The 2-1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish will roll into town on Saturday night with their eyes set on the 2-0 Michigan State Spartans. The Spartans are coming off a bye week while the Irish look to gain momentum from a 49-20 thrashing over Boston College.
MSU defeated ND last year 36-28. But that victory turned out to be extremely deceiving and both sides are desperate to put 2016’s ugliness behind them in this year’s battle for the Megaphone Trophy.
Notre Dame leads Michigan State in all-time meetings 48-29-1. As we encounter another rendition of the friendly rivalry, let’s take a look at some of the X’s and O’s of this year’s matchup.
The biggest clash in this contest will be Notre Dame’s superb running game against the Spartans’ remarkable front seven. The Irish return a veteran offensive line led by 2016 second-team All-American left tackle Mike McGlinchy. You can put just about anyone behind this line and still succeed on the ground.
But Irish running back Josh Adams isn’t just anyone. Adams has the fifth-most rushing yards in the nation at 443. He joined the 2000 rushing yards club after just 316 touches—the quickest in Notre Dame history. He’s coming off a 207-yard performance against Boston College and looks to build on that momentum in East Lansing.
ND dual threat Brandon Wimbush also has the ability to light up the stat sheet. He racked up 207 rushing yards and four touchdowns against the Eagles.
However, throwing the football is a completely different story for Wimbush. He only threw for 96 yards against BC. He has 491 yards on the year, but only two throwing touchdowns with two interceptions. Wimbush’s throws are often sporadic and inaccurate. Still, he will be the best quarterback the Spartans have faced this year.
Although the Irish rushing attack is strong, the Spartans are more than game to defend it. Linebacker Joe Bachie leads the Spartans’ rush defense with 21 tackles. Defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk have the ability to clog the middle and assist in limiting the running game. In fact, stopping the run game has always been a strong suit for MSU under Dantonio.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan State will look to utilize their three-headed monster running back trio in LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London to dig into the Irish defense. Brian Lewerke, although not typically classified as a dual threat, has the ability to run the read option and escape the pocket for added yards on the ground.
Notre Dame’s rush defense has been anything but stellar this season after giving up 122 yards to Boston College’s Jon Hilliman on the ground. Georgia’s Sony Michel and Nick Chubb also scorched them earlier this year, combining for 136 yards. Another run-first opponent is the last thing Notre Dame needs, but that’s exactly what they’ll have to prepare for, facing four different Spartans who each run the ball well.
Lastly, there is Lewerke’s skill in throwing the football. Lewerke won’t usually throw for all that many yards, as shown by his 161 yards with a touchdown and interception against Western Michigan. But when he does throw, it has the potential to be right on the money. Lewerke is still young and figuring things out under center. But he does sometimes show flashes of excellence along with a few growing pains.
This game also means a lot for both head coaches, especially Brian Kelly. In fact, it means the world to Kelly. Following a medley of underachieving years leading up to last year’s catastrophic 4-8 campaign, it would be an understatement to say that Kelly’s job is in jeopardy.
While Dantonio’s seat isn’t hot yet, an immediate turnaround from last season’s 3-9 trainwreck must be made. There’s no better way to do that than by heading into conference play undefeated, already tying their win total from last year.
For Notre Dame, the biggest key is to win the turnover margin. The Spartans lost the turnover margin in their only two matchups thus far, coughing up four fumbles and an interception. The Irish may need a couple takeaways to cut into a stout defense that defense that has only allowed a field goal so far on the year.
For the Spartans, the biggest key is to force Notre Dame to third-and-longs. The Irish offense only functions with a strong ground presence that posts third-and-manageable. If the MSU can contain Wimbush and force him to throw the ball deep on third down, it will probably work in their favor. In fact, the Spartans rank No. 1 in the nation in third downs allowed.
Michigan State-Notre Dame is always a good time. The rivalry has lots of history and this will be the last time these two teams meet for years. Both are suffering from abysmal 2016 campaigns and look to stop the bleeding this Saturday. But which side will be able to? That question will be answered Saturday night.