Sep 2, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio (C) leads his team onto the field prior to their game against the Furman Paladins at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
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The Michigan State football team faces an early tough test and one that will demand more from them than last year’s Oregon game.
This is a not only a difficult challenge, but it’s a burdensome epic that continues on Saturday. The series has at times gone back and forth and, in some instances, Michigan State football got the better of the Fighting Irish and other times was Norte Dame.
The Irish have an explosive offense that will put pressure on the Michigan State defense. The Spartans come into the matchup with unproven quarterback Tyler O’Connor. Yes, O’Connor did beat Ohio State, however, he did not throw much in that game plus the then offensive line turned in a season best performance.
A revamped Spartan offensive line can be really good, yet they will need to prove they are up for the challenge of the vaunted Irish Defense.
Michigan State is facing Notre Dame for the first time since 2013. This renewed series is exciting not just for the Spartan faithful but for fans of college football everywhere.
Notre Dame has gotten gotten the better of the Spartans the last several meetings. Will that streak continue? Hopefully not, but these are five reasons why I believe MSU will likely lose.
5. Darian Hicks will be targeted
Aug 29, 2014; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans cornerback Darian Hicks (2) reacts to a play during the 1st half of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Darian Hicks was targeted often in the Furman game and facing a quarterback like DeShone Kizer it makes sense the Irish will test him early and often. Hicks has made strides, yet he still lacks some of the speed to make up ground against receivers.
Look for it to be a rough day for Hicks, unless defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett replaces him. Now, the other options are young/inexperienced freshmen and sophomores and I believe this is the reason why Hicks has started in the first place.
Hicks has the big-game experience, however, do not be surprised if the Irish go deep and possibly burn Hicks — Mark Dantonio will yank Hicks out in that case. It’s my opinion that Hicks is already on a short lease and cannot afford to make the mental errors that have plagued him in the past.
Sep 2, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans defensive end Gabe Sherrod (89) celebrates with cornerback Vayante Copeland (13) after a defense stop during the second half against the Furman Paladins at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
4. The defense has lost its edge
Maybe it’s me and if it is, I can accept that. The defense hasn’t looked different but the results have not been as great on the field. The transition came after the iconic defense of 2013’s seniors graduated. The transformation came under coach Pat Narduzzi’s watch.
The defense entered the 2014 much the same as before but with the losses at Oregon and Ohio State it appeared Michigan State football made a transition for the Baylor game. It always been a bend but don’t break defense that blitzed now it is a defense that takes less risks and gets burned.
Often it seemed coach Harlon Barnett held the reins in tight on the blitzing and Spartan fans would watch the opposition slowly march down the field. A once-proud unit was routinely gutted for rushing yards. This was especially the case against a hapless Nebraska team and Furman even ran the ball effectively.
Now, it could be that it’s not Barnett’s fault and that it has much to do with players’ effort — I believe that’s the case. However, this defense just has not been the same or even sniffed the same zip code as that 2013 team.
While Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke scream at opposing quarterbacks before the snap, the rest of the team seems to be either taking a backseat rather than asserting themselves. Something will have to give in order for MSU to win.
Oct 3, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans offensive lineman Brian Allen (65) points out coverage before the snap of the ball during the 2nd half of a game at Spartan Stadium. MSU won 24-21. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
3. The offensive line needs an identity
The offensive line allowed Furman to get pressure on more than one occasion. Now I understand the old adage that “they have players too.” Yes, this is true, but Michigan State football is the defending champ of the Big Ten and it needs to start acting like it.
This O-line can be good — and I wrote about how good in a earlier preseason article — but they have to prove it on the field. If MSU didn’t have the bye week, they might have had a bigger sense of urgency to improve. However, there’s a huge difference between live game situations and practice.
Michigan State established an identity on that first drive against Furman. However, the Spartans could not continue that ‘ground and pound’ mantra. Furman shut down the running attack and tried to make them one-dimensional. The Paladins did what Notre Dame will try to do against MSU Saturday: take away the run game.
The offensive line has to impose its will on the Irish. Otherwise, it will be not only a long game on Saturday but a exhausting season for Spartan fans and coaches.
Sep 26, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans defensive lineman Malik McDowell (4) breaks though the Central Michigan offensive line during the 2nd half of a game at Spartan Stadium. MSU won 30-10. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
2. Michigan State will lack the effort necessary
I alluded to this point earlier with the defense, but ever since the Rose Bowl win of 2013 this team has over all had a difficult time handling success. One could equally make the argument that the say thing could be said about Ohio State and you would be correct, but even during the revenge year of last season there were games where Michigan State just was not getting the job done.
Riley Bullough also mentioned this after the Nebraska game. The Spartans had taken the Cornhuskers for granted and thought that they would just go in and win easily. I believe the same thing could be said about Indiana or the Rutgers game last year as well.
It may seem I am piling on here, but this is the struggle with college football and the parody in it. It’s why Mississippi State lost to South Alabama or why games look close on Saturdays with top teams playing lowly “Sisters of the Poor.”
It’s college football and these are kids playing, who have class during the week and social lives. Getting up for “Avocado U” or “Guacamole State” is a disciplined effort. It is an effort that I have not seen much from Michigan State lately.
The problem with any team is that they think they can just “turn it on” at any time and when a team gets that in their head then it generally is too late. I hope it is not too late for MSU, but it may be.
Sep 27, 2014; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans quarterback Tyler OCan Tyler O’Connor step up?
1. Tyler O’Connor step up?
Furman did it’s best job to force MSU into passing. Spartan fans can expect the same thing this Saturday. LJ Scott will have little room to run and the Irish will bring the run blitz. O’Connor will have to throw the ball, but will he be ready to win the game on his arm?
O’Connor has made beautiful throws against Ohio State and Furman. However, he did get rattled a bit against the Furman pass rush. Norte Dame will bring the heat on Saturday with relentless pressure. O’Connor says and does the right things but the game will be in his hands to win. This is a different feeling for MSU because they have had Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook holding down the fort. It’s O’Connor’s turn and hopefully the stage is not too big for him.
Many can point to the OSU game, but this is a new season. O’Connor has to establish himself and be the competitor that those close to him believe he is. Can he pull it off? I don’t know. He is the biggest “X-factor” in this game. If he plays like the first half against Furman, then no. But if he plays like the guy the second half of the Furman game, then yes.
O’Connor cannot afford to get caught up in the hype of game day. He must be cool like Cook was. This game will be the first gauntlet test for the senior quarterback. The keys to the bus that is Michigan State football are his. Spartan fans can only hope that he is the quarterback coaches believe him to be. If not, then it’s an early setback for MSU.