SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Cierre Wood #20 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past Johnny Adams #5 of the Michigan State Spartans to score a touchdown during the first half September 17, 2011at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by John Gress/Getty Images)
What's left of the Big Ten's reputation will be on the line as MSU hosts Notre Dame for a prime-time national audience. MSU slipped by Boise State in a night opener and had no trouble at Central Michigan last week. Notre Dame blew out Navy, but needed a last-second field goal (led by backup quarterback Tommy Rees) to squeak past Purdue at home.
MSU and Notre Dame have played many classics over recent years, but perhaps nothing will top a fake field goal to win in 2010. MSU's defense has proven itself elite, while the offense has held its own against questionable opponents. How will it handle a top-quality front? That's the million-dollar question as the Spartans try to prove they're a legitimate national contender.
By the numbers:
76: This will be the 76th time the Spartans and Fighting Irish meet. Notre Dame holds a 28-46-1 lead all-time, with MSU's 28 wins being the second-most among all Notre Dame opponents.
1.4: Notre Dame's yards-per-carry in last week's 20-17 win over Purdue
24.5: Yards-per-catch for tight end Tyler Eifert against Purdue (four catches, 98 yards)
4: This will be the fourth time in the last five East Lansing meetings that the game is at night.
7: Notre Dame sacks through two games, which is tied for 12th in the nation (MSU has one)
1.3: MSU's yards per carry in last year's 31-13 loss to Notre Dame. Le'Veon Bell averaged 3.9 for his part (7 carries, 27 yards)
275: Notre Dame's offensive yardage in last year's game (MSU had 358, almost all of which was passing)
Three keys for MSU:
No turnovers from Andrew Maxwell - As shown in one of the numbers above, the Irish have a knack for getting to the quarterback. On the other side, MSU hasn't allowed a sack this year, although Maxwell has been under pressure and hit a few more times than expected. When he's pressured, he's made some bad mistakes — from interceptions to missing wide open receivers. Notre Dame has a depleted and young secondary, so if Maxwell is given the time from his protection, he'll have a good shot to pick it apart.
Force Everett Golson to be one-dimensional (preferably passing) - Notre Dame's rookie dual-threat quarterback has put up better passing numbers than perhaps many expected (67.3 percent completions, 8.8 yards per attempt), but those were against weak secondaries, and MSU's is one of the best in the country. I've said before that I think Rees gives the Irish a better chance here, because MSU's defense usually shuts down dual-threat quarterbacks (see: Denard Robinson, Braxton Miller, Tre Roberson) because the defense ends are great at attacking while still containing. If MSU can contain Golson with the line and force him to pass, the blitzes will be even more effective.
Get Bell going: Last year, MSU fell behind early and the run was stuffed, so they were forced to pass the ball 54 times (one on a fake field goal). The first two opponents MSU has faced loaded up the box to force MSU to rely on Maxwell. Boise State couldn't stop Bell, but Central Michigan did (although I contend his YPC would have increased had he played the whole game, but that wasn't important). Notre Dame will have one of the best front line's MSU will see all year. With Notre Dame's 3-4 defense, the MSU offensive line will have to get to the linebackers effectively. It's certainly a tall task, but Bell will have to be a workhorse again.
Three keys for Notre Dame:
Stop Bell without loading the box - Most of the reasons are in the keys above. Le'Veon Bell will be the focal point of MSU's offense, and if ND can contain him with the fewest amount of guys possible, it allows the Irish to help out that weakened secondary. But that's easier said than done.
Move Tyler Eifert around: Eifert might be the best of all the great tight ends Notre Dame has had recently. He's so versatile that the Irish split him out wide frequently. He's likely going to covered by Chris Norman a lot, but if that isn't proving effective, MSU may decide to move Johnny Adams or another defensive back on him, as they did with Michael Floyd last year. The tight ends may have the most catches for both teams in this one.
Get something out of the running backs: Cierre Wood is back from suspension. He averaged 4.4 yards on 14 carries against MSU last year and will try to boost a running game that had major issues against Purdue's defensive line. If Wood and Theo Riddick (whom I didn't know was a running back) can consistently get something on the ground, that will help Notre Dame call more play action and take pressure off a rookie making his first road start.
Prediction: MSU 17-14
These are two of the top defensive fronts out there, and couple that with both teams having some questions on the offensive lines. That's going to lead to a low-scoring affair. MSU's defense has played like one of the best in the country, not having allowed a touchdown, but I do think Notre Dame will finally cross the goal line. A raucous Spartan Stadium crowd is going to affect Golson, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Rees if it's a terrible start. If Maxwell has a bad turnover or two, it could easily turn into a Notre Dame win.
A lot of Spartan fans are extremely confident about this game, and I understand why, given the defense. But Notre Dame's front is legit and will cause a lot of problems. I think MSU will get enough out of Bell to lead to some big throws from Maxwell in a narrow win, hopefully without a heart attack this time around.