For Dan Scofield's take on this game, click here.
Which team will reign supreme on Saturday afternoon? Irish fan Dan Scofield and I go head-to-head analyzing the rivalry matchup between Notre Dame and Michigan State.
The similarities between these two teams are striking. Both entered the 2009 season with high expectations after a marked improvement in 2008. Both enjoyed blowout wins in week one, followed by devastating last-second losses in week two to teams running the spread offense.
In week three, both teams will look to rebound from disappointing losses and get their season back on track. Only one team will come out on top and take home the Megaphone Trophy. Notre Dame leads the all-time series 44-27-1, but Michigan State is 9-3 against the Irish since 1997.
What follows are five reasons why the Spartans will continue their success against the Irish this Saturday.
1. Spartan Stadium South
It's been sixteen years since Notre Dame has been able to beat Michigan State in South Bend, a run of six straight games. No other Irish opponent can match that mark, not even the vaunted USC Trojans. All of their success in Notre Dame Stadium means that Michigan State isn't intimidated by the 80,000 fans, or the history of the Fighting Irish.
Thousands of Spartan fans—as well as the Spartan Marching Band—will be making the short journey to South Bend as they do every time these two meet. This heavy Spartan presence creates an environment that's downright friendly at times. Michigan State loves making this trip, and this year will be no exception.
Remember, a few of the teams that have been part of this six-game streak haven't exactly been world-beaters. John L. Smith's 5-6 team from 2005 has a victory there, as well as his 2003 team, which spent the week prior to the Notre Dame trip losing to Louisiana Tech from the FCS.
Heck, even Bobby Williams, a coach with a reputation among Spartans that's almost as unfavorable as that of John L., managed a win in South Bend.
Maybe Touchdown Jesus is a Spartan at heart.
2. The Spartan Phalanx
Otherwise known as the chief military unit of the ancient Spartan military. A highly-trained, very dangerous defensive force, much like what Mark Dantonio has quietly assembled in East Lansing.
I won't make any attempt to excuse the defensive performance against Central Michigan last week. In fact, I agree with the notion that defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi called a terrible game. But, Charlie Weis has struggled with the Michigan State defense for years now.
In 2007, the last time these teams battled in South Bend, Notre Dame managed just 203 yards of total offense while accumulating only nine first downs. The Irish rushed for 117 yards, averaging only 3.3 yards per carry. Jimmy Clausen wasn't any better, throwing for just 86 yards.
As a brief aside, some might say it's unfair to judge Clausen by a performance during his freshman year. If Matt Barkley, Tate Forcier and Robert Griffin (Baylor, 2008) can be put under the microscope as freshmen, Clausen is fair game as well.
Last season, the Irish rushing game was abysmal against the Spartans. Notre Dame managed just 16 yards on 22 carries, in what I believe was their worst rushing output of all time. The passing game was better, with Clausen throwing for 242. But, the Spartans also forced two interceptions.
Even going back to 2006—the infamous John L. Smith coaching second-half coaching meltdown—you can see a struggling Irish offense. Remember, that Notre Dame team went to a BCS bowl. They began the game with four straight drives ending in a punt—three of those drives were three-and-out. On seven drives, they failed to gain more than five yards. The rushing game also struggled once again, just 47 yards on 17 carries.
3. Key Returns
The Spartans have been without two key offensive contributors to start the season, but both could return to action this Saturday against Notre Dame. Center Joel Nitchman sprained his knee early in the game against Montana State and did not play against Central Michigan. It's possible that he could see limited action against Notre Dame, giving the Spartans a veteran presence on the line that was sorely missed against CMU.
Wide receiver Mark Dell could also see a good amount of playing time against the Irish. He's been out with a nagging shoulder injury so far, but warmed up before the CMU game last week and seems likely to return against Notre Dame. Dell's return would mean that the passing game would no longer have to rely on Keshawn Martin—who has a tendency to drop passes—in his place.
Adding Dell back into the mix would give the Spartans a lot of potency through the air, with Blair White, Dell and B.J. Cunningham working against the Irish secondary. This should be a favorable matchup for the Spartans, as the Irish secondary has surrendered roughly seven yards per passing attempt this season. That number rises to 10.5 yards when you only consider completions.
Dell's return should put a lot of strain on the Irish secondary. He's quick, he's sure-handed, and he's hungry to return to the field.
4. The Narduzzi Rebound
Pat Narduzzi has coached bad games before, but he has a habit of quickly bouncing back and locking down on defense the very next week.
The single worst game of his tenure at Michigan State came in 2007 against Northwestern, a spread offense much like Central Michigan's. In that game, Northwestern racked up 611 yards of total offense, including 520 through the air. Narduzzi was quoted after the game as saying, "We couldn't have stopped East Lansing High School today."
How did he change things the next week against Indiana, another team with a mobile quarterback and spread offense?
The Hoosiers were held to 193 yards of total offense, and coughed up two fumbles. Remember, this Hoosier team put up huge offensive numbers in 2007 and went to a bowl, they weren't your average four or five win Indiana team.They had a very potent receiver in James Hardy, and quarterback Kellen Lewis was always a threat to run.
Yet, against the Spartans just a week after MSU's defense had been a sieve, they couldn't move the ball.
Narduzzi will make the necessary adjustments in the defense after last week's meltdown. He and Dantonio—a secondary specialist—won't let their secondary get burned for a second time in a row. They'll come out with a good game plan against the Irish.
It helps that Notre Dame doesn't run the same scheme as Central Michigan. The Chippewas relied almost entirely on wide receiver screens and short out routes to pick up their yardage. While Notre Dame's receivers are more talented than those of Central, the Irish are, schematically speaking, a more favorable matchup for the Spartans.
5. The Aerial Attack
In 2008, the Spartans passed for an anemic 11 touchdowns on the entire season. Defenses had the luxury of essentially ignoring the passing game while stacking the box to prevent Javon Ringer from running wild.
The 2009 edition of the Spartan offense has a distinctly different feel.
The tandem of Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol have already thrown for seven touchdown passes. They'll likely eclipse last season's total sometime in the next two weeks, with over half the season remaining. This new-found calm and collected presence in the pocket could throw a wrench into Notre Dame defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta's plans.
Tenuta's passion for blitzing is no secret, but it could leave the Irish secondary out on an island if he gets too aggressive on Saturday. So far, Michigan State's offensive line has only surrendered one sack, so it seems likely that to get pressure, Tenuta would have to bring at least six bodies on the blitz, maybe seven.
Doing so would give the MSU quarterbacks ample opportunity to connect with one of their talented wide receivers, or a member of the excellent stable of tight ends that Mark Dantonio has at his disposal.
What's more, while Irish QB Jimmy Clausen is being praised for his performance under center so far this season, Spartan QB Kirk Cousins is quietly putting together similar numbers.
In shared playing time this season, Cousins is completing 65.7 percent of his passes, compared to 66.7 percent for Clausen. Cousins is averaging 9.91 yards per attempt, compared to 10.85 for Clausen. Cousins' quarterback rating is 186.71, not too far off Clausen's 196.31. Lastly, Cousins is throwing a touchdown every 8.75 attempts, compared to 8.57 for Clausen.
Those numbers confirm what Spartan fans already know—that Cousins offers a very legitimate threat to defenses. While most big-name analysts would say that Clausen is head and shoulders above Cousins, the numbers say that the gap is not that large. This is not an insult to Clausen, but rather a compliment to Cousins, who is playing like a seasoned vet in his first chance at extended action in a game.
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