Spartan Football: The Outlook Moving Forward…Notre Dame

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Coming off their 41-7 dominance of Central Michigan, the Spartans return home to host Notre Dame at 8:00 Saturday night.

Offense

Central was a great opportunity for this unit to get it into high gear. They did that while also working in a lot of players who could play a key role later this year. Andrew Maxwell followed up Boise St. with a strong step forward (20/31 275 yds. 2 TD), suggesting he’s ready for the coming challenges remaining this month against Notre Dame and Ohio St. Look for Maxwell to be more comfortable under the lights Saturday night than he was in the opener, but also with the experience of overcoming adversity should it reappear.

Maxwell’s timing with Receivers progressed as well. Part of that, however, must be credited to better pass protection. Sure, it was against a MAC opponent, but it was on the road and you’d rather see protection and timing start to come together in that type of scenario than counting on it to jell when you’re down more than a score late against a big time opponent. The Offense also did a better job of getting the ball to playmakers like Bennie Fowler, Keith Mumphrey, and DeAnthony Arnett in space, as well as introducing Spartan Nation to Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings, Jr. Those two could come on fast and end up making important plays later in 2012. Their Red Shirt wouldn’t have been taken off unless that was a realistic possibility.

Le’Veon Bell got work in and stayed healthy, perhaps the two biggest keys of his day at Central. Spartan Nation knows that he’ll be needed most when the stakes are highest, beginning Saturday night. One piece of Bell’s development that’s stood out lately is his field awareness. Bell consistently shows the patience to let holes develop or blocks to complete before stepping on the gas. Coach Dantonio told Spartan Nation that Bell had good instincts coming out of High School.

“(He) always had great vision…great cutting ability,” he began. “The more experience a guy gets, the more confident he gets, and the more instinctive he becomes.” Saturday was a great example as Bell didn’t rush through many play’s development, or close to a hole before it fully opened. His field awareness has stood out since the Big Ten Championship Game last year.

The Junior’s development has been guided, of course, by Running Backs Coach Brad Salem. Dantonio told me he’s been good at articulating to his guys the finer points of running the ball, such as identifying which holes and gaps to press.  Salem’s impact on the rushing attack has been clear since his first year on staff.

Notre Dame isn’t the best Defense in the country, but they do have one of the top players around in Manti Te’o. Te’o, an expected All-American, is good enough for teams to work about as they game plan. Keep an eye on whether the Spartans work the ball around #5 in the gold helmet, or take it right at him. Monster Fullback Niko Palazeti (250 lbs.) will help lead the way along with the Offensive Line, that will also have their hands full keeping Maxwell protected as well as he was in Mt. Pleasant.

Defense

As we discussed last week, this unit wanted to leave a giant bagel (0) hanging in Mt. Pleasant, and they did. The 7 Central scored were not against the Spartan Dawgs. Pat Narduzzi’s unit played a host of guys Saturday, but still sharpened their saw and flashed the traits that make them a special Defense.

Watching this Defense, you can quickly see the ball skills, speed, and collective agility that separate this group. They play fast by marrying preparation and a talent that has been absent from Spartan Nation in the now distancing past. They’re built from the inside out, but can also close on you from the outside in. Long gone now are the type of shootouts seen in the early Dantonio days. Don’t expect them to return anytime too soon.

It’s not just that the starters are outstanding, it’s that the second and third string at any position can also play effectively. They’re not running out there with about a Defensive Tackle and a half to play with, they’re out there with four guys or more, for example, that can rotate in and play at a high level. Not to beat a dead horse, but that speaks to talent identification and development. To me it’s not as simple as one being more important than the other, but I’d probably lean towards identification if I had to favor one trait.

I’d love to hear from the Narduzzi doubters of his first few years in Green. While they were questioning him, doubting him, and sometimes even demanding he be replaced, he was out recruiting Johnny Adams, Will Gholston, and nearly the entire Spartan Defense that will dress Saturday night. Now what do you all think of him?

One lasting impression left from Saturday was that the Defense stayed hungry. No matter how far down the depth chart the lineup went, they chased after the shutout. The Dawgs aren’t going to just concede Touchdowns to any opponent on the schedule. That’s not to say TDs won’t happen, they almost certainly will. But it is to appreciate the mentality of these Snarlin’ Narduzzis. Their “want to” has been clearly established in the first two games.

They know the spotlight that is Michigan St.-Notre Dame, at home, on National Television at night. They see it as another opportunity to announce to the teams left on their schedule and the pollsters around the country that these Dawgs are gonna hunt for a long time, to the whistle for 60 minutes. It starts by stopping the run, and then can get fun come the later downs of a series. That’s’ when they usually get their best shot to intimidate behind a Howlin’ Spartan Stadium.

Notre Dame could feature a variety of Quarterbacks depending on Head Coach Brian Kelly’s feel at any point during Saturday night. The Irish did most of their work against Purdue last Saturday in the air, but still only put up 20 points. The Spartan Defense is simply more talented and playing better than the Irish Offense going into this one.

Special Teams

On a day with a considerable wind, Kevin Muma kicked off deep more consistently. Look at Muma’s performance this Saturday night again closely. If he and the coverage unit are doing well, the Irish will be forced to start from inside the 25 after each kick off. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going try for the Touchback each time, since the spot of the kick has changed along with the spot after a Touchback.

It’s also safe to expect that Mike Sadler’s punts will play a bigger role as the games gain importance. He wasn’t really necessary last Saturday, but kept things in tune nicely as he prepares for all that comes with punting in Michigan St.-Notre Dame. Coach D reminded Spartan Nation earlier this week that Aaron Bates (aka “Little Giants” gun slinger and current Grad Assistant) made more than just that big play in his 4 games against Notre Dame.

Nick Hill actually made a ball security mistake Saturday, but what a good time to make one. You’d rather make those gaffes in a game you’ll win by blowout than in one of the games that matters most. I still contend that Hill is getting better as a returner, and will take advantage of an opponent’s coverage mistake at some point to take one to the house for 6. The Red Shirt-Sophomore is doing just fine by taking what the field gives him and not trying to force something that’s not there. So often it’s a returner that tries too hard to make something out of nothing that ends up coughing it up at a very key moment.

Dan Conroy was among the busiest of the Special Teams bunch at Central, and should be ready to go from here. He’s missed a few kicks so far, but should be in gear for Notre Dame this time around. Again, Conroy could come up big in one of the two big ones this month as the Offense continues to develop its identity and learns to close out more drives.

Overall

It’s true that each game counts one, but also true that some mean more than others. 10 out of the last 15 in this series have gone to MSU. Notre Dame will always mean more than most others on the MSU schedule, and arguably means the most. I’m in the camp that has the ND game as the biggest on the (nearly) annual schedule, and Michigan as the most bitter and personal. Regardless of how you rank the two, ND’s position on the schedule and the national spotlight that will shine on Spartan Stadium once again mean a lot for this program in 2012.

It’s another chance for Spartan Football to make history against the Domers on a Saturday night (like 1998 and of course “Little Giants”). For individuals like Le’Veon Bell, Dion Sims, and almost any member of the Defense, it’s a prime chance to capture the moment for their team and build up a case for post season hardware and honors.

Last year Michigan St. was the better team, but lost on the road as a whole lot of breaks (literal and figurative) went the Irish way. This time around it probably won’t be that close, and the Spartans should keep their momentum building towards a perfect first month of 2012.

Last Week’s 3 Stars

  1. Andrew Maxwell—Made the progress desired to be ready for his first rivalry game.
  2. Bennie Fowler—The stage is now his to build on past flashes to become the next big play maker from Wide Receiver U.
  3. Johnny Adams—Stayed hot with a pick, but we’re looking for a consistent commitment to bring it on each snap of each game. That, and a little less talkity talk after the whistle.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. If MSU changes the official school nickname to “Sparty,” will ESPN and select other media finally call our teams the Spartans? Is that what it will take at this point? This hasn’t always been such an issue, but has gotten out of hand thanks mostly to the likes of Mike Tirico, Rece Davis, and others at the Four Letter Network.
  2. I love that Spartan Football: All Access has returned, but I cringe that a narrator has been added to the show. It’s lost a piece of what separated it from other shows of its kind.
  3. Can we finally admit that Arkansas was an overrated SEC inflated fraud? Sure they lost their Coach to a mysterious motorcycle accident, and then a bunch of players (including the starting QB) during the game Saturday night against directional Louisiana, but come on…they still lost at home? A National Title contender, right? And the Big Ten losing on the road this past weekend was a big story?
  4. Notre Dame joining the ACC, partially, sums up just about everything you need to know about the integrity and humility of the most overrated University in American history.

* Let me hear all about it inside the Phalanx Forum, and also @JPSpartan