College Football Preview: Michigan State vs. Notre Dame

KankaSenior Analyst ISeptember 15, 2009

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 12:  Armando Allen #5 of Notre Dame runs with the ball against Michigan at Michigan Stadium on September 12, 2009 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Domenic Centofanti/Getty Images)

Michigan State Run Offense vs. Notre Dame Run Defense

In the 90's, Michigan State was Wide Receiver U.

This decade, their offense has become known for its steady stable of running backs. Even with the departure of Javon Ringer, MSU is still deep at the position. The starter is small redshirt freshman, No. 24 Caulton Ray, who is averaging 14 carries and 61 yards per game.

Ray also has the team's lone rushing touchdown on the year. He is complemented by several backups, notably No. 22 Larry Caper, who is averaging six to seven carries and 33.5 yards per game.

The Spartans are employing a dual quarterback system this year, and of the two, No. 7 Keith Nichol is the runner. Nichol has had moderate success on the ground, averaging three to four carries and 17.5 yards per game.

Ray is averaging 4.4 yards per carry for the Spartans, and Caper and Nichol are both above five yards per carry. Michigan State uses a fullback, but no Spartan fullback has carried the ball yet.

No. 82 Keshawn Martin has the team's lone carry made by a receiver, but don't rule out more by Martin and the other wideouts against Notre Dame. After two weeks of seeing variations on the veer option, Notre Dame will finally face a traditional pro-style offense.

That may be a blessing or a curse for a run defense that has been gashed to the tune of 171.5 yards per game so far. Leading tacklers for the team continue to be safeties Kyle McCarthy and Harrison Smith, followed by linebackers Brian Smith and Toryan Smith.

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Injuries limited Toryan's playing time in the Michigan game, but he should be back to full strength now. He'll need another performance like the one he had against Nevada to keep these MSU rushers at bay. Toryan is leading the team in tackles for a loss with 3.5, followed by Brian Smith, and Darius Fleming with 2.0 apiece.

Notre Dame Run Offense vs. Michigan State Run Defense

Last week, the Irish faithful saw a running performance perhaps unprecedented in the Weis era. It wasn't just Armando Allen's final numbers on the day, it was the way he ran—fighting and pushing for every yard he could get and refusing to go down until gang-tackled.

Allen is the definite starter on this team, averaging 18 carries and 105.5 yards per game. Jonas Gray has established himself as the top backup, but it remains to be seen how a fumble in the Michigan game will affect the sophomore's psyche.

Gray is averaging six carries and 25 yards per game. Allen is averaging 5.9 yards per carry to Gray's 4.2. James Aldridge is doubtful for Saturday's game, which likely means more of Robert Hughes and Bobby Burger at fullback.

Hughes is averaging 3-4 carries and 10 yards per game, while Burger is used exclusively as a blocker—where he has excelled. MSU's run defense has been stout this year, holding opponents to 64.0 yards per game.

One may chalk that up to the quality of opponents the Spartans have faced thus far, but Michigan State has two things working in their favor.

One, they held all-everything quarterback Dan LeFevour to just 0.8 yards per carry last week. And two, MSU's early success against the run has always been a sign of things to come, especially against the Irish.

The star of Michigan State's defense is middle linebacker No. 53 Greg Jones. Jones is the only MSU player with multiple tackles for a loss (he has 4.0 on the year), and he has almost twice as many overall tackles as any other member of the team.

Michigan State has undersized defensive ends, mostly weighing in under 250 pounds. So if the Irish call for more outside runs this week, it not only keeps the ball carrier away from Greg Jones (at least momentarily), it also lets Paul Duncan and Sam Young impose their decided weight advantage on those MSU ends.

Michigan State Pass Offense vs. Notre Dame Pass Defense

Michigan State balances its effective running game with an efficient passing game. "Running quarterback" Keith Nichol has only completed 46.2 percent of his passes, but he does have three touchdowns.

Starter No. 8 Kirk Cousins meanwhile, has completed a Clausen-esque 65.7 percent of his passes with four touchdowns. On the average day, Cousins will complete 12 of 18 passes for 173.5 yards, while Nichol will complete 6 of 13 for 93 yards.

Neither quarterback has thrown an interception on the season.

If Michigan State is to win back the title of Wide Receiver U, it will be on the shoulders of senior wideout No. 25 Blair White. White is averaging eight catches, two touchdowns, and 133.5 yards per game.

Not to be forgotten is White's opposite number, No. 3 BJ Cunningham. Cunningham has two touchdown receptions of his own, and is averaging at least three catches and 58.5 yards per game.

A trio of tight ends—No. 83 Charlie Gantt, No. 88 Brian Linthicum, and No. 80 Dion Sims—each have three catches and one touchdown on the year, so Notre Dame will have to look out for these tall threats in the red zone.

Michigan State has seven passing touchdowns to only one on the ground, so it's time for Notre Dame's hyped secondary to put up or shut up.

The Irish are holding opponents to 197 passing yards per game, a respectable number. But it's the way that Notre Dame has done it that has caused some gnashing of teeth, as defensive backs seem to play soft in coverage to go for the sure tackle instead of trying to defend the pass itself.

Four Irish have registered sacks, including Brian and Toryan Smith, Darius Fleming, and John Ryan. Ryan has played well in 2009, hoping to erase his forgettable 2007 and 2008 seasons.

Notre Dame Pass Offense vs. Michigan State Pass Defense

Jimmy Clausen is still an improved quarterback, even if he isn't going to hit on 90 percent of his passes every game. On an average day, the junior will connect on 20 of 30 passes for 325.5 yards and 3-4 touchdowns. Most importantly, Clausen has yet to throw a pass to the opposite jerseys this year.

Notre Dame's top receivers are Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, each of whom is averaging six catches per game. Tate is averaging 87 yards per game and has two touchdowns on the year. Floyd is averaging 160 yards per game and has four touchdowns on the year.

The sophomore Floyd should be good to go this weekend after a gash from the Big House warning track required 15 stitches.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph is averaging 3-4 catches and 33.5 yards per game. Meanwhile, Armando Allen hasn't been as much of a factor in the passing game this year as he has in the past. But that's probably due to the increase in passes to Tate and Floyd more than anything else.

Allen is averaging 2-3 catches and 24.5 yards per game. Michigan State's pass defense is giving up 225 yards per game. But that number is a bit misleading, as the Spartans gave up only 98 passing yards to Montana State, but 352 to Central Michigan.

A number of Spartans have recorded a sack this year, including Greg Jones, defensive tackle No. 99 Jerel Worthy, and ends No. 58 Trevor Anderson, No. 89 Colin Neely, and No. 54 David Rolf. MSU's lone interception was scored by cornerback No. 9 Jeremy Ware.

Special Teams

No. 14 Brett Swenson is Michigan State's place-kicker for the fourth straight year, and for good reason. Swenson is perfect on the season, converting three field goals in the 30-39 yard range, plus one from 45 yards.

Freshman Nick Tausch missed from 28 yards in his first collegiate attempt last week, but went on to convert 34 and 42-yarders. MSU can be proud of its kickers, as Lou Groza candidate Brett Swenson is joined by Ray Guy candidate No. 18 Aaron Bates at punter.

Bates is certainly making his case for the award, as he's averaging 48.9 yards per punt on the season. Four of Bates's seven punts have gone for 50 or more yards, including his long of 57.

Michigan State is giving up 8.8 yards per punt return, a very respectable number. Notre Dame's Eric Maust is averaging 40.3 yards per punt with a long of 46, but has been inconsistent at times this year. Still, opponents have yet to be able to make a return on a Maust punt.

Michigan State's primary kick returner is No. 41 Glenn Winston, another member of their stable of running backs. Winston is averaging 23 yards per return with a long of 38. Nick Tausch is averaging 60.5 yards per kickoff, but the Irish kickoff team hasn't lived up to its past performance, giving up an average of 24.2 yards per return.

That gives opponents an average start on the 34 yard line. Theo Riddick and Barry Gallup have shared kick return duties for the Irish. Riddick has two returns, each for 23 yards. Gallup has one return for 52 yards and another for 25.

Kickoff duties for Michigan State have been split between Brett Swenson and No. 4 Dan Conroy. Both are averaging about 64 yards per kick, and Conroy has the lone touchback between them.

MSU is giving up 22.4 yards per kick return, leaving opponents with an average starting field position around the 28 yard line.

Keshawn Martin returns punts for the Spartans. He's averaging 12.2 yards per return with a long of 26. Golden Tate is Notre Dame's punt returner. He's only had one chance so far this year though, and it went for -2 yards.

Notre Dame Players to Watch:

Armando Allen, Michael Floyd, Toryan Smith, Brian Smith, Eric Maust, Barry Gallup


Notre Dame: 34, Michigan State: 23

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