After reaching the BCS title game last year, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are in danger of falling to 2-2 this weekend at home against Michigan State.
The Spartans have gotten off to a perfect 3-0 start this year, while Brian Kelly's Irish have struggled to win two games.
Losing to Michigan at the Big House in Week 2 was understandable. The Wolverines had a record crowd on their side, and quarterback Devin Gardner played an outstanding game, scoring five touchdowns that night.
But Notre Dame had to scratch and claw against Purdue, falling behind by a touchdown through three quarters before Tommy Rees came alive in the fourth quarter with his two touchdown passes. That was an opponent that the Irish should have handled easily.
Michigan State will provide a few challenges this weekend that Notre Dame must overcome in order to avoid falling to 2-2 and likely out of the Top 25 in the rankings. These are the biggest keys for Notre Dame in this upcoming matchup.
Shut Down Spartans Rushing Attack
Michigan State doesn't feature a dynamic offense that will score points in bunches, but it does feature a punishing running game. Averaging 209.7 yards per game on the ground, the Spartans love to pound the rock and chew up the clock.
Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill provide a sort of thunder/lightning combination. Langford provides the thunder between the tackles, while Hill is the explosive home run threat. Between the two of them, they've combined to rush for 379 yards and five touchdowns in three games this year.
For all the hype surrounding the front seven of Notre Dame this year, the Fighting Irish struggled up front against Michigan, which gained 166 yards on the ground in Week 2. This unit will be tested even further this weekend against the Spartans.
Get Running Game Going
Rees will struggle against Michigan State if he doesn't have a strong rushing attack complementing him.
Notre Dame has been decent—but not great—running the ball this season. Utilizing a three-headed approach with Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson III, the Irish have gained 375 yards on the ground with two touchdowns.
The Spartans won't make it easy, however, as this team features the No. 4-ranked rushing defense in the nation leading up to Saturday's game, allowing just 50.3 rushing yards per game.
The offensive linemen up front must dominate the line of scrimmage in order to open up running lanes against this stout defensive unit.
Protect Tommy Rees and Don't Turn the Ball Over
Rees has proven capable of moving the offense and stretching the field, but he has a history of turning the ball over at critical junctures in games. His two interceptions against Michigan were the difference in the ballgame, and he faces a brutal test this weekend.
Michigan State has already registered nine sacks through three games, tied for 14th in the nation. The Spartans have also forced eight turnovers in three games and will be out for blood this Saturday in South Bend.
Which team will win this Saturday?
Many of Rees' 26 career interceptions have come on plays in which he was pressured, so his offensive linemen must be at the top of their games if he's going to lead his team to victory at home. Furthermore, Rees must not attempt to force any tight throws, or he'll be picked off.
This is a game that won't be won by Notre Dame unless the team plays sound at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Michigan State isn't a flashy team, but it is coached well and won't make a lot of big mistakes.
It's up to Notre Dame to come out and play sharp, or this team will tumble out of the rankings and into mediocrity.
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