Notebook: Clash with MSU may reveal whether Notre Dame's fixes are lasting
SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly on Tuesday somehow remembered perhaps the most obscure facet of Notre Dame’s renewed football rivalry with Michigan State.
The Megaphone Trophy.
“You guys know that, right?” he said with a smile. “It’s all about the megaphone.”
Maybe it’s a self-preserving diversion to get the Irish head football coach’s mind off the most recent meeting between the two teams, which clash for the 79th time, Saturday night in East Lansing, Mich. (8 EDT; FOX).
The series, an annual affair with few exceptions from 1948-2013, goes on hiatus after Saturday night until a two-game set in 2026-27.
Just about everything about the most recent matchup, a 36-28, Spartan victory at Notre Dame Stadium last September screamed mirage.
Michigan State vaulted to No. 8 from its No. 12 AP ranking after the win over the 18th-ranked Irish, then lost seven straight and eight of nine to end the season 3-9.
A Spartan ground game that hogged the ball (37:57-22:03 time of possession), churned out 260 yards on 52 carries and hinted at being dominant, settled into being quite average (65th nationally at 172.7 yards per game at season’s end).
Same with the typically staunch Spartan run defense that bullied the Irish (57 rushing yards on 25 carries, 2.3 avg.), but was a mere 51st in run defense after 12 games (158.7).
Quarterback Tyler O’Connor, meanwhile, looked almost Heisman-esque (19-26-1, 241 yards, 2 TDs; 43 yards rushing, no sacks) against the ND defense, then lost his starting job a few weeks later to current MSU starting QB Brian Lewerke.
The one sustainable conclusion that emerged from that game? Kelly’s program appeared to have fissures that required long-term solutions, not just X-and-O tweaks, which played into its ultimate 4-8 bottom line.
Saturday night’s ND-MSU game may reveal how effective the battery of offseason solutions are working for the long term.
Keep your eye on the trenches, where ND (2-1) has played to extremes so far.
Two early-season surprises there, on the defensive side, are freshman interior players Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.
Their tackle totals (four with 1.5 tackles for loss for Tagovailoa-Amosa and two for Hinish) don’t do justice to the impact they’ve had rolling in for starters Jonathan Bonner and Jerry Tillery, respectively, and helping to keep them fresh.
And new defensive coordinator Mike Elko hasn’t been shy about keeping that rotation going during key stretches in the games.
Hinish was on the field, for instance, when the Irish were forcing a Georgia punt late on Sept. 9 that gave the ND offense a shot to win the game in the fourth quarter of what turned out to be a 20-19 Irish loss.
In last Saturday’s 49-20 road victory at Boston College, Tagovailoa-Amosa’s penetration on a key fourth-down play allowed linebackers Te’von Coney and Nyles Morgan to stop BC running back Jon Hilliman short of a first down early in the third quarter of what was then a one-point game (14-13 Irish).
“I think from the very beginning, we trust that they're going to execute the techniques that we've asked them to,” Kelly said. “They're not jumping out of their fits.
“There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they're extremely coachable. They're smart. If we ask them to do something, they're going to do it. They've got some physical traits that allow them to be effective at the position, as well.”
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio not only professed that his 2017 Spartan team (2-0) is probably the youngest of the 11 he has coached, he used the word “young” 11 times during his Tuesday press conference for good measure.
The Spartans have played nine true freshmen and 10 redshirt freshmen so far in two fairly non-competitive wins over Western Michigan (28-14) and Bowling Green (35-10).
Interestingly, Notre Dame is nearly as young in that regard. But on its depth chart, per usual, the Irish refer to their redshirt freshmen as “sophomores.”
In reality, the Irish, in their three games, have played nine true freshmen and nine redshirt freshmen, one fewer than MSU. Notre Dame has only seven players with expiring eligibility on its entire roster.
Speaking of Young …
Freshman wide receiver Michael Young remains in the pared-down ND wide receiver rotation as a receiver with elite speed who Kelly believes could play himself into an expanded role eventually.
“We think he can be a screen guy, maybe a jet sweep guy,” Kelly said of the 5-10, 190-pounder from St. Rose, La. “He's got a little bit of all of those tools.
“I think it's too early really to tell other than the fact that we really like his work ethic, his attitude. His football intelligence is really high. It's put him in a good position early in his career.”
And Kelly has an intriguing way in helping him determine football intelligence of prospects during the recruiting process.
“I actually like to talk about other sports,” Kelly said. “If they don't know anything about Kyrie Irving and the trade with the Celtics, I get a little nervous.
“If they are so focused that they don't know anything about sports, that gets me nervous. There are so many carryovers with other sports.”
Just as it did before last season’s ND-MSU matchup, Michigan State had a bye week. But that has not been a big advantage with Dantonio historically.
In fact, the 11th-year Spartan head coach is 5-4 at MSU in games that follow a bye week and 7-9 in his career. Kelly, by contrast is 19-2 in his career and 8-1 at ND. The Irish bye week this season comes before an Oct. 21 matchup with USC.
• After drawing what’s tied for the lowest-rated of the 176 telecasts on NBC in the 27-year history of the network’s partnership with Notre Dame on Sept. 2 (1.0, 1.58 million viewers), the Irish have rebounded somewhat.
ND drew a 2.4 rating (4.08 million viewers) Sept. 9 against Georgia on NBC, and a 1.1 (1.779 million) on ESPN for Saturday’s road game at BC. The Georgia game was the No. 2 college football draw of that weekend, behind only Ohio State-Oklahoma (4.6, 8.255 million).
• One of Kelly’s goals with the program’s strength-and-conditioning makeover this offseason was being a better fourth-quarter team.
The Irish were outscored 81-52 in the final quarter last season and 13-10 in overtime periods. So far this season, Notre Dame is outscoring its opponents by a combined 38-16.
• With 75 rushing yards Saturday, Irish junior Josh Adams would displace East Lansing (Mich.) product Randy Kinder from the No. 10 spot on ND’s career rushing list (2,295) in the city where Kinder starred before coming to Notre Dame.
If the nation’s eighth-leading rusher maintains his average (147.7 per game) on Saturday, he’d pass No. 9 George Gipp (2,341) on that list as well. Adams’ position coach, Autry Denson, holds down the top spot, with 4,318 career yards.
MSU held Adams to 29 yards on 12 carries in 2016.