The Notre Dame Fighting Irish hit the road for East Lansing this weekend, where they will meet 10th-ranked Michigan State on Saturday night.
In recent years, the Irish football program has taken a serious hit, but they can capitalize on the opportunity of being in the Top 25 once again with an upset over the Spartans. It will be the most daunting challenge of the young season for Brian Kelly's team, in what is their first true away contest.
Here are the keys to the game for Notre Dame to emerge victorious.
Build Everett Golson's confidence
The dual-threat quarterback has put on a solid display in his first two outings, but the sophomore hasn't faced an environment nearly this hostile in his young career.
A lot of short completions early would go a long way in helping Golson settle down. Giving him one-read pass plays with the option of tucking and running wouldn't be a bad strategy, either. Kelly knows how to utilize a mobile quarterback in a spread system, and lucked out by landing Golson.
This should be a tight game, though, and Golson was not on the field for the game-winning drive against Purdue due to a hand injury.
The last thing the Irish should do is take Golson out if he struggles early against Sparty's stingy defense. The way to avoid that scenario is to get the sophomore signal-caller into a rhythm early in the short passing game.
Golson has all the talent in the world, but he must make quick decisions and play wise beyond his years against a Top-10 team.
Clog the box against Le'Veon Bell
A lot of pressure is on Andrew Maxwell to play well immediately in place of departed, record-setting quarterback Kirk Cousins. One way to maximize the onus on Maxwell is to put eight men in the box to combat the powerful running of Spartans bruiser Le'Veon Bell.
Against Boise State, Bell pounded the rock for 44 carries and earned all 210 of his yards against the Broncos defense.
Manti Te'o and the Irish front seven must step up to the plate and meet Bell in the hole. Gang tackling and sound, fundamental football is a must, because Bell can break a big run at any time.
Maxwell is coming off a more encouraging outing at unranked Central Michigan, but Notre Dame needs to force multiple turnovers at his expense to have a chance of winning in East Lansing.
Cierre Wood Shines in Return
After a two-game suspension for violating team rules, Wood returns to the backfield with fellow senior Theo Riddick and explosive sophomore George Atkinson III.
Kelly is eager for Wood to return. He told Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times: "He definitely gives us more weapons in the offense that we can utilize...[and] gives us great depth."
The depth in the backfield is definitely something the Irish can use to their advantage against the Spartans, but that means the trio must keep the chains moving. Keeping Michigan State's defense on the field is the most crucial factor to winning this game, because the bell-ringing counterpart in MSU's offense is likely to get his.
Unfortunately, the biggest problem will be that the Spartans will have a similar game plan to the Irish on defense. That is, they will dare the inexperienced quarterback on the other side to beat them through the air.
Notre Dame struggled to run the ball against Purdue, and that trend cannot continue unless this team want to continually fall short of its annual Top-25 expectations.
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