MSU vs. Notre Dame: View from the other side
VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE
Tyler James, who covers Notre Dame for the South Bend Tribune, breaks down the Fighting Irish for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s game. Follow him on Twitter: @TJamesNDI
Question: The Notre Dame rushing attack put up remarkable numbers against Temple and Boston College but managed just 55 yards against Georgia. What is the key to finding consistency on the ground?
Answer: The gaudy rushing numbers have been the result of big plays. Notre Dame has already had nine runs of at least 36 yards and five of them have gone for more than 60 yards. Naturally, all of those long runs came against Temple and Boston College and not Georgia. Finding those big plays starts with the offensive line creating creases in the defense, but it also requires the Irish running backs to make quick decisions and get up the field. Against Georgia, the holes weren’t as wide and Notre Dame’s backs were trying — and failing — to run around the defense. The Bulldogs had too much speed for that to work.
Head coach Brian Kelly challenged his offensive line to dominate in the second half against Boston College, and that led to 515 rushing yards. Running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and quarterback Brandon Wimbush have all shown the ability to make defenses pay with big plays if they’re not tackled near the line of scrimmage.
Q. Having appeared in just two games before this season, how surprising has the start been for quarterback Brandon Wimbush?
A. Expectations were sky-high for Wimbush. When he signed with the Irish in 2015, he was billed by some, including myself, as the best fit for Notre Dame’s offense that Kelly had recruited during his time in South Bend. He had the arm strength, the accuracy and the running ability to be the total package. He’s shown flashes of that potential throughout his time at Notre Dame, but he’s nowhere near that ceiling. Wimbush, who completed 72 percent of his passes as a senior in high school, has been erratic throwing the ball for most of his first three starts this season.
Wimbush’s worst performance as a passer came last week at Boston College when he finished 11-of-24 for 96 yards with one interception. Yet he rushed for 207 yards, a school record for quarterbacks, and four touchdowns against the Eagles. Wimbush hasn’t looked comfortable trying to connect with his receivers, and he’s going to have to throw the ball to keep defenses from loading the box. I expect Wimbush to develop into more of a complete quarterback throughout the season. Doing that on the road in a night game at Michigan State won’t be an easy task.
Q. How has the identity of the Notre Dame defense changed under new coordinator Mike Elko?
A. For starters, the identity is actually identifiable. Under previous defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, confusion proved to be the only outcome that came consistently. Those problems seem to have gone away with Elko in charge. Elko teaches his defense with a crazed focus on fundamentals. The nuances are not ignored for the sake of a creative scheme. He wants his defense to follow simple principles: play hard, stop the run, limit explosive plays and create turnovers.
The defense has done that in the first three games of the season. He’s taught his defense in a way that’s allowed Notre Dame to build depth and rely on rotating fresh players in the front seven and even sparingly in the secondary. The Irish are relying on more than 20 players to stop offenses, and Elko has found the right combination so far.
Q. Same question for the offense under first-year coordinator Chip Long, and how has Brian Kelly adjusted to giving up the play-calling?
A. Play-calling duties have long been a questioned and debated topic for Kelly at Notre Dame. By all accounts, Mike Denbrock, a longtime Kelly assistant coach who left for Cincinnati in the offseason, had been calling plays the last two seasons at Notre Dame. So, Kelly giving those responsibilities to Long isn’t a drastic change, though the two had never worked together prior to this year.
But Kelly wouldn’t have hired Long if they didn’t see eye-to-eye on offensive philosophy. Notre Dame still runs a spread offense and wants to get the ball in the hands of its playmakers. The foundation of the offense remains on the offensive line. The biggest difference so far may be Long’s affinity for tight ends. He coaches the position himself, and he isn’t afraid to get two or three tight ends in the game. It’s a talented position for Notre Dame, so it makes sense to utilize those players. The Irish even use freshman tight end Brock Wright as a fullback in certain situations. You didn’t see that in previous iterations of Kelly’s offense.
Q. Notre Dame and Michigan State have a rich history, one the Spartans put plenty of emphasis on winning. Is it the same for the Irish or is this just another game on the schedule?
A. Rich history comes pretty often on Notre Dame’s schedule. We’re talking about a program that plays for six different rivalry trophies, including two kinds of shillelaghs. Last week’s win against Boston College allowed the Irish to keep the Frank Leahy Memorial Bowl. If you didn’t know that was a thing, don’t worry. You’re not the only one. It’s a regular occurrence for someone in the Irish program to note that every opponent wants to play up to Notre Dame’s level. It may even be suggested that a Notre Dame game is the opponent’s biggest game of the season. That’s true in some cases, but probably not for Michigan State.
What’s likely more relevant for Notre Dame’s players is that Michigan State beat them last season. With Michigan State dropping off the schedule until 2026, these Irish players won’t have another chance at getting back at the Spartans.
IRISH PLAYERS TO WATCH
■ Brandon Wimbush, QB: The redshirt sophomore has been hard to stop on the ground, running for 207 yards and four touchdowns in last week’s win over Boston College and 106 yards and a score in the win over Temple. He’s been less effective through the air, completing 50.5 percent of his passes, but he does have a pair of touchdown passes against two interceptions.
■ Josh Adams, RB: The junior ranks fifth in the nation with 443 rushing yards and eighth nationally with an average of 147.7 yards a game. Adams ran for 229 yards on 18 carries in the victory over Boston College and joined Wimbush to become the first duo in Notre Dame history to gain 200 yards or more in a game.
■ Shaun Crawford, CB: The redshirt sophomore, who was a high school teammate of MSU’s Andrew and David Dowell, overcame a torn Achilles last season to get off to an outstanding start in 2017. He forced three turnovers in the win over Boston College, intercepting two passes and recovering a fumble. He is the first Irish defender to create three turnovers in a game since Harrison Smith had three interceptions in the 2010 Sun Bowl.
FACTS AND FIGURES
■ Coming to an end: This is the 79th meeting between Michigan State and Notre Dame, a series that dates back more than 100 years. Since 1949, when the teams starting playing for the Megaphone Trophy, the Spartans and Irish have not met only six times. However, that run comes to an end as the teams are not scheduled to play again until 2026.
■ Extra time: Michigan State benefitted from an early bye last season by going on the road and beating Notre Dame, improving its record after a bye week to 6-4 under coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans again are coming off an early bye as Dantonio looks to improve his record of 4-4 against the Irish.
■ Running wild: Notre Dame ran for 515 yards last week against Boston College, the most by any Irish team since 1969 when they ran for 597 against Navy. Notre Dame is riding that running game to plenty of points, converting 15 of 15 red-zone opportunities, one of 20 FBS teams to remain perfect on the season.