Michigan State (2-0) at Notre Dame (0-2)
Series Record: Notre Dame leads (46-32-1)
Last Time: Michigan State used “Little Giants” (Fake Field Goal) to stun the Irish in overtime.
Michigan State Offense: Through two games the Spartans have averaged 36 points per game although they have done this against Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic. Kirk Cousins returns to lead Michigan State and has picked up where he left off last year by posting an excellent start.
The Spartans also return two excellent running backs in Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell. In the first two games Baker has averaged almost six yards per carry while Bell has found the end zone three times. At the receiver position B.J Cunningham returns also after scoring nine touchdowns in the 2010 campaign.
Other receiving targets include Keshawn Martin and Brian Linthicum. In 2010, Sparty featured an explosive offense that averaged over 30 points per game up until the Alabama game. With many skill players returning and one of the best quarterbacks in the Big 10 this team should post similar numbers.
Notre Dame Defense: After so much preseason hype and bluster this unit has been a disappointment through two weeks. After a solid outing against South Florida, and steady play for three quarters versus Michigan the defense imploded by surrendering a multitude of big plays and 28 points in the fourth quarter versus Michigan.
Many people in the preseason lauded Bob Diaco and his defense for their late season improvement of a year ago and expected even bigger things in 2011. Many articles on various websites including the Bleacher Report touted the defense as one of the better units in the nation. In fact one particular article I read attempted to convince the readers that Notre Dame had an “SEC” defense.
It appears after two weeks that this SEC defense may be closer to Vanderbilt than Alabama. In two games the Irish have forced just three turnovers and contributed only three sacks.
In addition, they feature a starting strong safety and captain in Harrison Smith who has yet to make a play and a corner in Gary Gray who is a flat out liability in coverage.
Although Notre Dame has been okay at times on defense it is hard to pick against Michigan State here with the multitude of talented players they have at the skill positions. This is likely the most talented set of skill players the Irish will face collectively.
If there is one bright spot for the Irish it may that Michigan State plays more under control. I felt that last Saturday as the game became more chaotic and school yard like Denard Robinson began to play better.
In the second half, Brady Hoke more or less abandoned his game plan and just let Robinson try to make plays. Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins plays much more in control so in essence he may be easier to defend.
The flip side of that theory though is that Cousins is far more consistent and a much better passes than Robinson. With the consistent play of Kirk Cousins and excellent skill position talent it is hard to envision Michigan State scoring less than 30 points.
Notre Dame Offense: The Irish offense again put up 500 yards and this week produced 31 points in a tough loss at Michigan. Quarterback Tommy Rees while an upgrade over Dayne Crist still accounted for three turnovers two of which came in the red zone.
In addition, the offense committed five penalties and was forced to burn numerous timeouts in the first half as they appeared disorganized at times.
Finally, as the season goes expect to see more double coverage for Michael Floyd who now has 25 receptions in two games. Early in the Michigan game I was concerned as Rees seemed to look for Floyd on almost every play however, as the game went on he did a good job of finding other targets.
This offense has been very explosive at times through two weeks and if they can somehow eliminate turnovers they could become lethal.
Michigan State Defense: Again it is a little hard to gauge the Spartans through two weeks as they have played inferior competition. Michigan State returned six starters to open up the 2011 season. Upfront the Spartans feature four sophomores along the front seven.
This is probably the biggest game they will have played in so a large question will be how well do they perform against an experienced Notre Dame offensive line? The Spartans will also line up with some youth in the secondary and will face the tall order of dealing with Michael Floyd.
Edge: Notre Dame
Michigan State had to replace a good amount of defense for a defense that wasn’t great to begin with. I think the Irish will have success moving the ball but again will they finish?
Special Teams: Notre Dame's continued lackluster special teams were a focal point in Brian Kelly’s post game comments. John Goodman while securely fielding the ball averaged just 3.3 yards per punt return. In two games the Irish have eight total yards on punt returns.
The punt game has also been poor, Ben Turk actually punted worse vs. Michigan although he did get off his best punt of the year when he notched a 52-yarder. The Irish did feature a better kicking game as David Ruffer converted a short field goal and Kyle Brindza’s touchback late should have helped secure a victory.
Although Michigan State has played inferior competition, they’re statistically better than the Irish in almost every special teams category. One thing to keep your eye on for Michigan State has been the inconsistent play of place kicker Dan Conroy who is 2-4 on field goals with both misses under 30 yards. Can anyone say “Little Giants”.
Edge: Michigan State
Until the Irish show any consistency in this area, I would not give them an edge against a high school team in special teams play.
Intangibles: Michigan State rode a perfectly executed trick play to an 8-0 start and a share of the Big 10 title. This year Sparty has gotten off to a great start by blowing out two much weaker opponents.
They are ranked No. 17 and will be higher after this week's poll is released. With difficult Big 10 road trips to Iowa, Ohio State and Nebraska Sparty will look to build momentum for another Big 10 title run. The Irish are reeling after last week’s stunning finish. In a game that seemed under control the Irish found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and are now 0-2.
With problems in every phase of the game, Coach Kelly and his staff better re-group quickly or this could get ugly. At 8-7 when does the heat on Kelly intensify?
Edge: Michigan State
Final Analysis: Personally, I didn’t think Michigan State was that good last year and it showed in a blowout loss to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. However, I believe the heart-stopping win over Notre Dame and subsequent heart attack by Coach Mark Dantonio bonded the Spartans and helped spur their over-achievement.
With a tougher schedule I think that Michigan State will be hard pressed to duplicate their 11-2 performance from last year. The Irish on the other hand, appear lost.
Kelly looked almost crestfallen in his post game comments and as if he had no answers. Clearly any confidence this team possessed has gone by the boards. The Irish have problems in all phases of the game right now and until this is cleaned up things will likely get worse.
The question though is how much can you clean up in one week? Often in Notre Dame football lore the Irish have shined their brightest when all hope seemed lost.
So my heart says this weekend is the weekend the Irish turn it around and surprise an overconfident Michigan State team. However, my head says that the mistake ridden Irish will start the season an unthinkable 0-3. I’m going to go with my head this week.
Michigan State 36, Notre Dame 33