Notre Dame Fighting Irish (2-1 SU, 2-1 ATS) vs. Michigan State Spartans (2-1 SU, 2-0 ATS)
College Football Week 4
Date/Time: Saturday, September 23rd, 8:00 PM
Where: Spartan Stadium
By Mike M., NCAA Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: ND -5 / MSU +5
Over/Under Total: 54
Notre Dame heads three hours north to take on Michigan State in what will be the 79th all-time meeting between the teams. The Irish hold the historical edge against the Spartans with a 48-29-1 record and have done especially well of late when playing them in their home state, having gone 4-2 in their last six and 16-5 over the last 21 games in East Lansing.
Sparty enters the game with a record of 2-0 both straight up and against the spread after easy wins home wins against Bowling Green and Western Michigan to start the season. This was exactly the start they needed after a tumultuous offseason lowlighted by multiple arrests while also attempting to recover from a disastrous 2016 that saw them finish with a 3-9 record including a paltry 1-8 mark in the Big Ten. What made last years lack of success under head coach Mark Dantonio that much more surprising is that they had finished five of the previous six seasons with double digit wins while also entering as defending conference champions. With the disappointment of 2016 and all the off season turmoil now hopefully behind them Danntonios squad has looked solid so far, having found consistent success on both sides of the ball and will now be looking to keep that much needed momentum going against the Irish this weekend.
One surprising area for concern for the Spartans is the play of running L.J. Scott, who was readily expected to be the star and focal point of the offense after his successes of last season. Instead he struggled mightily out of the gate, rushing for just 39 yards on 15 carries in their first game against Bowling Green that saw him eventually removed after fumbling the ball multiple times, though he was able to bounce back with a decent performance against Western Michigan and on the season has now rushed for 125 yards and scored two touchdowns, with one coming on the ground and the other through the air. Thankfully for Scott and the rest of the Michigan State offense, sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke has been able to recover just fine from a broken collarbone that cut his 2016 short, and so far this season has completed 65% of his passes for a total of 411 yards and an efficient 4/1 TD-INT touchdown ratio. Receivers Darrell Stewart and Felton Davis along with tight end Matt Sokol have been Lewerkes favorite targets thus far, and he will to continue to make a connection with them against an Irish defense that has yet to be truly tested by an accurate passer this season.
While Scotts early hiccup may have caused worry amongst the Spartan faithful, the defense has had no such concerns and appear to be hitting their stride early despite returning just four starters this season along with the holes left by those thrown off the team for their offseason run ins with the law. They enter the game against Notre Dame ranked 18th in yards allowed per game, having held opponents to a combined 3/28 on third down conversions (in comparison MSU has converted on 15 of 30), outgained them in yards (922-407) and first downs (46-20) while also holding a time of possession edge of over 20 minutes through two games.
The strength of the Michigan State defense so far has been in the middle, with linebackers Chris Frey and Jose Bachie leading the way with Frey the defensive captain and returning leader at tackles and the former multi-sport star Bachie having put up double digit in tackles against both Bowling Green and Western Michigan in what were just his third and fourth games ever played at the college football level. Frey and Bachie are far from alone, with defensive lineman Raequan Williams fully expected to one day be playing at the NFL level and defensive backs Tyson Smith and Josiah Scott both rounding out a solid backfield.
Going into Saturdays game the Spartans know full well they will be tested on the ground, with Notre Dame featuring the 5th ranked rushing attack in the country and just last week against Boston College had two players, quarterback Brandon Wimbush and running back Josh Adams, rush for over 200 yards in the same game for the first time in school history. As a team they finished with 515 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground, which is the second time in just three games this season that they have had such success after gaining 422 yards rushing in their week one 49-16 blowout win against Temple. And thankfully light years better than the 55 yards on 27 carries they had in their 20-19 loss to Georgia the week before.
Against the Eagles, lead back Josh Adams was able to put up 229 yards on just 18 carries through only three quarters of play, and Notre Dame is now 7-2 throughout his college career when he is able to eclipse the 100-yard barrier. His success is imperative to the Irish success for multiple reasons this season, but none is likely as important as its ability to take the pressure off of quarterback Brandon Wimbush as he looks to improve his skill as a passer while continuing to make a multitude of plays with his feet.
Wimbush set a single game school record with four rushing touchdowns against BC last week, and for the game ended up with over 200 yards on the ground to go with his quartet of scores. His running ability can certainly not be questioned, but when he drops back to pass is when some Irish fans have started to worry, as on the season he already has amassed two interceptions to go along with four fumbles, including a devastating strip sack suffered against Georgia that ended their chances of winning the game. For them to find success this week against Michigan State and down the road against one of their many tough opponents, they can not afford to have the quarterback position turn into a Russian roulette type situation where there are only so many times the player can drop back to pass before something goes wrong.
The Notre Dame passing game ranks just 114th on the season in yards per game, but at least some of that can be attested to the great success the running game has found in their two blowout wins against Temple and Boston College. Lead receiver Eqanimeous St. Brown has gotten off to a slow start with just 7 catches for 99 yards and a touchdown through their three games, which has been offset a bit by the return of the Mack, with tight end Alize back after having missed all of last season and leading the team so far this season with 9 catches for 101 yards. They will hope and definitely need to find balance with both parts of the offense if they want to find a way to get the win this week in what will be only the second time since 2013 that Notre Dame will be playing in back-to-back road contests.
One area of concern for Notre Dame is their recent inability to put together consecutive well played games, having gone 0-6 in their last six games after a victory and not having a won back-to-back games since the 2015 season. They have been worse against the spread in the same situation, going 0-8 in their last eight, while Michigan State has been a near opposite 5-2-1 in their last eight matchups following a win. The Spartans especially seem to enjoy the home and/or underdog roll as well, having put up against the spread records of 5-0 in their last five at home, 7-0 in their last seven as a home underdog and 18-7-1 in their last 26 as an underdog. While all that is well and good, the reason I am taking Michigan State this week is due to Notre Dames consistent lack of ability in beating quality opponents, having gone just 3-13 in their last 16 games under beleaguered head coach Brian Kelly against teams from Power 5 conferences with all their wins coming against unranked teams from the ACC. In one of the last matchups on Saturdays slate, I would suggest taking the five point head start and Michigan State at home in East Lansing against the Irish.
Mike M’s Pick to Cover the Point Spread: Michigan State +5. Bet your pick for this game using your credit card at a sportsbook where it WILL work for deposits and take advantage of their 100% signup bonus on your first deposit up to $100! (Example: Deposit $100 and they’ll give you an extra $100 FREE!) Find this great offer at Intertops Sportsbook.