Notre Dame Football: Defensive Players Who Will Be Key at Michigan State

Eric Steitz@esteitz16Analyst IIISeptember 14, 2012

Manti Te'o and the Notre Dame defense need to play at a high level Saturday against MSU.
Manti Te'o and the Notre Dame defense need to play at a high level Saturday against MSU.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

No. 20 Notre Dame meets one of its toughest foes on the schedule this week as the Irish travel to No. 10 Michigan State. The 76th meeting between these two longtime rivals will be won on defense and Notre Dame will need big performances from these three defensive players if they want to knock off the Spartans.

The Irish have a considerable advantage in the series, holding a 46-28-1 advantage over Michigan State. Michigan State has dominated the rivalry recently, winning 15 of the last 20.

And, Michigan State hasn’t cared about that tradition at home in recent years, winning the last two contests. The Spartans will hope to defend their home turf, and a spot in the top-10, with a win.

The Irish should have no problem believing that they can overcome the Spartans. Notre Dame knocked off then 15th-ranked MSU 31-13 last season.

The Irish will need to play a contest similar to Week 1 against Navy rather than Week 2’s escape against Purdue. MSU is by far the best team the Irish have played this season and will need to play disciplined, smart, efficient football to knock of Sparty.

Michigan State averages 478 yards per game, ranking them 32nd in the country in total offense. Notre Dame counters with the 37th-rated defense in the country, giving up 314.5 yards per game.

Michigan State is favored by six points, indicating that the game could come down to the final drive. If that is the case, defense will be even more crucial. These three Irish defenders will be key against MSU.

Manti Te’o

It shouldn’t be any surprise to see the team’s best linebacker and tackler here. The senior was mentioned on the preseason Butkus Award watch list, the FBS award for top linebacker. He hasn’t disappointed this season.

Te’o averages nine total tackles per game and is currently tied for 76th in the FBS in total tackles with 18. He will have his hands full with MSU’s rushing attack paced by RB Le’Veon Bell.

The outstanding linebacker will have a lot of pressure on his shoulders stopping the Michigan State offense. That will only be compacted by the tough times that he has faced this week. Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune reported that Te’o lost his grandmother and a close female friend earlier in the week.

Thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by these losses. Hamilton mentioned that there is a chance Te’o will return to Hawai’i at some point this season, just not this weekend.

Despite all of the off-field tragedies that will be weighing on Te’o’s mind, he will line up against the Spartans. His strength and commitment are admirable. Notre Dame will need everything he has to be successful Saturday.

Zeke Motta

As a safety, Motta plays a crucial role in pass defense. But with a rushing attack like MSU’s, he will need to be able to fill the alleys effectively.

In a traditional 4-3 defense, the free safety should be the team’s leading tackler. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco switched the ND defense to a no-crease 3-4, which allows for safeties to be more effective against the pass.

With that in mind, MSU’s safeties need to have a run-first mentality this weekend. Force the Spartan junior QB Andrew Maxwell to beat you through the air.

Motta’s 14 total tackles are second on the team. He leads the team with eight solo tackles and also has a tackle for loss.

Motta had nine tackles last week against Purdue. A double-digit effort from the senior safety would go a long way in holding down the Spartan offense. The flip-side to that is that could mean MSU is on offense a lot longer than the Irish want.

Stephon Tuitt

Sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt has started the season off strong. With four total sacks in his first two games, Tuitt commands attention from offensive lines. His effectiveness will be crucial for the Irish.

If he gets going early, Tuitt should draw some double-teams when MSU does drop back to pass. At defensive end in the 3-4, he is also a crucial part in gap control against the run.

Tuitt’s eight total tackles place him fifth on team. He has had four tackles in each game. The MSU offensive line will need to handle the 6’6”, 303 lb. sophomore.

The Spartans should try to set the tone early with the ground game. Tuitt will need to take advantage when they do drop back to pass. Maxwell has shown that he can lose a bit of confidence if things don’t go his way. A couple meetings with Tuitt early could go a long way in what should be a close contest.