There’s a word that always seems to pop up when Michigan State Football is mentioned. “Physical” is the word the Spartans tend to conjure, especially in the 10-plus seasons Mark Dantonio has been the head coach.
The Spartans aren’t physical in an “Olivia Newton John 1980s pop song” kind of way. Dantonio’s Spartans are physical in a “blunt-force-trauma-line-you-up-smack-you-in-the-mouth-run-you-over-and-grind-you-into-the-ground” kind of way.
They are stereotypically so physical that Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly spoke the word “physical” at least 10 times at his pre-Michigan State press conference earlier this week. Kelly knows what’s in store for his team, but whether or not his Irish are ready is another question.
“You have to play physical football,” Kelly said when asked his first question about Michigan State. “They’re a physical football team. They’ve got a mindset of the way they want to play. They’re going to run the football. They’re going to be physical on defense.”
“Physical” does not describe how the Irish played in their season opener at Texas two weeks ago, especially on defense. Sloppy tackling dogged the Irish all night. The Longhorns were able to run the ball virtually at will late in the fourth quarter and in overtime against a makeshift 3-3-5 Irish defensive formation.
Things did get better against Nevada last week. A lot of that can be attributed to an opponent that’s far from top-25 caliber, but a lot of that can also be attributed to a more simplified defensive approach.
Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder kept his unit in its base defense most of the day against the Wolf Pack. More of that base look is likely to remain Saturday night against MSU, and what Kelly describes as a “methodical” Michigan State offense.
“They’re going to run the football (and) take their shots,” Kelly says. “A four-yard completion in a passing game is just fine with them, because it puts them in a very good situation to continue to run the football.”
The steady dose of pounding from Michigan State will make third downs critical. Notre Dame’s first two opponents have converted 11 of 30 (37 percent) on third down so far this year, with Texas (loss) converting 8 of 18 and Nevada (win) just 3 of 12.
Notre Dame and Michigan State haven’t played the past two seasons since the Irish began their five-games-a-year scheduling plan with ACC teams, but the Fighting Irish won the last three meetings between the two schools and have won four of the past five meetings in the series.
Michigan State converted just 34 percent (a combined 18 of 52) on third down in losses to the Irish from 2011-2013, but they have converted just under 50 percent of their overall third downs over the past three seasons. They converted 44 percent in 2013, 50 percent in 2014, and 49 percent during last season’s College Football Playoff run.
“It’s really about executing at a high level that this team needs now,” Kelly says of his team’s key to playing the Spartans. “That’s the next box that we’ve got to check and they’re preparing the right way. I like their resolve. They’ll fight for four quarters.”
We’ll see if they can do it against a “physical” team.