The #20 Notre Dame football team begins the toughest stretch of their 2012 schedule when they play the #10 Michigan State Spartans at East Lansing tonight at 8:00 pm. A fast start is crucial this week, as the Fighting Irish play 4 ranked teams in a span of 6 weeks. Up next the Irish have games against #18 Michigan, Miami (FL) in Chicago, #16 Stanford, BYU, and then at #5 Oklahoma. If Notre Dame can manage to pull off a second consecutive upset against a highly ranked Michigan State team, that momentum could carry on to the following weeks, and they are going to need every ounce of it they can possibly get.
The unranked Irish last year had a huge upset against the Kirk Cousins-led #15 Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium. And though some of the principal players in that game (namely Kirk Cousins himself) are gone, you can guarantee that head coach Mark Dantonio is going to remind this year’s squad of what happened in that game. Star running back LeVeon Bell, who only compiled 27 yards last year, has been on an absolute tear in his first two games of 2012 (wins over #24 Boise State and Central Michigan). He’s compiled 280 yards and 4 touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. In last year’s games, the Spartans logged in only a total of 29 yards (though that included a Kirk Cousins sack for -20 yards). Bell, a Heisman Trophy candidate, will be chomping at the bit to take Notre Dame’s 53rd ranked defense head on.
The biggest concern the Irish face – especially after last week – is how well the offense can move the ball on Sparty’s defense. The Spartans have the 8th ranked defense in Football Bowl Subdivision this year, allowing only 225 yards per 10 points per game. That includes an average of 54 yards per game surrendered. Granted, that includes a blow-out win over a MAC team (Central Michigan), but Theo Riddick was completely ineffective against a stout Purdue defensive line last week. Luckily, Notre Dame gets star running back Cierre Wood back from a 2 game suspension. Wood will be the key to the game. If he manages to have success, that will open up a lot of options for Everett Golson. If not, things could get ugly Saturday night.
Can Cierre Wood elevate the Irish to a win over Michigan State?
3 Things to Watch
Cierre Wood – So why will Wood, who has yet to play a snap this year, automatically be the key to the Irish’s chances? Last year, against the Big 10′s top defense, Wood ran for 61 yards on 14 carries. That may not seem like a whole lot, but he averaged 4.4 yards per carry and was able to get into the end zone twice. Former Irish running back Jonas Gray also ran for 65 yards on a 5.4 yards per carry effort. So the Irish know how to run on this defense. If Wood and Riddick/Atkinson can open up the run game, it should make things a lot easier for Everett Golson. Speaking of…
Everett Golson – Golson has actually played fairly well in his first two starts. In two games (against Navy and Purdue), Golson is completing 67% of his passes for 433 yards, 2 touchdowns and only 1 interception. He struggled a bit in the latter portion of the Purdue game, and was subsequently yanked by Brian Kelly with less than 2 minutes to go for senior Tommy Rees (don’t give me the injury BS). Rees was able to win the game, setting up a last second field goal, but I still disagree with the decision. Win or lose, you have to know if your young quarterback can effectively run a 2-minute offense with the game on the line. If he wins, great; if not, then you’ve got a bigger reason to put your experienced senior quarterback in for the remainder of the season. But you can’t have a young guy like Golson constantly looking over his shoulder wondering if or when he’ll be pulled out. The likelihood for mistakes will increase exponentially. Golson has to play the whole game.
Notre Dame’s Offensive Line – The offensive line, a supposed strength for the Irish this year, were beat up all game long against Purdue last week. Against Michigan State’s defense, this absolutely must not happen again. I am a firm believer that winning teams are built from the inside out. You cannot run the ball and you cannot provide the quarterback with enough time to make accurate passes if you cannot block. I imagine that after the verbal lashing they likely received after the Purdue game, you will see much improved play, though MSU will still probably break through at times.
My 5 Predictions
LeVeon Bell will run for fewer than 100 yards – Yes, Bell shared carries in last year’s game when he only had 27 yards. Yes he is the feature back this year and is averaging 140 yards in 2 games. But Notre Dame’s front seven is the best unit on the entire team, and is a far cry from Boise State when Bell ran the ball 44 times and had 210 yards.
Cierre Wood scores twice – I won’t predict whether they will both be on the ground or a combo of receiving and running, but I have a strong feeling that Wood will want to go off in his first game back.
Golson struggles, is pulled for Rees again -Michigan State has only registered 1 interception and 1 sack in two games. But they are only allowing a total of 171 yards per game and 10 points. Brian Kelly has shown throughout his tenures as head coach that he will pull a quarterback instead of allowing him to play through mistakes. If Golson starts to have problems (or is “injured”), Rees goes in again.
The Irish special teams will have no miscues – Whether it’s been a botched snap, a missed field goal, or whatever, Notre Dame’s special teams have looked pretty awful this year. I see a clean game against the Spartans.
Final Score – Notre Dame 27, Michigan State 20.
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