's face. Fox, who looked bad in pass and rush coverage against the Boilermakers, is not the answer for a power rushing attack. Councell or Spond need to play more and play well. On the other side of the field we hope we see more of Ishaq Williams Week 1 than Week 2 when he was nearly invisible. If I'm game planning ND as an offensive coordinator I'm still testing the outside of this front seven at every opportunity.
1. Everett Golson's Maturity In First Road Start – Feel free to re-iterate that Golson has been great statistically so far: 68% completion & 8.8 Yards per Attempt. Not Yards per completion – Yards PER ATTEMPT. For as much flak as I've given Cierre Wood on my podcasts & posts, the senior is the most experienced back and should help the offense and Golson on passing downs immensely. Maybe Wood's absence explains the 5 sacks allowed to Purdue after keeping Tommy Rees upright so much of 2011. We hope. Golson's biggest asset will be putting the last week behind him from a mental standpoint. The happy feet need to go as he keeps his eyes down field on the blitz. A great game by #5 probably means he stood in the pocket and took a few hits on big plays. Developing a QB of his skill takes time – let's hope for another step forward in East Lansing.
The Manti Te'o Situation - For those not in the loop, it appears our star middle linebacker is in the midst of a tragic week for his family and friends. His grandmother passed away in Hawaii and it was followed almost immediately by the death of a young lady who he was extremely close with and may or may not have been his girlfriend. It's hard to imagine the thoughts of a 21 year old at this time being forced to deal with the death of two grandparents in a calendar year and someone close to him in friendship and age. While I saw many claim they expected him to go home to "take care of his family" I can't imagine anything that would help those back home more than playing this Saturday and every succeeding one. This is not the plea of a fan but of a human who views sports as more than a game on so many levels. Manti's games can provide, no matter how small, some relief from their current reality. It's often said and it may be true – cheering on those you care about in sports often brings more joy and accomplishment than can ever be achieved by those athletes actually competing. I send my best to our captain's friends and family while hoping and believing his inspired play each week gives them something to smile about. May each game and practice also provide Manti with a reprieve from all that shouldn't be heaped on any young man, no matter how talented.
Predicting the Game & What We'll See
If this is a Top 5 defense across the field in green and white, then Golson SHOULD struggle. If this is the best defense Michigan State has played so far, they should also struggle. ESPN.com's Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg was on Down the Line this week and made a statement I really agreed with: "If Notre Dame wins this game, they've made some big yardage gaining plays." It's a sweet way of saying "They'll struggle as an offense for the majority of the game, but if they win they've ripped off a few random big plays and pulled it out." Golson gives this offense the big play ability that so dogged Tommy Rees reign and when the season is over he'll have scored 40 & 50+ yard TDs on broken plays. This week would be a fine time to get the highlight reel started.
Michigan State – The Spartans will move the ball throughout the game. I'm not sure they'll be able to finish long drives in the end zone against a short field. QB Andrew Maxwell is turnover prone and this weekend a single mistake could turn the game. On defense it's safe to expect Dantonio to blitz Everett Golson and dare Kelly to beat him up top where the WRs will see plenty of single coverage and a safety rolled to Eifert. The longer a close game draws out, the less it benefits Sparty. This game should come down the final 5 minutes
Notre Dame - The time to keep it simple has come and gone. Golson will need to make faster reads on every play and the decisions need to come with confidence. The playbook expansion needs to take off the training wheels and dare Golson to play big boy football the same way Michigan State will with their schemes. Louis Nix needs to dominate the center of the defense and disrupt Maxwell's timing and comfort zone early on. I believe MSU will challenge Manti Te'o in the running game and the senior will respond to the bell. Mathias Farley is my pick for being in the right place at the right time Saturday.
Notre Dame takes a late 3rd quarter lead, 20-13, on Troy Niklas's 2nd receiving touchdown. Michigan State gets two 4th quarter field goals but runs out of time on their last possession and the Irish win 20-19. Golson has a quiet 240 yards passing with Troy Niklas & Tyler Eifert combining to pace the pass catchers with 16 receptions combined. The rushing game is heavily utilized despite game long struggles.
Vegas: Notre Dame (+5.5) Over/Under: 44
Herring Bone Says Take Notre Dame & The Under
Final Score: Notre Dame 20-19
Follow me on Twitter @ManCaveQB and listen to my Irish podcasts at our feed or on iTunes. My solo podcast, The Man Cave Quarterback, features former ND quarterback Matt Mulvey breaking down the QB play in his "Red Army Review" and I'll be joined by former Irish players and current CFB writers and bloggers. Maybe even Subway Domer himself will stop by. This week's podcast featured former Sports Illustrated writer John Walters (@jdubs88) & SpartanNation.com's Michigan State Blogger Hondo Carpenter (@HondoCarpenter)