Big Ten: Brian Kelly

 
Notre Dame had already made its intentions to leave Michigan clear, and both sides had seemingly put on a brave face with the end of their relationship looming on Saturday.

But it turns out the Fighting Irish already had a dance partner lined up and actually couldn't wait to rub it in the faces of the Wolverines. The new flame obviously had no misgivings about coming public either, since Ohio State was surely giddy at the chance to show off its sparkling new dates after swooping in for a couple of matchups that used to belong to their most hated rival.

OK, maybe the love triangle isn't quite accurate. And compared to what Michigan has had for years, the Buckeyes are only going to get a brief fling anyway. But Ohio State and Notre Dame teaming up to announce the storied programs would be meeting in 2022 and '23 just two days before the last scheduled edition of the series between the Irish and Wolverines definitely seems like more than mere coincidence.

For Notre Dame, it's another example that it will be just fine on its own, like it always has been. It doesn't need Michigan around to ensure that the schedule is filled with marquee matchups, even though it's still weird to picture a season that doesn't include those two teams hooking up and comparing historical résumés.

 And while the Buckeyes have been steadily, aggressively stocking up on powerhouse programs to add to their future slates, including a two-game set with Texas that will impressively coincide with the Notre Dame series, the Irish now becomes the crown jewel of the matchups down the road -- and it probably could have never happened without Michigan being spurned in the process.

That's a win for both sides in the new series, and if Michigan's feelings get a little hurt in the process, that's just a bonus for Brian Kelly and Urban Meyer.

After so long together and all those unforgettable moments, perhaps the Irish could have waited a couple days to pay proper respect to the relationship. But maybe those "chicken" comments wore them down, and they couldn't resist fighting back in some small way before the teams even hit the field this weekend.

Notre Dame now gets to show off how easy it is for them to move on and find somebody new, and Ohio State is never going to miss out on a chance to try to make its rival jealous. That just leaves Michigan alone on the outside -- with nothing to cheer for but mutual destruction in Columbus in 2022 and South Bend in '23.

The Notre Dame-Michigan series goes on pause Saturday night, most likely for a while. Some are sad to see the annual game go, but there are positives for both sides.

So which team benefits more from the series ending: Notre Dame or Michigan?

Reporters Matt Fortuna (Notre Dame/ACC) and Adam Rittenberg (Big Ten) debate.

Take 1: Matt Fortuna

We can probably agree that each side will blame the other for ending this series. We can probably agree that the losing side of Saturday's game will end up doing most of the complaining. But if we're looking at who benefits more from this rivalry ending, it has to be Notre Dame.

Brian Kelly wouldn't say that ending the series with the Wolverines is a good idea. What Kelly did say was that not playing Michigan "opens up so many more exciting opportunities for us."

First things first, though: Notre Dame's scheduling concerns. The Irish now have five mandatory ACC games a year. They have their three non-negotiable rivalry games in Navy, Stanford and USC, the latter two ensuring one trip to California every year. That leaves them four games a year in which to get creative, and they have done what they can within that framework to not abandon some of their Midwest rivalries (Michigan State, Purdue) in the Big Ten.

There is also a future series with Texas and one with Georgia, both later this decade.

For Michigan, losing Notre Dame means adding a neutral-site game with Florida in 2017, a home-and-home with Arkansas in 2018-19 and a whole lot of meh. Yes, Virginia Tech, UCLA and Oklahoma all make for enticing opponents, but they are very far down the line, and it would be foolish to think Notre Dame doesn't have a comparable slate of games it is looking into. This is a Notre Dame program, after all, that opened its 2012 season in Ireland and had once discussed playing a game against Stanford in Japan.

Notre Dame is set up for the immediate future with one of the nation's most appealing annual slates. With the way Michigan has started to schedule, the Wolverines might not be far behind in the next decade.

It would be great if they can find a way to play again, but both have already gained plenty on their own. And if you're going to blame Notre Dame for ending this late-summer classic, then you have to credit the Irish for all of those attractive future opponents, too.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

I'm worried about you, Matt. You and Brian Kelly already have the same stylist, and while those blazers are fashion-forward, no matter what anyone tells you, I'm concerned that being around him has brainwashed you about who really benefits from this series ending. It's Michigan. Hands down.

There are several factors that go into scheduling, but the top priority always should be the new playoff. Notre Dame and Michigan can exalt the past all the way, but if both don't start making the playoff relatively soon, they will become less and less nationally relevant.

While you're right that Notre Dame's scheduling gets trickier with the ACC partnership, the Irish will have a playoff-worthy schedule every year, barring all hell breaking loose around the country. They'll almost always get credit for playing Stanford and USC. Not all of the ACC games will help Notre Dame's playoff cause, but Florida State and/or Clemson will in most seasons. And if other programs rise up (North Carolina, Duke, Miami, etc.), the Irish will get a bump. I really think the playoff comes down to the one-loss and two-loss teams with the strongest résumés. Notre Dame is in that category with or without the Michigan series.

The Wolverines, meanwhile, desperately needed more diversity in their schedule (diversity that Notre Dame naturally has as an independent). Don't gloss over future opponents such as Florida, Arkansas, Washington, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma. Many of these games don't happen if Notre Dame remains an annual opponent, especially with the Big Ten adopting a nine-game league schedule in 2016.

Beating Notre Dame hasn't helped Michigan's national profile in recent years. The Wolverines should get a bigger playoff boost from beating some of their future opponents.

Coach Brady Hoke and athletic director Dave Brandon make it clear that Notre Dame is at fault for ending the annual series. But in terms of reaching the playoff, Touchdown Jesus might have provided Michigan a blessing in disguise.

UM, ND look for last 'forever moment'

September, 3, 2014
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As a placekicker, Justin Tucker abides by the philosophy of focusing on the action and not the consequence. On Thanksgiving Night 2011 in College Station, Texas, as he lined up with a one-point deficit and just three seconds left in the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry as all knew it, Tucker couldn't help but betray that creed.

"I can tell you in that particular situation it was very difficult to put those emotions into the back of my mind and just focus on the task at hand," said Tucker, now with the Ravens. "But we were able to do it, and I'll tell you what: That place shut up real quick; 88,000 people -- you could probably hear a pin drop in there."

This is the lasting memory of one of several college football rivalries that has gone by the wayside in the era of realignment. This is, on a smaller scale, the opportunity that awaits Michigan and Notre Dame on Saturday night in their final scheduled meeting.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesEverett Golson can etch himself further into Notre Dame lore if he leads the Fighting Irish to a series-ending victory over Michigan on Saturday.
Brian Kelly said the first thing he thinks of regarding the Wolverines is that he's lost to them three times. That image can change in a hurry with a signature blow in one final matchup under the lights.

Just ask those from other dormant rivalries, Pittsburgh-West Virginia among them.

"When I think back of all the frustrating losses of my career, and we had a few, that's the worst by far," former Panthers defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said of the 2011 finale of the Backyard Brawl.

Pitt entered Morgantown looking to upset the eventual Orange Bowl champs. The Panthers were ACC-bound in two years; the Mountaineers Big 12-bound the next fall. Todd Graham, in his lone year coaching Pitt, relayed how he'd been told he could lose 11 games in a year so long as he beat WVU. Former players talked to the team about how important it would be to end the series on top.

A 13-point Pitt lead eventually gave way to a 21-20 defeat, punctuated by a Tino Sunseri fumble on the last play.

"I just remember as the clock ran out I just fell on my face, I just hit the ground for about 30 seconds, man," Alecxih said. "I just remember that agony, and just knowing that that was going to be the last game, and we were always going to say we lost the last Backyard Brawl."

All this from a player and program that, four years earlier, had been part of an upset that changed the college football landscape.

WVU was a four-touchdown favorite and a win away from a BCS title-game berth when the three-win Panthers visited to close 2007.

"It was just so gloomy, and all I really remember is just getting whacked with beer cans," then-freshman quarterback Pat Bostick said of the bus ride in. "I go, 'OK, this is everything people say it's going to be.' There weren't necessarily batteries being thrown or nickels or dimes being thrown, but there were certainly some obscenities."

Bostick threw a wrench into the Mountaineers' plans, orchestrating a 13-9 win that knocked WVU out of title contention. Coach Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan less than three weeks later.

For the entirety of the hour-plus ride home, Bostick and his teammates sang "Take Me Home, Country Roads," the official song of the state they were departing.

"To be honest with you, I don't know if I can count on one hand how many people I actually saw after the game," Bostick said. "It was like the place died. It was just a ghost town after. I don't know where they all went, how fast they (left), but they got out of their quick."

Bostick was at the 2011 finale in his current role as the team's radio analyst, and he joked he wasn't sure he'd make it down to the locker room alive in his Pitt polo.

The intensity was considerably less hostile the last time Missouri and Kansas faced off, a 24-10 Tigers win in 2011. Part of that can be attributed to the neutral-site atmosphere at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, where the game was played from 2007-11. Part of that can also be attributed to the overall apathy of Kansas fans, former Missouri receiver TJ Moe said.

"They were so horrible in those days," Moe said. "We were trying to get a win and move along there. We certainly didn't like those guys, but they came in so defeated after losing nine games before they even got to us that it really wasn't that bad."

An O'Fallon, Mo., native who grew up on the Border War, Moe said it still remains a point of pride that he went 3-0 against the Jayhawks during his career. He finds it hard to believe the game is no longer played after the Tigers moved to the SEC. From his perch, the ball is in Kansas' court.

"We just want to play you guys because the rivalry is fun, so if you don't want to play, fine, we'll get somebody else," Moe said. "It's a rivalry that's a big deal to fans on both sides. Everybody at Kansas is saying, 'You guys left us. You screwed us. We're not playing you anymore.' Which is fine."

Michigan-Notre Dame lacks the longevity of the others, as it has been played just 41 times, thanks to several interruptions. The Backyard Brawl was played 104 times, the Border War was played 120 times and Texas-Texas A&M was played 118 times before the Aggies' SEC move.

Realignment might have other ideas, but everyone interviewed for this story expressed hope his rivalry would return.

"What is truly lost at its core is a great football matchup between two -- I won't say two 'great' teams -- I'll say one great team and their little brother," Tucker said, laughing.

For now, he has his forever moment in rivalry lore, and that could be at-stake again this weekend should the Michigan-Notre Dame matchup resemble those of recent past.

"The fact that we got to end it with a bang, the Texas Longhorns got to put the dagger in that 118-year rivalry," Tucker said, "that's a great feeling."
There will be familiar faces around weight rooms and in front of overhead projectors in football complexes this summer: coaches’ faces.

Big deal.

Except it is a big deal, at least to the coaches who can now occupy strength and conditioning sessions and hold film study with their players.

The NCAA partially adopted a rule from the hardwood in October allowing a maximum of eight hours of mandatory workouts for players for eight weeks of the summer. What football coaches really care about, however, is the ability to watch those conditioning sessions and meet with their players for up to two hours each week. Any on-the-field work with footballs is still prohibited.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AP Photo/Andy ManisIndiana coach Kevin Wilson is one of many coaches that can visit with players in the summer rather than relying on "spies" to get information on offseason workouts.
“You don’t need secret spies anymore,” Indiana coach Kevin Wilson told ESPN.com. “You can just watch your football team now. ... It’s common sense that if I’m in control and if I want to walk in the weight room and watch them lift weights then I can watch them lift weights.”

It is uncharted territories for most coaches, who are used to relying on third-party word of mouth from the program’s strength coach and upperclassmen on how summer workouts are progressing and whether freshmen are adjusting. Some coaches began mapping out how they would use their eight hours when the rule was passed, while others will take the pulse of the team and adjust accordingly. For some, they’ll protect the details of those hour splits as if it were the playbook.

“We have to carve out [player meetings] with our strength coach, time that we can take away from his hours because you’re not adding extra time,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “There is this model that I’m not interested in giving up to anybody, that we think gives us a balance.”

Notre Dame is still debating between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire as its starting quarterback, so Kelly can spend part of the summer mentally preparing both for the upcoming competition. He will institute a “spring ball installation” of the core offensive plays and defensive structure, “something we’ve never been able to do in June.” He’ll also show his quarterbacks all of their mistakes in previous settings in hopes of limiting them once the season begins.

The vast majority, if not all, are in favor of the rule, although to varying degrees. Indiana’s Wilson has walk-on players who could eventually earn a scholarship, so those players feel a need to attend summer workouts. He knows that means some will take out additional loans for summer school.

For the coaches, with summers now filled with prospect camps and recruiting visits, there are fewer hours to break away from the football facility. Wilson will take advantage of the change, but he wonders whether coaches will suffer from the burnout a 365-day coaching calendar lends itself to. The NCAA implemented a two-week summer dead period to combat the evolving recruiting calendar, but Wilson knows some coaches will stick around to watch tape with players.

“It’s a little ironic they added a rule that for two weeks a recruit can’t come in but added a rule so you can spend that time with your players,” first-year Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson told ESPN.com.

Added Wilson: “How do we find the balance? It’s nice we can work with them, but it’s finding a balance where your coaches can find sanity. It’s nice we can talk legally but … I think you can overcoach.

“It will be interesting after year one, whether coaches will say they want to do more or do less.”

No school returns fewer starters in 2014 than Utah State, so coach Matt Wells is tasked with making sure those players who will be asked to step up this fall are physically and mentally able. He is also cognizant that his staff spending too much time with the team this summer could produce undesired results.

[+] EnlargeDave Clawson
Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesThe new NCAA rules are a boon to first-year coaches such as Wake Forest's Dave Clawson, who get a chance to get acclimated with their new players.
In the early portion of the summer, Wells will meet with his team more often than he might in July. He will bring the program’s newcomers up to speed with scheme and terminology in meetings, but he also doesn’t want to overload them. With the upperclassmen, he believes it will become counterproductive to have extended and repetitive classroom sessions.

“We’re going to still lean on player-led meetings, voluntary meetings the coaches aren’t in because it builds leadership in your team and in position groups,” Wells told ESPN.com. “We’ve benefitted from that the last three summers from an increased leadership role, and I think it’s important for the players to have a break from the coaches.”

For first-year coaches such as Clawson, the new rule will narrow the learning curve this fall as his players continue to adjust to his offensive and defensive ideologies. Clawson is seemingly like most coaches, though, in that he does not favor using the full two hours for Football 101 seminars. Wake Forest’s new coach is not deviating much from the old summer status quo.

When he and his staff assessed the Demon Deacons following the spring, he felt strength and conditioning was lacking most. So when mandatory summer workouts kicked off, he decided he’d only spend 30 minutes to an hour each week meetings with players.

“It didn’t make sense to take two hours away from that,” he said.

That could change in the coming weeks, though. While some schools already have their entire incoming freshman class on campus, Clawson won’t see all of his until July. He said the previous rule preventing coaches from working with freshmen lacked common sense.

“It used to be awful, the first time a freshman’s ever on campus and you can’t be around them,” Clawson said. “When these guys first get here, you need to have some involvement. Part of recruiting is parents trusting you with their son, and first time they drop them off, to not be allowed around them was very hard.”
This September's 42nd Notre Dame-Michigan matchup is likely the last between the schools for the foreseeable future. That doesn't, however, mean that the appearances of Big Ten teams on the Irish's schedule are coming to an end.

Michigan State and Purdue have been stalwarts on Notre Dame's slate -- more than Michigan. And athletic directors from both schools are happy to see their respective rivalries with the Irish continue, even if they're on an abbreviated basis.

Among imminent matchups, Notre Dame will "host" the Boilermakers Sept. 14 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for its annual off-site Shamrock Series game. The Irish have a home-and-home scheduled with the Spartans for 2016 (at ND) and 2017 (at MSU).

"[Notre Dame athletic director] Jack [Swarbrick] and I are in constant communication, and it's not adversarial whatsoever. But it's a situation where, both with us going to nine [conference] games and with them having to move into the ACC scheduling model, it's created some significant challenges for both of us," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told ESPN.com. "And right now we're kind of in a position of, we know the next two, we know we have two more in the future and we're just kind of taking it one step at a time. We've been in constant communication."

The future, Hollis told local reporters last week, includes an agreement to play a home-and-home in 2026 and 2027, as well as a neutral site game, possibly in Chicago, in 2023.

Notre Dame and Purdue, meanwhile, have five more scheduled games -- Sept. 19, 2020 at Purdue; Sept. 18, 2021 at Notre Dame; Sept. 14, 2024 at Purdue; Sept. 13, 2025 at Notre Dame; and in 2026 on a date and in a neutral site that has yet to be determined.

"I think the relationship between the schools is -- you're not going to take it to San Juan," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke told ESPN.com. "But we have alums all over the country, too. Strong populations in Texas, in California, in Florida. The likely sites are Chicago and Indianapolis."

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said last week that most of his scheduling conversations with Swarbrick start with Michigan, Michigan State and an SEC team. But Wolverines athletic director David Brandon told ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg in an email that there had been no discussions with the Irish.

The mood might have soured between the two schools -- Sept. 7 at Notre Dame will be their last matchup following the Irish's 2012 exercising of a three-year opt-out clause in the series -- but that has not been the case between the Irish and the rest of the Big Ten.

"Jack and I have known each other for a long, long time," Burke said. "He had a hard deal because when the Big East went the way it went, he had to find a home for lots of sports. What he had to do then was to negotiate, he had to use some of the football inventory to do that, and that's what created the issue. There's no issues with wanting to play Purdue or Michigan State. The Michigan thing there's a little bit of a tiff, I guess. But I don't think so.

"Our history goes back a long time. So what we tried to do was to make sure that there was at least a path forward. In other words, don't just announce Lucas Oil and it stops, but try to show people that we're going to play more than just once every 10 years. That's the best we could do now. Who knows what the landscape will be down the road? My hope is that someday, I hope we don't look back and say we lost something that started in 1946, because there are Purdue and Notre Dame folks who have been going to those games for years and tailgated. And you've had some great athletic contests with some great family relationships. And as we break some of this stuff apart and get bigger leagues, do you lose some of those relationships, and 10 or 15 years from now, does that hurt you?"

With Purdue having played Notre Dame 85 times, and with Michigan State having played the Irish 77 times, both schools are hoping that the answer to that question is a resounding no.

"There's going to be fewer games with Notre Dame because of the national landscape, and that's one of the unfortunate parts of conference expansion, is those nonconference games take secondary step," Hollis said. "But it's important to Michigan State that we continue to play on a national stage, so we'll have Notre Dame as much as we can have Notre Dame. They want as many games, we want as many games, it just all has to fit."
Michigan and Notre Dame are contracted to play just once more in the foreseeable future, but many -- including Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly -- want to see the series continue in some form.

"We would like to play Michigan and Michigan State again," Kelly said at a Notre Dame golf event in Olympia Fields, Ill.

Notre Dame hosts Michigan once more, on Sept. 6. Michigan State, who had played the Irish every year since 1997, is off the schedule until the rivalry briefly resumes in 2016 and 2017.

Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told MSU beat writers Wednesday that the schools tentatively have a home-and-home series set for 2026 and 2027, as well as a neutral-site game, possibly in Chicago, in 2023.

But Notre Dame and Michigan -- annual opponents since 2002 and common opponents since 1978 -- have nothing set beyond this season.

Read the rest of Adam Rittenberg and Matt Fortuna's story here.

No. 10 Michigan State and No. 2 Ohio State have kicked off 24 football games this year and walked away a winner 23 times.

So at the risk of seeking information from wrong sources, ESPN.com surveyed coaches who faced the Spartans and Buckeyes for tips on how to succeed against the Big Ten championship game participants.

We granted anonymity to the coaches, position coaches and coordinators from inside and outside the Big Ten, in order to ensure the most candid responses.

One coach who required no such secrecy, as Brian Kelly of Notre Dame offered sound advice when asked how to attack the top-ranked Michigan State defense.

“You cannot win by trying to get three yards here, four yards there,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to get big chunk plays.”

Kelly’s squad, of course, owns the lone victory this season over one of the Big Ten’s top two squads -- a 17-13 win in South Bend, Ind., on Sept. 21.

Below are excerpts from our other conversations about the Spartans.

Check the Big Ten blog later on Thursday for report on Ohio State.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
AP Photo/Michael ConroyDespite being a converted WR, Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford has shown that he's not afraid to mix it up.
ESPN.com: The Spartans are known primarily for their defensive, but quarterback Connor Cook has posted nice numbers in his first year as a starter. What stands out about their offense?

Coach: They've improved as the year went along. The line's jelled and started playing well together. They're a physical style attack. They're going to run at you. Cook has emerged as very consistent. They don't have a big tight end like they did a year ago, Dion Sims, so they don't have the same tight end receiving threat that they typically have, but they've got a corps of receivers that are good players. They're tall kids. They'll catch the ball. They do a good job attacking you and finding your weak spots and exploiting them.”

ESPN.com: How dangerous is running back Jeremy Langford, who’s rushed for 1,210 yards and 17 touchdowns?

Coach: I was impressed with him before and after our game. He's not small, 6-foot, 206. He's learned how to run physically. Sometimes a receiver moving over, you wonder how physical they're going to be running the ball, but he's done a heck of a job for them. I wouldn't put him in Montee Ball's category, but similar size, speed, jukes. He's not as low to the ground as (Carlos) Hyde, but he's a little niftier."

ESPN.com: Ideally, how do you attack Michigan State’s defense?

Coach:
It's very difficult. You may get them on one play, but you're not getting them on that same play twice. Their coaches do a great job of making adjustments, and the guys are smart. They're going to crowd the box to take away your run game, so you've got to get to play-action and make double moves off their safeties, or you've got to beat their corners one on one.

ESPN.com: Easier said than done, right, with Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes out there at corner?

Coach:
They've always had a ton of confidence in their corners. Dennard’s a great one. He knows when he has help and when he doesn't. Yes, they do a phenomenal job of taking away your outside guys with their corners. One thing that's underrated is that they have no problem getting their corners involved in the run game. But if you have real good skill kids at slot receiver or tight end, they have trouble covering those guys up. That's an area where we tried. We just didn't do enough it.

ESPN.com: Why does their scheme work so well?

Coach:
They have a way of forcing you into something bad, like they make you try to hit a hole too quickly or rush a throw. For whatever reason, they always seem to be in your face. The best way to describe it, they don't stay blocked very long. It's, by far, the thing I noticed compared to everybody else we played this year. We played, fundamentally, up front, our best game of the year. But still, you'd see a play and think it was a seven-, eight-yard gain, and it went for just three, because they refused to stay blocked. Coach (Pat) Narduzzi has them drinking the Kool-Aid big time, because I think physically, there are better groups, defensively, but nobody plays with their hair on fire quite like them.

ESPN.com: If you were calling plays on Saturday, who would get your attention first on that defense?

Coach:
I've got a ton of respect for Max Bullough. I think he's a great player. But the best player on the front seven isn't him or Shilique Calhoun. It's the other defensive end, Marcus Rush. Calhoun reminded us of the kid they had last year, William Gholston. He wants to rush the passer. That's his M.O., so we wanted to run at him, because we felt he wouldn't hold up as well. But part of the reason we ran at Calhoun was because we wanted to stay away from Rush. He can just give you fits.

Let’s finish with a thought from Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who saw the Spartans up close on Oct. 5 in Iowa City as MSU beat the Hawkeyes 26-14.

“Michigan State's awfully close to being an undefeated team,” Ferentz said. “It's interesting to me. On a national front, they're so far under the radar from what I see. They're not a bad football team. I don't think people realize how good they are. We'll see on Saturday."

MSU needs to stop beating itself

September, 21, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The end result, which is all that matters, looked dishearteningly similar for Michigan State.

Stop me if you'd heard it before: an impressive (yet takeaway-less) defensive performance wasted, a smattering of special-teams shortcomings, an offense unable to finish drives, catch enough passes or make enough clutch plays ... and a few points shy of a momentum-building win. Michigan State lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points last season, failing to make up the inches coach Mark Dantonio often talks about, the ones separating wins and losses.

It would be easy to file Saturday's 17-13 loss to No. 22 Notre Dame with last year's near misses. The Spartans couldn't quite overcome the Irish, some trigger-happy officials (more on them later) and, ultimately, themselves.

The outcome looked familiar, but it didn't feel that way.

"It does not feel the same," Dantonio said. "I don't know how it feels. You lose a close game, it's tough. Last year against Notre Dame, I felt like we were completely outplayed [in a 20-3 loss]. ... I felt like this time, we were [in the game] right down to the end."

The Spartans were more than in the game. They outperformed Notre Dame in several areas, finishing with more first downs (19-14) and more yards (254-224). A one-dimensional Notre Dame offense entered the red zone just once in the second half.

But the Fighting Irish held the edge in the only category that matters.

"Obviously Notre Dame won the game," Dantonio said, "so you have to say they outplayed us."

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's DBs played tough in coverage, but that toughness too often resulted in pass interference penalties.
Michigan State's toughest opponent Saturday, other than the Big Ten officiating crew, was itself. The Spartans had four possessions reach the red zone but emerged with only 13 points. Kevin Muma hooked a 30-yard field-goal attempt on MSU's first series. After reaching the Irish 14-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Michigan State went backwards, losing five yards on a rush and another five on a false start penalty.

MSU's most painful SIW -- that's self-inflicted wound, for the coaching cliche-challenged -- came late in the third quarter, at a time when the offense seemed to have a rhythm, especially on the ground. Facing first-and-10 from its own 47-yard line with the game tied at 10-10, Michigan State went razzle dazzle, putting the ball in the hands of true freshman receiver R.J. Shelton, who threw deep downfield into double coverage. Irish safety Matthias Farley made the easy interception.

The Spartans lost possession -- and momentum.

No, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges didn't hack into Michigan State's playbook. The call actually came from Dantonio, who has a defensive background but has summoned some memorable trick plays in the past, including the "Little Giants" fake field goal to beat Notre Dame in 2010.

"We had a little bit of rhythm, but I also thought we needed a big play," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "We needed to be able to go down the field, which we had not been able to do. They were overplaying RJ because he's run some jet sweeps in the first three games. I thought it was the right time."

Michigan State fans will question the decision, but they have far more questions for the officials, who called 10 penalties on the Spartans, including four pass interference penalties and defensive holding.

Three of the fouls extended drives that led to Notre Dame touchdowns. One nullified a Darqueze Dennard interception. None of the P.I. penalties was an obvious mauling. Spartans defenders weren't out of position.

Dantonio didn't directly criticize the officials but defended the defensive backs' technique -- "We played the ball the way we teach them to play the ball," he said -- and their right to go after the ball.

Asked if he had ever seen so many P.I. calls, Dantonio said. "No, never. I guess that's why we should stop talking about it right there."

Notre Dame repeatedly challenged Michigan State with back-shoulder throws. Irish coach Brian Kelly felt if they weren't completed, a flag likely would fly.

"We'll continue to do what we do," Dennard said, "basically press, man up, and we do what we do."

Spartans defensive tackle Tyler Hoover admitted the penalties were tough to handle, but maintained that, "You've got to make plays. It's not the refs. It's going to be us, all the time."

Other than forcing turnovers, Michigan State's nationally ranked defense did enough. Three times, it forced Notre Dame punts in the fourth quarter, giving the offense a chance to drive for the game-winning touchdown.

The offense had a total of one first down and 20 net yards on those possessions. But the earlier drives, the ones that went deep into Notre Dame territory, stung more.

"We've got to score touchdowns," quarterback Connor Cook said. "It's the name of the game."

Cook was pulled for the game's final possession in favor of senior Andrew Maxwell, who threw three incomplete passes before trying to scramble on fourth-and-20. Although Cook had taken a hit to his shoulder, the injury didn't play a role in the decision.

"I was a little disappointed," Cook said. "They said I was a little inaccurate, but I would have wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there in a critical situation like that."

Quarterbacks coach Brad Salem told Cook afterward that Cook remains the No. 1 signal caller. Dantonio was noncommittal.

"That's something we'll have to answer at a later date," he told ESPN.com. "The only thing I can tell you is you better do something with the football. At some point in time, 13's not enough."

Michigan State has two weeks to sort out its quarterback situation, two weeks to build on a surprisingly solid rushing performance, two weeks to clean up the kicking game and find ways to complement suffocating defense with takeaways after recording eight in the first three games. The Spartans can be a dangerous team in a wide-open Big Ten, especially without Ohio State or Wisconsin on their schedule.

Dantonio and his players were proud of Saturday's performance, despite the result. And it could be a springboard.

"All our goals are still in front of us," Dennard said. "We still can go to Indy for the Big Ten championship game."

Michigan State will have to get past Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and the rest of a formidable Legends division to reach Naptown.

Its biggest obstacle is still itself.

MSU game could answer questions for ND

September, 16, 2013
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Seven games into last season, Brian Kelly was presented with the kind of issue that Notre Dame probably now longs for.

The Irish coach looked around the locker room after a three-point win over BYU and saw a group that was far from ecstatic about improving to 7-0. He told players to ease up on themselves, reminding them that they would have to pull out tough games like that from time to time, that surviving and advancing was what it would sometimes take.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
AP Photo/Al GoldisConnor Cook will be coming in to South Bend confident after throwing four first-half touchdown passes against Youngstown State.
Flash forward to Saturday night, when Kelly emerged from a visiting locker room in Ross Ade Stadium, releasing a trail of commotion behind him as the doors had opened. The excitement continued with the doors closed, as the players' victory celebration bled through the walls while Kelly spoke to the media following a 31-24 escape at Purdue to improve to 2-1.

"Look," Kelly said during his Sunday teleconference, "any time you start the season like we do, with being on the road back-to-back weeks against Michigan and Purdue, you're going to be in for tough games."

Just maybe tougher than expected.

Few could express complete shock at the Irish losing to the Wolverines. A similar result against the Boilermakers would have been far less forgiving.

Notre Dame knew after the BCS title game that it needed to replace three starters from an elite defense. Then Danny Spond was forced into retirement during camp, adding one more obstacle for the unit to navigate.

The Irish knew they needed to develop fresh playmakers on offense. Then their most important piece, Everett Golson, got himself suspended from school for the fall -- and only after a spring season in which he was the center of attention.

"I'm looking at how our guys compete, how hard they compete," Kelly said. "We know there's going to be an evolution of getting those players in the right position, developing them. That's going to take a little time. We don't get those opportunities to be in easy contests early on. We're getting tested right away."

Three games into the 2013 season have yielded little clarity for all. That can all change this weekend, when a Michigan State team that seems to finally know what it has enters Notre Dame Stadium for the fourth game of the season. It took three games for the Spartans to find offensive answers, but Connor Cook just broke out for the undefeated squad, throwing four first-half touchdown passes Saturday in a rout of FCS Youngstown State.

"Another great rivalry game," Kelly said. "It's a game that we've played for a number of years. It's always a great physical contest. That's how Coach (Mark) Dantonio prides himself on how they play. They play great defense. It should be another physical game."

Defensive dominance in the Irish's win at East Lansing last year proved to be the first national statement of many in a 2012 season for the ages. An uneven, three-turnover performance in an emotionally-charged win over Sparty two years ago encapsulated a 2011 campaign that had gotten off on the wrong foot in the two previous weeks.

On an upcoming Saturday slate that can generously be described as underwhelming, Michigan State-Notre Dame is the marquee event.

"Third week in a row for us in terms of playing a Big Ten opponent, back-to-back-to-back right out of the gates," Kelly said. "We ask our guys to do a lot here at Notre Dame."

And soon everyone may know just how up to the test this season's group really is.

Hoke, Kelly differ in recruiting focus

September, 4, 2013
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Brian Kelly kicked off Notre Dame-Michigan week by downplaying the programs' fast-fading rivalry on the field, but the Fighting Irish coach just as easily could have been talking about what's happening on the recruiting trail.

The two schools are separated by just 130 miles on the map, one-thousandth of a percentage point on the list of college football's all-time winningest programs and 12 spots in U.S. News & World Report's latest list of best colleges and universities (both are in the top 30). Their profiles as national brands, historic football programs and elite academic institutions have been intertwined for decades.

But good luck finding many nationally elite recruits whose decisions have come down to Michigan and Notre Dame. Both schools show interest in many top prospects because that's what elite programs do -- "Believe me, we bump into them enough," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said -- but the major recruiting showdowns between the Maize and Blue and the Blue and Gold are largely a thing of the past.

Read the rest of Adam Rittenberg's story here. Also, check out Tom VanHaaren's story on Michigan and Notre Dame competing less in recruiting.

Big Ten lunch links

September, 2, 2013
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I labored to put these links together. Get it? Get it? Enjoy the holiday.

Nonconference primer: Purdue

July, 1, 2013
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It has been a long wait, but the 2013 season is less than two months away. To get you geared up, we're taking a closer look at the list of nonconference opponents on each Big Ten team's slate this fall.

Purdue is next.

Cincinnati, Aug. 31 (road)

Coach: Tommy Tuberville (0-0, first year; 130–77 overall in FBS)
2012 record: 10-3, 5-2 Big East
Offensive headliner: Quarterback Brendon Kay still has to secure the starting job after replacing Munchie Legaux down the stretch in 2012, but he passed for 1,298 yards with 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions, completing 63 percent of his attempts. Kay also sparkled in the spring game with three touchdown passes.
Defensive headliner:
Senior linebacker Greg Blair earned All-Big East honors in 2012 after leading Cincinnati in both total tackles (138) and tackles for loss (9). Blair added two interceptions, two forced fumbles, six pass breakups, 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries.
The skinny: Cincinnati is in a historic stretch of 10 or more wins in five of the past six seasons, including each of the past two. But like Purdue, the Bearcats are going through coaching transition as Tuberville takes command. The quarterback competition is an intriguing story to watch, but Cincinnati brings back enough firepower on both sides of the ball to have another good year.

Indiana State, Sept. 7 (home)

Coach: Mike Sanford (0-0, first year; 16-43 overall in FBS)
2012 record: 7-4, 5-3 Missouri Valley
Offensive headliner: Running back Shakir Bell earned third-team AP All-America honors after rushing for 1,475 yards and 11 touchdowns last fall. He finished sixth in the FCS in rushing and recorded seven 100-yard rushing performances.
Defensive headliner: Cornerback Calvin Burnett is a back-to-back all-conference selection who recorded four interceptions, eight pass breakups and 60 tackles, including two for loss and a sack. He also averaged 15.6 yards on five punt return attempts.
The skinny: Indiana State has transformed its program in recent years, although the loss of head coach Trent Miles to Georgia State stings. Sanford struggled mightily as UNLV's head coach and then as Louisville's offensive coordinator before rebounding as an assistant at Utah State under current Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. Bell is a huge weapon for the Sycamores' offense, but Indiana State must replace six starters on defense from the 2012 team.

Notre Dame, Sept. 14 (home)

Coach: Brian Kelly (28-11, fourth year)
2012 record: 12-1 (lost in BCS National Championship Game)
Offensive headliner: Notre Dame loses most of its offensive firepower to the NFL or to suspension (QB Everett Golson), but top wide receiver TJ Jones returns after tying for the team lead in receptions (50) and touchdown receptions (4). Jones averaged 13 yards per reception in 2012.
Defensive headliner: With Manti Te'o gone, junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt likely becomes the star of the defense. Last year, he had 12 sacks and three forced fumbles.
The skinny: It has been a rough offseason for Notre Dame since getting dominated by Alabama in the BCS title game. The Irish once again will turn to Tommy Rees at quarterback after Golson was suspended for academic reasons. Notre Dame's defense includes several future pros and should be among the nation's best. The Irish have won five straight against Purdue and seven of the teams' past eight meetings.

Northern Illinois, Sept. 28 (home)

Coach: Rod Carey (0-1, first full year as head coach)
2012 record: 12-2, 8-0 in MAC (lost to Florida State in Orange Bowl)
Offensive headliner: Quarterback Jordan Lynch finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting after setting four NCAA, two MAC and 14 team records in his first season as a starter. Lynch finished fourth nationally in rushing (1,815) and second in total offense (4,953), setting NCAA records for quarterback rushing and 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback (12). He earned second-team AP All-America honors as an all-purpose player.
Defensive headliner: Safety Jimmie Ward is a back-to-back All-MAC selection, earning first-team honors in 2012. He led NIU in tackles (104) and interceptions (3) as a junior, finishing second on the team in pass breakups (11) and adding a forced fumble.
The skinny: NIU has established itself as one of the nation's top programs from a nonautomatic-qualifying conference. The Huskies boast 34 victories in the past three seasons, although three of their losses came against Big Ten opponents (Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa). Although Lynch struggled in the Orange Bowl against Florida State's superb defense, he enters the season as a national awards candidate and will play behind a veteran offensive line. NIU loses several key pieces on defense, including All-MAC ends Sean Progar and Alan Baxter.

Thoughts:

In a word, yikes. New Purdue coach Darrell Hazell likes challenges and gets plenty in his first nonleague slate, which is the toughest in the Big Ten. The Boilers face two teams that appeared in BCS bowl games last season and a third in Cincinnati that reached back-to-back BCS games in 2009 and 2010 and won 10 games plus a bowl in each of the past two years. Purdue likely will be favored in only one of the four contests (Indiana State). One plus for Purdue is that three of its four nonconference opponents have new head coaches (NIU's Carey served as the team's offensive coordinator for most of 2012 before taking over for the Orange Bowl), while the fourth, Notre Dame, endured a very tough offseason and enters the fall with big question marks. The season opener is pivotal as a road win against a good Cincinnati team would give the Boilers a confidence boost. A 2-2 mark would be respectable for Purdue, while 3-1 or 4-0 would send expectations soaring for Hazell's first season.

More nonconference primers
If you're not following Bennett and me on Twitter, you're really missing out. Seriously. Get on board. We tweet a lot of good information, and this past weekend, we eclipsed the 85,000-follower mark (not that I check religiously or anything).

While Bennett and I really work at it on Twitter, our friends at the SEC blog take a more ... relaxed approach. My guy Chris Low appears from time to time with some great insights on all things SEC football, but for the most part, the page serves only to send out links of blog posts.

So let's go to the scorecard ...

ESPN_BigTen followers: 85,003
ESPN_SEC followers: 157,990

Ugh.

I wonder if other Big Ten coaches feel the same way about Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.

Pelini has sent out a grand total of 92 tweets and none since April 6, the date of Nebraska's spring game, when he tweeted about, who else, little Jack Hoffman (It was a gutsy call, but we all knew Jack Hoffman doesn't stop fighting and would get it done! He's a special kid! #TeamJack). The Nebraska coach has tweeted just five times since June 16, 2012.

And yet Pelini still has more followers (43,445 as of this morning) than any of the other Big Ten coaches -- Illinois' Tim Beckman, Indiana's Kevin Wilson, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald -- who tweet. The Tulsa World's Kelly Hines last week listed the verified Twitter accounts of every FBS coach who tweets, sorted by number of followers. LSU's Les Miles leads the way with more than 105,000 followers, followed by Notre Dame's Brian Kelly with 91,318 (as of this morning).

Pelini ranks No. 10 on Hines' list. The next Big Ten coach, Northwestern's Fitzgerald, comes in at No. 25. Fitzgerald typically tweets 2-3 times per day.

Indiana's Wilson comes in fourth in followers among Big Ten coaches, while Illinois' Beckman and Michigan State's Dantonio are battling for fifth (as of post time, Dantonio led 9,566-9,465). Beckman is a frequent Twitter poster, while Dantonio is starting to pick up the pace after a slow start.

Former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who used Twitter to post injury updates and still uses it to spar with fans and media members, ranks fifth among FBS coaches in followers with his Arkansas account.

How long will Pelini remain the Big Ten's Twitter king? As long as Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan's Brady Hoke and Penn State's Bill O'Brien aren't involved, Pelini is probably safe, even if he barely uses the page.

For now, Nebraska fans wait patiently for that next memorable missive from @BoPelini.

Or, if they're like me, they simply enjoy the brilliance of @FauxPelini.
The final regular-season polls are out, including the coaches' poll, which on Sunday revealed the final ballots from 59 FBS head coaches.

Six Big Ten coaches voted in this year's poll: Illinois' Tim Beckman, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Michigan's Brady Hoke, Nebraska's Bo Pelini and Indiana's Kevin Wilson.

Politics and biases undoubtedly play out in the final balloting, so let's check out some notable votes from the Big Ten contingent.
  • After Wisconsin smashed his team Saturday night, Pelini ranked the Badgers at No. 16, the highest vote they received (Washington's Steve Sarkisian also had UW at 16). Bielema, meanwhile, had the Badgers at No. 18. Bielema didn't think a whole lot of the Huskers after Saturday night's stomping, putting Nebraska at No. 24, the lowest vote Big Red received among the Big Ten coaches.
  • Wilson, whose Indiana team Wisconsin crushed Nov. 10 in Bloomington, had the Badgers at No. 25, lowest among all the Big Ten coaches. Wilson had Nebraska at No. 22. Hmmm ...
  • Hoke was one of three coaches to give Michigan its highest ranking at No. 15. The others? Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and ... wait for it ... Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who coached the Wolverines from 2008-10. Nice to see Rich isn't bitter. Dantonio put his in-state rival at No. 20.
  • Hoke played and coached in the Mid-American Conference for Ball State, but he had little loyalty for the league on his ballot. That, or he just hates Northern Illinois. Hoke had the Huskies at No. 25, the lowest vote they received among any of the coaches. Beckman, who previously coached NIU's top rival Toledo, had the Huskies at No. 17.
  • Bielema gave his former boss Bill Snyder some love, ranking Kansas State at No. 4 on his ballot. Dantonio, who is good friends with Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, had the Sooners at No. 8 and BCS buster Northern Illinois all the way down at No. 22. Wilson, who worked for Stoops at Oklahoma before coming to Indiana, had the Sooners at No. 11. So did Pelini.
  • A quick check of where the Big Ten coaches ranked their upcoming bowl opponents. Bielema had Stanford at No. 5, Hoke had South Carolina at No. 10 and Pelini had Georgia at No. 6.
  • All six Big Ten coaches had Notre Dame at No. 1 and Alabama at No. 2.

Other notable coach votes:
  • NC State coach Dave Doeren, the former Wisconsin defensive coordinator who coached Northern Illinois this season, didn't rank the Badgers on his final ballot. He had Nebraska at No. 18. Huh?
  • Kent State coach Darrell Hazell, a former Ohio State assistant, didn't have much love for the Big Ten, not ranking Northwestern or Nebraska. He had Michigan at No. 23.
  • Ohio coach Frank Solich, who played and coached at Nebraska, had the Huskers at No. 23 on his ballot.

Here's a quick look at the voting for each Big Ten team in the final poll (Ohio State and Penn State weren't eligible).

No. 17 Northwestern

High vote: 14, from Kentucky's Joker Phillips and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier (who also jabbed at the Wildcats on Sunday)

Low vote: Not ranked by multiple coaches

No. 21 Nebraska

High vote:15, by Oklahoma's Stoops, Spurrier and Arkansas State's Gus Malzahn

Low vote: Not ranked by multiple coaches

No. 22 Michigan

High vote: 15, by Hoke, Kelly and Rodriguez

Low vote: Not ranked by multiple coaches

No. 23 Wisconsin

High vote: 16, by Pelini and Sarkisian

Low vote: Not ranked by multiple coaches

Rees comes through again for Irish

September, 23, 2012
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- All those turnovers, all those jeers, they were nothing but a thing of the past now. Here was Tommy Rees, out of the shotgun, third-and-4, Notre Dame's fate against Michigan the only thing riding now on his right arm.

The snap came in, the ball went high down the home sideline, and up went Tyler Eifert, the All-American grabbing his first catch of the night for 38 yards, breaking the dam and setting off a party unlike any seen in recent history inside Notre Dame Stadium.

This building has been known more for its quaintness, more for its hospitality, and suddenly that was all coming apart at the seams. Manti Te'o was finding his basketball friends in the crowd again, happy Louis Nix was dancing the way happy Louis Nix usually does, and no one inside the student section dared ditch the scene a moment too soon.

The Irish had finally knocked off Michigan, 13-6, after three years of torture, and out from the scrum amid chants of his name came Rees -- first for the television interview, then for a bountiful jog up the tunnel, a far cry from the reception he received the last time he took this field, two weeks earlier.

"It feels good, I'm not going to lie," Rees said. "It feels good to go out there and help the team win and have all your teammates count on you, and you being able to deliver.

"It's still early in the year. We've just got to keep moving forward and taking it one day at a time."

Notre Dame goes into its bye week at 4-0, winning three consecutive games the hard way, two of them behind the poise of the best backup quarterback in the nation, if he can even be called that at this point. Coach Brian Kelly shot his quarterback situation down definitively -- "Everett is our starter," he said -- but the eyes and ears suggest that Rees isn't going anywhere, not in a season ripe with potential like this one.

[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Chris Williams/Icon SMITommy Rees completeed 8 of 11 passes for 115 yards -- and, unlike starter Everett Golson, no picks.
Everett Golson completed just one more pass to his teammates (three) than he did to defenders (two), and so Rees was summoned midway through the second quarter, making his presence felt on his first drive by plunging into the end zone from 2 yards.

"He's a tough competitor," Theo Riddick said of Rees. "He knows the game, and there's not one day that he doesn't want to go out there and perform. So when his number's called, we expect that."

Riddick carried much of the load in the second half, rushing it 12 times for 40 yards during the Irish's final two drives to help them escape the Wolverines. On a night when Notre Dame's defense was nothing short of dominant, Rees and the offense did everything that was asked of it.

The junior completed 8 of 11 passes for 115 yards, and for the second time this season dispelled the "Turnover Tommy" moniker that dogged him throughout last fall.

Rees' 20 giveaways in 2011 overshadowed his 12-4 career record as a starter, or the fact that he was the only Irish quarterback to enter this season with experience as the No. 1 guy. Those yips were why his off-field arrest this past spring was met by many with a simple headshake rather than a full-out freakout, and why, yes, many of his own classmates let their unhappy feelings show from the stands when he stepped in two weeks ago to relieve Golson before lifting the Irish past Purdue.

Rees will never have the arm that Golson does, never bring the fans or teammates to their feet with a big run like the redshirt freshman. And yet he is beginning to win over his locker room in a way few other reserves could, by tossing distractions aside and by taking care of the football.

"No. 1, it just shows that you can't be selfish," Riddick said of Rees' showings. "It's a team sport, and you've got to do whatever you've got to do to make this team better, and he understands that. And like I said, when he comes in, we all expect him to know everything and play as if he is the starter."

Kelly called last week's win at Michigan State a signature victory. After beating Michigan to end a perfect month, he said this group knows it has a chance to do something big.

Yes, Golson is the man of the future and will start in two weeks because of his promise. But the guy who was nothing more than a glorified graduate assistant a short month ago will be ready if his number is called, as big a reason as any that these Irish just may be on their way to something special.

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