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Notre Dame Football: Michigan State Spartans Game Preview

Notre Dame and Michigan State are playing tomorrow in a game of the football variety. I’m pessimistic about ND’s chances. Let’s explore why.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Hey you guuuuuyyyyyssssssssssssss!!!!!!!

If you’re completely oblivious to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football schedule, here’s your reminder that ND is traveling to East Lansing this weekend to take on the Michigan State Spartans in a battle of teams who severely disappointed their fans last year.

These two squads have had some very competitive and close games in recent years, and have split the past 8 meetings. Now, after a 3-9 season for MSU and a 4-8 season for ND in 2016, the two squads meet with a combined overall 2017 record of 4-1, and are both looking for a good win over a big-time program to boost their confidence as they head into the meat of their schedules.

So how will this matchup turn out? Let’s delve into the two squads and how they match up.

MSU Offense vs. ND Defense

Let’s start with Michigan State’s offense, which struggled mightily a year ago during the Spartans’ 3-9 season, but has looked good against Bowling Green and Western Michigan so far this year.

The Spartans offense is led by Brian Lewerke, a redshirt sophomore QB who has had a great start to his first season as the starter, throwing for 411 yards, 4 TD, and 1 INT while completing 64.8% of his passes and accumulating 7.6 yards per attempt.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Through the air, Lewerke will look to continue that success against a Notre Dame secondary who has not been tested too much as of yet. He’ll be looking for receivers Darrell Stewart Jr. (9 receptions, 118 yards) and Felton Davis III (8 receptions, 104 yards, 2 TD) and tight end Matt Sokol (4 receptions, 48 yards, 1 TD). Stewart especially is a dynamic, big-play guy who could bust open a big play in an instant.

The Notre Dame secondary should be an interesting matchup, as Lewerke and his receivers have yet to face the amount of raw talent ND has in its defensive backfield, and so it will be interesting to see if CBs Julian Love (11 tackles, 3 PBU), Nick Watkins (12 tackles), and Shaun Crawford (3 tackles, 2 PBU, 2 INT), along with safeties Nick Coleman (14 tackles) and Jalen Elliott (7 tackles), are able to prevent big plays through the air and force MSU into a slugfest in the trenches.

A slugfest like that might not be ideal for ND, but it would certainly be a game they have a better chance of winning, considering the likely lower score and the emphasis on the ground game, which would suit the Irish.

Notre Dame’s strength on defense is absolutely the linebacking corps, as Nyles Morgan (25 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FF), Greer Martini (22 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 FF), and Rover Drue Tranquill (14 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT) are all aggressive, athletic, sure-tackling guys who love contact. First-off-the-bench LB Te’von Coney (25 tackles, 1 sack) is the same way, and the athletic junior will be key in making big stops for the ND defense.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Boston College Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

That group of linebackers will have their work cut out for them, though, as MSU will be deploying a stable of experienced, accomplished running backs who are incredibly tough to bring down.

The MSU running back crew is led by junior LJ Scott (125 yards, 3.7 ypc, 1 TD), a powerful back who will be incredibly difficult for the Irish to stop from picking up whatever yardage he wants — although he has had some fumbling issues this season, so look for ND to be stripping at the ball early and often when Scott carries it.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Gerald Holmes (75 yards, 4.4 ypc) and Madre London (82 yards, 4.6 ypc, 1 TD) are strong backs as well, but have more speed and big-play potential than Scott, which the Irish experienced firsthand last season.

Brian Lewerke himself is an accomplished and dangerous runner as well, having already amassed 150 yards and 2 TD on 8.8 yards per carry in this early point of the season. He’s an exceptional athlete who will take advantage of any space the defense concedes to him, so look for Lewerke to try to make some plays with his feet tomorrow evening.

So, with the MSU running game full of weapons and with a Spartan QB capable of making plays with his arm, the defensive line for the Irish will certainly be key. They’ll need to hold the point of attack to allow the linebackers to make plays, but they will also need to get a solid pass rush, as guys like Jay Hayes (12 tackles, 1 TFL), Daelin Hayes (10 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack), Andrew Trumbetti (10 tackles, 2 TFL), and Julian Okwara (4 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FF) will need to put pressure on Lewerke on the edge in order to force the young QB into some uncomfortable situations.

The middle of the defensive front will be crucial as well, as Jerry Tillery (16 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack) and Jonathan Bonner (10 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack) will need to get a good push up front and clog up holes at the point of attack, allowing the rest of the defense to make plays.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, I think this could be the most interesting matchup, as both the MSU offense and the ND defense are vastly improved from a season ago, and how much MSU scores could dictate who wins the game, considering Notre Dame’s offense has to try to score on MSU’s defense.

ND Offense vs. MSU Defense

The Fighting Irish offense has already faced a tough test early in the season, having to go up against a Georgia Bulldogs defense chock full of big, fast, athletic guys who can run sideline-to-sideline and who put quite a few hits on ND QB Brandon Wimbush.

So, when the Spartans come to town with their defense that ranks 3rd in the country in total defense (8th in pass defense, 17th in rush defense) and 12th in the country in scoring defense, the Irish shouldn’t be shellshocked. However, what is concerning is how the ND offense played against Georgia a couple weeks ago, managing just 266 total yards, with only 55 coming on the ground and those 211 passing yards coming on the back of a less-than-ideal 19-for-39 performance from Brandon Wimbush, who was also sacked 3 times and hurried 7 more times by the Bulldogs defensive front.

The Michigan State defense doesn’t quite have the caliber of athlete that Georgia did, but make no mistake — these guys are physical, disciplined, and talented. And considering they’re a typical hard-nosed Big Ten defense, they specialize in stopping running games, which just so happens to be the one thing ND has had going for it on offense this season, considering the Irish are currently ranked 5th in the country in rushing offense.

RB Josh Adams has already run for 443 yards and 2 TD with a 7.9 yards-per-carry average this season, and is fresh off a HUGE game against Boston College, where he ran for 229 yards.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Boston College Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Joining him in having a huge day against the Eagles last weekend was QB Brandon Wimbush, who showed just how gifted he is running the ball with his ND QB record-setting performance of 207 yards and 4 TD. Wimbush has 314 yards and 6 TD rushing on the year, so clearly he’s another guy the Spartans defense needs to worry about tomorrow.

Backup running back Dexter Williams is always a threat to break one as well, as the junior is averaging 14.5 yards per carry and has picked up 174 yards and 3 TD in very limited action this season. He could see an expanded role this week as well, considering sophomore Tony Jones Jr. won’t be playing, leaving more snaps for Adams and Williams.

That trio of runners and the offensive line blocking for them will not have it easy this week, though, as the MSU defense has plenty of playmakers and guys who specialize in making sure opposing runners don’t get much space.

LBs Joe Bachie, Chris Frey, and Andrew Dowell lead this defense, having combined for 44 tackles, 2.5 TFL, and 2.5 sacks already this season. They’ll be the ones chasing down Adams and Wimbush, and have shown this season they can stop the run, considering the Spartans defense gives up, on average, just 91.5 yards per game.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Those tackling machines will be aided by the MSU defensive line, which, per usual, is full of big, strong, physical guys who will certainly present a challenge for an Irish offensive line that has yet to play a truly impressive game against a good opponent this season (no offense, Temple and BC defensive lines). DL Jacub Panasiuk (5 tackles, 1 TFL) and Kenny Willekes (2 TFL, 1 PBU, 3 QBH) lead the way there, and Raequan Williams, Brandon Randle, and Demetrius Cooper all add heft and the ability to get a push into the backfield to terrorize the QB and RBs.

If that defensive front is able to contain the Irish read-option, look for ND offensive coordinator Chip Long to try to open things up with QB Brandon Wimbush through the air. The junior QB is still getting everything in order with his passing game, having thrown for just 491 yards, 2 TD, and 2 INT this year while completing only 50.5% of his passes.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Boston College Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

If he’s able to get some time from his offensive line (this remains to be seen, considering the beating they let Georgia’s defensive line put on them), Wimbush will be looking to toss the ball to WR Equanimeous St. Brown first and foremost. St. Brown has been relatively quiet this season with just 7 catches for 99 yards and a touchdown, but it’s really been through no fault of his own, considering Wimbush’s struggles and the lack of much of a reliable second option to take some of the defense’s focus off of him.

That second option may be beginning to arrive, though, in the form of TE Alizé Mack, who now has 9 catches for 101 yards on the season, and at 6’4” and 251 pounds is an absolute matchup nightmare considering he runs more like a receiver than a tight end. However, even Mack has had a few issues catching the ball this season, so hopefully he’s now shaken off the rust from his yearlong absence due to academics and is ready to make some plays alongside St. Brown.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Elsewhere in the receiving corps, TE Durham Smythe, WR Cameron Smith, and WR Chris Finke have all chipped in a little bit here and there this season, but will all need to step up and make a few more plays for the Irish to have any chance of passing successfully against the 8th-best pass defense in the country. Junior WR CJ Sanders could be a wildcard here as well, as he hasn’t gotten in on offense this year despite being one of the Irish’s most proven big-play guys, both on kick returns and on screen passes and throws underneath the defense when he was a starting slot receiver last season.

No matter which receivers are out there for ND, that 8th-ranked MSU pass defense has to like its chances against such a pedestrian passing attack. DBs Khari Willis (11 tackles) and Matt Morrissey (7 tackles, 1.5 TFL) lead the way for that group, but it’s a few other guys who have made the big plays so far this season.

David Dowell has broken up multiple passes already this season, and the duo of Tyson Smith and Josiah Scott have come up with an interception each. These guys will definitely look to take advantage of Wimbush’s problems with accuracy and a potentially bothersome pass rush he will have to deal with, that could force him into making some questionable throws ripe for being intercepted.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams!!!?!?!

Michigan State’s kicker is Matt Coghlin, a freshman from Cincinnati who has yet to have to kick a field goal this season. He’s 9-for-9 on extra points, for whatever that’s worth.

That’s all I have for this section, because we all know the Notre Dame punt return game is just going to be Chris Finke fair-catching a lot, except for one or two times when he should, but won’t.

Alright, Wrap It Up, Pat...Who Ya Got?

I think this will be another close game for the Fighting Irish, just as the Georgia game was a couple weeks ago. However, considering ND will be on the road, facing another elite defense capable of shutting down the running game and forcing Wimbush to try to win the game with his arm, I don’t think Notre Dame will be able to score enough points to win.

Michigan State’s offense may not be elite by any means, but they have enough weapons and balance to score just enough on Mike Elko’s revamped defense. Lewerke is the best QB that ND has faced this season (not saying a WHOLE lot there, but still), and his dual-threat capabilities make him all the more difficult to contain. I think between the constant barrage of talented running backs and Lewerke’s ability to throw the ball, the Spartans eke out a one-touchdown and one-two-point-conversion win tomorrow evening, 31-23.