Friday, September 22, 2017

Rosenberg: Fighting Irish and Spartans look for bragging rights over the next decade

By: Jeremy Rosenberg

One of college football’s most underrated rivalries is set to take a prime time stage Saturday night, as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (2-1) look to claim ten-year bragging rights against the Michigan State Spartans (2-0). This rivalry may not be the flashiest, but it is marked by solid, hard-nosed football. The fact that the most storied game in this longtime rivalry ended in a tie speaks volumes about the intensity on the field. The Spartans and Irish might be taking a decade off, but I feel like I can predict with confidence that these two teams will bring it when they meet again in the future.

As for Saturday’s game, like so many Spartan-Irish games of the past, this one will be a tone setter for the season. To say both of these teams are coming off disappointing seasons is an understatement. A victory Saturday propels one of these teams into what could be a very promising year. A loss and both fan bases will see visions of the apocalypse.

Notre Dame is coming off a severe pounding of Boston College. Any hangover or disappointment from the one-point heartbreaking loss at home to Georgia was long quashed. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has little wiggle room left with the fan base. For that reason, and the fact that Notre Dame does not have a conference season to fall back on, this game has more urgency for the Irish. A loss and they fall to 2-2, and with a difficult schedule ahead a four or more loss season would look inevitable.

Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush dominated in the 49-20 win over BC, rushing for over 200 yards and equaling Al Bundy’s total of four touchdowns in one game. Wimbush’s coming out party seems like bad news for Notre Dame’s opponents this season. Especially when one of those opponents has only been tested by Mid-American Conference competition. This sets up the key to the game— the Irish running attack vs. the Spartan run defense.

If MSU can keep Notre Dame’s ground game in check, the Spartans have a very good chance to win this game. Forcing Wimbush to throw, as well as forcing the Notre Dame line to pass protect, is the formula for keeping the Irish offense in check.

MSU’s offense will need to open things up. There is simply no way it can three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust Notre Dame into submission. Sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke will need to prove he can win a big game against a heady opponent. To do so, Sparty will need to spread the field and throw the ball. Spartan nation should have confidence in Lewerke’s ability, but the greater question is will the MSU offensive intelligentsia take the unleash Lewerke. Last year, offensive play-calling grew more conservative as the losses mounted.

Let’s face it, this is a game that MSU head coach Mark Dantonio has won in the past, by hook or by crook. Is MSU back? Was last year an anomaly, or the first step towards irrelevance by a coach too stubborn to change his formula when needed?

Notre Dame may have more to lose in this game, but the stakes for MSU should not be discounted. This is a program that, until last year, was accustomed to competing for playoffs and Rose Bowls. A loss to Notre Dame and the doubters will pop up all over Sparty land, like a band of Helots in full revolt.

With so much at stake, the final edition of MSU-Notre Dame for a decade promises to be what the vast majority of MSU-Notre Dame games have always been – good, solid, Midwest football. And if you can’t enjoy a Saturday night matchup between these two teams, you are as dead as King Leonidas and all 300 of his hoplites.

Prediction: I should know better than to pick against Dantonio when playing Notre Dame. I’m sure he has some play called “The Longest Yard” or “The Replacements” all set for a dramatic finish. Unfortunately, what I saw last year from MSU is not simply washed away beating up on two MAC teams. MSU is young, and Notre Dame is desperate.

Final Score: Notre Dame 27, Michigan State 17