As the calendar turns to mid-September, the daunting Notre Dame schedule kicks into high gear with back-to-back games against Michigan State and Michigan. First up are the Spartans on Saturday night in East Lansing. Michigan State comes into the game ranked No. 10 in the country, having defeated Boise State and Central Michigan in its first two games.
The Spartans possess the best defense in the Big Ten, and one of the best in the nation, led by defensive end William Gholston and cornerback Johnny Adams. Their offensive line is experienced, and Le'Veon Bell is a sneaky-elite running back. The passing game has question marks with quarterback Andrew Maxwell taking over for three-year starter Kirk Cousins and an entirely new receiving corps.
As Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish put the finishing touches on their game plan for Saturday night's spotlight game, let's look at five keys for Notre Dame to get to 3-0 for the first time in 10 years.
Notre Dame's defense controlled the line of scrimmage in last year's meeting in South Bend, holding the Spartans to just 29 yards on the ground on 23 carries. The Irish have again been stellar against the run so far this season. Don't go by their No. 50 national ranking in run defense, as facing Navy's triple-option attack skews the rankings this early in the season.
The Spartans will want to rely on Le'Veon Bell more in this year's meeting than last year's due to the inexperience at quarterback and at wide receiver. The Irish should be at full strength in the front seven after losing Kapron Lewis-Moore and Sheldon Day during last week's win over Purdue.
Stopping the run may seem overly simple, but the proof is in the pudding. The Spartans won 11 games and beat Wisconsin and Georgia last year, but without production on the ground they were non-competitive for most of the day last September against an Irish team that would finish just 8-5.
Notre Dame was a bit too gratuitous in the first half last week on third and fourth downs. That ship was quickly righted after halftime, and the Irish have now allowed just one third-down conversion in the second halves of games this season.
These two offenses don't have the firepower at the moment to turn in another shootout like we witnessed the last time the teams met in East Lansing, a 34-31 overtime win for the Spartans. Therefore, extending a drive and playing for field position should be critical. Michigan State likely won't put eight players in the box like Purdue did to stop the run, but they won't have to with the quality of their linebackers.
Michigan State is over 50 percent in converting third downs through its first two games, so it'll be strength on strength when the Spartans are in the money down. Offensively, Notre Dame's 11-for-19 performance on third downs against Purdue should be mainly credited to Everett Golson, who kept a number of drives alive by escaping pressure and completing throws on the run.
Two years ago, it was Michigan State's "Little Giants" fake field-goal call that stunned Notre Dame in overtime. Last year, it was true freshman George Atkinson III's kickoff return that gave the Irish an early 14-3 lead as they rolled to victory. Will another special teams play be the impact moment of this year's meeting?
The Irish special teams have left something to be desired through two games this season. Punter Ben Turk hasn't had great distance on his punts, although he has done a good job of placement to avoid returns. Kyle Brindza badly missed a 40-yard field goal last week prior to converting the game-winner. Kickoff coverage has been shoddy, and the return game has done little.
Big plays on offense will be few and far between, so a long return or blocked kick could go a long way to deciding the winner on Saturday night. It has the last two years, so why not again?
While William Gholston is one of the most dominant defensive ends in college football, he also is one of the most temperamental. He missed last year's memorable game with Wisconsin while serving a one-game suspension for a pair of personal foul penalties the week before against Michigan.
Notre Dame won't be able to shut down Gholston, but it can do other things to help throw the potential All-American off of his game. Hold him, grab him, take some penalties—whatever it takes to not allow him direct access to Everett Golson. (Odds Brent Musburger confuses Gholston and Golson on Saturday's broadcast? Pretty good.)
A couple early penalties are fine if the Irish can get in Gholston's head. The Irish quarterback can help in that department as well by escaping pressure and denying Gholston of a big hit or sack. His emotion has helped him become the player he is, but it can also be used against him.
It took a head injury to stop him a week ago, but the Spartans can't count on another physical ailment sidelining Tyler Eifert this week. The Irish tight end caught four passes for 98 yards last week before missing over a quarter of game action, but he was cleared to return to full contact on Sunday.
Whomever the Spartans line up against the 6'6" Eifert, they're guaranteed to be at least seven inches shorter than the Mackey Award favorite. Everett Golson has appeared tentative at times to throw the ball in Eifert's direction in one-on-one coverage, but he must recognize that that's a high-percentage throw with Eifert's size and hands.
Weapons in the passing game are limited on both sides, but Eifert gives Notre Dame a key advantage. When Michigan State needs a play, the Spartans may not know to who to turn to. For the Irish, there isn't any question.