Weclome to another edition of the IBG. The questions for this week were put forth by none other than Keith Arnold from Inside the Irish at NBC.
Here at One Foot Down we have again chosen to tackle this week’s IBG as a group. Apologies in advance for a lengthy post. You can blame Keith for starting the conversation with a great set of questions. Without further adieu.
1) Status check: How deflating was the loss to Michigan? I could argue that Crist's injury makes this loss both easier to swallow and even more maddening for Irish fans.
My cousin runs a couple of miles along the beach after a frustrating loss by the Irish. While he probably would have run four miles after this one, I'd term the defeat more tantalizing than deflating. We've seen a glimpse of what could be, but wasn't.
In a similar outcome, last year we had the magazine loaded full for Wolverine. This year we almost pulled off the win playing our first-string quarterback for a little more than only two quarters. We have been left asking "what ifs", over-analyzing individual plays, and, yes, questioning a coaching decision.
Four days afterwards, the sting of a home field loss is lessened by thoughts of improvements in all areas of concern after last year. The Irish have a maturing defense mastering a new scheme, a cohesive offensive line, good special teams play, better tackling, an improved running game, more depth and a coaching staff establishing a direction.
Any loss challenges a team to either respond with improvements or to fold. After last year's Michigan loss, the Irish won three straight. This Saturday we will see how Kelly and his team responds. They can succumb to a perceived emotional tsunami or meet the challenge of a very good Michigan State team with the necessary improvements.
2) How critical is this Saturday's game? Walk away 2-1 and the Irish can feel good about taking on a very able Stanford squad at home next weekend. Walk out of East Lansing with a loss..?
I will expound on this more in my answer to #5 but for this game in particular it is critical that the Irish re-establish some momentum by bouncing back. On the heels of a tough loss at home a big win on the road could prove to be the tipping point towards a very good season. From there everything will again seem possible.
Conversely a 1-2 start could present an extremely challenging situation for Coach Kelly with a team that has been working very hard at establishing a new winning identity. The hole from which the program is trying to crawl will instantly get deeper. It will feel all too familiar to both the team and the fan base and the national media will most assuredly start beating the "new coach same old Notre Dame" drum. Whether that is fair or not three games into the season will matter little. I don’t even want to think about what next week will feel like if the Irish lose to Sparty.
3) Why does the rivalry with Michigan State seem to get so little respect?
This is a very interesting question for a history buff like me. From a national perspective I don’t think this rivalry gets much respect at all, and you’d probably find a lot of competent college football fans who don’t even know that Michigan State and Notre Dame are in fact long-time rivals.
From the Notre Dame perspective I think this rivalry does get a lot of respect (losing nine out of the last 13 games will do that to a fan base) but there are three reasons why it probably doesn’t get as much as it truly deserves.
1. Lost in the shuffle
It’s just a matter of numbers really because Notre Dame has so many rivals and Michigan State inevitably falls in the middle of so much history and doesn’t get as much attention. Even though the Irish have played the Spartans 73 times over the years (4th most of any Notre Dame opponent) and there have been plenty of classic games, it’s just not on the same level of some of the school’s other rivalries.
In fact, you’d probably find that most Notre Dame fans put Michigan State fifth or sixth on their rivalry list. Even though State has defeated Notre Dame more often than Michigan in recent times, there just doesn’t seem to be as much unabashed hatred for the Spartans as there is for the Wolverines, or even the Trojans, Boilermakers and Eagles too.
2. Living in the shadow of Michigan
This applies to the whole "hatred" card that so many fans carry around, plus the fact that in most years Michigan is better than State and Notre Dame almost always plays the Wolverines first each season.
It would take a lot for Michigan State to crawl out from that shadow including being consistently better than Michigan, seriously competing for Big Ten titles and giving Notre Dame a run for its money each year.
Over the course of history, Michigan State has only done the latter on a consistent basis, and sadly, that is not enough to cast its own shadow. Until Michigan State does all three of the above, it will always be considered a second-tier rival for Notre Dame fans and the rivalry will lack respect from the rest of the nation.
3. The underachievers
This goes for Michigan State and Notre Dame who have both been chronic underachievers in modern times, lending even less attention from across the nation to this rivalry.
The Spartans only have two 9-plus win seasons since 1988, they are only two games over .500 during that time span (60th best in the nation) and have only one Big Ten title over the past 20 years.
It’s pretty obvious that Michigan State doesn’t have elite talent, but they should be a lot better than that.
And similarly, Notre Dame has been constantly playing below expectations and their talent level. So when two teams like that meet each season there isn’t a whole lot to get excited about and it equals a lack of respect from many around the country.
4) It's hard to draw too many conclusions from victories over Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic, but what do you expect this Saturday night in Spartan Stadium?
I’m constantly expecting Michigan State to be good every year. I don’t know if it’s because I like the color green or that I kind of feel bad for them because of their lack of success in the past and wanting them to do well, but I’m always talking up their talent.
That’s why it should come as no surprise that I think this will be a very good Spartan team this Saturday and they should be one of the top four most complete teams Notre Dame plays this year.
On offense I think they will be pretty dangerous with an emerging quality quarterback in Kirk Cousins and one of the better receiving units the Irish will face this year. Running back Larry Caper might not play but the backups have looked a lot more explosive than anyone thought so far this season.
The Michigan State defense should be decent (very good linebackers) but I think they have more holes on that side of the ball in comparison to their offense.
Being the first road test for Brian Kelly and Dayne Crist, this is a huge game especially coming off of last week’s depressing loss. It’s a night game on ABC and Spartan Stadium should be jammed pack with excitement.
I expect Notre Dame to have a very good day offensively but a low scoring game wouldn’t totally surprise me either. Michigan State’s offensive line and secondary are two big question marks though, and the Irish should be able to get pressure with its defensive line and throw the ball pretty easily.
The Irish offense has been very conservative and vanilla and I think this is the game where Brian Kelly starts calling more bubble screens, reverses and misdirection plays to keep the Spartan linebackers on their toes.
Notre Dame 35
Michigan State 24
5) Best case, worst case, most likely: The Irish's record after the first six games.
With four quality opponents on tap in the next four weeks the Fighting Irish have their work cut out for them. Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College and Pittsburgh are all good teams that will no doubt give Notre Dame their best shot. While they may not individually be Top Ten teams Stanford is currently in the Top 20 and the other three are all lurking on the fringe in the "others receiving votes" category. The end result is that next four games will collectively be very difficult to navigate.
Best Case 5-1: I believe that Notre Dame has the ability to best all four of these teams but I definitely would not say that it is likely for the reasons mentioned above.
Worst Case 3-3: I think worst case scenario Notre Dame splits these next four games and hits the half way point at .500.
Most Likely 4-2: I will stick with my preseason prediction that the Irish head into the second half of the season with two losses. I think it is feasible that the Irish pick up 3 wins in the next 4 contests and enter a more manageable second half of the season with a nice bowl bid in their sights.
6) Let's leave Michael Floyd out of this for a second. What Irish player needs to step up and play better football?
I'm going to go with one of two obvious choices on the offensive side of the ball and say Dayne Crist. Prior to the season, Kelly indicated that the rate of his development will directly reflect the level of success in store for the Irish this season. That the fate of 2010 ND Football is attached to our starting QB became painfully evident this past weekend.
With the training wheels on for much of game 1, Dayne turned in a respectable, if not underwhelming performance. He managed the game well and didn't give the ball away (though he came dangerously close on a couple occasions). In game two, he consistently moved the chains and showed a big play capability in leading the Irish to a would-be comeback victory. Despite his relative heroics, both Dayne and BK would admit that he has a long way to go to being the kind of quarterback that can lead his team to a BCS bowl.
Though short of significant game experience, Dayne is in his third year with the program and needs to step up his game at the same kinda turbo-charged rate with which he recovers from major surgery. It's understandable to fail to spot some wide-open receivers in your first college starts while running a new offense. It's understandable to have a couple errant throws as well. But the time for getting comfortable is past and the time for excellence has arrived. He's not going to have mastered the offense by the end of the month, but he needs to show he can find the open man and consistently make the basic throws he's been practicing for years now. It doesn't matter what offense you run, you have to be able to lead your wide receivers over the top with a ball they can get to.
His patient pocket presence in his own end zone on the 95-yard TD strike to Rudolph revealed the poise of a seasoned veteran. We need more of that and less sailing the ball out of the end zone with zero left on the clock ... and we need it now. The schedule demands a sharp learning curve from #10 -- I have to believe he'll be up to the task.