Opponent Outlook: Best Michigan State strategy is to attack Irish defense

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Talk about a football team waiting in the weeds for an ambush...

When Michigan State visits Notre Dame Saturday night, the Spartans will come in as a highly classified secret.

They were as vanilla as possible two weeks ago, in a less than impressive 28-13 victory over FCS punching bag Furman. Then, Michigan State had last week off to hone its game for the showdown with the Irish — the 50th anniversary of the colossal 10-10 tie between the two behemoths of 1966.

Hondo S. Carpenter, Sr. (@HondoCarpenter), editor, founder and publisher of Spartan Nation Magazine, Spartan Nation Radio and Spartan Nation TV, gives some unique insight into what to expect in the showdown.

— What impact has playing in the College Football Playoffs last year had on this year's team?

Because of the way Alabama blew out the Spartans (38-0), I think it will have a very positive experience. The MSU offensive coaching staff's game plan was, in my opinion, the biggest reason MSU got blown out in the second half.

Co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner has admitted that his game plan came up short. In fairness, the Spartans struggled with being stubborn long before he took over as offensive coordinator. If the Spartans have truly learned their lesson and come out and attack, that bodes very well for them this season.

Another advantage is that the other three teams (Clemson, Oklahoma and Alabama) all got a lot of love nationally heading into this season, while most of the nation focused only on Michigan and Ohio State out of the Big Ten. That slight, whether warranted or not, firmly planted the proverbial Spartan chip, back on their shoulders.

— How has Tyler O'Connor settled into the role of starting quarterback?

When he was coming out of high school, I said that O’Connor was the best high school QB that I had ever seen. No QB since has beaten him out for that honor. While Dantonio didn’t endorse him in public as the firm starter, there was no doubt anywhere close to the program that he was. O’Connor being the starter was the worst kept secret perhaps in Dantonio’s 10 years.

O’Connor is clearly "the man" for the Spartans. A natural leader who is loved by his teammates, you saw last year at Ohio State that while the Spartans were without regular starter Connor Cook, they were able to win with O’Connor.

O’Connor knows the entire offense, can make every throw and has a calm cool presence in the huddle. His coaches and teammates trust him.

— What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of this Spartan team? Where will matchup problems with Notre Dame be?

This is a different team than the one the Irish last saw in 2013. This is the deepest and best team that Mark Dantonio has ever had. For the third straight year, there are young men who will one day be drafted into the NFL that won’t be able to get on the field Saturday in South Bend.

The Spartans have multiple NFL-able weapons at every offensive position. If the Spartans come out and attack the Irish like Texas did, that is the biggest factor in this game to me.

On the defensive side of the ball the Spartan line under-performed against Furman, but they also lost their coach that morning with an emergency medical procedure. Defensive line coach Ron Burton, who is usually on the field, was missing and he is the fire and passion of that group. He is back and the Spartans should be fine.

An improved performance will help but they can’t allow DeShone Kizer to have time. The Spartan defense sees Kizer as a carbon copy of (former Oregon quarterback) Marcus Mariota, who they played against. The key to stopping him is forcing him make quick decisions. MSU will bring pressure because that is how you beat the Irish.

The Irish must get the game to the perimeter to beat the Spartans. The same is true for the Spartans when they have the ball. If either team tries to play this game in a phone booth, it will lose. Attacking the perimeter will open up the run game. A pass-to-run mentality will be what the winner does in this game.

— Will linebacker Ed Davis, recently granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, be a factor against Notre Dame?

Ed was being highly-touted as an NFL player last preseason prior to his season-ending injury. He is still catching up and as mentioned previously the Spartans are loaded. I fully expect to see him get reps on defense and special teams. He is a special young man and gifted player, but he doesn’t have to make big plays for MSU to win.

Whatever MSU gets from him is a bonus, but linebacker is the deepest position on the defensive side of the ball with NFL-bound young men that WON’T play Saturday. He will play, but won’t start and the expectations are low because of the depth of the group, not because of a lack of talent.

— What has surprised you about this Michigan State team?

It has been nothing short of amazing how little they have shown both in the spring and in the first game. MSU was dealt a bad blow having to face Furman in week one, and then getting a bye before heading to the home of the Irish.

Knowing that, Dantonio and his staff literally showed not one thing new in the spring with their televised Green and White game. Against Furman, part of the reason the Spartans weren’t as impressive as some would think facing an FCS team was that they once again showed nothing new on offense, defense or special teams.

While the Irish showed nothing new versus Nevada, they did against Texas. MSU was fortunate to get that look. While I think Notre Dame is better off heading into this tilt because of their schedule, I think MSU has an advantage of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly having not seen one new thing.

Everyone in Michigan is well aware of how great of a coach Brian Kelly is. One thing he is not is a mind-reader. MSU’s commitment to showing nothing new along with Dantonio refusing to run the score up last week may have some selling the Spartan Nation short, but it shouldn’t.

MSU is experienced and very deep. They are resolute. Notre Dame is an elite place to play football. Very difficult, but to beat the Spartans the Irish have to play an entire 60 minutes. Texas did that and Nevada did not.

If the MSU offensive game plan comes out and attacks with its foot on the gas for those entire 60 minutes, it should be another epic battle worthy of the two teams that will forever be linked to the greatest game in the history of the sport. How ironic is it that the game I refer to was played 50 years prior?

Michigan State players gather before an NCAA college football game against Furman, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)