Michigan State's defensive coordinator has got a glorious toolbox to open up against offenses, and as he's shown in the past. when facing a young, inexperienced or limited quarterback he is quite willing to use every tool he has.
Look for Pat Narduzzi to employ multiple coverages, blitzes and defensive line games to bother first-year starter Everett Golson.
After struggling last week against Purdue's well-trained defensive line, headlined by Kawann Short, the Irish face another challenge up front in Week 3. Unlike Purdue, a team that relies on their four-man front to generate push and pressure, Michigan State is a club that likes to combine their players' talents with a flair for the dramatic.
This is a team that is physically capable of beating teams, including Notre Dame, straight up. However, Narduzzi's style is orchestrated chaos that creates mismatches, helps his teams win one-on-one battles and sometimes results in easy one-on-none wins for the defensive personnel.
Up front look for Michigan State's fronts to make use of their playmakers, most notably William Gholston. That means the use of slants, stunts and games to get penetration and put pressure on the offensive line to adjust on the fly.
These are not blitzes; they are defensive line techniques that change angles and change blocking assignments. Instead of simple bull rushes and gap controlling as they saw against Purdue, Notre Dame's offensive line will be tasked with post-snap passing off targets.
What part of Michigan State's high pressure attack will cause Notre Dame the most trouble?
If something goes wrong during a stunt then defensive linemen can go unblocked and that puts a guy like Gholston in Everett Golson's lap. Unfortunately for Golson, Brain Kelly and the rest of the Fighting Irish, only those five guys up front play a hand in this. If they're on the same page, they can block them; if they mess this up it will be a long day of struggling to run the ball and quarterbacks under pressure.
With the experience of Notre Dame's offensive line, the positive is they have seen plenty of pirate stunts, N-T games, T-E games and the like. It boils down to execution here.
Next come the linebackers who will make an impact in the blitz packages against both the run and the pass. Look for run blitzes early in a series, as Michigan State looks to get Max Bullough, Chris Norman and Denicos Allen involved in disrupting Notre Dame's running backs before they can get going. That means sending Bullough into the gap to blow up zone run before Cierre Wood can pick which hole he wants to take.
In the passing game the Spartans are equally as aggressive. The folks over at The Only Colors did a great breakdown of the "Double A" blitz. This is just one of the many things that Michigan State does to get their linebackers active. Narduzzi also likes to bring Denicos Allen screaming from the outside in to force a quarterback out of the pocket or into bad decisions.
For the guys in the back end, getting into the mix is a fairly regular occurrence as well. They bring corners, they get safeties into the mix and they gamble on the coverages in order to force the ball out quickly.
Once you think you've got it all figured out Narduzzi introduces another wrinkle: the bail out. He'll have linebackers mugged up into the line, staring Golson in the face, forcing the team to adjust protection; only to have those same backers bail into coverage and hope to intercept the hot route adjustments. Michigan State will show press coverage on the edge and then bail into zone, something that can confuse less-than-seasoned quarterbacks.
The Spartans have a lot of weapons at their disposal. They are going to put pressure on the offensive line and on Everett Golson to make decisions pre-snap, and then they will turn up that pressure after the snap by forcing players to react to them.
It is up to Notre Dame to be wholly prepared for this contest. Golson must know what calls are his to make and he must put his offense in the position to be successful, regardless of what the Spartans are showing.