After three weeks of the college football season, we still don’t know a whole lot about Notre Dame or Michigan State. The Irish are 2-1, which puts them on a better path than last year, but their wins have come against two teams — Temple and Boston College — that don’t look particularly strong. Many find hope in the one-point loss to Georgia, saying that last year's team would have been crushed by Georgia. But are the Bulldogs any better than the 2016 versions of Virginia Tech or Stanford, two teams that ND took to the wire last year?
Michigan State, which is coming off its own 2016 disappointment along with a tumultuous offseason, has played just two games, both against MAC competition. The win over Western Michigan was nice, but Bowling Green is one of the worst FBS teams in the nation so far this season.
We will find out more when the two teams collide in East Lansing this Saturday to battle for the Megaphone Trophy.
Notre Dame at Michigan State
When: Saturday, Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Notre Dame -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Both teams’ rush defense
Notre Dame comes into the game fifth in the nation in rushing offense averaging 331 yards per game, a staggering number considering that head coach Brian Kelly is known for his passing offense. Michigan State is No. 16 in the same category at 256 yards per game. Both teams have mobile quarterbacks who can help the backs by absorbing some of the carries. The defense that can best handle the opposition’s rushing attack will have a significant advantage. To this point in the year, Michigan State has done a better job stopping the run. However, the season is so young, and the Irish have faced three teams that need to rely on the running game to compete, making the defensive rushing stats virtually meaningless at this point.
2. Both teams’ inexperienced quarterbacks
Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush has been dynamic when running with the ball, rushing for 314 yards and six touchdowns through three games. Throwing the ball has been a problem, however. The junior has completed just 51 percent of his passes with a 2:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke has been more efficient than Wimbush, but he has not had to face a defense on the level of Georgia's. Lewerke was much better against Bowling Green than he was against Western Michigan, which is not surprising considering the putrid nature of the Falcons defense. This will be Lewerke’s first time starting in a national, prime-time game. On the other side, this environment will be significantly different than the one Wimbush saw in his first road game last week at Boston College.
3. Blocking Michigan State’s front seven
Notre Dame’s offensive line was spectacular against Temple, then had a lot of problems against Georgia. At Boston College, the line didn’t play particularly well in the first half, then pummeled the Eagles in the second half. Which Notre Dame offensive line will show up? It will have to be the good line if ND has any hopes of moving the football, because Michigan State has formidable defensive front. Defensive ends Kenny Willekes and Jacob Panasiuk have made some plays this year, but it is the linebacking corps that leads the way. Joe Bachie, Chris Frey and Andrew Dowell have combined for 44 tackles in the first two games. Getting to the second level in the run game and accounting for the backers coming at Wimbush will be vital for Notre Dame on Saturday night.
With all the hot-seat speculation now surrounding Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Nebraska’s Mike Riley, talk about Brian Kelly’s job situation has died down a bit. But should the Irish lose to the Spartans on Saturday night and fall to 2-2, the noise will be cranked up to 11. Mark D’Antonio is not exactly in the same precarious situation as his Notre Dame counterpart, but the Spartans started the 2016 season 2-0 before the wheels fell off. With the Big Ten opener for Michigan State coming next Saturday with a game against Iowa — and a trip to Ann Arbor the following Saturday — D’Antonio does not want doubt creeping in. Both defenses have played well through the early part of the year, but one aspect that has stood out so far this year is the Notre Dame running game. It will be tougher sledding this week against the Spartans, but Josh Adams and Dexter Williams will still run effectively. As a result, there will be opportunities in the passing game, and on Saturday night Wimbush will connect on a couple of big throws. That will be enough for the Irish, as they go into Spartan Stadium and come away with a win.
Prediction: Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 20
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.