It has been an impressive two weeks for Notre Dame, as the Irish have begun the season with two straight victories. And while the start to the season may be much better than last year's, the first true test for this team will come this weekend against the Michigan State Spartans.
The Spartans are a Top-10 team in both polls, have one of the better defensive units in the country and a running back named Le'Veon Bell, who seems to be making an early Heisman push. Notre Dame was able to contain the running back in last year’s victory, but it will likely be the key if the Irish are to pull off another upset over Michigan State.
This is a game that could really set the tone for the rest of the season, so here are the five most important players that will be responsible for slowing down the Michigan State workhorse.
Louis Nix is the biggest defensive lineman on this Notre Dame roster at 6'3", 326 pounds. That will certainly come in handy, as Michigan State has an above average-offensive line that has yet to allow a sack this season. The average size of the Spartans starting offensive line is 6'3", 297 pounds.
Nix is a big boy in the middle of the line, but he is surprisingly quick for a man his size. He shows his athleticism time and time again and does a fabulous job of exploding off the football.
With nobody on the Spartans offensive line as big as Nix, it will be key for the big man to dominate the blocker in front of him, allowing some of the rest of the players to make a play on the ball-carrier.
It also helps that Nix is off to the best start of his career, picking up seven tackles, three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in the first two games.
We knew that the secondary was going to be an issue for this Notre Dame team, as the Irish is short on depth and experience in the defensive backfield. Jamoris Slaughter provides the most experience of anyone else on this unit and seems to be the glue from keeping the pass coverage from falling apart.
Although Slaughter is listed as a starting safety, he played more of a hybrid role last season, playing a combination of defensive back and outside linebacker. Although Notre Dame needs all the help they can find in pass coverage, Slaughter is expected to be used in a similar role this season, making plays all over the field for this defense.
The senior has a reputation of being one of the hardest hitters on this team; Notre Dame will certainly need him to play a factor in stopping the run this weekend.
Stephon Tuitt has been on fire early in the year, quickly devolving into a playmaker and has seemed to make it a little easier to forget about Aaron Lynch. In just two games, he has seven tackles, two quarterback hurries, three sacks and has returned a fumble back 77 yards for a touchdown.
Tuitt is a speedster defensive end, coming off the edge at 6'6", 303 pounds. He is a long athlete, gets off the ball quickly and uses his tremendous speed to his advantage.
Much like Nix, Tuitt and this defensive line will play a factor in stopping Le'Veon Bell. He will either blow by his man and make plays in the backfield, or he will demand double-teams, making it easier for everybody else to bottle up the Michigan State star.
How is a starting quarterback going to help stop Michigan State's running back? Easy, continue to manage the game well, eat the clock up and keep him on the sidelines. He can't hurt you if he is not in the game.
Michigan State is fifth in the country in time of possession, averaging over 37 minutes a game with the football. Bell averages over seven touches a quarter, and is averaging nearly 4.5 yards a carry in the fourth quarter, simply wearing down defenses over time.
In the fourth quarter of the Boise State game, Le'veon Bell was used a total of 14 times, which eventually took its toll on the Broncos defense, allowing him to run out the game and score the game-winning touchdown.
Good news is that Notre Dame is averaging just under 34 minutes of time of possession, which is good for 15th in the country. Although Golson can't physically help bring Bell to the ground, he can make things easier for his defense by giving them rests and controlling the game clock by moving the chains.
Was there any doubt that Manti Te'o wouldn't be on this list? After all, he is considered one of the best linebackers in all of college football, and would have likely been a first-round pick, had he left early for last year’s NFL draft.
This will be the ultimate matchup to watch, as these two will likely be smashing shoulder pads together all night. With the great pressure up front, Te'o has been able to make plays all season, as he leads the team in tackles with 16, and has a fumble recovery and interception already.
Le'Veon Bell is a big back at 6'2", 244 pounds, so he is more than capable of running you over, but he also sees the field well, and has underrated quickness. In last year’s meeting, Bell only touched the ball seven times, which will at least be doubled in this contest.
It will be up to Te'o to shadow Bell wherever he goes (Which includes the passing game, as he has 53 receptions in his career), and do a solid job of wrapping up the junior running back, keeping him in check.
NFL scouts everywhere will be watching this matchup.