EAST LANSING, Mich. – Tyler O’Connor doesn’t sound like someone who has started just two games in his college football career. He certainly doesn’t come off as someone who’ll be mesmerized by more than 80,000 screaming fans at one of football’s iconic stadiums, the majority of whom will be directing their shouts and vitriol at him instead of for him.
O’Connor has been anticipating for the past four years the moment he’ll experience Saturday night when Michigan State travels to South Bend, Ind., and takes on Notre Dame in a prime-time matchup of two nationally ranked teams. Yes, he started the pivotal game at Ohio State in place of injured Connor Cook last season, but now it’s O’Connor who is the clear No. 1 quarterback for the Spartans. And Notre Dame isn’t Furman.
There was a limit to what he and the offense would do in Columbus last year. There was a lot of vanilla against Furman in the opener. Why would they want to show Notre Dame more on film than necessary? There are no such restrictions now, and with Notre Dame’s defense having already shown vulnerability against the pass through the first two games it will be an opportunity for O’Connor and the passing game to open up.
Don’t expect the rebirth of Air Coryell but don’t expect nothing but handoffs to LJ Scott, either.
“We have a lot of opportunities to make a lot of plays,” said O’Connor. “It’s important for us to get the ball in our playmakers’ hands and we’ll do that early and often, I guess, is what coach (Dave) Warner says. We’ll have them on their heels and kind of keep attacking because we know we’re going to have to score points.”
O’Connor has attempted just 72 passes in his career. Only 30 of those have come as a starter. But as a fifth-year player who chose to stay at Michigan State and bide his time instead of transferring elsewhere for playing time, O’Connor has demonstrated he is capable of making grounded decisions.
“I think as an offense we have to take advantage of the things that we see relative to weaknesses or things that we can exploit,” said head coach Mark Dantonio. “That’s what everybody does. At the same time, we’ve got to press the issue. I don’t think there is any question about that and do what we do.”
There’s a significant weakness on the defensive side of the ball for Notre Dame in its secondary. Sophomore Shaun Crawford was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon suffered last weekend against Nevada, adding to a litany of issues that have depleted the depth chart. Safety Max Redfield was dismissed from the team after an arrest on gun and drug charges in August. Devin Butler remains suspended from the team following a separate August arrest.
The Irish are also without junior cornerback Nick Watkins, who suffered a fractured left forearm in spring practices.
“Improving,” is how Kelly described the play of his secondary through the first two games. “Cole Luke played outstanding. I thought when Nick Coleman came in he showed great improvement, and I think the safeties played much better, so I would say it’s an improving group.”
Coleman, also a sophomore, has replaced Crawford. Compounding questions of coverage is the fact that Notre Dame has yet to record a sack this season.
“They’re going to keep going at Nick Coleman,” said Kelly. “Nick knows that and we’re quite aware of that situation but I think Nick has showed himself to be up to the task and he’s going to continue to work to get better at it. I think everybody knows that when you lose a player like Crawford and a new guy comes in they’re going to pick on him but I like the fact that Nick has made the kind of corrections necessary to go out there and compete for the football.”
R.J. Shelton is the one Michigan State wide receiver with significant experience; he caught 43 passes for 503 yards and four touchdowns last season while totaling more than 1,000 yards of all-purpose yardage. He was injured returning a punt against Furman in the season opener but is expected back against Notre Dame.
Senior Monty Madaris has a career-high 5 catches for 85 yards, while Felton Davis III made his first career touchdown reception against Furman.
“We’ve had great practices with them over the last couple weeks,” said O’Connor. “They’re excited to play and everything, and play on a national stage, especially Felton. Besides playing in the Big Ten championship game and briefly in the playoffs this is his kind of game to come out and make a name for himself. He’s very excited about it.
“We’re on the same page. Like I said, we’ll have deep-play opportunities and they’ll have to go up and make plays. Our 50-50 balls, they’re going to need to win those as well.”