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Head-to-Head: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

Observer Sports Writers | Thursday, September 13, 2012

SPARTANS PASSING
Gone are the Kirk Cousins days for the Spartans. Now, Michigan State will turn to junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell to lead the offense through the air. And already, Maxwell has done something Cousins didn’t do: win his first two starts. Maxwell made his starting debut against Boise State in the season opener two weeks ago with mixed results. He completed 22 of 38 passes for 248 yards but threw three interceptions. Maxwell responded last week when Central Michigan stacked the box to stop junior running back Le’Veon Bell by throwing two touchdowns in the 41-7 Spartan victory.

Also departed for the Spartans is B.J. Cunningham, who torched the Irish last season for 12 catches and 158 yards through the air. Michigan State has replaced Cunningham with junior receiver Bennie Fowler and junior tight end Dion Sims. Fowler has recorded 135 yards receiving this year, while Sims has hauled in 113 yards through the air.

For the Irish, their maligned secondary made a huge leap from the first week to the second. Against Navy, the secondary was burned for 197 yards passing against a triple option team. Against Purdue and its two veteran quarterbacks, however, the Notre Dame defense surrendered just 198 yards. Junior cornerback Bennett Jackson picked off two passes while freshman KeiVarae Russell added 0.5 sacks for the Irish.

Don’t look for the Spartans to pass much, though. Instead, expect them to run the ball every opportunity they can.

EDGE: EVEN

SPARTANS RUSHING
If you haven’t heard, Michigan State likes to run the ball – and it has a workhorse to do it. Junior running back Le’Veon Bell, who ranks sixth in the country with 140 rushing yards per game, will carry the load for the Spartans. In the season opener against Boise State, Bell ran wild for 210 yards and two touchdowns on 44 carries. In that game, Bell outgained the entire Broncos by himself.  Last season against Notre Dame, however, Bell was held to just 27 yards on seven carries. This time around, look for the early Heisman Trophy candidate to get more than seven carries.

Bell and the Spartans will face a tough Notre Dame run defense, though. During the  past 20 games, the Irish have allowed just nine touchdowns – and only three have been to opposing running backs. Led by sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt and junior nose guard Louis Nix, the big and deep Irish defensive line has been a strength for Notre Dame. Last week, even without senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, the Irish surrendered only 90 rushing yards to Purdue. The Boilermakers averaged three yards per carry.

Michigan State will try to control the clock – and the game – by feeding Bell the ball over and over again. Notre Dame’s run defense is good but it may not be good enough to stop Bell.

EDGE: MICHIGAN STATE

SPARTANS OFFENSIVE COACHING
Last year, the Irish forced the Spartans to throw the ball 53 times in holding them to just 13 points. Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is one of the best in the game in getting his team ready for the opposing offense.

EDGE: NOTRE DAME

SPARTANS SPECIAL TEAMS
Spartans fifth-year senior kicker Dan Conroy has been hit or miss for Michigan State so far this season, connecting on a 50-yard field goal but only converting three of five attempts. Sophomore running back Nick Hill averages more than 15 yards per punt return.

EDGE: MICHIGAN STATE

IRISH PASSING
Just when Irish fans thought the quarterback controversy was behind them, Irish coach Brian Kelly called upon junior Tommy Rees to lead Notre Dame’s final drive against Purdue. Rees, a 12-game starter from last season, replaced sophomore starter Everett Golson in a move that surprised most of Notre Dame Stadium. Rees got the Irish in field goal position and sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza did the rest. But what does that quarterback flip mean for the Michigan State game?

Kelly said immediately after the game Golson remains his starter and has reiterated this week he wants the starter to finish the game as well. Golson will face a talented Spartan secondary that includes senior cornerback Johnny Adams and junior safety Isaiah Lewis. Adams has nine career interceptions and is considered one of the top draft-eligble cornerbacks in the nation, while Lewis, a preseason all-Big Ten selection, had an interception last week against Central Michigan.

Golson and the Irish will continue to lean on senior tight end Tyler Eifert for big catches over undersized defenders. Despite being sidelined for much of the second half, Eifert still led Notre Dame with four receptions for 98 yards. Eifert will again cause matchup problems for the Spartans no matter where he is lined up – on the line, out wide or in the slot.

EDGE: EVEN

IRISH RUSHING
What looked like Notre Dame’s strength against Navy turned into a mystery during the win over Purdue. The Irish, behind senior Theo Riddick and sophomore George Atkinson, compiled nearly 300 yards on the ground in the season opener, but could muster just more than 50 yards against a stout Purdue front.

Notre Dame will face another tough Big Ten defensive line this week when they try to contain junior defensive end William Gholston. Gholston, a likely first-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft, racked up 16 tackles for loss for the Spartans in 2011. Last week, the Irish had trouble with Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short and weren’t able to run the ball consistently.

This week, Notre Dame will welcome back senior running back Cierre Wood to the lineup after his two-game suspension for violating team rules. Last season, Wood rushed for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns while splitting time with former running back Jonas Gray. Wood will assume the role of backup to Riddick after being penciled in as the starter before his suspension.

Despite Wood’s return, the Irish will struggle to run the ball against a talented defense that ranks second in the nation against the run. Plus, Purdue gave Michigan State the blueprint for shutting down Notre Dame.

EDGE: MICHIGAN STATE

IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio is a defensive genius who has molded Michigan State’s defense into one that has not allowed an offensive touchdown yet this season. Irish coach Brian Kelly, meanwhile, struggled to adjust to the stacked fronts Purdue showed the Irish offense last week.

EDGE: MICHIGAN STATE

IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
Michigan State knows just how explosive sophomore George Atkinson is on kick returns after he took one to the house last year against the Spartans. The touchdown helped turn the game around for Notre Dame and spurred the Irish to an 18-point win. Sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza stepped up last week in nailing the game-winning kick, and freshman receiver Davonte’ Neal has been solid on punt returns.

EDGE: NOTRE DAME