The sign hung from the mezzanine section at Oakland Alameda County Coliseum back in the 1970s. Speed Kills #21. The #21 was Cliff Branch and he was one of the most dangerous downfield threats the game had ever seen and it was a mantra that the Oakland Raiders lived for decades. There was a reason why. Not only does speed kill, it also scares the ever-loving bejeezus out of teams on the other sideline.
The one thing that Notre Dame does have a bit more of this year than in years past is speed, especially at the running back position. RB Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III, coincidentally the son of former Oakland Raider defensive back of the same name, have given Notre Dame's offense a different dimension than it's had in quite some time.
Against Navy, both running backs found small slivers in the defense on basic inside/outside zone runs and embarrassed the Midshipmen on a race to the end zone, but Purdue did a masterful job with its front seven of not giving either one of them any real opportunity to get loose.
However, it didn't keep the Irish from trying. Case in point, Notre Dame showed early in the game how desperate it was to get the ball into Riddick's hands and let him get to the perimeter in a hurry. On first and ten, ND lined up in the gun with Riddick off to his QB's left side. On the snap, Riddick bolted for the edge as his QB flipped him the ball on a 2012 version of the "quick pitch". Within two steps, Riddick was nearly at full speed and, more importantly, he was already outside contain with plenty of green grass in front of him.
Alas, the play was called back on a penalty, but it was evident how much more speed ND has with Riddick in the backfield. Michigan State's strength in the front seven is evident and it has a better group than Purdue, so it's on Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame offensive coaching staff to find ways to put Riddick and/or GA III (even Cierre Wood, if he gets time on the field after suspension) out in space one-on-one with perimeter defenders.
The Spartan defensive back seven is as good as any unit you'll find in the country, but that group cannot be chasing these speedy threats all over the field. Or, well, you know…speed kills.
When Notre Dame freshman Everett Golson was named the starting quarterback prior to the season, the prevailing thought was that Brian Kelly now had his perfect quarterback for his offense. Perfect? Perfect meaning what?
Meaning that Kelly had a quarterback who could not only get the ball to open receivers, but would put an inordinate amount of pressure on defense with his legs. But, through the first two games of the year, Golson has not only been a non-factor running the football, he's, perhaps, been a liability. He's totaled 17 carries for -18 yards, which obviously consists of yardage lost on sacks as well.
Even though as a running threat, he's been muted, Golson's throwing has gotten better each and every series. He threw for just under 290 yards, before he left the game after injuring his hand attempting to recover his own fumble on a run late in the fourth quarter.
Surprisingly, he's shown touch and solid accuracy. He's thrown the ball on a line and displayed a strong gun. He'll see more pressure this weekend, though, than he's seen up to this point against a Michigan State front that can rush four or blitz six and get to the quarterback equally well. He must keep his poise, let his routes develop and then trust his mechanics as he has thus far this season.
Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert has almost unanimously been named the best tight end in the nation and there is little question how important he is to the Notre Dame passing game. But, he may not be the most valuable tight end in this game. That honor goes to Michigan State's 285 pound behemoth Dion Sims.
He's tied for the team lead with 10 receptions and has a touchdown on the season, but it's not how many he has but when he catches them. All ten of his receptions have been for a first down or for a touchdown, his lone touchdown on the season.
At 285 pounds, he can't get down the seam or flex out to a true WR position like Eifert can, but he doesn't need to in the Spartans I formation, run heavy, play action pro attack offensive scheme. It's clear that Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell loves to go to his big fella. Sims doesn't so much as get open than he "boxes" opponents out and "gets big" posting up and looks for the ball as he would as a power forward down on the block in basketball.
He runs better than you'd think and he can find open areas in the field. Notre Dame sees a great tight end every day in practice, but he's a different breed than Sims. The Notre Dame linebackers will have their hands full slowing Sims down and then tackling him after he catches the football. RB Le'Veon Bell gets all of the acclaim, but Sims will be a hugely important part of this game on Saturday.
Let's be honest, Notre Dame hasn't seen a back, or a player, for that matter like Bell. The junior out of Columbus, OH had a relatively quiet week in a blowout win over Central Michigan, running only 18 times, but Michigan State has shown it's not scared to give the 6'2" 245 pound uberback the ball. A lot.
Notre Dame will load the box with eight; expect safety Zeke Motta to play in, and around the box throughout the game. That should allow him ample opportunity to play Bell on run downs and cover Sims on passing downs. Michigan State needs Andrew Maxwell to keep the turnovers down, spread the wealth and make a play in the fourth quarter that puts MSU in the position to win the game.
Michigan State's defensive front seven will harass Golson all game long and will show him a ton of different blitz looks with Chris Norman and/or Denicos Allen coming fast and furiously at the freshman signal caller. It won't be easy, it never is, but Sparty will "earn" win #3 on the season when this one is all said and done.
Michigan State - 24 vs. Notre Dame - 18