Notre Dame will play their second consecutive road game as they head to Spartan Stadium to take on the Michigan State Spartans. However, a trip to East Lansing, at night, is a much tougher test than an afternoon game at Boston College. The Battle for the Megaphone is one of the oldest rivalries in college football and dates all the way back to 1897. In recent years, the series has included classic moments such as Golden Tate jumping into the MSU band and the Spartans fake field goal touchdown in 2010 known as “Little Giants”. Last season, the Spartans went into Notre Dame Stadium and beat the Irish 36-28, in a game that was less close than the final score. In fact Michigan State led 36-7 in the 3rd quarter. That win on the road seemed like it would propel the Spartans to another Big Ten title run, but instead MSU finished 3-9. A game between two top-20 teams last September ended up being a meaningless contest between a 3-9 and 4-8 team.
After the struggles of last season, both proud programs are looking to move forward. MSU is off to a 2-0 start, but has only faced MAC competition. Meanwhile, Notre Dame is at 2-1 having dismantled Temple and Boston College and suffering a one-point loss to Georgia in between. Certainly, this game is important for Michigan State, but it could mean everything to Brian Kelly and Notre Dame. If the Irish were to fall to 2-2 following all of the changes that were made in the offseason, the negative noise surrounding the program would be cranked to an even higher decibel. On the other hand, if the Irish pull off the road victory against a quality opponent there would be tangible evidence of the program’s improvement. Let’s take a look at the match ups for Saturday night.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Michigan State Defense
In its two victories this season, Notre Dame has rushed for a combined 937 yards. However, in the loss against Georgia, the Irish racked up a measly 55 yards on the ground. Now, Georgia does have one of the most athletic front sevens in the country, but this rushing attack has yet to prove itself against a quality defense. Last week, Brian Kelly challenged his veteran offensive line to go out and dominate in the second half. In the most hostile environment the Irish will face all season, that unit may need to do the same. Creating holes for Josh Adams, Brandon Wimbush, and Dexter Williams is crucial to getting the offense going.
Considering the gaudy numbers Notre Dame has compiled on the ground, you can expect Michigan State to be stacking the box. The Spartans may also be inclined to put a spy on quarterback Brandon Wimbush to prevent a big play from him in the run game. With all of that attention focused on the Irish rushing attack, opportunities could be opened up through the air. The question is, can Brandon Wimbush and the receiver group capitalize on those opportunities? Through 3 starts, Wimbush has completed just 50.5% of his passes for 2 TDs and 2 INTs. Equanimeous St. Brown has just 7 receptions for 99 yards on the season. Will Wimbush be able to fix all of his accuracy issues in just one week? Probably not, but I don’t expect the Irish to be able to pull out a victory with less than 100 yards through the air.
Under Mark Dantonio, Michigan State has always prided itself on their defense. While 2016 was a let down for the Spartan defense, they seem to be heading back in the right direction. Although their first two games were against MAC opponents, the Spartans held both Bowling Green and Western Michigan without an offensive touchdown. No matter who they’re playing, 8 quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown is impressive. Similarly to Notre Dame, the strength of the Spartan defense appears to be the linebacker group. Senior SAM linebacker Chris Frey returns following a 96 tackle season and is a leader for this team. STAR linebacker Andrew Dowell is extremely athletic, and plays a similar role to Drue Tranquil in Notre Dame’s defense. The interior part of the defensive line is also strong for MSU, sophomores Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams will look to hold up against Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, and Alex Bars.
As strong as the Spartans are up the middle, their weaknesses lie with the defensive ends and secondary. Michigan State starts two walk-ons at the defensive end spots in Dillon Alexander and Kenny Willekes. I respect their hard work, but against the Irish offensive line and tight end group, that is a mismatch waiting to happen. The secondary includes two sophomore and two junior starters, but MSU no longer has the type of talent they used to in the secondary.
Edge: Notre Dame
Michigan State Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
Through two games, the Spartans offense has been solid, but not outstanding. Starting quarterback Brian Lewerke has proven to be a dual-threat as he leads MSU with 150 yards rushing. As always, the Spartans have depth at running back with L.J. Scott, Gerald Holmes, and Madre London. Scott and Holmes tore up the Irish last season in South Bend. One concern for Michigan State is that 4 of the 5 offensive lineman have under 10 starts in their career. That could signal trouble against an improved Notre Dame defensive line. So far, the young line has looked impressive as MSU has averaged 255 yards on the ground, but again, the competition will take a step up this week.
In the passing game, the Spartans will look for big plays from sophomore speedster Darrell Stewart. MSU will rely on the ground more, as they have only averaged 205 pass yards per game. Turnovers could be an issue for the Spartans as they have already lost 4 fumbles to go along with a Lewerke interception.
The Irish defense continues to look strong under new coordinator Mike Elko. Perhaps the most impressive statistic is that the Irish are allowing opponents to convert on just 25% of 3rd down opportunities. Much of that success has to do with the implementation of an outstanding nickel package, with Shaun Crawford playing the nickel for the Irish. While the Irish do give up their fair share of yardage, they have been able to tighten up in the red zone and also force turnovers. In total, the Irish are allowing just 18.7 points per game.
One area where Notre Dame needs to improve this week is the pass rush. Last week against Boston College, the Irish technically registered one sack, but it was caused by the quarterback tripping on the foot of a lineman. Specifically, Daelin Hayes and the linebacking group have to get home with a sack against Lewerke. At the very least, putting more pressure on the first-year starter could lead to a turnover.
Edge: Notre Dame
Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome make up one of the better kicker and punter combos in the country. Newsome currently ranks 7th in the country in punting, averaging over 47 yards on punt attempts. While the kickers have done their jobs, the return and coverage units could certainly use improvement. The Irish rank 104th in kickoff return defense and 68th in punt return defense. CJ Sanders and Chris Finke still haven’t gotten anything going in the kick and punt return games.
MSU kicker Matt Coghlin is 9-for-9 on PATs, but has yet to attempt a field goal this season. Spartan punter Jake Hartbarger has been solid so far averaging 43.8 yards per punt. MSU will look to Darrell Stewart to return punts and kickoffs, and he has averaged a respectable 24.3 yards per kickoff return. As bad as Notre Dame is in kickoff coverage, Michigan State is worse as they have allowed a touchdown and 30 yards per return.
Edge: Notre Dame
From a talent, depth, and experience perspective Notre Dame should win this game comfortably. However, given it’s a night game at Spartan Stadium and a rivalry game this will be a close one. In the end, Notre Dame will be able to win the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The Irish are bigger and more experienced on both lines. The Spartans will give their best effort (including the crowd), but the Irish have too much talent for a rebuilding MSU.
Notre Dame 27 Michigan State 20
Tailgate Song of the Week
The summer may be over, but I’ll listen to Night Moves by Bob Seger any time of year. Seger is a Michigan native and this is a night game, so it’s the perfect song to go along with a Bell’s Two Hearted Ale before the game.