College football experts, analysts and fans know Michigan State is a good team. Just how good are the Spartans? That’s a question that has been left hanging in the air the last two weeks, a question that received no good answer during the season-opening 28-13 win against Furman on Sept. 2.
There will be more-definitive answers when Michigan State, ranked No. 12 in the AP Top 25, travels to South Bend, Ind., to take on No. 18 Notre Dame (1-1) Saturday night. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:42 p.m. ET on NBC. The Fighting Irish bounced back from a 50-47 loss in double overtime at Texas in their season opener by beating Nevada, 39-10, at home last weekend.
Michigan State opens Big Ten play next weekend at home against Wisconsin. The Spartans couldn’t ask for a better primer for conference play than Notre Dame.
When Michigan State has the ball
Senior Tyler O’Connor was efficient against Furman, completing 13 of 18 passes for a modest 190 yards and a not-so-modest 3 touchdowns in just his second career start. He also threw an interception but the Spartans didn’t show much against Furman beyond their typical run game. Expect that to change against a Notre Dame defense that has already allowed seven passing plays of 20 yards or more, including four of at least 44 yards. The Irish secondary is depleted from offseason disciplinary action and recent injuries, most notably a torn Achilles suffered by sophomore Shaun Crawford against Nevada.
The obvious target of attack will be sophomore Nick Coleman, Crawford’s replacement. The Spartans are inexperienced at receiver behind senior R.J. Shelton but senior Monty Madaris had a career-high 5 catches for 85 yards against Furman.
This doesn’t mean the Spartans will abandon their rushing game. Never think such blasphemy. L.J. Scott had 105 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries in the opener. If the offensive line opens some holes for him, it will make the play-action passing calls more effective. Notre Dame has not recorded a sack in its first two games.
Advantage: Michigan State
When Notre Dame has the ball
The Irish have one big plus in their favor: junior quarterback DeShone Kizer. He is fifth in the nation in passing efficiency and had Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel bringing up not only physical comparisons to NFL stars Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck but also Kizer’s ability to extend plays.
Notre Dame is expected to have senior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. (concussion) back after missing the game against Nevada.
Michigan State’s defense was called for three pass interference penalties plus a defensive holding against Furman. The last time the teams played, in 2013, Notre Dame attacked the corners with deep pass after deep pass (20 of them, according to Mark Dantonio). Just as the Spartans will be looking for Coleman, they know opposing offenses are going to target Darian Hicks. Two of the PI calls vs. Furman were against Hicks, but he also had three pass breakups.
Brian Kelly’s offense isn’t all throw. Tarean Folston is the starting running back but the Irish are deep at the position. Notre Dame is 60-6 over its last 66 games when it ends up with more rushing yards than its opponent. The package may be wrapped differently than a Mark Dantonio offense but the desired result is the same. Michigan State’s defensive line is going to have to be more than Malik McDowell or the Spartans will be in trouble.
Advantage: Notre Dame
Michael Geiger missed wide left from 43 yards against Furman but he’s been in pressure situations on the road before (see: Ohio State 2015) and come through. Punter Jake Hartbarger had a 43.0-yard net average against Furman, which follows what he did last season when he averaged 42.7 yards a punt. He’s been good at putting balls inside the 20- and 10-yard lines. Every yard will count against the Notre Dame offense.
The kicking game will have to be especially good with Notre Dame’s C.J. Sanders being one of nine players, and the lone freshman, last season to return both a punt and kickoff for a touchdown. He is averaging 25.0 yards on three punt returns and 22.4 yards on five kickoff returns this season.
Notre Dame’s kicking tandem of Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome is as formidable as Geiger and Hartbarger. Can Michigan State match Sanders in the return game? Can it come up with a big play – as Texas did with a blocked field goal – to turn things in its favor?
Advantage: Notre Dame
Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly have different styles but end up with similar results: They win a lot of games. No matter the setting, rare is it that either of their teams isn’t ready to play. Kelly has beaten Dantonio the last three games. Don’t think that Dantonio isn’t well aware of that fact.
The atmosphere inside Notre Dame Stadium will be intense. Dantonio will have to find a way to keep his players as even-keeled as possible, especially at the outset. He already has the perfect demeanor for that task.
Advantage: Michigan State
Notre Dame is playing at home. At night. Michigan State has had an extra week of practice to prepare specifically for the Irish while also giving some players time to heal up. Notre Dame can’t afford a second loss if it would like to continue having hopes of playing in the College Football Playoff. Michigan State has a chance to make a national statement in prime time, especially with No. 9 Wisconsin coming to Spartan Stadium next Saturday.
Kevin Goheen’s prediction: Notre Dame 27, Michigan State 21
Luke Srodulski’s prediction: Notre Dame 24, Michigan State 19