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Game Preview: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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One Foot Down staff writer Pat Rick previews the big game on Saturday between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Michigan State Spartans

NCAA Football: Nevada at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

It’s almost the weekend, and for most of us, that means relaxation and beers and God only knows what else.

But, for a select few, it means something else entirely: TIME TO GET DOWN TO BUSINESS.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Mark “Dapper Dan”tonio and his 12th-ranked Michigan State Spartans will be making a #BusinessTrip down to Michiana to face off against the 18th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who clearly are also ready to play:

Notre Dame is fresh off of a 39-10 win over Nevada, putting the Irish at 1-1 on the season, still searching for their first significant victory. Meanwhile, 1-0 Michigan State is similarly looking for a resume-building win before jumping into conference play, having beaten Furman unconvincingly in week one and spending last weekend bye-ing it up.

Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans hold a surprisingly mediocre/poor record of 5-4 in games after bye weeks, most recently losing to Nebraska 39-38 after a bye week last season. So, with an extra week to prepare for Brian Kelly’s squad, will MSU come out crisp and dominant, or will Kelly show for a fourth time in five meetings that he is the superior head-to-head coach?

Let’s take a look at the two teams’ match-ups and key players in order to shed some light on that question and prepare ourselves for this business meeting of business men.

Notre Dame Offense vs. Michigan State Defense

The Notre Dame offense enters Saturday’s showdown as the 28th-best scoring offense in the country, averaging 43 points per game and an incredibly balanced 222.5 rushing yards per game and 221.5 passing yards per game.

The crux of that offensive production is, of course, Irish junior QB DeShone Kizer, who enters the game with the 5th-best passing efficiency rating in the country, having thrown for 371 yards, 7 touchdowns, and just 1 interception while completing passes at a 71.4% clip. Kizer has displayed impressive poise and playmaking ability through the first two games of this season, and will certainly need every bit of that talent when facing the Michigan State defense.

The Spartans defensive unit appears as menacing as ever this year, and the group is led by junior defensive tackle Malik McDowell, who the Irish are well aware of:

McDowell (3 tackles, 1 for a loss against Furman) will likely be a disruptive force in the middle, and it will be interesting to see how the inexperienced members of the offensive line - namely Sam Mustipher at center and Colin McGovern at right guard - will hold up against such an athletic specimen.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

If McDowell and his comrades on the MSU defensive line (Demetrius Cooper, Kevin Williams, Evan Jones) are able to get to Kizer, especially as the game comes down to the wire and the stakes get higher, Irish fans needn’t worry:

Kizer has been the definition of unflappable ever since the end of the 2015 Virginia game, showing the ability to step up into, and linger within, the pocket long enough to find his open receiver, while also exuding the confidence and leadership to drive his team down the field when the game is on the line.

That ability was unquestioned by ND fans entering this season, but there did stand the mystery of who Kizer could rely on in those kinds of situations to catch the ball and collect first downs. Torii Hunter Jr. was the lone experienced receiver returning, and after suffering a concussion on a botched targeting call against Texas and missing the Nevada game because of it, he has been cleared to play against the Spartans and will return to lead a receiving corps that has really come into their own in just two games in 2016.

Sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown has been terrific in his first season starting at WR, already accumulating 11 receptions, 160 yards, and 2 touchdowns. With his length, speed, and hands, he is the perfect complement to electric and shifty-as-hell sophomore slot receiver CJ Sanders, who has also gotten comfortable in his starting job en route to posting 8 receptions, 101 yards, and 2 touchdowns of his own.

True freshman Kevin Stepherson even got into the mix last weekend against Nevada, corralling a tough touchdown catch in traffic.

The Spartans, of course, won’t sit idly by and watch Kizer toss deep balls to Hunter and St. Brown and Sanders. Redshirt senior safety Demetrious Cox (79 tackles, 3 INT in 2015) headlines a typical MSU secondary unit that prides itself on physicality, with cornerbacks Darian Hicks (33 tackles in ‘15) and Vayante Copeland pressing receivers at the line, while Cox and junior safety Montae Nicholson (83 tackles, 3 INT in ‘15) clean things up over the top (and in run support).

NCAA Football: Furman at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

This is a big test for the Irish receivers, who faced some decent competition against Texas but still haven’t been tested with a secondary like the one Michigan State constantly fields in the back half of its defense. The ability of young guys like St. Brown and Sanders to create separation and get into their routes will be especially intriguing to watch.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the Notre Dame offensive line is still searching for that statement game where they impose their collective will on a stout defense and give ND fans the smash-mouth, physical offense they expect. It has to start on the left side with LT Mike McGlinchey and LG Quenton Nelson, both preseason All-Americans who are fully capable of crushing defensive linemen and unaware linebackers into smithereens.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Texas Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If they can get a good push on McDowell and Cooper and the rest of the Spartan front, then the ND three-headed monster at running back will be free to get into the second level and really do some damage. Senior RB Tarean Folston hasn’t been spectacular in his return from a torn ACL in 2015, but he’s still averaging 4.1 yards per carry and is always tough to bring down in between the tackles.

Sophomore Josh Adams has been the best running back on the team so far, averaging 7.1 yards per carry (106 of his 149 yards in 2016 came against Nevada) and showing the same game-breaking ability we all saw last season. However, he’s yet to find the end zone running the ball, with his only touchdown coming on a 17-yard reception against Texas. Look for Adams to make some plays, carrying the ball on outside runs designed to get him into space so he can turn on the after-burners and maybe even go through one of those portals he loves...

Sophomore Dexter Williams is the third back in the offense, and although he hasn’t gotten too much work in meaningful moments so far, he’s shown fantastic speed and good strength and vision, averaging 7.4 yards per carry in this young season and scoring a touchdown against Nevada.

The three running backs won’t have it easy if they make it to the second level, though, as there still somehow exists another Bullough brother in the Spartans defense, this one known as Riley.

NCAA Football: Furman at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Riley led the team in tackles in 2015 with 106, and looks poised for similar success this season with his 8 tackles he picked up against Furman. He’s joined by junior Chris Frey (9 tackles against Furman) and sophomore Andrew Dowell (8 tackles against Furman), both very capable, sure-tackling linebackers who will undoubtedly be looking to get physical with Folston, Adams, Williams, and additionally Kizer when he runs with the ball (112 yards, 4.9 YPC, 2 TD so far this season).

Furthermore, Ed Davis, who was 4th on the team with 58 tackles in 2014, has officially been given a 6th year of eligibility as of the past week, giving the Spartans more experienced, talented depth at the position.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, this match-up between the Irish offense and Spartan defense will be the most exciting of the game, as it matches strength versus strength and will be a fight to the end.

Michigan State Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

On the other side of the field, the Michigan State offense will be looking to take advantage of a questionable Irish defense much in the same way that Texas did (as opposed to scoring a measly 10 points on them, as Nevada managed last weekend).

The Spartans offense is led by redshirt senior QB Tyler O’Connor, a fine but not spectacular quarterback who has only started two games in his career, one of them being against Furman two weeks ago, when he went 13-for-18 with 190 yards, 3 TD, and 1 INT. That’s a solid stat line, but against Furman, any QB from a top-25 team should be able to put up similar, if not much better, numbers.

In O’Connor’s other start, against Ohio State in 2015, he was fine (but not asked to do much) in Connor Cook’s stead, completing 7 of 12 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown in a low-scoring game where the Spartans defense and rushing offense did enough to win the game.

Of course, that Ohio State defense was littered with NFL talent, and although ND definitely has some talented guys out there, it’s still a unit run by Brian VanGorder and prone to giving up big plays and quick scoring drives. So, the result will probably be somewhere in the middle, where O’Connor won’t look pitiful but also will not be playing the Furman Paladins anymore.

Quick fun fact about Tyler O’Connor: the dude is also an accomplished punter, and even started at the position against Michigan last season. Please check out his bio and read up on this starting quarterback’s punting exploits.

O’Connor will look for receivers Monty Madaris, RJ Shelton, Felton Davis III, and true freshman Donnie Corley - along with tight end Josiah Price - through the air, and might take a shot or two deep to test ND sophomore corner Nick Coleman, who will start in place of Shaun Crawford (tore his Achilles against Nevada).

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Texas Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Senior cornerback Cole Luke and true freshman Devin Studstill might need to make a play or two (i.e. an interception) to prevent O’Connor from continuing to test the secondary with any sort of threatening passing attack, as they are extremely vulnerable to it with such a lack of depth and speed on the back end of the defense.

If the Irish could get any sort of pass rush, that would be monumental as well. Don’t hold your breath though, Irish fans, as your defense has still not recorded a sack after two games.

The Spartans will more than likely lean on their running game anyway, and rightfully so considering the stable of studs they have in the backfield. This group absolutely begins with sophomore LJ Scott, fresh off a 105-yard, 1-touchdown performance against Furman and a 699-yard, 11-touchdown 2015 freshman season. Scott is an absolute force, and will not go down easily - especially against an ND defense that has struggled bringing down strong ball carriers so far this season.

The ND linebacking crew of Nyles Morgan, James Onwualu, and Te’von Coney will need to bring their A-game, using their speed to hit the holes hard and their strength and athleticism to hit Scott low, wrap him up, and at the very least slow him down until help arrives.

Michigan State’s depth at running back doesn’t stop at Scott, though, with redshirt sophomore Madre London and redshirt junior Gerald Holmes collecting the remainder of the team’s carries in fine fashion. London ran for 500 yards and 3 touchdowns a year ago, and Holmes added 540 yards and 8 touchdowns of his own. Between the three, the Spartans will always have an athletic, powerful running back coming at the Irish.

It will be crucial for the ND defensive front - senior DT Jarron Jones, senior DE Isaac Rochell, sophomore DT Jerry Tillery, junior DT Daniel Cage, and senior DE Andrew Trumbetti - to get a strong push, wreak some havoc, and create situations where the Irish linebackers have clear paths to tackle the ball carrier amongst the traffic.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Texas Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, something interesting to keep an eye on: will Michigan State potentially use 2nd-string QB Damion Terry in the running game?

Mark Dantonio had to have seen the success Texas had with Tyrone Swoopes two weeks ago, and although Terry is not Swoopes, he is a pretty dangerous runner from the QB position and could make a few plays in certain running situations, especially near the goal line.

I have no fact-based reason to believe this will happen, but I would not be surprised if it did, and I’d be even less surprised if it worked against an ND defense that had no answer for a second QB running all over them in Austin.

My Prediction

Notre Dame’s defense definitely worries me, especially when it comes to effectively stopping LJ Scott, Madre London, and Gerald Holmes from completely eviscerating them.

However, Tyler O’Connor doesn’t scare me (famous last words of a Notre Dame fan about a middling QB who we will turn into a Heisman candidate, I know) and I could not have more confidence in DeShone Kizer and the ND offense. I expect Kizer and Co. to score enough points, and for the defense to make one or two surprising plays that turn the tide and give the Fighting Irish a close, hard-fought victory.

Notre Dame 30, Michigan State 24

Please leave comments on how I’m being foolish or stupid or naive, or to tell me if there’s anything else you guys want to see in these previews going forward. I will absorb all your feedback and then act on it as best I can.

See you guys in the stadium parking lot (to drink Hamm’s, not to fight because of your comments, just to be clear), and go Irish!