Notre Dame vs. Michigan State: Breaking Down Key Players in Vital Rivalry Game

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistSeptember 14, 2012

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 08:  Everett Golson #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish  looks for a receiver against the Purdue Boilermakers at Notre Dame Stadium on September 8, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Purdue 21-17.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

As the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (No. 20 in AP poll) and Michigan State Spartans (No. 10 in AP poll) prepare for prime-time rekindling of their storied rivalry in East Lansing on Saturday, this game is absolutely critical to both sides.

Both teams come into the contest 2-0 and hope to add credence to the BCS bowl berth hype flying around.

With strong-willed coaches and a bevy of talent, this game could be the catalyst for a magical season for both the Spartans and Irish. 

Nevertheless, this is a matchup that poses huge problems for both sides, meaning that some key players will need to step up for their team. 

Here is a look at those vital stars and what they need to do for a victory in Saturday's game. 


Notre Dame

QB Everett Golson

The redshirt freshman signal-caller was benched late in last week's victory over Purdue and will come into Saturday's contest hoping to make that a one-time occurrence. 

Unfortunately for Golson, he'll be facing his biggest test of his young career on Saturday night.

The Spartans have given up just 20 points in two games this season (tied for 12th in the NCAA) and have the seventh-best defense in terms of total yards, giving up just 225.5 yards per game.

Key to that defensive dominance has been Michigan State's ability to lock down opposing quarterbacks. Neither Boise State's Joe Southwick nor Central Michigan's Ryan Radcliff tossed a touchdown against the Spartans while combining for three interceptions.

For Notre Dame to have any shot at coming out on top, Golson will have to keep his poise and buck that trend on the road.


LB Manti Te'o

Despite losing both his grandmother and his girlfriend earlier this week, the superstar Irish linebacker will suit up for the team on Saturday—albeit with an undoubtedly heavy heart. 

A Bednarik Award candidate, he is the unquestioned leader of the Notre Dame defense. The 21-year-old senior has 16 tackles thus far and had a brilliant interception in Week 1 against Navy.

Te'o will be given the overarching task of spearheading the Irish defensive efforts at stopping Spartans star running back, Le'Veon Bell.

We have seen countless instances throughout history of a player's personal losses providing a spark on the field. It is unfair to expect Te'o's play to rise in the face of adversity, but his presence alone should inspire teammates to give their best effort. 


Michigan State

QB Andrew Maxwell

Though the junior quarterback looked fantastic last week, completing 20-of-31 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns, it came against a weak Central Michigan secondary. 

In his only test as a starter, Maxwell was abysmal, tossing three critical interceptions and nearly cost the Spartans a win against Boise State.

For Michigan State to have any hope of defeating the Irish, the team will need at least a passable performance from Maxwell.

If there is one weakness in Notre Dame's defense, it's in the secondary. If Maxwell is successful in providing balance, it should open up a ton of necessary rushing lanes for Bell on the inside.

On the other hand, a repeat performance from Boise would mean a loss for Michigan State and a possible demotion for Maxwell. 


RB Le'Veon Bell

The overarching reason Maxwell is so critical to the Spartans offense is that Bell will likely have a tough time getting anything going against the Irish's staunch run defense. 

Notre Dame stuffed Navy's triple-option in Week 1, limiting the Midshipmen to just 3.7 yards per carry. Not to be outdone, the team topped that performance last week against Purdue, holding leading rusher Akeem Shavers to just 37 yards.

Nevertheless, Bell will need more than a balanced attack to avoid getting swallowed up on the ground.

Quite frankly, he'll just have to be better than he was last week against Central Michigan.

After going for a career-high 210 yards and vaulting himself into the Heisman conversation Week 1, Bell stumbled for just 70 yards on 18 carries last week. Instead of looking like a dominant force, he looked hesitant going through holes and did not have a run of longer than eight yards all game.

With the Irish surely scheming to stop him, Bell will need to recapture the brilliance that captivated audiences against Boise.