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

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When: Sat. Sept. 17, 2016; 7:30 pm ET
Where: South Bend, IN; Notre Dame Stadium (80,795)
TV: NBC
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:

http://gty.im/499080956

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:

http://gty.im/496139234

— 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

Spartans Football

Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Reasons to be Optimistic

We continue our look at the 2018 Michigan State Spartans with a look at reasons to be optimistic heading in to the season.

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Michigan State has been a surprising team as of late. First it surprised everyone by going from the College Football Playoff to a 3-9 team in a matter of one season. Then it surprised a lot of people from weathering that 33-9 season and a horrible offseason to return to a Big Ten East contender in 2017.

So, where does that leave the 2018 version of Mark Dantonio’s Spartans? Well, we’re here to break that down all week and today we’ll give you the reasons to be optimistic about MSU.

Holy Experience Batman

One reason why Michigan State has been so successful under Mark Dantonio is that he has a system and sticks to it. That consistency helps his players in a major way, but so does having experienced players executing that system.

So, it should be no coincidence that when the Spartans are at their best it’s with a very experienced team.

The 2018 version of the Spartans return 19 starters, including 10 on the offensive side of the ball. Spearheading that attack is second-year starting QB Brian Lewerke, whose ability to be a deadly passer as well as a deadly runner has added a different wrinkle to the MSU offense.

Defensively, this team is as strong as it may ever be under Dantonio. Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams are beasts at defensive tackle and Joe Bachie follows a long line of quality middle linebackers behind that group. In fact, another season like Bachie had in 2017 and he could be the best middle linebacker MSU has seen in the Dantonio era. Those are just three of 9 returning starters for a defense that was No. 2 in the country against the run last season.

That 2017 team was light on experience, but had plenty of potential. Fast forward a season and this is one of the more experienced teams in the Big Ten, and that should help them contend in the rough and tumble Big Ten East division.

Skill Position Depth

This isn’t your brother or sister’s Michigan State Spartans squad anymore. No longer does MSU have to pound you in to submission on offense. Instead, it can be as dynamic an offense as any the Big Ten has to offer.

One huge reason for that is a deep group of skill position players at the ready. MSU has arguably its most versatile group of wide receivers it has had in the 2010’s. 6 foot, 4 inch tall Felton Davis is a matchup nightmare thanks to his size and speed, while Darrell Stewart is perfect in the slot and can kill you with deceptive speed. Both caught over 50 passes last season to prove they belong. Meanwhile up and coming Cody White is another big threat, catching 35 passes as a freshman last year.

Defensively, things look good on the edge with the combo of Justin Layne and Josiah Scott. Layne’s size (6-3) and Scott’s ability to use his hands well makes this combo difficult to pass against. Scott nabbed a pair of interceptions and led the team with 10 pass breakups as a freshman last season, while Layne had eight of his own pass break ups and a forced fumble to go with 40 total tackles as well.

There’s also depth behind them at cornerback and two safeties that are proving to grow in to their roles. Having the skill positions be a strength should only help an offensive line that returns a lot of starting experience but lacked quality run game production a season ago.

Mark Dantonio

Few coaches in the Big Ten get as much out of their talent as Dantonio does in East Lansing.

Any time you have Dantonio on your side, it’s a reason to be optimistic that things are going to be just fine. How Dantonio helped his guys weather an offseason storm and how he took the slings and arrows of the media over the past 18 months is a testament to why the team can be successful on the field.

In a conference that has upgraded its overall coaching talent, Dantonio still stands out as one of the best motivators and teachers in the Big Ten. Don’t underestimate that mattering when the games kick off this fall.

Overall Thoughts

There is certainly reason for renewed optimism around the Spartans program.

While it may be difficult to get all the way back to the College Football Playoff level, at least the Spartans aren’t going backwards as many seemed to think they were heading in to 2017.

Combining Dantonio’s steady system with experienced players who just so happen to be very productive while gaining that experience is a great reason to be bullish on this team. Don’t be surprised to see this formula equal a run towards the East division title and national recognition too.

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Spartans Football

Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Lessons from 2017

What did the 2017 season teach us about the Michigan State Spartans program?

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There was little doubt that 2017 was going to be a defining season in the Mark Dantonio era. With a ton of pressure from the outside world and a crazy 3-9 season in the rearview mirror, either Dantonio would sink his own ship or right it.

It didn’t take long to see that a program in turmoil had banded together in an “us vs. them” mentality that worked well for the Spartans.

The result was a 10-3 season, wins over two of the biggest names in the Big Ten East division and a very different narrative heading in to the 2018 offseason.

But, with so much happening around the program last season, what lessons were learned that would apply to 2018?

Let’s take a look at what lessons we believe will matter going forward.

Adversity Wears Well on Spartans

No team in the Big Ten had a worse 2017 offseason than the Spartans did. There were awful off-field allegations, charges and convictions. There were players suspended, kicked off the team and transfers.

Yet, when the dust settled on the 2017 season, a team that seemingly was in disarray nearly won the East division. A team that won just three games in 2016 and suffered through a very public and ugly offseason managed to right the ship right away and went 7-2 in Big Ten play.

There were wins over rival Michigan and a red-hot Penn Stat program and a massive blowout of Washington State in the Holiday bowl for redemption of not being selected for a seemingly better positioned bowl game.

At every step of the way in 2017 there was major adversity. Instead of folding, Mark Dantonio’s crew rallied together and came away with a season few saw coming from the outside world.

It was certainly a positive lesson for everyone involved — from what not to do off the field to how to grow together in the face of major doubters. By the end of it all, MSU football felt like it was closer to being back in the Big Ten title picture than ever before. The lesson of the 2017 season won’t soon be forgotten.

1-QB System Works Best

If you would’ve told anyone back in the 2016 offseason that Brian Lewerke would be the answer to MSU’s quarterback hopes, few would’ve believed you. Yet, the pattern of quarterback-by-committee not working and then getting a leader to emerge and make the team dangerous the next continued on.

No position seems to hold the keys to success or failure at Michigan State more that quarterback. It’s no coincidence that settling on one quarterback has proven to be the defining factor in offensive success at MSU.

Lewerke looked like the better option in 2016, took hold of the position in 2017 and the Spartans offense was back off to the races. The sophomore signal caller threw for over 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns compared to just 7 interceptions. Compare that to the three-headed QB monster in 2016 that ended up with just 2,668 yards, completed just 57 percent of their passes and had just 19 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.

Coming up the ranks from a walk-on to starter in the face of supposed stiff competition from Damion Terry, Tyler O’Connor and emerging as the steadying force showed that picking one quarterback and sticking with them is a recipe for better chances at success in East Lansing.

Lewerke established himself as the starter and has two more years to lead this team forward. If 2017 taught us anything, it’s that Lewerke is not to be underestimated, just like the Spartans as a whole.

This Offense has to be More Than Lewerke

As impressive as Brian Lewerke was last season, for large swaths of 2017 he was the only offense that mattered for Michigan State.

In fact, not only did Lewerke lead the way through the air, he was the Spartans leading rusher for much of the year too. Only a late-season surge from L.J. Scott, who only had three 100-yard games on the entire season, allowed him to overtake Lewerke on the ground.

Scott finished the season with 898 yards to Lewerke’s 559 yards, with Scott leading the TD category 8 to 5.

While it was nice to see the team back to winning against quality competition, the Spartans were torn apart by teams who could shut Lewerke down. Ohio State tore apart MSU and more importantly, held Lewerke completely in check. He rushed for just 2 total yards and passed for just 131 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns in the 48-3 loss.

Can Scott become the star everyone thought he might have been last season, this season? If MSU wants to become a true East division and Big Ten title contender, it has to re-establish a tough run game that doesn’t rely on Lewerke to be the leading rusher for most of the season.

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Michigan State AD Mark Hollis’ retirement is too little, too late

Mark Hollis announced his retirement amidst the fallout of the Larry Nassar trial, but his removal from MSU is too little, too late.

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Dr. Larry Nassar will go down as one of the most evil actors in modern American sports history, and Michigan State will go down as one of the saddest administrations in collegiate athletics history because of his actions on campus and the failure to report sexual assault that was happening right under their noses.

Many shoes have dropped since the trail of Nassar wrapped up and his sentence to spending the rest of his life and forever more beyond that in prison concluded. The first shoe to drop at MSU was that of the president of the university, Lou Ann Simon, who resigned earlier this week.

Even in resigning, Simon proved why this whole thing is such a tragedy — because Michigan State has been woefully inadequate in protecting its students and completely tone-deaf in how it has talked publicly about this sad situation.

“As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable,” she said in statement. “As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger. I understand, and that is why I have limited my personal statements. Throughout my career, I have worked very hard to put Team MSU first. Throughout my career, I have consistently and persistently spoken and worked on behalf of Team MSU. I have tried to make it not about me. I urge those who have supported my work to understand that I cannot make it about me now. Therefore, I am tendering my resignation as president according to the terms of my employment agreement.”

Tragedies are politicized? Perhaps Simon was talking about some internal strife on the Board of Trustee’s, which has certainly been the case, but to most in the general public they are left wondering what the heck she is talking about.

But, her resignation is far from the final change that will happen in the fallout from Nassar’s trial and the awful revelations that came from it.

The next shoe to drop was that of long-time athletics director Mark Hollis, who resigned his post on Friday.

“It’s been an absolute honor to guide the Athletic Department for the last decade. That being said, today I am announcing my retirement,” Hollis said in a statement released by the university.

“This was not an easy decision for my family, and you should not jump to any conclusions based on our decision — listen to facts. I am not running away from anything, I am running toward something. Comfort, compassion and understanding for the survivors and our community; togetherness, time and love for my family,” Hollis said.

Hollis oversaw the athletic department for over a decade, officially taking on the role of AD on Jan. 1, 2008 after more than a decade working within the department in various roles.

It’s good to know that Hollis stepped down, but his resignation rings hallow given what we’ve learned through the Dr. Larry Nasser trial. What took place at Michigan State and to other female gymnasts in the United States at the hands of Nasser is simply sickening. There’s no other way to describe it.

What is equally sickening is the knowledge we all gained at the trail that there were more than one, two or even three opportunities for Nassar’s evil to be stopped on the campus of Michigan State no less. Yet, under Hollis’ watch absolutely nothing was done and not a single coach or person was held responsible for their actions when revelations were coming out at trail.

Coaches, trainers, fellow athletes and administrators failed their athletes at the highest level in this case. When you’re the head of an organization and everyone below you fails, you fail too. So, congrats on “retiring” and running away (even though you say you aren’t) from what you and your staff is responsible for.

Even more damning is that Hollis was wholly unaware of any previous claims made by student-athletes or anyone else until the final claim that broke everything open in 2016.

Athletic departments are supposed to be there to help the student-athlete become successful in life and to protect and guide them through difficult times.

But, this isn’t the only scandalous event that Hollis has had to navigate in his time as Spartans AD. Let’s not forget the winter of 2017, which saw three football players accused of, charged and dismissed from the team for sexual assault and then had another player accused of sexual assault just a few months later.

It was a big black eye, and one that Hollis did little to really quell, because these weren’t the first time a football player had a big run-in with the law or sexual assault charges. Nothing happened other than those players being dismissed, and rightfully so.

When you take the football offseason of 2017 and add in what took place for over a decade to gymnasts at MSU, you see a very troubling pattern of zero accountability or care for the welfare of students and athletes on campus. That’s as damning a statement as you can make for any athletic director and by any measure, an ultimate failure of anyone in an authority position.

So, forgive me if I find the victory of Hollis’ “retirement” just a bit too little, too late for the victims of Nassar.

With the NCAA opening up an investigation, this could be just the tip of the iceberg for a program in turmoil and real trouble moving forward.

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An early look at the 2018 Michigan State Spartans offense

While everyone wants to look back at 2017, its actually time to look ahead to 2018 for the Michigan State Spartans offense.

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From the bottom to the top, now can they stay there? The Michigan State Spartans had one of the biggest turnarounds in conference history in 2017 and nearly pulled off an improbable East division title en route to a 10-3 season.

It was a return back to the top after a year of turmoil on and off the field. But, we’re not so interested in the past here. Instead, we want to look forward to 2018 and what the Spartans may have up their sleeves for the season to come.

We started our look forward with an in-depth look at what 2018 holds for the Spartan Dawgs a.k.a. the Michigan State defense. Today we talk about the Spartans offense.

Biggest Question Mark:

Can the offense start fast in Big Ten play?

When I look at the stat sheet from 2017, one thing that jumps up at me is the fact that Michigan State struggled hard in the run game to start Big Ten play. In fact, the Spartans offense had a four-game stretch in conference play where it failed to gain 100 yards on the ground. Those four games came against quality run defenses like Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State. Only once in those four games did the Spartans score more than 24 points either.

This season, MSU gets Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan to start Big Ten play. That’s not going to be an easy task for the Spartans offense to say the least. But, this will be a more veteran group in 2018 and the results down the stretch indicate an offense that could be explosive.

If they want to get back to truly competing at the top of the Big Ten (they finished a distant second to OSU on the field this year) East division, getting off to a better offensive start against the better defenses is a good place to start. But, can this team improve enough this offseason to do just that?

Reason to be Optimistic:

Youth growing up

Michigan State was nothing if not young all over the place on offense in 2017, but by the end of the season it was an offense few would’ve wanted to play. There was a healthy Brian Lewerke who showed a dual-threat option Michigan State hasn’t had at quarterback ever under Mark Dantonio. There was an offensive line that found an identity as the season wore on. There was a wide receiver group that stepped up to the plate as the season wore on too.

Lewerke finished 2017 as the only QB in Spartans history to throw for 2,500 yards and run for 500 in a single season. If he continues to progress like he did this past year, a lot of MSU quarterback records are going to fall.

All of those things indicate growth for a young team in 2017 and should be invaluable moments to learn from and build on for 2018 as well. Taking time this offseason to digest the film, continue to work in the weight room and gel as a young offensive team are going to be vital to what is put on the field for the 2018 season.

Perhaps the best bit of news is that the classic formula of MSU offense seems to be back. By that, I mean there’s a quarterback who took the bull by the horns at his position, a quality stable of running backs and an offensive line that can be counted on..at least in terms of four returning starters at season’s end.

Let’s see how this young group responds to increased expectations after an offseason of turmoil galvanized this group last year. My guess is there’s plenty of work that the coaching staff will highlight to keep this group hungry this spring.

Reason to be Pessimistic:

Loss of biggest leader on offensive line

The offensive line was very young last season, but it had a bona fide leader in senior center Brian Allen. You have to wonder what the struggles would’ve looked like without his leadership. As we’ve noted, the struggles in the run game were early and easily identifiable during the 2017 season.

But, experience and the leadership of Allen showed up in a big way as the run game finally got going late in the 2017 season. Losing Allen’s leadership is a big deal because the offensive line is still going to be young in 2018. They’ll have to find that rock, that leader in the trenches and do it quickly.

Michigan State can’t become an offense that solely relies on Lewerke in 2018, and they wasted what could’ve been a huge season on the ground for most of the year in 2018. I’m not sold that there’s the transformational leader on the offensive line just yet. We’ll see how that grows during the offseason, but someone needs to take a big role in East Lansing or it could mean trouble for the run game.

Projected Starting Lineup:

WR: Felton Davis III, Jr.
WR: Darrell Stewart, Jr.
WR: Cody White, So.
LT: Cole Chewins, Jr.
LG: David Beedle, Jr.
C: Matthew Allen, So.
RG: Kevin Jarvis, So.
RT: Luke Campbell, So.
QB: Brian Lewerke, Jr.
RB: L.J. Scott, Sr.
FB: Collin Lucas, Sr.

Overall Outlook:

Returning a quality quarterback ✔️

A dangerous running back ✔️

A veteran offensive line ✔️

What does that all mean? For Michigan State it has always meant a dangerous team for the upcoming season. With the likes of Lewerke, Scott and four starters returning on the offensive line the basics for success for this group are there.

Then you add in a growing and impressive group of young wide receivers led by the likes of Cody White and Hunter Rison (he’s actually announced a transfer just hours after writing this article) and you can see an offense that won’t be one-dimensional to start the 2018 season. In fact, I’d say this offense reminds me of the ones that got the Spartans to the New Year’s Six and College Football Playoffs a few years ago.

I know that’s lofty to speak of, and I’m not setting those expectations just yet. All I’m saying is that the pieces are in place for an offense that could be explosive in 2018 and that has to have Spartans fans excited about what could be in 2018. It’s certainly a far cry from the outlook heading in to and during most of last offseason.

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