Earlier this week I was contacted by Frank from the Unofficial Home of Notre Dame blog. He’s been kind enough to write a Notre Dame preview for us. You can also check out the MSU preview I wrote for them over on their site. Luckily, they were kinder to me than they were to LVS over at Inside the Irish.
It wouldn’t be the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame is there wasn’t a good, old-fashioned quarterback controversy would it? After a fairly impressive performance from sophomore Everett Golson, Kelly called on Tommy Rees to lead what turned out to be the game winning field goal drive last week after Golson lost a fumble deep in his own territory to set up Purdue’s game tying score.
Before his miscue, Golson was 21 of 31 for 289 yards and a touchdown. The first year starter missed on some throws and left a couple of touchdown passes on the field, but overall he was very solid for making his second career start. Still, when the game was on the line, Kelly sent in his incumbent starter fresh off his one game suspension.
After the game and ever since Kelly has reiterated that Golson is starting quarterback, but questions on just how long he will stick with him should he struggle against stronger defenses now persist. As we saw last year, Kelly can have a quick trigger finger with his quarterbacks.
In Golson Notre Dame has a quarterback that can hurt you with his arm and potentially his legs. I say potentially because despite a high school highlight reel full of athletic runs and escapes, Golson has yet to really showcase that skill since assuming the starting role. As with most young, inexperienced quarterbacks, Golson remains gun shy and hesitant at times – almost being too conscious of making a mistake to the point of it holding him back.
What we have seen from Golson in his two starts however is a quarterback with a lot of poise and a really strong arm. He took some hits and had some passes sail on him this past weekend, but we’ve also seen a pretty accurate quarterback as well.
On the ground the Irish gashed an overmatched Navy defense to the tune of 293 yards in the season opener, but Purdue had it’s way with the Irish offense line and Notre Dame struggled mightily to establish any semblance of a ground game on Saturday.
Notre Dame’s rushing attack should be bolstered this weekend by the return of Cierre Wood.. The 1,000 yard rusher from a year ago returns to the lineup after a two game suspension for “violating team rules.” Wood is Notre Dame’s best back, but even he won’t be able to do much if the offensive line struggles as much as it did a week ago.
Outside of Wood, Notre Dame features two other talented backs in Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III. Riddick was the primary replacement for Wood while he sat out while Atkinson is the home run threat of the group. For whatever reason though, Atkinson was not prominently featured in the Irish game plan a week ago.
In the receiving department, the Notre Dame passing attack starts and finishes with Tyler Eifert right now. The senior tight end showed why many consider him the best tight end in the country against the Boilers before suffering what was reportedly a “slight concussion”. His availability for this weekend is not certain, but odds are the All American will be in the lineup. If he is, Michigan State will have to commit resources to stopping Efiert. Purdue left a single corner on Efiert at many times throughout the game which given Eifert’s size is an immediate mismatch.
Outside of Eifert though, Notre Dame has yet to find a go to wide receiver Sophomore Davaris Daniels has the looks of the next #1 wide receiver for the Irish, but he is still learning how to become a dominant receiver on the college level. Like Eifert, Daniels was banged up against Purdue as well and his status for this weekend is unknown at this time.
Junior TJ Jones has looked good on some wide receiver screens, but he hasn’t had his number called often so far.
A couple of names to look out for at receiver are Roby Toma and Davonte Neal. Toma, a senior from Hawaii, came up with a huge catch for the Irish on the game winning drive and is just one of those players who makes plays whenever he is given the chance. Neal, meanwhile, is a true freshmen with a ton of talent and incredible speed who has yet to be prominently featured in the Irish offensive game plan. Neal saw some action against Navy but was relegated to special teams duty a week ago.
Of course, at the end of the day, how effective the Notre Dame is on Saturday will be determined by which offensive line shows up. Against Navy the Irish offensive was tough, disciplined, and dominant. Against Purdue, that same offensive line was sloppy, weak, and at times overmatched by the Boilermaker defensive front.
The talent and experience are both there for the Notre Dame line, but last week they took a step or two backwards after a very promising start to the season.
Defensively, Notre Dame’s strength lies within in its defensive line. Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix have both taken steps towards becoming dominant players this season. Through two games, Tuitt already has 4 sacks from his defensive end position while Nix has 1.5 of his own to go with 3 total tackles for loss. Both players are matchup nightmares for almost any offensive line they will face right now. Michigan State may have to commit an extra blocker inside for Nix to avoid a repeat of what the junior NT did to Purdue a week ago.
Notre Dame is a little banged up on the defensive line though with the status of 5th year senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore in doubt. He missed the majority of the Purdue game and it’s unclear whether or not he will play this weekend.
Depth could be a concern for Notre Dame at DE this weekend with Lewis-Moore’s primary backup, freshman early enrollee Sheldon Day, banged up as well. If Day can’t go either, Notre Dame will mix in sophomore Tony Springmann and junior Kona Schwenke.
The star of the Irish defense is middle linebacker Manti Te’o. The Hawaiian native surprised many by coming back for his senior season and he has done nothing to disappoint so far this year. Te’o has shown improved coverage skills this year to along with his great instincts and hitting ability.
Notre Dame’s other linebackers are more of a question mark. Outside linebacker Prince Shembo has been a great pass rusher for this Irish so far this season while sophomore Ishaq Williams has been up and down. Notre Dame should get a boost at OLB this weekend with the return of Dany Spond who missed the first two games with injury. Inside, next to Te’o, Notre Dame got Carlo Calabrese back from suspension last week, but the senior inside backer looked lost in coverage and could be a target early and often for Michigan State.
In the defensive backfield, Notre Dame’s extremely green scorners looked much improved over their week one performance last week against Purdue. Notre Dame is starting a true freshman and a converted wide receiver at corner this year in Kei’Varae Russell and Bennett Jackson and while both struggled in week 1, both bounced back with great games in week 2.
At safety the Irish have a pair of experienced starters in Jamaoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta. Slaughter left last week’s came after delivering a punishing, incompletion causing hit and the Irish secondary struggled in his absence. Notre Dame needs a healthy Slaughter in the secondary to help mask the inexperience the Irish have at corner.
Place kicking has been a bit of an adventure so far this year, but sophomore Kyle Brindza delivered in the clutch last week when called upon. Still, the Irish have struggled at this point in the early season with each facet of the kicking game – snapping, holding, and kicking. If Saturday were to come down to a field goal attempt by the Irish, Notre Dame fans will be collectively holding their breathe no matter the distance.
In the punting department, Ben Turk turned in possibly his finest game in a Notre Dame uniform. The senior has been inconsistent throughout his career, but Saturday he came up with several big kicks and helped the Irish defense avoid too many short fields.
Notre Dame features dangerous returnmen on both kicks and punts. On kickoffs, Michigan State fans likely remember George Atkinson very well for his kickoff return for a touchdown against the Spartans in South Bend a year ago. He is back as the primary return man for the Irish and his return on Notre Dame’s final drive helped set up the go ahead field go.
At punt returner, Notre Dame features a dangerous albeit still fairly untested freshman in Davonte Neal. So far Neal has had the looks of a return man who is capable of breaking a big return but has yet to do so. He has also shown a knack for fielding some kicks he shouldn’t have – a habit that will get him trouble sooner or later.
This game is going to come down to the Notre Dame offensive line vs. the Michigan State defensive line and just how much Brian Kelly is willing to remove the training wheels for Golson.
Michigan State is going to look to pressure the young Irish QB and force him into mistakes or to take sacks – the later of which he did frequently last week instead of forcing the issue. It will be the job of the Irish offensive line to slow down that rush to give Golson time to make some plays. Two weeks ago that was a matchup that I felt reasonably comfortable with. After last week though, I have some major concerns about Notre Dame’s ability to hold up against a quality defensive line like Michigan State’s.
Just how much Kelly removes the training wheels from Golson is going to determine how effective the Irish offense is on Saturday. So far Kelly has kept Golson fairly under his reigns in terms of play calling – something that has created issues with procedure penalties and wasted time outs the last two weeks. Kelly will have to let Golson run a little free this week.
I don’t see either team running away with this one and think it will be farily low scoring. I would love to predict a Notre Dame win this weekend, but while I certainly think the Irish are capable of escaping with the victory, I think Michigan State ends up winning this one by a field goal.