Notre Dame re-starts its season Saturday with the first of three matchups that will determine the program's national positioning heading into the first of two bye weeks for 2013.
Three wins in three games vs. three ranked/respected foes will vault the No. 21-ranked Irish back in the thick of BCS Bowl consideration -- as high as No. 10 and likely no lower than No. 13-14 pending a few results around the country.
Each of their next three foes are undefeated, with next week's South Bend visitor Oklahoma guaranteed such status following this Saturday's bye in Norman. The third? Well if current undefeated Arizona State escapes Stanford (Saturday night) and USC (next week) unscathed, Notre Dame will have a golden opportunity -- not to mention a tall task -- awaiting October 5 in Cowboys Stadium.
But first, the task at hand…
In their wheelhouse, right?
A power running game. Pedestrian wide receivers. An inexperienced quarterback. An offensive line in the 60 percent (3 of 5) proven range.
Michigan State's offense should provide an antidote for Notre Dame's early season defensive issues. The Spartans attack is predicated on north-south forays into the line of scrimmage and their quarterback is learning on the job.
"I think we’ve got enough of a body of work in the other couple of games that he's played that we can tell what his strengths are," said Kelly of sophomore Connor Cook. "He’s a big strong kid. He’s got a live arm. We know what they want to do with him.
"As much as we talk about Connor Cook running, this (MSU) game plan is not about Connor Cook winning the game running the football. This is about their defense. This is about them controlling the football, and making some big plays. Connor Cook will do what he does within that system.
"But this is still about Michigan State football and this is playing great defense, running the football, and the quarterback managing the game. Now they’ve added him as a dimension of running it, but I think we’ve got a pretty good sense of what he’ll do."
To be blunt, if Notre Dame can't hold Michigan State under 21 points, the next two weeks are going to be track meets -- or at least one team will be running a track meet, that is -- because both Oklahoma and Arizona State dwarf the Spartans in terms of offensive talent.
Notre Dame limited Purdue to 38 rushing yards. Michigan managed 166, nearly half the result of quarterback Devin Gardner's magic. The Wolverines running backs earned just 71 yards on 24 carries. Had Notre Dame not missed one dead-to-rights-tackle in the box, that total would have been 49.
But Irish tacklers are a far cry from their 2012 predecessors that left Michigan State and most others in their wake last fall. If Notre Dame's full-game tackling efforts (especially in the secondary) can fall somewhere between the embarrassment that's been 2013 and the standout crew from last season, Michigan State won't score more than twice in South Bend.
Bang Your Heads?
If you're a regular reader, you know my stance on the Irish running game and its direct correlation between wins and losses at Notre Dame. When Kelly's offense runs the ball more than 30 times, they're 27-4 with losses to Michigan (twice), Stanford and Florida State, the latter pair dominant rush defenses of 2011. Against the Cardinal (31) and Seminoles (35), they tried and failed vs. superior sides of scrimmage. Nothing to critique.
When they rush 30 times or fewer, they're just 3-8, beating only Utah (29), Air Force (29) and Wake Forest (30). It's relevant to note they could have run zero times and defeated the latter pair, and they still ran more than they passed vs. Utah.
Notre Dame is unlikely to win Saturday because they run the ball with consistent success vs. Michigan State. But they will win if they commit to the run. Run to rest the defense. Run to ensure aggression for 60 minutes. Run to protect Tommy Rees and allow for play-action. Run so Rees doesn't have to throw 45 times. Even run to punt and flip field position.
But they'll also have to make plays in the passing game. I don't think the latter is possible if they don't stick with the run for the duration of the contest.
There are four noteworthy, textbook examples of Notre Dame "abandoning" the run too early in a contest in the Kelly era: Tulsa 2010 (54 passes for the rookie Rees vs. 24 runs), South Florida 2011 (29, with 22 passes in 24 snaps bisecting the third and fourth quarter), USC 2011 (14 rushes is ridiculous), and Michigan (19 is nearly as bad) 2013.
Total passes thrown in those four defeats? 201.
114 yards on 32 carries was enough to protect an Irish win the last time Notre Dame and Michigan State met in South Bend. 34 rushes for 122 yards turned the trick last fall. Combined passes thrown in those two Irish victories over the stout Spartans defense? 58.
Notre Dame's offense won't control the line of scrimmage throughout, but it can ensure they don't fight a losing battle by challenging the visitors enough at their own game.
Stream of Consciousness -- Projections
Notre Dame spent its first five home games of 2012 not scoring touchdowns on its opening drives, each time incurring a pre-snap or personal foul penalty that contributed to an opening series without a touchdown or with a turnover (two turnovers, a punt, a missed field goal, and a successful field goal were the opening drive home results through five last fall).
That streak ended with a Senior Day pounding of Wake Forest and Cierre Wood's 68-yard touchdown run. The 2013 Irish picked up where they left off in the home opener vs. Temple, scoring easily on their opening three-snap march.
But both of the last two outings -- road games vs. Big 10 foes -- were sullied by opening three-and-outs from Rees and the Irish. Kelly's offense will manage a first down or two early, but punts will be the order of the day in the first half...
- Three of Notre Dame's last four opponents scored touchdowns on their opening drives, with Temple the logical exception. Look for the Irish to stiffen in that regard Saturday but Michigan State will dent the scoreboard on one of its first three possessions -- then managing just one more trip to pay dirt the rest of the game…
- Notre Dame's quarterbacks have been sacked in just 116 drop-backs this fall. Make that six in 150-plus when Saturday comes to a close…
- It's logical to project the team with the most turnovers Saturday will taste defeat, but I'll venture a guess that the team that commits the first turnover falls short tomorrow in South Bend…
- Offensive Player on the Spot for the Irish: Right tackle Ronnie Stanley -- facing a different level of athletic pass-rusher in Shilique "the touchdown maker" Calhoun Saturday. Calhoun has four defensive touchdowns in three games this season along with three tackles-for-loss, two sacks, and a staggering three forced fumbles. (Notre Dame has not forced a fumble this season.)
- Offensive Player on the Spot for the Spartans: Connor Cook. To channel Lou Holtz, circa the 1990 Orange Bowl matchup with 11-0, #1 ranked Colorado -- "They 'aint playin' no Youngstown State…"
- Defensive Player on the Spot for the Irish: Freshman nickel Cole Luke. Targeted in man-to-man three times on third down last week vs. Purdue (pass interference, pass breakup, first down allowed), Luke will square off vs. Michigan State's quickest athlete, slot receiver MacGarrett Kings, in a handful of crucial third-down situations Saturday.
- Defensive Player on the Spot for the Spartans: Field CB Trae Waynes. Boundary corner Darquez Dennard is a monster on the other side, but Waynes will have his hands full, often in bump-and-run, with cagey quick Irish senior T.J. Jones or budding star DaVaris Daniels.
- Forgotten Fact From 2012, Part I: Notre Dame was 1 for 14 in third-down conversions in East Lansing…
- Forgotten Fact From 2012, Part II: Michigan State suffered more tackles-for-loss (6) than it had total snaps (3) inside the Notre Dame Thirty Yard-Line.
Defense will again be the order of the day, but it will also lead to a few short field scoring opportunities...
Notre Dame 20 Michigan State 17