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Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Preview, Predictions & Prognostications

When: Sat. Sept. 17, 2016; 7:30 pm ET
Where: South Bend, IN; Notre Dame Stadium (80,795)
All-Time Series: Notre Dame leads 48-28-1
Last Meeting: Notre Dame won 17-13 (in 2013)
Line: Notre Dame -7.5

The Fighting Irish and Spartans renew their rivalry after taking a two-year hiatus, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about both teams. Michigan State is coming off a bye-week in which it had an opportunity to try to work out some of the kinks that were apparent in week one against Furman. The offense looked like it was searching for an identity, and the defense, though solid, lacked the intimidating and relentless presence it has shown in years past.

On the other sideline, Notre Dame’s back is up against the proverbial wall. With one loss already on a small body of work, and with no conference championship game to hang their hat on, the Irish can ill-afford another loss. Quarterback Deshaun Kizer has been lights out, even in the loss to Texas, but the defense needs to show drastic improvement to make this team a well-rounded one that can realistically contend for the ultimate prize.

In recent meetings, this game has had some on-the-edge-of-your-seat moments and even acted as a bit of an arrival moment for Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio. Will there be an iconic moment that happens on Saturday night?

1 Burning Question: Just who is this Michigan State team?

So far, we are left with a very small sample size in which to judge the 2016 version of the Michigan State Spartans, but what we have seen leaves us asking for more. Against Furman, the offense struggled to find consistency, and the defensive line sometimes showed the warts of trying to replace multiple starters along the front. Head coach Mark Dantonio has built the Spartan program into one that can re-load rather than putting hammers to nail to rebuild, but it could be too early to expect all the concrete and mortar to be fully set for such a test.

It’s the biggest of big games in the biggest of big venues, and we are about to find out if the off-week helped in not only preparation, but in the development of an inexperienced team to again come from the underdog role, to make yet another statement win for the Michigan State program. Get your DVR ready because it should be entertaining.

2 Key Stats:

— 29:31. That’s the amount of possession Furman had against Michigan State in week one. That’s’ not the way the Spartans win games, most notably against a FCS opponent. Under Mark Dantonio, Michigan State likes to control things on offense and get opposing offenses off the field by winning third down battles. Against Furman, allowing an almost even 50 percent of the possession gave the Paladins too many opportunities to hang around. That has to change Saturday against a team much more dynamic on offense, and much more dangerous overall in a hostile environment. Lose the time of possession battle, and some breaks and several momentum changers must go the Spartans way, otherwise the outcome will not be a pleasant one.

— 43.0. That’s the number of points the Notre Dame offense is averaging in its first two games. And it’s not like its been against FCS and non Power-Five schools. The Irish were able to put up 47 points in a classic against Texas and have a dynamic playmaker behind center in DeShone Kizer. Furman didn’t light up the scoreboard or rack up a ton of yards in week one, but it was able to methodically kill the Spartan defense softly and stay in the game. If Furman could provide a stiff push against the Spartan defense, how much more can the Irish?

3 Key Players:

Malik McDowell, Michigan State DE: DeShone Kizer figures to get the majority of the snaps for Notre Dame, and we are sure to see Malik Zaire from time-to-time as well. No matter which quarterback lines up under center however, the Spartan defensive line has to find a way to get some consistent push to not only put the clamps on any running threat, but more importantly — to make life uncomfortable for the quarterback so that he doesn’t have time to pick out receivers and dial-up big plays down the field. In that regard, Malik McDowell must be public enemy number one for the Irish offensive line. He’s the veteran leader on the line, and he has to show up to the show ready to come up big.

Tyler O’Connor, Michigan State QB: To say that O’Connor has some big shoes to fill would be an understatement of epic proportions. Connor Cook nearly re-wrote every passing statistic in East Lansing, and had an even bigger effect in the leadership department. This season will only go as far as the ability of O’Connor to offset the production lost under center. He doesn’t have to be as good as Cook, but he does have to be able to make plays at key times and limit the bad judgement reads that can often come from an inexperienced signal-caller. Game one was a bit of a ho-hum affair and there needs to be progress, most notably in this contest, as the Spartans figure to need enough plays and points to keep up with a more than capable offense.

DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame QB: Yeah it’s low hanging fruit, but Kizer might be the key player in this game. He’s more than shown his abilities, but he’s also had a penchant to make some mistakes in reads and throws when pressed. Head coach Brian Kelly has put his eggs in the Kizer basket and made a risk/reward decision to go with the supreme abilities of the quarterback with the understanding that he’ll have to live with a mistake or two. Which Kizer shows up, and where the explosive moments appear will dictate where this game goes.

4 Bold Prognostications:

— DeShone Kizer will throw at least two interceptions. Even though the Michigan State defense is still finding its way, the secondary was lights out and looks to be the strength of the defense at this point in the season. Kizer will get some time to throw, but lying in the weeds will be Michigan State DBs to diagnose and bait Kizer on a couple of occasions for some momentum turning plays.

— Trick plays anyone? Everyone knows about the Little Giants fake field goal from 2010, and Dantonio has shown himself to be adept at pulling the string on a trick play at just the right time to swing the fate of  close games. Add an aggressive play caller like Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly to the mix, with a pinch of high stakes for good measure, and we are sure to see a time or two where things go the unconventional route. Bank on it.

— Tyler O’Connor will rush for over 60 yards. Yes, I know he’s the quarterback. However, in the last high-profile game O’Connor was in, the coaching staff dialed up some bootlegs and off-tackle plays for O’Connor to spring the upset in Columbus last year. The new QB is still struggling to find a good rhythm, and designed quarterback runs can be a good way to get him into the game without having to press or think too much. The coaching staff has had two weeks to come up with a gameplan, and I expect a similar package early in the game, and more drop-back throws late if playing from behind.

— The game will be over before your local news (except for on the West Coast). Notre Dame can unleash some offensive fireworks through the air when things are going right, but I see more happening on the ground in this one. Look for Michigan State to try and establish the running game early, and then for Kizer to have some problems finding open receivers down field, forcing him to ad-lib with his legs. The result will be less stoppages of the clock because of a lack of passing plays, and a faster game — even in an era with tons of television timeouts to pay bills and promote upcoming network programming. Find out what happens at 11 …

5 Staff Predictions:

Andy: Michigan State 27-20
Dave: Notre Dame 31-21
Phil H.: Notre Dame 34-26
Phil R-R.: Notre Dame 28-17
Zach: Notre Dame 31-24

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