One of the oldest cliches in the sportswriter handbook is "a win's a win." It's both comically inane—why yes, sir, a word's definition doesn't change two syllables later—and used so often that it's become ingrained in our culture.
But as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Michigan State Spartans would tell you, that's not always the case.
The Irish, who were coming off a disappointing loss to rival Michigan, nearly fell victim to a second straight Big Ten team last week against Purdue. With their offense sputtering, they walked into the fourth quarter down a touchdown before three straight trips to the end zone quelled the upset talk.
Brian Kelly's squad wasn't expected to compete for a national championship this season, but a loss to the Boilermakers could have done irrevocable damage to their BCS bowl hopes. Coming back didn't just represent a win for this team; it injected a rejuvenation of optimism.
The Spartans of East Lansing were likely at their homes chortling by the time the Irish came back; they had already properly dispatched of their Week 3 opponent, Youngstown State. While putting 55 points on the board will likely cause a boon in confidence within the locker room, doing so against an FCS school leaves some room remaining for hand-wringing.
Michigan State hasn't played the toughest of schedules thus far. About a quarter of the way into the 2013 season, Mark Dantonio's team will only just be getting its first major test.
It seems, then, we'll be getting to know these two teams awful well Saturday afternoon.
With that in mind, let's check in with the most important storyline of the contest and select a winner between the Irish and Spartans.
When: Saturday, Sept. 21, at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.
Live Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra
Betting Line: Notre Dame -6.5 (Covers.com)
What's Real, What's Fake?
This question obviously begins with the team based in East Lansing. The Spartans head into South Bend 3-0, but they might be the shakiest undefeated team in the nation—at least among those that have a (relative) chance at bowl success this season.
Michigan State's three wins have come over Western Michigan, South Florida and Youngstown State. There are certainly justifications for playing all three. Playing Western Michigan means cutting a check for an in-state school. South Florida is just a few years removed from national relevancy. Youngstown State...well, that's just a cupcake; all teams have those.
Taken as a whole, though, the Spartans might as well have been playing the cast of Division III: Football's Finest. South Florida and Western Michigan, the FBS teams on the slate, are a combined 0-6 this season and both have lost to FCS schools. The Spartans were tied with Western Michigan until 22 seconds left in the first half. They were ahead by one point through 30 minutes against USF.
Not the best way to convince folks your 3-0 record is legitimate.
The problems for Michigan State lie, as they did last season, offensively. Connor Cook has been a step up since replacing Andrew Maxwell, but only in the same way that Brian Hoyer will likely be a step up from Brandon Weeden. Neither player is consistently accurate placing the football, and it's only by the grace of the Spartans' schedule that they're yet to throw an interception this season.
The problems at quarterback have overshadowed something of a breakout start for running back Nicky Hill. The 5'9" scatback has been borderline thrilling nearly every time he touches the football. He's averaging a little over seven yards per attempt, which makes you wonder a bit why Dantonio is so persistent in turning Jeremy Langford into Le'Veon Bell 2.0. I understand the need for a reliable power running game, but this should be way closer to a 50-50 timeshare than what it is.
Then again, with the Spartans' scheduling concerns, it's impossible to know whether the preseason preconceptions were correct or if this team has a real shot at pulling off the upset.
That's mainly because the Irish aren't without their concerns, also starting on offense.
Tommy Rees, once considered a possible burden, has actually proved to be the team's lifeblood. He's played the best football of his life this season, throwing for 969 yards and seven touchdowns against only two interceptions. Those two picks were, of course, against Michigan—not exactly the best team to cough the ball up against. But Rees has been by and large solid enough to make folks in South Bend forget about Everett Golson.
The running game? Not so much.
The trio of Cam McDaniel, George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle has had its moments, but none of the players have stood out above the rest. Notre Dame rushed for 91 yards on 37 carries last week as a team, with Carlisle's 11-carry, 16-yard performance being a neon light shining down on the Irish's problems.
Having three running backs isn't a problem. Having three running backs and never knowing which one is going to perform and which is going to average less than two yards per carry is a problem. (I know, hard-hitting analysis on that one.)
But the fact remains there are questions for both sides. If the Spartans secondary can at least slow down Rees and possibly cause a pick, they may be able to set up this struggling offense or an early score and build momentum. Either way, this is far from a shoo-in.
The upset possibility here is real. Notre Dame's rushing attack is still a major, major concern. Rees isn't the type of quarterback who can single-handedly lead the Irish to a BCS bowl game, though he's been infinitely better than anyone imagined. Having a "pretty good" quarterback isn't going to cut it when about 40 teams have quarterbacks who'd prevent you from throwing yourself off a bridge if they were running your team.
The coaching staff needs to work on finding a proper balance. It's easier said than done, of course—it would help if one of the backs came through with a big run early—but something has to be done and soon.
I'm just not sold it needs to be done against this Michigan State squad. The Spartans offense makes Notre Dame look like it plays in Eugene by contrast, with concerns across the board about the talent level. Cook hasn't instilled confidence, and Dantonio's stubborn stick-to-itiveness of a running game that features plays of no less than four yards and no more than five is a little baffling
Alas, it should be good news for the Irish. Look for a low-scoring game, but one Notre Dame mostly controls en route to a one-possession win.
Score: Notre Dame 20, Michigan State 14
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