While the Big Ten has been disappointing as a whole this year, you cannot blame Michigan State for that.
The Spartans survived an always tricky visit from Boise State, then went on the road to rout Central Michigan, 41-7, last week. For the most part, the defense has lived up to its hype through two games, and the offense took some lovely steps forward in their trip to Mount Pleasant (admittedly against a poor CMU defense).
They are as deserving of the No. 10 ranking as anybody, but they could get a strong test from a Notre Dame squad that has looked both exciting and rather inconsistent through its own two games. The Irish handled Navy with ease, 40-10, in their Week 1 trip to Ireland, then looked a little jet-lagged at home against Purdue. Former starting quarterback Tommy Rees saved Notre Dame against the Boilermakers, coming off of the bench to drive the Irish 45 yards for a last-second, game-winning field goal by Kyle Brindza. Purdue is quite possibly saltier than we thought heading into the season, but Notre Dame's 20-17 win was certainly close than expected.
Now the Irish head to face an even better Big Ten opponent in hostile territory.
When Notre Dame Has The Ball.
Standard Downs. One cannot accuse Notre Dame of changing its offense around to adjust for a new starting quarterback. With redshirt freshman Everett Golson behind center, the Irish have been perfectly average in terms of run-pass ratios. Often with a young quarterback a team will run more, especially on passing downs, to protect him from having to make too many high-leverage throws; that has not been the case for Notre Dame through two games.
On standard downs, Golson has been making mostly safe throws. He has completed five of seven passes to WR-in-a-TE's-body Tyler Eifert, and dumped the ball to running back Theo Riddick seven times (four catches, 44 yards). He has occasionally found wideout DaVaris Daniels downfield (3-for-5, 63 yards), but for the most part this is a rather safe passing game. It will be interesting to see how much success the Irish see in this regard against an incredibly aggressive Michigan State secondary. Through two games, State opponents have thrown 38 incompletions -- nearly half of those (17) were incomplete because they were either intercepted or broken up by a State defender; they rank fourth in passes defended thus far. Starting corners Darqueze Dennard and Johnny Adams have combined to pick off one pass and break up five more. If State guards Notre Dame's receivers tight and figures out how to handle Eifert (easier said than done), that will create pressure in two ways: a) It will mean that they could get burned deep by somebody like Daniels at some point, and b) it will force Golson to make throws he hasn't made much in two games this year.
Run or pass, State has been spectacular defending standard downs this year. They swallow you up and force passing downs galore; passing downs are poison when you're starting a redshirt freshman quarterback on the road, so it will be interesting to see how Notre Dame attacks these early downs. Will they throw more, or will they perhaps lean on Riddick and the running game?
Through two games, Riddick has been pretty average on the ground: 34 total carries for 160 yards, 15 for 53 versus Purdue in Week 2. (Backup George Atkinson III looked wonderfully explosive against Navy, but the fact that he carried the ball only once last week in a close win over Purdue gives you a good idea of the current pecking order.) Notre Dame's line has gotten a pretty good push so far in 2012, but Riddick hasn't necessarily taken advantage of all of his opportunities; he better do so in East Lansing because he might not get many good holes.
Passing Downs. For all of their success on standard downs, Michigan State has been a bit glitchy once they have forced opponents into second- and third-and-long. They have zero sacks in 35 passing downs pass attempts; considering they have towering preseason All-American end William Gholston (6'7, 278) on their team, that is a bit mystifying. If Golson can stay upright, he will probably continue to distribute the ball evenly and unpredictably on these downs; on passing downs, Eifert has been targeted five times, little receiver Robby Toma four times, Daniels three times and five different players twice each. Passes to Toma and Daniels on passing downs have gone 7-for-7 for 89 yards. Daniels, a redshirt freshman, has done a lovely job of getting open and creating big plays so far -- he could be a key to this game considering his big-play potential and State's ability to prevent you from generating long, conservative drives.
When Michigan State Has The Ball
Standard Downs. Michigan State hasn't really disguised its intentions so far on offense. While new starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell gets his bearings with a rather top-heavy receiving corps, State is just going to keep right on running Le'Veon Bell as far as he will take them. Bell has carried the ball 62 times in two games, and he has been targeted with eight passes as well. After carrying a ridiculous, unsustainable load against Boise State, Bell "only" carried 18 times with one reception versus CMU, but he was out of the game early in the second half. As long as the game is close, State's first three options on standard downs are going to be Bell off tackle right, Bell off tackle left and Bell up the middle.
That suits Notre Dame just fine. First of all, Bell hasn't been incredibly explosive in these carries -- he is averaging 4.7 yards per carry. His best skill is simply his durability, his ability to wear opponents out by consistently gaining positive yardage. But the Irish front seven is rock solid and could keep Bell to closer to three yards per carry than five.
The Irish have been a bit vulnerable to early-downs passing, but we'll see how much State attempts to take advantage of that. The Spartans have run the ball two-thirds of the time on standard downs thus far, but if they open things up and pass a bit more, the balls will go mostly to the threesome of tight end Dion Sims (10 targets, seven catches, 74 yards on standard downs), F-recevier Bennie Fowler (nine targets, five catches, 92 yards) and Z-receiver Keith Mumphery (seven targets, four catches, 54 yards). Fowler is the scary one; if Notre Dame gets caught watching the line of scrimmage a little too closely, Fowler could get open deep.
This is a strength-versus-strength, weakness-versus-weakness matchup. Notre Dame's secondary is a bit inexperienced, especially at the cornerback position (starter KeiVarae Russell is a true freshman), but State has not shown the desire to pass much early on downs. Does offensive coordinator Dan Rousher choose to draw State from its own strengths to punish the Irish's apparent weaknesses, or does he trust State's grind-it-out running game to keep grinding out yards?
Passing Downs. Despite conservative tendencies on the early downs, Michigan State has had no problem calling on Maxwell to pass on passing downs. The result has been a disproportionally high number of passing downs passes, something that tends to tamp down your passer rating and completion rate. That said, Maxwell has survived. State ranks 50th on passing downs thus far, with Maxwell finding Fowler on five of seven passes for 43 yards, Sims on three of six for 39, and X-receiver Tony Lippett on four of five for an impressive 72 yards.
Notre Dame was perfectly decent against Navy on passing downs, but that kind of goes without saying; everybody is decent against Navy on passing downs. But on Purdue's scoring drives last week, the Boilermakers were able to complete some pretty big passes: an 11-yarder on fourth-and-4 on the first scoring drive, a 27-yarder on second-and-10 on the second drive, and, on the final drive, a 12-yarder on second-and-22, followed by a 15-yard touchdown on fourth-and-10. Notre Dame's pass rush has been much better than State's thus far (12 percent on passing downs, 10 percent on standard downs), and they are getting a strong push from their three down linemen -- end Stephon Tuitt has been a revelation with four sacks and a long fumble return for touchdown in two games, while nose guard Louis Nix III has scored another 1.5 sacks. In theory that suggests that the Irish can get pressure without blitzing and drop more defenders into coverage. But it appears that if the quarterback isn't under duress, he's probably going still to find an open receiver against the Irish secondary.
Like Daniels and, probably, Eifert for Notre Dame, State's Fowler and Lippett could be the keys to the game. Bell is unlikely to gash the Irish defense consistently, so the Spartans will need at least a couple of big plays from the passing gmae, and Fowler and Lippett are the most likely players to deliver said big plays.
Spread: Michigan State -6.
F/+ Projection: Michigan State by 0.7.
This game really will come down to big plays. Both offenses are rather conservative on standard downs -- Michigan State leaning on Bell, Notre Dame leaning on Riddick and short, quick passing -- and both will likely face quite a few second-and-9's and third-and-7's. Whoever gets more big plays from wideouts will probably be 3-0 at the end of the night.
State is the favorite for a reason -- they have been better in recent history, and their toughest test thus far (Boise State) was probably tougher than Notre Dame's (Purdue). But on paper, this is a rather even matchup. One has to assume home field advantage counts double against a redshirt freshman in Golson (though for all we know Brian Kelly might play Tommy Rees for a majority of the game), but the Irish defense can match strength versus strength and keep this game ultra-tight into the fourth quarter.
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