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Summer Opponent Preview: Michigan State Spartans

The Irish will try for 3 straight wins against Michigan State this fall. Here's a summer preview of that game.


Michigan State and Notre Dame have a long historic rivalry and have played every season since 1996. The team's will be taking a 2-year break following 2013 and there may not be as many games between the schools in the future. Here is a summer preview of the game against the Spartans.



Location: East Lansing, MI

Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (7th year)

2012 Record: 7-6

2012 S&P Rating: 16

'12 S&P Offense: 59

'12 S&P Defense: 5

'12 FEI Rating: 23

Following back-to-back 11-win seasons from 2010-11 the Spartans came crashing back down to earth in 2012 with a 7-win season, only a Buffalo Wild Wings bowl victory saved them from a .500 season.

Their season began with a workman-like 17-13 victory over Boise State at home with their defense suffocating the Broncos but the offense struggling with mistakes. Hint, that would be a season-long theme!

Next up, they crushed Central Michigan before falling to the Irish in Golson's first true road game. State was losing to Eastern Michigan at halftime but woke up in the second half to secure a 23-7 victory.

At 3-1 with a great defense the Spartans were still in good shape but the Big Ten season would be especially cruel to them. There were victories over Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota but soul-crushing close losses to Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern. Those 5 league losses came by a total of 13 points. 2.6 average points per loss!

The Spartans simply played in close games all year and came up short in a few too many. They did however sneak by TCU by 1 point in their bowl win.


Q&A with Chris Vannini from The Only Colors:

1. It seems like many Spartan fans were hoping that Connor Cook would excel this spring and pass last year's starter Andrew Maxwell at quarterback. Do you think Maxwell continues to hang on to the job by the time September rolls around?

I do, but only by default. Cook has shown the ability to make plays when things break down, which is what the coaches wanted to see, but he's still not consistent enough and has bad mistakes that make the coaches want to go with the experienced Maxwell.

That said, I wouldn't be surprised to see Cook take over at some point. Maxwell has a lot of good tools, but if the line falters or the receivers can't get open, he's done. Maxwell might be the better quarterback, but there are too many questions at other parts on the offense than Cook actually might be a better fit.

2. From an Irish perspective this feels like the first time in 10 years that Michigan State isn't bringing an established running back in to a season. How concerning is the depth chart at running back?

It's quite concerning. While Le'Veon Bell was a great running back last year, MSU wasn't a great running team, all things considered. The hope was to see some of the returning guys step up. That didn't happen, so linebacker Riley Bullough moved to running back and has looked the part of a Mark Weisman from Iowa. He looks alright, but the hope is some of the incoming freshmen will be able to contribute immediately.

It's similar to 2009. MSU lost every-down back Javon Ringer from the year before, but the running game actually improved in 2009 thanks to a group of guys, including some true freshmen.

3. State returns 5 starters on the offensive line but that unit has struggled in both phases of the game for the better part of the last 2 seasons. Do you expect the returning veterans to be pushed by younger linemen?

I don't, unless there are injuries. The line was especially a mess last season because of injuries. Right tackle Fou Fonoti suffered a season-ending injury before the ND game, and center Travis Jackson suffered one in the conference opener. MSU played against Michigan with two starters from the first game.

If they can stay healthy, it should be a decent line, but that never seems to be the case. The good news is that all those injuries helped give the young backups more experience.

4. Like Notre Dame, the Spartans lost 1 key player at defensive line, linebacker, and safety but bring back a lot of returning starters. Pat Narduzzi has been churning out great defenses in recent years, so do you expect State to be tough as always on this side of the ball?

I do. This could very well be the best defense under Dantonio/Narduzzi. Sophomore Shilique Calhoun replaces Will Gholston at defense end and could very well be an upgrade. Coaches have raved about his pass-rush ability for a few years now. Junior Taiwan Jones replaces Chris Norman at linebacker, but really had unseated him by the end of last season.

Sophomore Trae Waynes replaced Johnny Adams at cornerback. I don't think this will be an upgrade, but Waynes has proven himself quite well in the past few months. With seniors Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis, this could be Dantonio's best MSU defense, and the schedule should help the numbers.

5. Are there any incoming freshmen that you think will make an impact on the field outside of special teams?

I mentioned the running backs. Gerald Holmes, R.J. Shelton and Delton Williams all are coming in fairly highly-touted, and they certainly will be in the mix for playing time in the backfield. Other than that, it's hard to really see any making an impact. MSU has built up depth under Dantonio, and only a handful of freshmen seem to not redshirt.

6. The Irish haven't beaten Michigan State three times in a row since Lou Holtz took 8 straight from 1987 to 1994. How important is it for the Spartans to beat Notre Dame this fall?

It's always hard to say just how important beating Notre Dame is for MSU. It's certainly important for perception, and now that Notre Dame is back among the nation's best, it would certainly go a long way for perception, but it's not a conference game. MSU isn't going to be contending for the national championship, but they're going to make a bowl, so winning Big Ten games is always the most important thing.

Specifically for this fall, the schedule is very favorable early. If MSU can win in South Bend, they could very well be 8-0 heading into a tough November, beginning with Michigan coming to town. So I'd say what MSU would most get out of a win is positive perception of the program and momentum heading into Big Ten play.

7. Building off the previous question, this will be the last game between the schools before they take a 2-year break in 2014-15. Notre Dame has pretty much confirmed that Purdue & Michigan State are going to stay priorities on the Irish schedule moving forward, but what do Spartan fans think about the relationship? Do they want to keep Notre Dame on the schedule as much as possible or maybe go in a different direction with their out of conference game?

I think it depends on who you ask. Some want "new" games. MSU has Oregon, Alabama and Boise State on future schedules. Some love the history between MSU and Notre Dame. I don't think MSU is considered a hated rival or anything, but they've played more than 70 times, and Notre Dame was a big part of getting MSU into the Big Ten in the 1950s. So there's a lot of respect there.

With the Big Ten likely going to a nine-game schedule in 2016, I do wonder what will happen to MSU's nonconference schedule. While playing Notre Dame and Alabama in 2016 and 2017 seems awesome (though a little frightening) as a fan, I don't know if MSU would rather go with two gimmes and one tough game in the nonconference slate. I can see both sides of the argument. Mainly, I hate going to a nine-game schedule. Most Big Ten fans do, because the reason it's happening is because of the unpopular decision to bring Rutgers and Maryland into the conference.

8. Michigan State lost an absurd amount of close games last year on the path to a disappointing 7-6 record. How big of a bounce back season do you expect, and also, how concerning is it to see Ohio State and Michigan really start to distance themselves from the rest of the B1G in recruiting?

Like I said above, the schedule is very favorable early, and overall. Compared to last year, MSU takes Ohio State and Wisconsin off the schedule and adds Illinois and Purdue. I think eight wins has to be the minimum. If the offense can at least be competent or average, it could be double-digit wins if some things go their way.

The question regarding Michigan and Ohio State recruiting comes up a lot. While the national media eat up the idea of the return of the glory days for them, most MSU fans are dismissing the notion. Both programs are going to be very good, and I think Urban Meyer's Ohio State is going to be great, but it doesn't have as much of an effect on MSU as one would think. Dantonio's program has been built on finding diamonds in the rough while not missing on the highly-ranked guys that do come in. U-M and OSU beat MSU for just about every recruit anyway.

What's more concerning for MSU is teams like Tennessee, Kentucky, Vandy, Louisville and Ole Miss recruiting the Midwest more and focusing on the mid-tier guys that MSU has feasted on. Still, MSU's recent recruiting classes have been very good, and the 2014 class is off to a good start. Ohio State is back among the nation's elite, and Michigan is back on the rise and will be good, but MSU won't be going away, either. Now, MSU won't be winning 11 games a year, but bowl eligibility is the minimum accomplishment every year and they'll continue to contend for division and conference.



BOLD denotes returning starter


Andrew Maxwell, 5th Sr.

Connor Cook, RS So.

Tyler O'Connor, RS Fr.

The post-Kirk Cousins era didn't get off to a great start last season under Andrew Maxwell. The senior passed for 710 fewer yards on 27 more attempts and 12 less touchdowns than Cousins the year prior which led to many calls for his job late last season and in to this spring.


Andrew Maxwell. [Mike Carter, US Presswire]

It doesn't appear that Maxwell is going to lose his job, however. Neither Cook or O'Connor have progressed enough and it's unlikely they'll be unseating a 5th-year returning starter.

*Running Back

Nick Hill, RS Jr.

Jeremy Langford, RS Jr.

Riley Bullough, RS Fr.

Nick Tompkins, RS Fr.

For a while there it seemed like Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell, and Larry Caper were the 3-headed monster at running back that wouldn't go away. Now, after Bell's early exit to the NFL all 3 are finally gone from East Lansing.

Nick Hill comes in to the season with 51 career carries (9 fewer than GA3, for reference) while Jeremy Langford has mostly been a special teamer through 2 seasons on the field---his 9 career carries all coming in a single game against Central Michigan last year.

Converted linebacker Riley Bullough (and younger brother of standout middle 'backer Max Bullough) turned some heads this spring and is a legitimate candidate for serious carries. The smaller Tompkins is coming off a redshirt and is looking to find a role. Beyond that a trio of freshmen could suit up at running back but are unlikely to play much.

*X Receiver

Bennie Fowler, 5th Sr.

A.J. Troup, RS So.

Macgarrett Kings Jr., So.

*Y Receiver

Aaron Burbridge, So.

Tony Lippett, RS Jr.

*Z Receiver

Keith Mumphrey, RS Jr.

DeAnthony Arnett, Jr.

Andre Sims Jr., RS So.

In terms of returning production State is bringing back every single receiver that caught a pass last year. Fowler, Mumphrey, Lippett, and Burbridge all caught at least 29 passes and form the corps of the Spartant wideouts.

Although at times this group couldn't catch a cold there is a lot of potential. DeAnthony Arnett, the 6th overall wide receiver and top 50 overall player in the country according to the 247 Composite, will look to refocus after a transfer to East Lansing last year following a freshman season at Tennessee.

Walk-on A.J. Troup has impressed this spring while Kings Jr. and Sims Jr. played sparingly last year and look to move up the depth chart this fall. Quite a lot of depth across the board here.

*Tight End

Paul Lang, RS So.

Andrew Gleichert, RS Jr.

Dion Sims was another Spartan that left school with eligibility left and was taken in the 4th round by the Miami Dolphins. His absence leaves 4 career receptions among the other tight ends on the Michigan State roster.

Lang and Gleichert combined for those 4 receptions last year and look to be starters in 2013. Behind them is little to no experience but the Spartans will have 6 other bodies at this position with the arrival of freshman Dylan Chmura.

*Left Tackle

Dan France, 5th Sr.

Donavon Clark, RS So.

*Left Guard

Blake Treadwell, 5th Sr.

Benny McGowan, RS Fr.


Travis Jackson, RS Jr.

Jack Allen, RS So.

*Right Guard

Fou Fonoti, 5th Sr.

Nate Klatt, 5th Sr.

*Right Tackle

Skyler Burkland, RS Jr.

Henry Conway, 5th Sr.

France anchors the left side where he's started 23 out of the past 26 games for Michigan State. Treadwell converted from defensive line and started 3 games at center in 2011 but missed the rest of the season with a knee injury---last year he made 7 starts at left guard.

Jackson started 10 out of the last 11 games at center in 2011 and started the first 5 last year before going down with an injury. Fonoti started the last 11 games of 2011 at right tackle and started out there last year before being injured in the Notre Dame game last year. He'll likely move to right guard in 2013.

Burkland is yet another Spartan offensive lineman who has dealt with injuries. He started the first 3 games of 2011 at right tackle, fractured his ankle, and came back to start the final 10 games at tackle last season. Backups in Clarke (2 starts at left tackle in 2012) and Allen (6 starts in 2011) offer more depth for Michigan State and they will be needed as Burkland recently retired due to injuries.

This unit, despite experience, has a lot to prove if it can stay healthy. Michigan State hasn't been able to rush for 4 yards per carry over the last two seasons and Maxwell was under constant harassment last year.

*Defensive End

Marcus Rush, RS Jr.

Joel Heath, RS So.

*Defensive Tackle

Michajah Reynolds, 5th Sr.

Lawrence Thomas, RS So.

*Defensive Tackle

Tyler Hoover, 6th Sr.

James Kittredge, RS Jr.

*Defensive End

Shilique Calhoun, RS So.

Denzel Drone, 5th Sr.

The Spartans had Anthony Rashad White run out of eligibility, William Gholston bolted early for the NFL, and Jeremy Gainer announce his plans to transfer this spring. That's left the ranks at defensive line a little thin but they will be aided by 4 freshmen coming in this summer.

Marcus Rush has started every game at end over the last two years for the Spartans and has an impressive 96 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, and 6 sacks in his career. Reynolds is a former offensive linemen that saw his first big action on the defensive line last year with 6 starts early in the season to go with a modest 21 tackles. These ends are backed up by relatively inexperienced players.

On the inside Tyler Hoover, a 2008 recruit and 6th-year senior, is back and brings 62 career tackles and 2 starts to the table. Opposite him the Spartans are expecting big things out of Calhoun while Kittredge has 5 starts and Drone 6 starts in their careers.

State has been extremely tough against the run in recent years and has the pieces up front to repeat that performance in 2013.

*Star Linebacker

Taiwan Jones, Jr.

Jairus Jones, 5th Sr.

*Mike Linebacker

Max Bullough, Sr.

Kyle Elsworth, 5th Sr.

Pat Rhomberg, RS Fr.

*Sam Linebacker

Denicos Allen, 5th Sr.

Darien Harris, RS So.

Ed Davis, RS So.

The Spartans lost Chris Norman and his 197 career tackles but bring back 2 starters including first-team All-Big Ten middle linebacker Max Bullough and his 223 career tackles. 5th-year senior Denicos Allen also returns with his 180 tackles and 14 sacks in his career.


Max Bullough. [Mike Carter, US Presswire]

Jairus Jones started the first 6 games at free safety last year before going down with an injury and has been moved to the weak-side linebacker spot where he's competing with Taiwan Jones who has started 4 games in his career. The backups elsewhere have decent but not a ton of experience. Also watch for freshman Riley Bullough as he may transition back to middle linebacker where his brother plays if running back doesn't work out.

*Field Corner

Darqueze Dennard, Sr.

Mylan Hicks, RS Jr.

*Boundary Corner

Trae Waynes, RS So.

Ezra Robinson, RS Fr.

*Free Safety

Kurtis Drummond, RS Jr.

Arjen Colquhoun, RS So.

*Strong Safety

Isaiah Lewis, Sr.

R.J. Williamson, RS So.

Three starters return for the Spartans in the secondary including 1st-team All-Big Ten corner Darqueze Dennard and honorable mention all-Big Ten safety Isaiah Lewis. The former is coming off a 52 tackle and 4 interception season while the latter was second on the team with 80 tackles.

Kurtis Drummond played well in his first year as a starter in 2012 totaling 53 tackles and 2 picks. The safety position should be set with returning starters while Trae Waynes is looking to move in to the vacant starting corner spot. There isn't much experience outside of the 3 returning starters.


Final Thoughts

Quite simply, Michigan State needs to get their act together on offense before they return to elite status in the Big Ten. Scoring went down by an average of 11 points from 2011 to 2012 and yards per play went down nearly a full yard as well. That is a major step back and needs to be rectified.

It all starts up front with the Spartan offensive line. They've been banged up and completely ineffective for the better part of 2 seasons. The running game has been stagnant (81st nationally in YPC in 2012) and they gave up way too much pressure to the quarterback. If the line doesn't improve it could be another long season for Michigan State as they break in relatively new running backs and Maxwell has proven he's not capable of excelling when pressured.

That said, the Spartans should still be very good defensively---probably still among the best in the country. Their top 6 tacklers are all back and the unit as a whole looks like it could be better than ever. State actually dropped their average points given up last year by nearly 2 and that's pretty impressive given how bad the offense was. If they can get just a little more out of Maxwell & Co. they have the opportunity to quickly turn things around and get back to double digit wins.

Predicted Game Day Spread- Michigan State (+3.5)