At the beginning of each college football season, we are reminded that teams will make their biggest improvements from week 1 to week 2. While that may be the standard cliche across the sport, I find it far too general and therefore wrong.
So here we are in week 3, and the 20th ranked Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (2-0) head up to East Lansing to take on the 10th ranked team in the country, the Michigan State Spartans (2-0). Both teams are looking to make a huge splash this season, and that makes this game one of the biggest games of the season for each school.
Offensively the Irish are lacking a real identity, but the same can be said for a lot of good teams with first year starters at quarterback. The Irish would love to run the ball all day long, but Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin are smarter than that and live by the philosophy of "taking what the defense gives you."
So, if the Irish can run they will feed it to Theo Riddick, George Atkinson and newly reinstated Cierre Wood -- who is the best f the three at running back. Notre Dame will then be able to use play-action and rollouts to get the ball to All-American tight end Tyler Eifert as well as their lesser known, but talented wideouts TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels. If they have problems running the ball, they will try to spread it out more and use screens, quick pitches, hitches and shovel passes as an extension of the run game to get the yards needed.
The offense has the capability of putting up a lot of points, but no matter how they try to do it, it all comes down to their offensive line, which is coming off of a sloppy game against stout Purdue defense. Michigan State is even better defensively than Purdue, so Notre Dame's offensive line must step up and play at a high level to let the playmakers move the ball.
On defense, the Irish are very strong in their front seven and have legitimate studs in Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, and of course, Manti Te'o. Notre Dame has also found some very good pass rushers in Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams coming off of the edge. There is, however, a weakness up front and that is at the drop linebacker position. Notre Dame has used several different players there this year, and it appears that they will finally start redshirt freshman Ben Councell this week.
The biggest weakness for the Irish would be in the secondary -- but it's not nearly as bad as we thought. After losing both starting cornerbacks from last year, and having the nickelback/third safety go down with an injury in the spring, this could have spelled disaster. They held their own last week against Purdue which is a better passing team than MSU.
What's going to happen?
In my opinion, it seems as if everyone has forgot about Notre Dame's 31-13 victory over Sparty last year while holding MSU to 29 rushing yards. Seriously, how much better are they without Kirk Cousins and all of their wide receivers? I'm not convinced of this top 10 persona given out by the media. Sparty beat Boise State -- which is still a mid-major team that had six returning starters and not one of them was Kellen Moore. Sparty also got themselves a big road win. That road win was against Central Michigan which was more of a homefield advantage for MSU than the Irish had in Ireland.
Still, despite my disgust for the lack of respect for ND in this game, I still feel it's going to be a close game and a brutally physical game. Notre Dame proved it could gut one out last week against Purdue when they had six starters go out of the game with an injury (all six return this week).
Perhaps this comes down to what defense creates the most pressure on the opposing quarterback -- whether that be Everett Golson or Andrew Maxwell. Or maybe it's that big special teams play like Atkinsons kick return for a TD last year, or Sparty's fake FG the year before.
It all adds up to a close, physical, and often frustrating game while both teams try to pressure a young quarterback on defense and will look to exploit the other teams secondary on offense.
Irish win with guts wide open, 21-17.