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OFD Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

A preview of the rivalry game with Michigan State as the Irish seek a 3rd straight win in the series.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State (+5.5) at Notre Dame

Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana

Kickoff: 3:30 PM ET

Television: NBC

Series: 47-28-1 Notre Dame

Here is the One Foot Down preview of this Saturday's game with the Spartans.

5 Factoids

  • 3

That is the number of years it's been since Michigan State came into this game unranked. Before the prior two meetings with Notre Dame the Spartans were ranked 10th and 15th respectively in the AP Poll. Although Michigan State is not ranked this Saturday they are sitting at 26th overall in the AP Poll with 59 votes.

  • 16

This is the number of points Michigan State has scored against Notre Dame over the last two meetings.

  • 2.90

That figure is the yards-per-play that Michigan State has given up so far through 3 games this season, tops in the country. Obviously some of that is due to very weak opponents but the Spartans were also 5th in the country last season with a 4.37 YPP surrendered.

  • 5.00

This figure is the yards-per-play for Michigan State's offense so far this year, 98th nationally and 6th worst among major conference programs. If you take away last weekend's game against FCS Youngstown State the Spartans are averaging 3.98 yards per play against FBS teams.

  • 9

The Irish have won 9 straight home games having allowed just 12.2 points per game over that streak. The last loss was 31-17 at night against USC on October 22, 2011. A win against Michigan State would give Notre Dame 3 straight victories against the Spartans in South Bend after losing the previous 6 home games.

4 Players to Watch

  • DE Shilique Calhoun

The redshirt sophomore is one of the new starters along the defensive line for Michigan State after being a backup in 2012. He finished last season with a modest 6 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1 sack, and 5 quarterback hurries. Coming into 2013 Calhoun was tabbed as one of the young breakout players for the Spartans and although he has just 5 tackles through 3 games he also has 2 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, 8 quarterback hurries, and has scored 3 defensive touchdowns---2 fumble returns and a pick six.

  • QB Connor Cook

Cook took a redshirt in 2011 and saw action in a couple games last season, including coming in during the second series of the third quarter of their bowl game against TCU, leading a 90-yard touchdown drive, and the game-winning field goal drive in the fourth quarter. This season he's thrown at least 10 passes in each of State's first three games, and started the last two. He's still very inexperienced (only 66 career pass attempts), he struggled big time in MSU's first two games (12 for 28, 74 yards), but offers decent mobility and played really well last week against Youngstown State to gain the start against the Irish this weekend.

  • RB Jeremy Langford

Langford enters his fourth season in East Lansing and has emerged as the Spartans top running back this fall. He took a redshirt in 2010, played defense in 2011, and switched to running back last season totaling just 9 carries in 2012. Michigan State is still rotating two other backs in redshirt junior Nick Hill and redshirt freshman Riley Bullough but Langford's 44 carries leads the team right now.

  • FS Kurtis Drummond

Drummond sat out 2010 with an injury, played a little bit in 2011, and made seven starts last season at free safety. So far in 2013 in what could be Mark Dantonio's best defense yet Drummond is off to a hot start leading the team in tackles (17), and he also has 2 pass breakups, and a pick six.

3 Concerns

  • Special Teams

You may recall George Atkinson's kickoff return for touchdown two years ago igniting the Irish. Something to keep an eye on is that Michigan State punt returner Andre Sims has lost a fumble each of the past two games. State may stick with Sims or turn to Nick Hill or Macgarrett Kings, Jr., both of whom each returned a punt against Youngstown State.

  • Stopping Michigan State's Short-to-Intermediate Passing Game

If Notre Dame can turn this defensive weakness into somewhat of a strength this Saturday they will make it very difficult for Michigan State to move the ball. The Irish have been very good this season in stopping the run and have also limited the Spartans to just 79 yards on 48 carries over the previous two meetings. I would be surprised if MSU has a better running game this season so the key defensively is to shore up their short passing game.

Last weekend the Irish held Purdue to just one rushing first down (the best mark since 1965 per Brian Kelly in Tuesday's press conference) on the second play of the game but the Boilermakers did gain 15 more first downs through the air, including 3rd down conversions of 1, 7, 11, 7, 12, 8, 4, and 4 yards. Notre Dame has to do better in pass defense this weekend.

  • Gaining 80 Rushing Yards

Notre Dame has had modest success running the ball over the past couple years against a stout Michigan State defense. Two years ago the Irish ran for 122 yards on 34 carries and last year in East Lansing they totaled 114 yards on 32 carries. Nothing too outrageous but those were the 4th and 3rd best rushing averages for a State opponent in each of those seasons.

The Irish passing game should be strong, and definitely more productive than last year's game against the Spartans, but they'll need to maintain some balance against a strong defense. Something around 80 rushing yards seems like a tipping point to me. Anything under that mark and I bet the Irish offense gets too one-dimensional and falters down the stretch.

2 Sides of the Line

Michigan's State's offensive line is experienced and largely the same group Notre Dame fans have seen over the past couple seasons. Redshirt sophomore Donavon Clark (6-3, 300) made a couple starts at left tackle last season and has started all 3 games there this fall. At left guard is fifth-year senior Blake Treadwell (6-3, 304) who comes into Saturday with 13 career starts. At center the Spartans look to get redshirt junior Travis Jackson (6-3, 283) back after he missed last week's game with an undisclosed injury. Jackson has made 17 career starts at center and State also has redshirt sophomore Jack Allen (6-1, 297) who is battling a turf toe injury but started against Youngstown State last week and made 12 starts on the line in 2012.

On the right side Michigan State has fifth-year senior Dan France (6-6, 312) who moves to guard after making 24 starts at left tackle during the prior two seasons. At right tackle the Spartans have redshirt freshman Jack Conklin (6-6, 326) while the offense has also sprinkled in fifth-year senior Fou Fonoti (6-4, 298) at right tackle and elsewhere using the veteran's 13 career starts to their advantage.

The Michigan State defensive line is deep and quite talented. They'll be without the services of the highly touted redshirt sophomore Lawrence Thomas who's been dealing with an undisclosed injury that's kept him out of the lineup through the beginning of the season. Thomas was moved from fullback (harrumph!) in the off-season so he's not a huge loss.

At defensive end there is redshirt junior Marcus Rush (6-2, 245) who has started every game over the past two years and comes into Saturday with 2 sacks this season. At the other end spot is the aforementioned Shilique Calhoun (6-4, 250) while fifth-year senior Denzel Drone (6-2, 251) is part of the rotation as well.

Inside the Spartans have fifth-year senior Micahjah Reynolds (6-5, 307) who has 9 career starts coming into the weekend and sixth-year senior Tyler Hoover (6-7, 290) who has made 15 career starts. Reynolds is more of a space-eater while Hoover has had a nice 2013 so far with 9 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 2 passes broken up. Adding depth at tackle is redshirt sophomore Damon Knox (6-4, 276) while redshirt junior James Kittredge (6-4, 252) is recovering from hernia surgery, played a little bit against Youngstown State, and is expected to suit up this weekend against Notre Dame.

1 Prediction

I usually feel pretty good about this game because Michigan State's offense matches up so well with Notre Dame's defense. A couple years ago I called for an Irish win after the devastating loss in Ann Arbor and SBNation's The Only Colors comment section was all like:

I'm still confident because I don't think the Spartans are better on offense than they were in any of the past two seasons. In fact, they might be a good amount worse with an offensive line that leaves a lot to be desired, Le'Veon Bell in the NFL, and an inexperienced quarterback.

Football Outsiders Advanced Stats through Week 3

F/+ 16 5
FEI 21 22
S&P 18 3
S&P Offense 18 117
S&P Defense 35 1
S&P Rushing 58 55
S&P Passing 27 111

Unfortunately, my confidence is nowhere near as high when looking at the Michigan State defense. They haven't played an offense worth a lick yet, and I wouldn't call them the best defense in the country as the advanced stats are telling us, but it's a very tough defense at all three levels.

Plain and simple Notre Dame needs a real solid game on offense to win---probably about 330 total yards which is slightly better than what they've produced over the past two meetings. Assuming Michigan State is going to have more success moving the ball than their anemic offense indicates we're looking to Tommy Rees to have a strong game again and I think he's up to the challenge.

It wouldn't surprise me if this game is very low scoring, like scoreless at half low scoring. I usually like the stronger offenses in low scoring games and that's the one thing that could be a deciding factor. Notre Dame's offense can score quickly and I don't think you can say the same about Michigan State's offense.

From a macro perspective this is a game Notre Dame absolutely needs to win. Even though the Irish won last Saturday this still feels like a bounce game in combination with the Michigan loss from 2 weeks ago and this is a time where Brian Kelly has typically shown great resolve and preparation.

We haven't felt great about the season so far but a win this weekend could really turn things around.

Notre Dame 20

Michigan State 16