Oh man, I just had the strangest dream! I dreamed the Irish played Michigan, and used six UM turnovers to score 35 points and run the Wolverines out of Notre Dame stadium. Best. Dream. Ever!
What?! That really happened? Six days ago? And the Irish play Michigan State tomorrow? Boy, I sure hope the team has been more focused on the Spartans this week than I have, because I've just been wandering around with a stupid grin on my face since Saturday.
Riding a four game winning streak, Notre Dame heads to butt-ugly Spartan Stadium to take on the 2-1 Spartans. Sparty dispatched Eastern Michigan and Florida Atlantic without much difficulty, and looked pretty good in their loss to the Cal Bears. As most pre-season prognosticators anticipated, MSU figures to be the sternest early test for Notre Dame. Unlike the Wolverines, Michigan State is a veteran team with an excellent coach, a very good handle on their system, and a chip on their shoulder. (That chip must get heavy after carrying it around for about 42 years.) The Spartans cannot be relied upon to give this game to the Irish. In order to come back to South Bend with a "W", Notre Dame is going to have to play hard and play well for 60 minutes and take the game away from MSU.
Can they do it? Yes they can.
Last year's game against Sparty, despite being yet another painful loss, was actually the first game of 2007 where the Irish took the field and actually looked like a football team. Here were the key paragraphs of my post-game look at that game:
Notre Dame did establish a running game, they did cut down on the penalties, and the defense did make a couple of big plays. The final margin of loss was just over, rather than just under, two touchdowns, but I believe that the team competed well and for the first time this season they did manage to look respectable as a football team. So despite moving into historic realms of ineptitude (first 0-4 start ever), this team actually took some large strides forward on Saturday.Tomorrow's game against MSU is basically a re-match of the 2007 contest, with most of the key players for each team returning. In 2007, the Irish lost by 17 points. We only turned the ball over once, we had very few penalties, but we did allow the quarterbacks to be sacked four times for a -32 yards. How did we lose by 17? Field position. Notre Dame got creamed last year in the field position game. The special teams certainly contributed to the problem, but the offense had such a hard time gaining ANY yards, and had so many 3-and-out series (including 3-play "drives" of 9, -5, 9, 5, 6, and 0 yards and one 4-play drive of -7 yards), that we couldn't pin MSU back in their own end, and the defense spent too much time on the field getting hammered by Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick. As I wrote after last year's game:
Sure, I'm depressed. Even though I went to school through four years of Gerry Faust and four consecutive losses to the Air Force, I've never seen an Irish team look this overmatched. But, I can see the future. There were a lot of young players running all over the field on Saturday who are going to be stars. Aldridge, Hughes, Allen, Clausen, Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, Ian Williams all look like very promising players. And the team never gave up. They played hard for 60 minutes and they never gave in. What more can I ask of them?
Coach Weis calls them "hidden yards", but they weren't very hidden this week. Michigan State's average starting field position for the game was their own 43 yard line. Notre Dame's average starting field position was it's own 25 yard line. MSU had 14 offensive possessions, and 6 of them started at mid-field or BETTER. The Irish had 14 possessions, and after the early fumble recovery at MSU's 9 yard line, Notre Dame's BEST field position to start a drive was our own 30 yard line with 2:45 left in the third quarter. The Irish kick return game was weak, and we had no punt returns. Our kick and punt coverage units did a poor job generally and tackled poorly in particular. The worse offenders were our punting duo of Geoff Price and Eric Maust. Although we did see a couple of very good punts, those good efforts were vastly outweighed by shank punts of 27 yards (twice!), 11 yards, and 36 yards. If a team is punting from around it's own 30 yard line, a decent punt and decent coverage should give the other team the ball inside it's own 30 yard line, thus exactly flipping field position. Instead, we repeatedly gave the Spartans the ball at or near mid-field. Poor offense combined with poor special teams play presented our defense with a "Mission Impossible," time and time again.What lost the game last year was an offense that was unable to move the ball turning the ball over to another offense that could move the ball well enough to score on a short field if you gave them enough chances. We really weren't badly outplayed from a physical standpoint. MSU's leading rusher, Javon Ringer, had a good game and averaged 5.5 yards per carry (he's averaging 4.8 so far this season). James Aldridge averaged 5.8 yards-per-carry for ND, and Robert Hughes also averaged 5.5 YPC for the game. MSU quarterback Brian Hoyer was only 11 of 24 for 135 yards and 1 INT. That's well under 50% completion rate, although 4 of the completions did go for touchdowns. Irish quarterbacks that day were 11 for 20 (55%) for just 86 yards.
This year the Irish are going to see a heavy dose of Ringer again. Through 3 games he has 104 carries for 498 yards and 9 TDs. If we slow Ringer down, or if we let our guard down in the secondary, Hoyer is good enough to burn us over the top. He's 33 of 75 on the year (just 44%), but is averaging 16.9 yards per completion, and has an overall passer efficiency rating of 105.5. MSU's top two receivers, Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham are averaging 17.4 and 24.6 yards per catch, respectively. The MSU offense presents a nice challenge to the Irish defense. If ND stacks the box to stop ringer, Dell and Cunningham are dangerous players to cover one-on-one down the field. But, MSU likes to throw the ball on deeper routes, which take longer to develop and therefore a blitzing Irish "D" might be able to get home for more sacks this week. I expect Notre Dame to play relatively conservative on defense, forcing MSU to drive the ball down the field in 4 and 5 yard chunks rather than allowing Ringer to break big runs by getting past the first level of defenders on a run blitz. We saw last week how much real estate a decent back can eat up if he finds a seam or breaks one tackle at the line of scrimmage. We need our linebackers at the second level to flow with the play and keep Ringer in check. We can't rely on the safeties this week to be the leading tacklers. They will get too beat up tackling Ringer, and they need to stay deeper to keep Sparty's passing game in check so that Hoyer doesn't have another 4-TD game.
On offense, the Irish proved last year that Sparty can be run on. This season Cal ran for 203 yards (5.6 YPC), and even Eastern Michigan averaged 4.5 YPC against MSU. I expect Hughes and Aldridge to have very good days grinding down MSU's defense, which nobody is touting as the equal of Michigan's front seven. If the Irish O-line can keep the MSU pass rush in check, Jimmy should have a nice day playing catch with his buddies Duval, Golden, and Michael.
I know I'm repeating myself, but the key to the game will be taking care of the football, and winning the field position game. Crucial to that battle will be the ability of the Notre Dame offense to consistently move the chains and keep possession of the ball. I don't expect Sparty to turn the ball over six times. For the Irish to score, we'll need to sustain drives and finish them when we get the chance. If we have a bunch of 3-and-outs tomorrow, or if we're kicking field goals in the red zone instead of PATs, we're in trouble. We need to move the ball, move the chains, and pin MSU back in the shadow of their own goal posts if we have to punt.
Fortunately for Irish fans, this team has performed MUCH better than last year in the field position. If they can keep that going, they will put themselves in a position to win. The Las Vegas line favoring Sparty by 9 points is ridiculous.
The weather is supposed to be good. I like our chances with Golden Tate and Michael Floyd running on a fast track. I like our chances of closing the 17 point gap of last season. In a hard fought game of closely matched teams, I pick the Irish to upset the Spartans 24-21.