IT’S MICHIGAN STATE WEEK!!!!!!
That’s right folks, it’s almost time for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to travel to East Lansing and face the Michigan State Spartans in a battle of two storied programs, two teams who had terrible seasons last year, and two schools who have an alum living in my apartment. Hi Josh (Josh is my roommate and, unfortunately, a Michigan State alumnus)!!!
I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about Michigan State’s 2017 team considering how bad they were last season (which says a lot about 2016 ND) and considering they haven’t really played anyone yet, so I spoke to McLain Moberg over at The Only Colors, SB Nation’s premier Michigan State athletics website.
McLain was a fantastic sport and answered all my questions without even complaining or calling me annoying, so let’s just dive right in and see how much he can enlighten us before Saturday night’s showdown, and what we can learn about Michigan State’s QB, running game, defense, and Mark Dantonio’s dance-off song preferences.
1. MSU had a Notre Dame-esque season last year, going 3-9 and only managing to beat Rutgers, Furman, and yes - the good ole 4-8 Fighting Irish. This season, MSU is 2-0 against a bad Bowling Green team and an okay Western Michigan team. What are your overall feelings as a Spartan fan right now, in terms of how the rest of the season will go and the position the program is in, in general?
I'd like to think I'm very realistic about the Michigan State Spartans. If we include my feelings from last year, then in my opinion the infamous 3-9 season (the program’s worst overall record in 30 years) was a complete anomaly.
The Spartans also had one of the ugliest and roughest offseasons I have ever seen. The coaching staff was forced to dismiss 12 players from the team due to a mix of criminal investigations, academics, and more.
When we move past that, the Spartans still have a pretty good football team this year. They won't be winning 11 games by any means, but MSU will be bowl eligible once again in the Dantonio era. I have the Spartans finishing 7-5 with a potential bowl victory.
2. Talk to me about Brian Lewerke. He's a mostly unproven sophomore, but he's played well so far this year. How worried does the ND secondary need to be about Lewerke tearing them apart in the passing game?
"People don't know but Brian Lewerke is 'White Lightning.'“ Brian acquired that nickname from Darrell Stewart Jr., and boy is he right.
I've liked Brian since the first time I saw him step on the field in 2016. My friends will tell you I never shut up about him last year. I still say had he started that entire game against Michigan, MSU would have won. In the first of his two series he helped drive the team down the field for a quick 6 points and he was on the verge of doing it a second time before Jabrill Peppers broke his leg.
This kid is the real deal. Lewerke has the pocket presence/awareness that you love to see out of a young quarterback. He knows when to roll out and when to take off.
Brian has the ability to put the defense on their heels because of his running ability which gives him the opportunity to show off his arm, where he is just as impressive.
3. Speaking of the passing game, who are the receivers that the Irish defensive backs and linebackers need to be most worried about? How do you think they stack up against the back end of the ND defense?
In all honesty this is one of the biggest question marks for me going into this game. The Spartan receivers haven't exactly played against the greatest secondaries in the world through their first two games. This will be their first real test.
A few guys the Fighting Irish will want to keep an eye on are Felton Davis III and Darrell Stewart Jr. Davis has shown he can make some pretty spectacular catches so far this year. One of his touchdowns came over a Bowling Green defender in a "jump ball" situation. His height gives him an advantage over a plethora of defensive backs.
Darrell Stewart Jr. is a mad man on the football field. Just get the ball in his hands and watch him go. Overall this guy is Michigan State's playmaker. He can line up anywhere and is definitely the guy ND wants to keep an eye on.
4. As long as Mark Dantonio has been at the helm, MSU has had a well-deserved reputation for playing physical football, particularly on defense and on the ground on offense. Before we get to the D, I see MSU is 16th in the country in rushing offense in the first two weeks, and I know they have a stable of big, fast running backs.
Who will lead the way on the ground, and how do you think the MSU offensive line will hold up against what should be the best defensive front they've seen this year (which doesn't necessarily say much about ND, but still)?
*Note from Pat Rick: this was an unbearably long question and I’d like to apologize to everyone
LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes, and Madre London all have the talent to be starting running backs. Mark Dantonio uses all of them for all types of situations. I don't believe that's going to change this weekend either. Notre Dame should be prepared to see all three of these guys on a regular basis.
In my opinion, LJ should get the start but he's had trouble hanging onto the ball again this year, forcing Mark Dantonio to put Holmes in ahead of him.
This is another big question mark for the Spartans. Everyone knows about our very young offensive line. Notre Dame's defensive line is bound to cause the Spartans problems early and often. It's how MSU responds that will be the key to staying in the game. If ND shuts down their running game early then it will be up to Lewerke to keep this team alive.
5. Okay, now let's discuss that big, bad Sparty D. It's early in the season, but MSU ranks 3rd in total defense (207 ypg) -- 8th in pass defense (112 ypg), 17th in rush defense (91.5 ypg) -- and 12th in scoring defense, giving up just 12 ppg.
Meanwhile, the Notre Dame offense just ran for 515 yards against Boston College (bumping it up to 5th in the country in rushing offense), and is averaging 39.3 ppg in its first three contests. How do you think the two units will match up, and what will be key for the MSU defense to shut down that rushing attack, considering the passing game has been a struggle for ND QB Brandon Wimbush?
Michigan State's defense looks good because of the level of competition they have had to face up to this point. That's not to say they can't keep this up but Notre Dame will be a real challenge.
I'll just say this now: if you want to beat the Spartan defense then throw it over the top. There were plenty of times against Bowling Green and Western where the defensive backs were in fact beat, but the throw wasn't accurate enough for the receiver to make a play on the ball. I know the Irish have struggled with their passing game to start the year so I'm not sure how inclined they will be to throw it deep in this game.
I've been most impressed with Michigan State's front seven. Western Michigan may have lost to USC but they managed to tear up the Trojan defense on the ground finishing just shy of 250 yards. The Broncos had a three headed monster in the backfield not unlike the Spartans, and MSU kept them at bay, only giving up 116 rushing yards.
If Michigan State wants to win this game they must force Brandon Wimbush to beat them with his arm and not his legs. So far he has run for 314 yards and 6 touchdowns. If MSU allows that to continue it might be a long night.
6. Who are the X-factors on offense, defense, and special teams (if applicable) for MSU? Who are the guys whose performances will be crucial to a Spartan victory?
Brian Lewerke, Darrell Stewart Jr, LJ Scott, and the Spartan secondary. Those are my X-factors for offense and defense.
If MSU is to be successful, Scott needs to come alive in this game. We need the LJ Scott from all of last year to show up and help lead us to victory.
If the run game is rolling that's only going to open things up for Lewerke in the passing game (don't forget he can take off at a moment's notice, too). Every team needs their quarterback to perform at a high level week in and week out. This is Brian's first chance to show Spartan Nation what he's made of.
Darrell Stewart Jr is their big play guy. He'll offset the running game with Mark Dantonio's beloved jet sweeps and be effective during punt and kick returns. Like I said before, the guy can line up anywhere.
Last but not least, the Spartan secondary; not one guy either, the entire unit. If Michigan State is able to shut down ND's running game then they are going to be forced to pass. All it takes is one really good throw deep from Brandon Wimbush to potentially expose MSU's defensive backs and make it a game again.
7. Give me a couple ND players you are most afraid of in this game.
Brandon Wimbush and Josh Adams. In 2017 they've combined for 757 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns. In 2016 Josh Adams ran for 933 yards, 5 touchdowns, and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. To say I am worried about the Spartans facing those guys this weekend would be an understatement.
8. ND has Equanimeous St. Brown and Greer Martini, among others. Who has the best/most ridiculous/funniest names on the MSU roster?
The funniest names on Michigan State's roster have to be Mustafa Khaleefah (freshman offensive tackle), and my personal favorite Rocky Lombardi (freshman quarterback). His name is more awesome than funny though.
9. Dance-off between Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio for all the marbles — what song does each coach dance to, and who ultimately wins it?
Oh wow, now this would be hilarious. People always say Mark Dantonio doesn't smile enough so he's automatically at a disadvantage because he probably hates dancing. I'm guessing Dantonio picks “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha and Brian Kelly goes with “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen and takes home the trophy.
10. If you had to choose two MSU players to compete on the old Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple, who would you choose and why?
To be honest, I had to look this show up and watch an episode. It was created in 1993 and I was born during their second season. Showing my age a little bit.
I'd choose Brian Lewerke and LJ Scott because of the mental toughness they have shown in the past and their ability to overcome adversity at a moment’s notice.
11. How much does it pain MSU fans that current ND QB coach Tom Rees and his very mediocre 2013 ND squad were the reason MSU didn't go undefeated and play for the national title in '13?
You are going straight for the heart on this one, Pat.
This still pains the entire fan base. It's one of those losses that always leaves people feeling empty inside. It constantly begs the question "What if?"
It doesn't take away from what Michigan State accomplished that year. I mean they did finish 13-1 (8-0 B1G) while winning the Rose Bowl.
But still, teams play for a National Championship every year and Notre Dame very much took that away from Michigan State. It's something that won't soon be forgotten.
12. What are must see/do/visit items for ND fans visiting East Lansing this weekend?
If Notre Dame fans are going to do one thing this weekend while in East Lansing (other than watch the game of course) they they have to go visit Crunchy's. It was recently listed as the 23rd best college bar in America.
If you don't have tickets to the game and you like food, drinking beer, watching football, and a good time, then Crunchy's is the bar for you.
13. Okay give me your prediction. I need a score, a winner, and your reasoning.
I'm sticking to the prediction I made earlier this year. Michigan State will be 4-0 prior to facing their hated rival Michigan. Which means I have them beating the Irish in a hard-fought, close game.
The Spartans will win this game for a number of reasons. While the competition has been quite low to start the year I still believe in the MSU front seven. Their ability to stop the run will continue Saturday night. Brandon Wimbush will be forced to throw the ball and if he can't come up with consistent completions then ND is going to struggle moving it downfield.
Each team is solid up front, which leads me to believe the running backs are going to be ineffective, bringing me to my final point — quarterback play.
Who can orchestrate their offense better? And in this case I'm going with Brian Lewerke because he has shown Spartan fans that he can do it all. He showed flashes last year that have translated into this season. Because I have yet to see Notre Dame throw the ball well, and because of my belief in the Spartan defense, I am picking MSU to win.
MSU 24 ND 17
Furthermore, be sure to head on over to their site as much as you can for the rest of the week to stay on top of all MSU news, notes, and hot takes heading into Saturday.