Know Your Enemy: Notre Dame

Last Week’s Result:  The Fighting Irish played their second straight game against a Big Ten opponent last Saturday as they traveled to West Lafayette to challenge the Purdue Boilermakers.  Notre Dame bounced back from their loss to Michigan with a tough 31-24 victory over Purdue in these teams’ 85th meeting.The Fighting Irish came in as three touchdown favorites, but needed a three touchdown fourth quarter to finish off the pesky Boilermakers.  They relied heavily on the connection between quarterback Tommy Rees and receiver DaVaris Daniels, who linked up for 187 yards and two touchdowns on the day.  Notre Dame had been trying to establish the run game all day, but were unsuccessful as they averaged 2.5 yards on 37 carries.  This allowed the Boilermakers to go into the fourth quarter with a 17-10 lead.  This didn’t last long, as the Fighting Irish got two touchdowns from Daniels and an interception returned for a touchdown by cornerback Bennett Jackson all within the first five minutes of the quarter.

The Fighting Irish get to head back to South Bend this weekend after two straight road games to take on the Spartans, their third straight Big Ten opponent. This is the last time these two rivals will face off in at least the near future, as Notre Dame has dropped their series with Michigan State due to conference realignment.

Offense:  Notre Dame goes into this weekend boasting the 16th best passing offense in the nation, averaging 326 yards per game.  The quarterback position was a big question mark for this team in the offseason with the season-long suspension of last year’s starter Everett Golson, but Tommy Rees has stepped in brilliantly so far.  He has thrown for 969 yards and seven touchdowns already on a near 61% completion rate.  They also scored 30 points on what looks to be another strong Michigan defense.  Their rushing attack hasn’t fared as well, and was exposed last week by an aggressive Boilermaker blitz scheme.  They have also only scored two touchdowns on the ground.  Regardless, this offense has exceeded expectations thus far and is not to be trifled with.   However, just like for most teams on the Spartans’ schedule, this game should be their toughest test on offense to date.  This Spartans’ defense  has already forced eight turnovers this season and have only allowed 12 points per game to their opponents, which ranks 12th in the nation.  I expect Rees to gain a chunk of passing yards throughout the game, but for Michigan State to clamp down in the red zone when it matters, leading to a lot of work for kicker Kyle Brindza.

Defense:  This Fighting Irish defense had to replace three starters from their unit last season that led them to the BCS National Championship Game.  Their rush defense has appeared to pick up where they left off, allowing just over 112 rushing yards per game, including only 38 yards to Purdue last week.  They have struggled to stop the passing game however.  They allowed Devin Gardner to shred them for 294 yards and four touchdowns two weeks ago, and 256 yards and 3 touchdowns to struggling Purdue quarterback Rob Henry last week.  This is good news for Michigan State, as Connor Cook won the starting quarterback job last week as the offense finally took some steps forward.  Cook completed 15 out of his 22 passes last week for 202 yards and four touchdowns.  This will still be a very tough test for the Spartan’s newfound passing attack, but certainly not an insurmountable task.  If Cook can continue his chemistry with receivers like MacGarrett Kings Jr., they should be able to make this a close game.  However, this won’t be possible if Jeremy Langford and company can’t get a ground attack going.

Overall:  This is easily the toughest task for the Spartans thus far, as they are coming off a game against FCS opponent Youngstown State.  There’s a big difference between Youngstown State and the defending National Runner-Ups Notre Dame.  This will be the first offense to really challenge this tough Michigan State defense.  Rees leads a strong passing attack, along with his go-to receiver Daniels, who have been gaining momentum through the first three games this season.  Rees and his receivers will provide a tough task for Darqueze Dennard and the Spartans’ secondary.  For the Fighting Irish, this isn’t the right game to attempt to figure out their rushing struggles from last week, as Michigan State only allowed 51 rushing last week to Youngstown State.

On the flip side of things, the Spartans have only just found their stride on offense and go up against an established defense led by Louis Nix III.  Through the first two games, not one of the Spartan quarterbacks threw for a touchdown.  Cook changed that last week, throwing for four touchdowns.  However, as stated before, that was against an FCS opponent.  It is tough to say whether or not they have righted the ship, but they certainly took steps in the right direction.  It is now up to Cook and the offense to prove that they can have that kind of success against the tough competition on the schedule, starting this week with Notre Dame.  Personally, last week didn’t convince me that the problems have been fixed on offense.  However, I did like the mobility that Cook showed along with the playmaking ability of Kings Jr.  Still, it will be up to the defense to stop the Fighting Irish offense and to create turnovers in order to be in a position to win this game.

Score Prediction:  Michigan State: 13   Notre Dame: 19


Dan Tyler is the host of Spartan Red Zone for Impact Sports.

Photo: David Defever