Michigan State (+4.5) at Notre Dame
Notre Dame plays one of its biggest rivals and will attempt to salvage a split from the Michigan teams this upcoming Saturday.
The game starts at 3:30 PM on NBC.
Last year the Irish lost in overtime on the infamous fake field goal playcall on fourth down. This year, Notre Dame returns to South Bend where they won the last meeting in 2009 after losing every home game against Michigan State in the post-Holtz era---a total of 6 straight losses.
This will be the first time Michigan State comes into Notre Dame Stadium as a ranked team since 1997, when the Spartans marched into South Bend as the No. 17 team in the country. A loss by the Irish that day started the aforementioned long home losing streak to Michigan State.
Saturday, the Spartans come in ranked No. 15 in the AP Poll, giving Notre Dame a chance to redeem their season with a big victory over a historic rival.
Notre Dame Defense vs. Michigan State Offense
From a skill position standpoint, the Spartans might have the one of the best offenses Notre Dame will face in 2011. That said, the Irish will match up far better against Michigan State than they have with their first two opponents this year.
Michigan State runs a pro-style offense with a heavy emphasis on pounding the ball on the ground and they've been very successful at it both this year and last.
In the backfield, the Spartans trot out a four-headed monster from the running back position in Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell, Larry Caper, and true freshman Nick Hill.
Baker and Bell are the two main ball carriers, while Hill has been seeing some time in conjunction with Caper as a third down/short-yardage back.
Baker is short (5'9") but packs a lot of power with good speed at 210 pounds. He rushed for over 1,200 yards in 2010 at a very impressive 5.8 average. Last year Baker ended up with good numbers against Notre Dame, finishing with 90 yards on 14 carries. However, 56 of those yards came on one carry---so Baker was bottled up for most of the game.
Bell had a breakout freshman season last year with over 600 yards and 5.7 yards per carry. He is massive for a running back at 6'2" and 237 pounds. Last year, Bell had his most carries of the season (17) against Notre Dame and was the Spartans biggest weapon against the Irish finishing with 114 yards.
I would expect a heavy dose of both Baker and Bell---mission number one for the Irish defense will be to slow both of these runners down and force Michigan State to throw the ball.
If the running game is shut down, that will force the ball into the hands of quarterback Kirk Cousins who is a very good signal caller, but might not be the type of playmaker to put his team on his back.
However, Cousins fits State's offense perfectly with a nice blend of passing ability, leadership, and above-average mobility. In 2010, he finished with almost 3,000 passing yards, a 2:1 touchdown/interception ratio, with 66.9% completions. Last year, Cousins played really well against Notre Dame with 245 yards, 70% completions, two touchdowns and one bad interception in the end zone.
Some people might not be overly impressed with Cousins, but he is a good quarterback who can do a lot of damage. He might not have played a team worth a lick yet this year, but he's coming into Saturday's game with 405 yards, 3 touchdowns, 79.1% completion and no interceptions.
At wide receiver Michigan State has a few weapons, starting with B.J. Cunningham who leads the team with 14 catches and 203 yards in 2011. Last year, he had 7 receptions and 101 yards with a touchdown against Notre Dame---he should draw the most attention from the Irish secondary.
After Cunningham, Michigan State doesn't have a ton of depth but brings two good receivers in Kewshawn Martin and former quarterback Keith Nichol. Martin has never really put it all together as a receiver, but he is a deadly all-purpose player with outstanding playmaking ability. Martin also had his best game last year against Notre Dame with 8 catches, 96 yards, and one touchdown. Nichol, as a you would expect from a former QB, is a solid possession receiver.
As you can see, the Spartans have the tools to put points on the board. The only problem is, they have had to replace three offensive linemen and that's typically not a great sign for an offense built like Michigan State's.
If the new linemen prove adequate or better, this offense is going to be super dangerous. If they struggle, even with all their weapons the Spartan offense could break down in 2011 and take a step backwards.
The good news for Notre Dame is that they are built to stop this offense. So far this year, the Irish defensive has owned the line of scrimmage and stopped their opponents running backs in their tracks. Notre Dame might not completely stop the State running game, but I expect a much better effort than last year and for the Irish to make the Spartans day a rather difficult one.
Notre Dame will have to focus on stopping the run, but look for Michigan State to run outside the tackle and utilize a ton of misdirection and cutback plays. This worked well last year for the Spartans and they will likely have a tough time running directly into the jumbo-sized Notre Dame defensive line.
Despite a disastrous fourth quarter against Michigan, the Irish defense has looked very stout this year and I think they will play really well against a more traditional offense this Saturday.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Michigan State Defense
Michigan State tends to always have a stingy defense, and this year they have put the clamps down on two inferior opponents, giving up only 6 points to Youngstown and shutting out Florida Atlantic last Saturday.
In fact, the Spartans defensive domination was so powerful against FAU that the Owls only gained a total of 48 yards and one first down.
However, the bulk of State's returning talent is on the offensive side of the ball as the defense has to replace a bunch of players, including linebacker Greg Jones---possibly the best Spartan defender of the past ten years. In all, Michigan State will be starting 7 new players on defense in comparison to their lineup last year against Notre Dame.
In addition to the loss of Jones, State loses linebacker Eric Gordon, defensive end Colin Neely, cornerback Chris L. Rucker, and safety Marcus Hyde. Together this group consisted of Michigan State's first, second, third, fifth, and tenth top tacklers in 2010.
The result is that despite the big numbers so far this year, the Spartans defense is likely to take at least a small step back in 2011.
The good news for Michigan State's defense is that they have one solid veteran on the line, at linebacker, and in the secondary, so no one unit is too inexperienced.
The Spartans are usually tough up front and they bring back All-Big Ten tackle Jerel Worthy who is very large and quite a handful. Alongside Worthy, MSU has two experienced veterans on the two-deep but will be starting three new starters for 2011, so you wonder how effective this group will be.
At linebacker they will obviously sorely miss Jones and Gordon, but State brings back the playmaking ability of Chris Norman. The two new starters are both sophomores and fairly inexperienced with regular playing time.
In the secondary the Spartans return experienced vets in corner Johnny Adams and safety Trenton Robinson, but they will be forced to start two more sophomores at the back end of the defense.
In total, Michigan State is starting just one senior, but 5 sophomores---although there are no freshmen and just one redshirt freshman.
In a lot of ways, this Michigan State defense is very similar to Michigan's in that they have one really good defensive tackle surrounded by a few other decent linemen. The difference for the Spartans is that they are a little more athletic at the linebacker and secondary positions. Still, Michigan's defensive line was largely ineffective against the Irish offensive line, so State will have a lot of work to do.
In other words, Notre Dame should be able to move the ball on Saturday. Last season the Irish piled up 461 yards, the second most given up by State all season, and I'm pretty sure Notre Dame will be able to inch close to yet another 500 yard performance with all the returning starters on offense and the Spartans losing key veterans on defense from last year.
Like last year, we know Notre Dame is going to throw the ball a lot and get its yards there, but typically Michigan State makes life very hard on the ground for the Irish. Without two ball hawks at linebacker and a somewhat inexperienced defensive line, does Notre Dame continue its breakout season running the ball?
This is a weird game and if you go by certain rankings, stats, and history---this should be a Michigan State win. They are 2-0, ranked, and typically play well inside Notre Dame Stadium.
Yet, Notre Dame is favored.
The Spartans may have the most balanced and experienced offense that the Irish will have faced yet this year.
However, that dangerous offense is off-set by a Notre Dame defense that matches up perfectly with the Spartans pro-style attack and the Irish might be able to dominate an offensive line that returns only two starters. The Notre Dame defensive line has looked very strong this year and should be able to corral the State running game a little bit and hopefully play much better than last year.
If Notre Dame can bottle up the Spartan running game, and also prevent any long runs, the ball will be placed in Kirk Cousin's hands and that is a battle the Irish might be able to win.
On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame has found some balance on offense and has the added advantage of bringing Michael Floyd to the party. Michigan State's offense might be good, but Notre Dame's has more potential and playmaking ability. Even with the massive amount of turnovers and having played two quality BCS teams, Notre Dame has gained 191 more yards than the Spartans (who have played a FCS team and Sun Belt team).
If we go on program notoriety, then Michigan State should have a good defense, but I'm hesitant to say they are going to pose a huge challenge to a Notre Dame offense that has been shooting itself in the foot constantly, but has still proven it can march up and down the field on good BCS teams.
Further a Spartan defense that has 7 new starters and is without a couple of their best defenders of the past decade, can't be much better than what USF and Michigan had to offer. I think this is a sizable advantage for Notre Dame.
If there is a team due for a win it is Notre Dame. They will finally take care of the ball and surprise a lot of people with a slightly comfortable victory.
Notre Dame 41
Michigan State 24