Michigan State vs Notre Dame: Three Keys That Will Decide the Game

Nick MordowanecCorrespondent ISeptember 16, 2010

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 11: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish waits to enter the field with his team including Carlo Calabrese #44 and Ethan Johnson #90 before a game against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 11, 2010 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan defeated Notre Dame 28-24. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Saturday's rivalry game between the Michigan State Spartans and Notre Dame Fighting Irish may be a game people look back to once the season has concluded.

Michigan State is currently undefeated but have yet to face a test such as the one Notre Dame is expected to present this weekend. The Irish, on the other hand, are coming off a tough loss in South Bend—the first of the Brian Kelly era—after allowing a ridiculous amount of yardage to Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.

Kelly can't afford to lose two consecutive games after taking the helm, but pressure is also on Spartans coach Mark Dantonio.

Dantonio's team lost a tightly-played game last season on the road, but he and his players had lofty expectations coming into the 2010 campaign.

Both coaches will surely have plenty in store for the prime-time showdown under the lights in Spartan Stadium, so here are three keys which may lead each team to a much-needed win:

1. Michigan State running attack vs. Notre Dame rush defense

The ground game will be pivotal, especially a week after U-M's Robinson sliced and diced the Notre Dame defense. Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker have lifted Michigan State's ground game to new heights (11th overall in the nation), all without Larry Caper (who is nursing a broken hand).

It will be interesting to see how—or if—Notre Dame can make adjustments just one week after getting severely burned in that department. The Irish may decide to focus the majority of its defensive schemes on the Spartans tailbacks, but it would leave holes in pass coverage.

If the Spartans continue to rush around their average of 260 yards per game, it could be a long day for the visitors. Play-action passing may be a big asset as well for Michigan State.

2. Quarterback play: Cousins vs. Crist

Both starting quarterbacks—MSU's Kirk Cousins and Notre Dame's Dayne Crist—have different amounts of experience.

Cousins threw a costly interception last year at Notre Dame and has had it on his mind ever since. Michigan State's passing attack has been quite conservative thus far, although Cousins has not been as sharp as he can be. The Spartans may try a couple deep balls early just to test the Notre Dame secondary. Getting players like Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham involved early would be a boost to his confidence.

Crist is still getting a feel of the Irish offense, not to mention being able to feel most of his extremities after being temporarily knocked out of last week's game against Michigan. His receiving corps isn't as deep as that of Michigan State, but he has some big targets in Malcolm Floyd and Kyle Rudolph. Attacking an inconsistent Spartans secondary will be a big factor in Notre Dame's game plan.

3. Former Cincinnati coaches duking it out

Both Dantonio and Kelly once donned the black and red as head coach of the Bearcats, but they have both moved on to bigger, more prestigious programs. This is a big game for both coaches for different reasons.

Kelly must prove his defense is better than what they showed against U-M, especially against a team whose newfound strength is running the ball. He was furious last week and probably still will be until kickoff Saturday night, but a nationally televised night game may be a big proponent in turning things around.

Dantonio has his team in the right direction this season, but just like Kelly's squad, there is plenty of room for improvement. A perfect record going into Big Ten season would give the Spartans a big lift, and playing in front of the home fans under the lights on national television may provide that extra boost of confidence.