As spring practices commence around the nation, I’ll be looking at each of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents in the 2012 season and addressing some key questions and some potential breakout players.
This installment features coach Mark Dantonio's Michigan State Spartans, who won the Big Ten Legends Division last year before falling to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game. They take the field for the first time on March 27, with their spring game coming on April 28.
Later this week, we’ll conclude our pre-spring previews with a look at Stanford.
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Date: September 15
Location: Spartan Stadium (East Lansing, MI)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 31, Michigan State 13 (2011)
Last Meeting in East Lansing: Michigan State 34, Notre Dame 31 (OT) (2010)
Current Streak: Notre Dame: 1
Record: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten)
Bowl: Outback Bowl (def. Georgia 33-30 in 3OT)
Leading Passer: Kirk Cousins (Sr.) – 267-for-419, 3,316 yards, 25 TD, 10 INT
Leading Rusher: Le’Veon Bell (So.) – 182 rushes, 948 yards, 13 TD
Leading Receiver: B.J. Cunningham (Sr.) – 79 catches, 1,306 yards, 12 TD
Three-year starter Kirk Cousins capped a great career in East Lansing with a 3,000-yard season, a division title, and a comeback victory over Georgia in his final game. Cousins was the ultimate leader, including delivering an inspiring speech at Big Ten Media Days last July.
Cousins’ success and durability kept backup Andrew Maxwell on the sidelines for the past two seasons. Maxwell has thrown 51 passes the past two seasons, most of those coming long after the games’ outcomes were decided.
The junior has almost identical size to Cousins at 6’3” and just over 200 pounds, but will not have the weapons to throw to with whom Cousins enjoyed so much success over the past couple seasons. Arm strength is Maxwell’s biggest asset, but he’s yet to play against elite competition, facing only Florida Atlantic, Central Michigan, and Indiana last season.
The Spartans received a bit of a shock after the season when junior running back Edwin Baker declared for the NFL Draft. Baker split carries last year with Le’Veon Bell (182-170 in favor of Bell), but fell out of favor late in the season, topping 50 yards only once after a 167-yard performance against Michigan.
Bell had a coming out party of sorts as a freshman against Notre Dame in 2010, with 114 yards and a long touchdown run. The Irish clamped down on Bell last year, however, holding him to just 27 yards. Bell is far bigger than Baker at around 235 pounds, but doesn’t have the Baker’s elite speed.
Senior Larry Caper has had a relatively disappointing career in East Lansing. He’s most notable in Notre Dame annals for a key drop late in a 33-30 loss to the Irish in 2009. He had only 30 carries a year ago as a junior, down 75 percent from his 120-carry freshman season. He’ll compete with sophomore Nick Hill for the backup role behind Bell.
Michigan State’s biggest question mark heading into the spring is at wide receiver. Not a single wide receiver currently on the roster caught a touchdown pass in 2011. All-Big Ten performer B.J. Cunningham departs after a 1,300-yard season and 12 touchdowns.
Second-leading receiver Keshawn Martin and converted quarterback Keith Nichol, the hero of the Spartans upset of Wisconsin, also must be replaced. The Spartans have requested a waiver for immediate eligibility for DeAnthony Arnett. The Tennessee transfer was rated the No. 12 receiver by Rivals.com in the 2011 class. The NCAA has not ruled on the waiver request.
Sophomore Tony Lippett is a reserve cornerback, but did catch four passes. He’ll likely work at both positions during the spring. Tight end Dion Sims will be a valuable weapon in the red zone. He can’t stretch the field like Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert, but three of his 12 reception last seasons came for touchdowns.
Despite the losses at the skill positions, the Spartans will have an experienced offensive front returning. Left guard Joel Foreman, who missed much of the loss to Notre Dame last year with an injury, is the lone starter who departs. His replacement in that game, Ethan Ruhland, is a top candidate to replace Foreman.
Tackles Dan France and Fou Fonoti both return on the edges, hoping to duplicate last year’s performance where the line allowed only 16 sacks, second fewest in the Big Ten. Cousins’ instincts and experience saved the team a number of additional sacks, but the line performed well in pass blocking.
Chris McDonald has been a mainstay at right guard since 2010 and should be the true leader of the unit with Foreman gone. Sophomore Travis Jackson should hold off classmate Jack Allen to retain the starting center role. The line must be better in the running game (78th in FBS in 2011) with the losses suffered at wide receiver.
Jerel Worthy and William Gholston became a lethal one-two punch along the defensive front last season. The two giants combined for 8.5 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss. Worthy left early for the NFL, but Gholston has All-American potential at defensive end. He tends to lose control of his emotions at times, but has freakish size and ability.
Although they play a 4-3 alignment, Pat Narduzzi’s defense has a designed nose tackle role, which will again be manned by Anthony Rashad White. You’ll rarely see White’s name on stat sheets, as he’s mostly a space-eater hoping to engage two blockers and free up those behind and beside him.
Marcus Rush earned one of the starting end spots last year as a redshirt freshman, and turned in a solid season with 58 tackles and 4 sacks. He’ll bookend the line with Gholston. Worthy’s replacement is still up in the air, with 320-pound junior Micajah Reynolds possibly sliding over from nose tackle.
The Spartans might just have the best linebacking corps in the Big Ten. All three starters return, including All-Big Ten second team member Max Bullough. The junior has good size for a MIKE linebacker at 6’3”, 245 pounds, and led the team in tackles a year ago with 89.
SAM linebacker Denicos Allen had more than double the number of sacks of any other Spartan last year, finishing with 11, including three of Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson in the Big Ten Championship Game. Allen is a bit undersized, but his speed makes him a significant threat in the pass rush.
Chris Norman is a steady but not spectacular player at the Spartan’s STAR linebacker positions. He’s not a pass rusher, but performs well against the run. All three primary backups are back as well. There is little to complain about with Michigan State’s linebackers.
In addition to Worthy, the Spartans were worried that they lose All-Big Ten cornerback Johnny Adams to the NFL Draft after last season. Adams decided to delay the professional ranks and will be back for his senior season. He had three interceptions in 2011, one of which he returned for a touchdown against Indiana.
Adams generally plays on the short side of the field in one-on-one situations, while Darqueze Dennard will be back to play the field corner role. Dennard matched his teammate’s three interceptions last year, including a pair in the Outback Bowl win.
The only loss in the secondary is free safety Trenton Robinson. Backup Kurtis Drummond played in 12 of 14 games last season and will fill Robinson’s shoes. The Spartans are set at strong safety with Isaiah Lewis, who was named to the All-Big Ten second team last year. His four interceptions tied for the team lead.
Dan Conroy connected on all 48 field goal attempts as a sophomore, and 17 of 23 field goals. He’s best known to Notre Dame fans for two kicks he never attempted – a successful fake field goal in 2010 to beat the Irish in overtime, and an unsuccessful fake in last season’s loss in South Bend.
Punter Mike Taylor was solid last season as a first-year punter, finishing fifth in the Big Ten with a 41 yards per punt average. Kickoff coverage was an issue last year, including in South Bend when George Atkinson III returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
The loss of Martin leaves a void in the punt return game. Hill will likely handle punt return duties this season, and will compete with Caper for not only the backup running back spot, but to be the primary kickoff returner as well.
Offense led the Spartans last season in their run to the Big Ten Championship Game, but the tables have turned heading into 2012. Despite the loss of Worthy, the defense will be one of the best in the conference, with Gholston a potential top 10 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
How quickly Maxwell and the new receivers can gel will determine how balanced Michigan State can be on offense. The running game should be productive if the passing game is good enough to keep defenses honest.
Notre Dame’s most complete game last season came against the Spartans, in which all three units made big plays. To get its first win in East Lansing since 2006, the Irish will need a similar effort. This will be the first measuring stick game for Notre Dame after failing almost every test it faced in 2011.