Notre Dame Football Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Michigan State
For Notre Dame fans, the third Saturday in September is synonymous with the Michigan State Spartans. The longtime rivals have played every year since 1997, but will take a two-year hiatus in the series following this season's meeting.
Mark Dantonio's Spartans were one of the biggest disappointments in college football last season, falling from No. 10 heading into their game with the Irish to 7-6. Michigan State failed to win a Big Ten home game for just the second time in 30 years.
A bowl victory gave the program some positive momentum heading into the offseason, but there are still some major losses on defense and a quarterback competition that needs to be settled. The Spartans kicked off spring drills last week and will play their spring game on Apr. 20.
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Date: Sept. 21
Site: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, Ind.)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 20, Michigan State 3 (2012)
Last Meeting at Notre Dame: Notre Dame 31, Michigan State 13 (2011)
Current Win Streak: Notre Dame—2
Record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)
Bowl: Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (defeated TCU, 17-16)
Leading Passer: Andrew Maxwell (Jr.)—234-of-246, 2,606 yards, 13 TDs, 9 INTs
Leading Rusher: Le'Veon Bell (Jr.)—382 carries, 1,793 yards, 12 TDs
Leading Receiver: Bennie Fowler (Jr.)—41 receptions, 524 yards, 4 TDs
We knew that Michigan State would miss Kirk Cousins last season, but we didn’t think they’d miss him that much. The Spartans' fall from 11-3 to 7-6 was not all due to the drop in quarterback play, however, Andrew Maxwell left a lot to be desired, especially in the team's 20-3 loss to Notre Dame in East Lansing, Mich.
Maxwell finished his junior year with just 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Now, he must make do without having Le’Veon Bell to hand the ball off to. He failed to complete 50 percent of his passes in each of the team’s final four games, which is an alarming statistic for a conservative offense.
Maxwell was benched in the bowl game in favor of rising junior Connor Cook, but retains an edge for the starting job heading into the spring. If there’s a silver lining for Sparty, it’s that Maxwell was better on the road than at home, and next year’s meeting with the Irish is in South Bend, Ind.
Not surprisingly, Bell took his talents to the NFL after last season, leaving Michigan State in a bit of a quandary with its backfield for the first time since Javon Ringer's departure after the 2008 season. Bell topped 200 yards three times last season, but managed just 77 against Notre Dame.
The leading returning rusher, junior Nick Hill, had just 21 carries for 48 yards last season. Hill is only 5'8", but, despite his size, he may be even more effective between the tackles than outside of them.
Junior Jeremy Langford and redshirt freshman Nick Tompkins could push Hill, but more than likely will battle for the No. 2 spot. However, the Spartans running game won't be the one-man show that it was with Bell in 2012.
The biggest concern for Michigan State heading into 2012 was wide receiver, as the Spartans did not return a player at the position who caught a touchdown in 2011. Things are much more stable in East Lansing than at this time a year ago, with each of the team's top five receivers from last year still on the roster.
The breakout player in this unit may be sophomore Aaron Burbridge. He was not part of the regular rotation when Notre Dame came to Spartan Stadium last September, but had a breakout game in October at Indiana with eight receptions for 134 yards. He closed the season with a game-winning touchdown against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Bennie Fowler, a fifth-year senior, led the team last year with 524 yards after an injury-riddled season in 2011. Junior De'Anthony Arnett should be more of a factor in his second season since transferring from Tennessee. The tight end position is a concern after Dion Sims, who caught six passes against the Irish last year, left early for the NFL.
The Spartans are likely to be a work in progress up front throughout the spring due to injuries and players working at multiple positions. The two anchors of the line, seniors Dan France and Fou Fonoti, could play either tackle or guard when the fall rolls around.
For a unit that lost both Fonoti and center Travis Jackson to injuries last season, it held up fairly well, allowing just 22 sacks and helping Bell finish third in the nation in rushing. Regardless of the alignment, this unit is not short on experience, as the top five are all fourth- or fifth-year players, with top backup Jack Allen a redshirt sophomore.
New co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman's background is in coaching offensive lines, so his addition should only help this unit. Michigan State should have one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten.
Star defensive end William Gholston was a bit of a disappointment last year, failing to make the All-Big Ten team. Despite his inconsistent play, his unsurprising decision to leave for the NFL leaves the Spartans a little thin on the defensive front.
Junior Marcus Rush is back at one end position, while sophomore Shilique Calhoun, who had a strong performance in the bowl game, slides in for Gholston. One of two starters also return at tackle. 330-pound nose tackle Anthony Rashad-White is no longer around to wreak havoc on interior offensive linemen, but senior Tyler Hoover returns at the other tackle spot.
Notre Dame was one of the few teams to have success on the ground against the Spartans last year, rushing for 122 yards. It's hard to say this unit will be better without a player with the talent of Gholston, but any drop-off should be minimal.
The Spartans have arguably the two best linebackers in the Big Ten in Denicos Allen and Max Bullough. Both seniors, the duo has combined to make 362 tackles over the past two seasons, helping Michigan State finishing ninth and eighth against the run in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Allen is somewhat undersized at just 5'11" but packs a powerful punch. Bullough is the prototypical middle linebacker—a cerebral run-stuffer with a hard-nosed style of play.
Chris Norman departs at the team's Star position, with junior Taiwan Jones the likely successor after serving as the primary backup last season. Jones could not ask for a better situation in his first year as a starter than to play with Bullough and Allen beside him.
For a unit that had such promise coming into 2012, the Spartans secondary left a little to be desired last season. The numbers won't show that, as the Spartans were third in the Big Ten against the pass and ninth in the nation.
Much like Gholston, cornerback Johnny Adams was a preseason All-American candidate, but ended up not even making the media's All-Big Ten team. Adams is now gone, shifting senior Darqueze Dennard, a coaches' All-Big Ten player, to the No. 1 cornerback role.
Sophomore Trae Waynes made his first start in the bowl game with Adams injured and figures to take over at boundary cornerback. Waynes has good size at 6'1" and is one of the team's fastest players.
The Spartans return one of the better safeties in the conference in senior Isaiah Lewis. Kurtis Drummond also returns at free safety, giving Michigan State two fourth-year players at the back end of its defense.
Notre Dame will forever be wary of "Little Giants", the fake field goal that stunned the Irish in 2010, but Michigan State's conventional special teams also could present some problems. Junior Mike Sadler and senior Dan Conroy both return to handle punting and place-kicking duties respectively.
Sadler led the Big Ten with a 43.3 yards per punt average. Conroy, who as a freshman was denied the opportunity to kick a game-tying field goal in favor of "Little Giants", is now a seasoned veteran. He converted 23-of-32 attempts last season, including four of five in less-than-friendly conditions at Minnesota.
Hill was the primary kickoff returner last season, but may also add punt returns to his duties this year. Having your likely starting running back perform as both kick and punt returner is a risky proposition, but it may be a chance Dantonio is willing to take to add a jolt to a return game that wasn't very effective a year ago.
Michigan State is likely to be a bit undervalued this season after last year's disappointment. That suits Dantonio, a coach who is very content without any bells and whistles, just fine.
The schedule is fairly light, with Ohio State and Wisconsin rotating off the schedule in favor of Illinois and Purdue, although there are road trips to Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern in addition to the game in South Bend.
The defense should again be terrific, but Maxwell needs to be far better if the Spartans hope to contend for a Big Ten title, especially without Bell. Michigan State opens with Western Michigan, a rebuilding USF and Youngstown State at home, while Notre Dame will be coming off back-to-back road trips when the Spartans come to Notre Dame Stadium.
The Irish are the better team, but in what figures to be another low-scoring game between the two longtime rivals, one mistake could determine the outcome. Everett Golson was the far better quarterback in last season's meeting. If Maxwell can close the gap, Michigan State could steal bragging rights away until the teams meet again in 2016.