Friday's Position Primer: Notre Dame
MSU QB/WR’s vs. ND DB’s
On both sides of the ball, this is the big position matchup for two high powered offenses. And frankly, it’s going to be hard for either team’s defensive backs to slow down the oppositions passing game. Last week Keshawn Martin broke onto the scene for the 2011 campaign with 7 catches and 73 yards, eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark for his career. Meanwhile, B.J. Cunningham continues to be as steady as ever. Early on in the season both Martin and Cunningham have done very well after the catch. Martin’s “wiggles” – as Cunningham calls them – were on full display last week. B.J.’s body positioning on receptions and the way he can shield off corner’s with his 215-pound frame while making the catch are second to none – not to mention his ability to repeatedly shed would be tacklers.
Kirk Cousins has been flawless in his execution thus far. Last week I can only remember one pass that was truly off target. His confidence is high as well, evidenced by the great play action pass last week, when he surprised just about everyone in Spartan Stadium with a fake hand off which resulted in a 35 yard strike to Martin. Also, don’t think that Kirk doesn’t remember his 2009 appearance in South Bend when he threw a game ending interception in the endzone…
“One play can define or make and break you,” Kirk said earlier this week. “That’s why it’s so important that on every play, you know what’s going on, you make the right decisions and you take care of the football.”
Kirk is 100% focused and primed to prove he’s one of the best QB’s in the country. When he’s like this, he’s nearly impossible to stop.
The much maligned Notre Dame secondary might’ve taken more hits in the papers this week than on the field last Saturday at Michigan where they were brutal. Their performance in Ann Arbor last week is surprising when you consider that Gary Gray and Robert Blanton are both seniors and have combined to play in 74 career games, with 37 starts. My guess is that while they may be missing a little confidence this week, they’ll be energized and ready to play, yet still vulnerable.
Meanwhile, Harrison Smith is an outstanding safety who makes big plays week in and week out. In 2010, Smith picked off seven passes and had 93 total tackles. Combine Smith with another senior in Jamoris Slaughter and you have a group of four seniors in the secondary who are better than the previous game suggests.
“I think their secondary is much better than what people think they are,” said MSU Offensive Coordinator Dan Roushar. “You have an outstanding safety in Harrison and I think both of those corners can make plays."
ND’s QB/WR’s vs. MSU DB’s
Michigan State’s defensive secondary has acquitted itself very well so far this season. But of course, we must remember the competition. I don’t think skill will have anything to do with how well they match up with ND in this regard. In my estimation, it’s all about experience. Yes, Johnny Adams and Trenton Robinson have the experience and skill set to match up well with the likes of Michael Floyd and Theo Riddick. My question becomes Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis. Both are very skilled and by next year should help form the conference’s top secondary. But for them to be successful on Saturday, they’ll need to show the poise of a veteran to make up for ND’s size and athleticism.
We all know that the 6’3” Michael Floyd is the Irish’s bell cow. Against MSU, he’s done well, accounting for more than 200 yards and 4 touchdowns, averaging 13.4 yards per catch. Theo Riddick, meanwhile, gave MSU fits last year while focusing on Floyd. Size-wise, the Spartans matchup well with Riddick, a 5’-11” junior. But, as one of the quickest Irish players on the team, he’s a great diversion for Floyd. Against MSU a season ago, Riddick played the ying to Floyd’s yang, with 10 grabs, 128 yards, and a touchdown. To me, the key is containing Floyd and shutting down Riddick. However, I’m not sure If it can even be done.
As for Sophomore QB Tommy Rees, the poise he displays is probably the biggest difference between him and now-backup Dayne Crist. He led the Irish to four straight wins to end the year last season and has carried that play over to the 2011 season. It’s evidenced in their 3rd and long stats. Combined, Irish QB’s are 9-13 passing on 3rd down, with eight of those completions going for 1st downs and only one interception.
MSU RB’s/O-LINE vs ND FRONT 7
The Spartans haven’t really made a splash yet in the running game this season - In part - because of all the moving parts on the offensive line. But now, with the line pretty well solidified – with the exception of left tackle – this could be the game where the BBC (Baker, Bell, and Caper) break loose. Against the formidable front seven of Notre Dame a season ago, Le’Veon Bell ran over Irish defenders, while Baker blew by them, combining for 207 yards and 4 touchdowns. The top Big Ten trio of tailbacks is ready to emerge in the 2011 season and I bank on them having a big game against Notre Dame again. Time of possession is critical in this game, and solid run production will be essential.
Notre Dame runs a base 3-4 defense with a front three that is loaded with experience. Ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore both go 6’4”, 300-pounds and are a handful. They boast 54 starts between them and it’s for good reason. On the season, they’ve combined for 19 tackles, including 3.0 for loss. Inside, Sean Cwyner is a senior, but a first year starter who provides stout run defense.
Behind the front three is an athletic and active core of linebackers led by junior Manti Te’o. Te’o has started from day one in South Bend, racking up 210 tackles in 2-plus seasons. Aside from Te’o, you’ll hear Darius Fleming’s name called quite a bit. The senior from Chicago has a ton of big game experience as well.
ND’s RB’s/O-LINE vs MSU's FRONT 7
Michigan State’s front seven is going to come into its own more and more as we move along through the season. Will Gholston continues to grow up in front of our eyes. He showed last week that he’s turning into a quality run stopper, which will be key again this week. But he needs to be a consistent pass rusher. It’ll be fun to watch him against a good offensive line. Marcus Rush however, seems to be a better pass rusher than Gholston at this moment. He’s displayed a quality spin move to get into the backfield and attack. He also has a quick pair of feet.
While we didn’t see a lot of “big” plays from this unit last week, they have been absolutely solid. Against FAU, the front 7 was gap sound from the linebacker position, which is impressive for young linebackers. Michigan State MUST, i repeat MUST, get some kind of rush on the pass against Notre Dame…which is very hard against a spread offense. However, that will also fall on the DB’s ablility to stick with Floyd and Riddick. Jerel Worthy and Anthony Rashad White must blow up the middle to break up the flow of ND’s offense.
Cierre Wood will get most of the carries for Notre Dame. And he’s done well so far this season with 238 yards on 46 carries, two touchdowns and a 5.3 yard average. Wood is a sturdy back at 215-pounds, but really hasn’t faced a big time run defense like MSU is hoping to be this season. He’s an athletic back who can get big chunks of yardage from time to time. However, against a suspect Michigan defense, he wasn’t nearly as good under pressure. In the 4th quarter, he was stopped on 3rd and short twice. Another time, he fumbled at the Michigan 30-yard line. Senior Jonas Gray is a Detroit native and will likely see around 5 carries.
The offensive line of Notre Dame is an experienced group with three seniors and two juniors. In total, they average 6’4” and more than 300 pounds. They are a solid unit and have only given up a pair of sacks on 88 pass attempts.
The Spartans have gotten their special teams turned around from week 1. The snaps from Giampapa to Sontag have gotten much better and will continue to do so. Punter Mike Sadler is young, but reminds me of Aaron Bates. Yes, that’s a big compliment.
The return game – kickoffs or punts – continues to be solid for MSU.
Senior David Ruffer is an excellent kicker who’s 24-26 on field goal attempts in his career. So, no worries there for the Irish. The punt game however is what has ND fans worried. Junior Ben Turk has been the first team punter his first two season in South Bend and has experience. However, he’s simply not good, averaging just 33.9 yards per punt. With field position is being such a big key on Saturday – it feels funny to say this - a poor performance from Turk could make a difference.