A look at this week’s opponent…
One advantage the Spartans hold in this contest is: during the nationally televised spring game and the Furman contest the Spartans have been truly vanilla. In all three phases of the game (offense, defense and special teams) the Spartans have added new additions to the game plan. Not one of them is on film for the Irish to plan or prepare for.
The Irish are going to see several things that they have not seen from a Dantonio team in the past. I think a bye week in the second week is TERRIBLE for MSU, but if there is silver lining this is it. Notre Dame had to show a lot versus Texas and even a lot against Nevada in the first half and MSU has shown nothing.
Brian Kelly talked about facing the Spartans. He has won the last three versus Mark Dantonio. Since the Spartans last played in 2013 Kelly has had to watch a lot of film to check out the 2016 version of the Spartans.
He said, “You have to play physical football. They're a physical team. They've got a mind-set of the way they want to play. They're going to run the football. They're going to be physical on defense. So you have to be tough minded as a group, you know, on all three phases.”
He went on to add about the Spartans, “It's a winning team, so they know how to win. We watched film after film of their games in the Big Ten and there's a lot of opponents that have 'em on the ropes and they find a way to win whether it's Ohio State or Indiana who has a great chance to win the game, but they come back and beat them.”
And he finally said of the Spartans, “So it says that you obviously have that winning attitude that you can close out games. But I think more than anything else is Michigan State is going to play the game with that mental and physical toughness and you have to match it.”
When MSU has the ball…
I was very open before the MSU vs. Alabama game at the Cotton Bowl about the Spartans need to attack the Crimson Tide. I was brutally honest afterward that it was the MSU offensive coaching that cost the Spartans that game.
If you look at the score you will think I am nuts, but at halftime MSU was in the game and could have won it. It was to this day, the only game of the Dantonio era, that this staff cost them a game. Not to depress you, but to educate you on this game CLICK RIGHT HERE TO READ MY POST MORTEM fromthat Cotton Bowl loss.
The Spartans must come in and attack the Irish. The Spartans must take the game to the Irish. They must make the Leprechauns the victim if they want to be the victor. The Irish are stout at the point of attack, but their defensive backs have been exposed so far this year. They have been brutal. I love when MSU runs the ball, but to attack the Irish MSU must pass to run and use Tyler O’Connor as a runner as well.
Texas and Nevada both had success in the air against the Irish. As good as the Irish are in the front seven, they have struggled mightily in the back end. The key to a Spartan win is to force them to spend precious front seven resources defending against the pass.
Of course, MSU wants to control the ball and the clock by owning the time of possession stat, but Brian Kelly has told me before that “I think that (Time of possession) is the most overrated stat in history. If I score in thirty seconds and it takes you 20 minutes it just means my guys are in a better spot if we need a quick score.”
The Irish are a physically gifted team and the way you beat that is with tempo; speeding up and slowing the game down and attacking vertically. MSU loves to use misdirection and that plays well against the golden domers, but only in tempo. If you aren’t changing the tempo, the Irish athleticism can beat it. Short passes (TE, wheel routes, slants) in a tempo setting have given the Irish fits when also mixed with vertical passing.
Even if the Spartans aren’t having success with deep routes, you have to use them. Notre Dame loves to crowd the line of scrimmage and put as many as nine and ten players in the box. They tried against Texas, but six times Texas went deep simply to force the Irish to not crowd the box fearing the deep threat.
The Spartans need to use the deep ball at least four times, in my opinion, if for no other reason than to keep the Irish honest. If you see the Spartans occasionally throwing deep, don’t judge success by a catch (but no one would complain), but simply because of execution.
I was open with Dantonio this week. I mentioned how Dave Warner the Co-OC has admitted he should have attacked the perimeter and used more tempo versus Alabama. So does Coach think that the Spartans may finally do that versus the Irish?
His answer should encourage you. “I think as an offense we have to take advantage of the things that we see relative to weaknesses or things that we can exploit. That's what everybody does. At the same time, we've got to press the issue. I don't think there is any question about that and do what we do.”
He added, “Do what we do has been win the possession time, not turn it over, win the turnover battle, convert on third down, be effectively running the football. All those things. But there's a combination of things involved in being successful there, and again it will be a great challenge, I'm sure they'll be ready to play and it should be a great football game.”
Dantonio isn’t going to lie, so when you listen to what he said and read it, he gave you an ever so slim glance at the Spartans’ game plan. If that encouraged you, get ready to shout.
I talked with QB Tyler O’Connor about attacking and he said, “After having the game plan meeting with me and Coach Warner last night, we have a lot of opportunities to make a lot of plays. It's important for us to get the ball in our playmakers’ hands and we'll do that early and often, I guess, is what (co-offensive coordinator) Coach Warner says. We'll have them on their heels and kind of keep attacking because we know we're going to have to score points.”
O’Connor elaborated with some great news if you are a Spartan. “I do expect to run the ball more just because I didn't at all last week. Maybe that was design, maybe it wasn't by Coach Warner's game plan. But whatever is called upon is what's going to happen. Obviously, I told him many times I'm excited about running the ball. Whether it's to get four yards and first down and putting us in a better second-down situation, great. If it's breaking a long one, great; whatever's called upon. I'm not sure how he's going to call it yet. We kind of learn that throughout the week and understand that as the practice plays get called. But I'm ready for it and I'm excited about it.”
Did you notice O’Connor’s reference to not running the ball at all? That was a veiled reference to how much the Spartans have not shown. O’Connor can celebrate the brilliant Furman game plan of staying vanilla, setting the stage for success in South Bend.
Let’s travel back to Austin, Texas, and look at the Irish game versus the Longhorns for some really good information about how the Irish like to attack on defense. The first play I want us to dissect was in the first quarter.
The game was tied at seven. The Longhorns had a second and nine at the 14. The Longhorns had their QB in the gun with an offset RB to his right. They had one receiver out wide to the right, two wide outs to the left and a TE on the right. The play was a designed QB run to the left. The SAM OLB saw the TE pull from right to left and had the speed to follow the play down the line and cause a loss of two for Texas as the QB was caught behind the line.
The Notre Dame defense is loaded with speed and athleticism. The Longhorns “assumed” that they could get a QB out of the backfield and they didn’t account for the speed of the backers. Michigan State can’t do that. Texas adjusted and ran the same play two more times in the game and twice more mirrored from the other side. In all four cases they kept the TE home and had success, because they made adjustments and learned their lesson.
The Spartans need to attack and use tempo. It is my personal opinion that they have plenty of that available to them in some new schemes and looks. If they aren’t stubborn, I feel greatly encouraged about the Spartans chances of coming back to East Lansing victorious and bringing back home the Megaphone Trophy.
Dantonio was very sly, but he talked about watching the Texas film closely. He said, “We've got to do everything we can to exploit all avenues relative to playing them. So we've watched the film carefully.” Get ready to see Tyler O’Connor run the ball!
Prior to this Tuesday, I had this game chalked up as a loss because although I think the Spartans are better, I was concerned that they wouldn’t attack and be stubbornly committed to a philosophy over winning.
Sounds like Kelly shared my previous sentiments. He said this week, “Offensively, they're very methodical. They're extremely methodical. They're going to run the football, take their shots. A 4-yard completion in a passing game is just fine with them because it puts them in a very good situation to continue to run the football and stay controlled with the chains. Very good plan, very methodical, and it's a winning plan. And he's stuck to it, and rightfully so because it's put them in championship mode.”
MSU can still keep that three yards and a cloud of dust mindset, but who cares if you get your running yards by first passing, running your QB and using tempo to set up the run, rather than just run first. Call me a fool, because I thought they had learned their lesson prior to the Alabama game, but I do believe the lesson has been learned by the Spartans.
When MSU is on defense…
Coach Kelly said of the Spartan philosophy on defense, “You're getting an aggressive defensive front seven. They're blanketing you in the back end of the defense and they're forcing you into mistakes. One of the things we have done well is sustain drives on offense. They force you out of those long, sustained drives on offense because they keep the pressure on you defensively all the time.”
The Irish are led by QB DeShone Kizer who reminds me physically of Braxton Miller, the former OSU QB, but with the brain and talent of Marcus Mariota, the former Oregon QB. He is a beast. He can run and has a strong arm that can make any throw on the football field.
If allowed to sit in the pocket and pick the Spartans apart, Kizer and the Irish will destroy the Spartans. MSU must apply pressure and force him to make quick decisions.
Captain and MLB Riley Bullough has all the respect in the world for Kizer. He said, “I would say overall their offense is extremely athletic and they've got a lot of players. Kizer, he's an athletic guy, he can throw the ball but he can also take it and run. So to combat that, you've got to be fundamentally sound on defense. Everyone's got to do their job. They've got to do it every single play for the entire game.”
Dantonio addressed their offense saying, “I think (DeShone) Kizer gives you that guy that can stand in the pocket and be a traditional type passer, but at the same time can create. If you get a quarterback like that doing those type of things, very dangerous; has good rhythm to his throws, gets out of trouble, big, physical-type guy. The offensive line does a nice job, receivers catch the ball well, tailbacks run it effectively.”
Star safety and captain Demetrious Cox said of the highly touted Kizer, “Kizer's going to throw it up there. He has a lot of threats. All those guys that stretch the field, made explosive plays. So we'll have to be on our A-game, make 50-50 plays on the ball, things like that.”
Technique is critical against Kizer. You can’t arm tackle him. He has strength and he can break tackles. That is why you have to watch closely what Kizer does after a Spartan touches him. Is he going down or getting away? That is a key to this game.
As mentioned with the Spartans need to attack down the field, every time the Irish have lined up against Dantonio they have gone deep. They attack down the field to try and catch the zealous Spartans napping on the perimeter.
Here is a name I want you to remember. I think he is the best wide receiver in all of college football and a future star. Equanimeous St. Brown is a phenomenal freak of nature athlete for Notre Dame and a super young person. He has the ability of Charles Rogers with the football IQ of Marcus Mariota.
If MSU can get no more than one pass interference call defending him, I will consider that a win. He can do everything with the ball and has an ability to create separation from a defender unlike anyone not named Julio Jones in all of football. He will play and make a big impact on Sundays in the NFL. On Saturday the Irish will target him when the Spartans have him in single coverage.
They will target him when double covered as well, but the Spartan defensive backs must expect him to be a target when in single and the front seven must get pressure on Kizer to help out their defensive backs.
Mike Tressel, the MSU Co-DC, knows that the Irish are going to test Michigan State with the deep ball. It is part of their DNA and he said he spent extra time this week preparing his Spartans for it.
“First of all, you have to anticipate. You have to know that it’s going to happen. And quite honestly, if some of the underneath stuff happens, those aren’t 20-yard plays or automatic first downs on a pass interference. We are anticipating it. We will try and get them in some better situations without talking about how doing that. We know that is what is going to happen.”
The Irish have what many believe (including me) the best offensive line in all of college football. That doesn’t mean the Spartans can’t combat it, they simply have to be smart. Being gap and assignment sound is critical. Let me explain in more detail.
Let’s go back to the Notre Dame game vs. Texas and look close at some plays. In the first quarter the Irish had a 2/10 at their own 22. They were in the gun with an offset RB to the right of Kizer. They had three wide outs to the left and one to the right. They spread the field and went right up the A gap for 53 yards.
They didn’t want to allow the Longhorns to keep them from running so they did what I want to see from the Spartans on offense and spread the field to force the Horns out of the box and they had success running the ball.
79% of the Irish rushing yards came in some form of moderated spread to keep the Horns out of the box. That is great coaching. MSU will use as much man to man from their defensive backs to allow extra guys to blitz, but they have to play fast, furious, and violently.
Remember the Irish loss to Texas because their defense was attacked and failed. Not because of their offense. It played well. The MSU defense is better than Texas, but the Irish are still going to score some points. That is why the Spartans must attack.
Another play we need to look at from the Texas game illustrates another key ingredient to a win. In the second quarter with 3:59 on the clock the Irish were facing a first and ten at the Texas 30. Now it was the seventh play of the Irish drive. The QB was in the gun with two receivers to his left and three to his right. The X (inside) WR on the left ran to the outside towards the sideline (creating a pick against the defensive back) and the Z receiver on the left ran to the underside (towards the middle of the field) as the two DB’s got confused with the wide outs crossing (pick) the Z got space and took the pass to the end zone for a touchdown.
The Irish are going to always stay on the attack. They will continue to take shots down the field. With MSU keeping their defensive backs often in one-on-one coverage so they can get pressure that is a big key to this game.
Demetrious Cox likes that, but warns, “It’s all about technique. Guys are going to play fast on both teams. We've got to play sound technique, doing little things down the field. Getting our hands on guys early off the line. Certain things like that, like (assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator) Coach Barnett tried to teach us early on. Really also not having any communication breakdowns as well, because I feel like we have a great scheme, great game plan for that going in. But if we stick to it and play with good deep ball judgment and things like that, we'll be fine.”
I know Brian Kelly. I know Brian Kelly well. He shares an offensive philology with the great ICONIC American General George Patton. “Always be on the attack.” Every time you watch the Irish you must understand that he is coming. MSU can handle that, they simply must mirror it.
Say what you want about Brian Kelly, but he has won the last three versus Dantonio who is 3-4 against the Irish. This rivalry has been played since 1897 (119 years) making it the 27th oldest rivalry in all of college football.
Kelly referenced why he thinks he has had success against Dantonio. “Michigan State is known for taking away the football, coming up with big plays, and I think we've probably stayed away from that. So I think if I was to look at it and I haven't looked at it, I would bet that we probably haven't turned it over given them really good field position and we've probably made big plays on defense.”
Remember the rule of five. If MSU wins that, this game is over. For those who don't remember it, it has to do with sacks and turnovers. If the Spartans have three sacks and give up two that means they are plus one. If they then get four turnovers and give up only one that means they are plus three. That would give them a plus four for the day. They want to get to a plus five ratio at least every game.
The bye week coming on week two is terrible. Dantonio and his team played on a Friday night and waited two Saturdays to get to South Bend.
Dantonio referenced his team, “We're looking forward to this opportunity. Again, we've waited. I don't think there is anybody in our program that wanted to sit last weekend. So I anticipate our guys being ready to go, enthusiastic, and it will be fun to go down there. There will be 10-15,000 Spartan fans there as well. Always has been, that makes it exciting as well.
Tyler O’Connor said of the long layoff, “It's definitely been a long week off. Even after playing on a Friday and having all day Saturday to watch college football and everything and then games on Sunday and Monday, that was a long weekend in itself. Then to have to go in the next weekend and do it all over again. It's definitely been a long, long time. We've been working, and we had a tough bye week. We had our toughest bye week that we've had since we've been here over the past two years and rightfully so. We need it early in the season and also a big-time opponent.”
No doubt the Irish will have an advantage over a Spartan team that will be naturally rusty. But the Spartans also had time for some players to heal physically after what was one of the most physical camps in the Mark Dantonio era.
There is one other intangible that is not being talked about. For the Irish many (including me) feel that unless they go undefeated they have a very difficult road to getting into the College Football Playoff.
Many feel that they are out of the race now after the loss to Texas. This season brought high hopes (as usual) in South Bend, but unlike some past years they were realistic hopes. A loss Saturday to the Spartans essentially ends their season in week two.
Desperation plays on the side of the Irish this week. They will leave no stone unturned and when teams are desperate anything can happen. Rusty from the long layoff, will the Spartans match the intensity of the men in the gold helmets?
Until Tuesday I said all off season that I thought MSU would lose this game. I said multiple times that I thought MSU was the better team, but with their penchant to NOT ATTACK in big games, I thought the Spartans would be rusty and get behind and unable to catch up.
Hearing Co-OC Dave Warner admit that he had “learned” from not attacking Alabama was encouraging to me. Listening to Mark Dantonio talk about the opportunities that Texas exposed and Tyler O’Connor reference some running I got intrigued.
If MSU fails to attack I will have learned my lesson. I have been sold that they have learned their lesson. I love this Spartan team if they “let the lion out of the cage” and I think they will.
I say 31-30 Michigan State!