Michigan State vs. Notre Dame: Game Preview, Prediction and Players to Watch
The No. 18 Notre Dame Fighting Irish will host the No. 12 Michigan State Spartans on Saturday in South Bend.
Notre Dame, after falling at Texas in the season opener, has no room for error. A second loss would eliminate the Irish from College Football Playoff contention, barring sheer madness elsewhere.
Michigan State wants to stay in the conversation but must rebound from a disappointing performance during its first game of the year. The Spartans were only able to muster a 28-13 victory over Furman.
Though the programs met every year from 1948 to 2013 except in four seasons, they haven't shared the field since 2013. Notre Dame leads the all-time series 48-28-1.
NBC will broadcast the contest at 7:30 p.m. ET. Odds Shark lists Notre Dame as a 7.5-point favorite.
Michigan State Keys to Victory
Pound the Ball
It doesn't matter if Michigan State is using a two- or three-running back system, the Spartans need their strength to excel.
L.J. Scott ran for 105 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries during the season opener. Excluding four kneel-downs, Michigan State averaged a shade under five yards per attempt. Against a Power Five conference opponent, that would be superb. However, it's a slight concern against Furman.
Tyler O'Connor showed promise in his first start of 2016, but Michigan State won't pull the upset without a strong running game.
Win the Red Zone
Notre Dame has struggled defensively in the red zone. Texas scored six touchdowns in seven trips, including overtime. Nevada, on the other hand, managed 10 points on three drives.
The offense is the same story—just with a positive outlook. Kizer and Co. have crossed the plane on eight out of 11 red-zone trips.
Michigan State needs to take advantage of the Irish's shaky defense when given the opportunity, and it needs to force Notre Dame into a few field goals to stay within striking distance.
Notre Dame Keys to Victory
Build an Early Lead
In seven of Notre Dame's last eight games, the team that scored first eventually won the game. Though that's not a perfect metric, it illustrates the importance of getting on the board right away.
Michigan State might be the toughest defense Kizer faces all season, and a quick score would provide invaluable confidence.
Trailing is obviously never ideal. But against a team like the Spartans, the longer the defense holds, the more frustrating each possession becomes. The Irish need to be the aggressors on Saturday.
Make O'Connor Win the Game
Notre Dame has problems on defense, but the unit doesn't need to be spectacular. That responsibility falls on Kizer.
Meanwhile, Michigan State is far from an offensive juggernaut. The Spartans likely aren't capable of a blowout. What they can do, though, is control the ball, bleed the clock and force Notre Dame into a physically exhausting bout.
The Irish need to dominate the trenches on an early down to force third-and-long situations. Otherwise, the Spartans will slowly—yet methodically—power through the Notre Dame defense.
Michigan State Players to Watch
R.J. Shelton, Wide Receiver
We know the Spartans want to dominate the trenches with power runs, but R.J. Shelton provides a complementary threat.
He ripped off a 32-yard scamper on an end around before exiting the season opener due to a hamstring injury. The senior didn't return, though he's expected to be healthy.
Shelton handled 24 carries last season. But after missing a majority of the Furman game, Saturday will essentially be his first time playing as the featured receiver, a running threat and the punt returner.
How much will Shelton produce with the added responsibilities?
Riley Bullough, Linebacker
As if the Spartans needed reinforcements at linebacker, they officially added another contributor to the unit. Ed Davis—who had 58 tackles and seven sacks in 2014—received a sixth year of eligibility.
However, while appearing on WJR (h/t Kyle Austin, MLive), head coach Mark Dantonio said "possibilities are there" for Davis to play. Michigan State will rely on the current corps, led by Riley Bullough.
The senior totaled eight tackles in the season opener and piled up a team-best 106 last year. Bullough will be a critical component of stopping Notre Dame's versatile running game.
Notre Dame Players to Watch
Equanimeous St. Brown, Wide Receiver
Offseason hype often doesn't translate to on-field success, but Equanimeous St. Brown is clearly the real deal.
Against Texas, the sophomore grabbed five passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns. He tallied six receptions and 85 yards during the blowout win over Nevada.
St. Brown will encounter the toughest test of his brief college career on Saturday, lining up opposite Darian Hicks or Vayante Copeland. But after seeing St. Brown's first two games, there's little reason to believe he won't make a few big plays.
Cole Luke, Cornerback
The Irish secondary took another hit in Week 2, losing Shaun Crawford for the season due to a torn left Achilles tendon. Cole Luke needs to fill an even greater role in the Notre Dame secondary.
"I think that everybody knows that when you lose a player like Crawford, a new guy comes in," head coach Brian Kelly said, per Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press. "And they're going to pick on them."
Luke simply must lock down his side of the field. While that's an enormous task, the Irish are turning to inexperienced reserves and freshmen elsewhere. Notre Dame has leaks in its defense, but Luke cannot afford to be one.
What They're Saying
The Spartans were happy about winning the first game, but O'Connor said the team wasn't satisfied with its performance.
"You can't get too low, and you can't get too high as a quarterback, I've learned that over the years," O'Connor said, per Kyle Austin of MLive. "A win's a win, we're OK with it, but we have a lot of things to fix up."
Though the Irish are built to compete with a team like Michigan State, Scott DeCamp of MLive passed along comments from Kelly, who admitted some of the younger players will soon discover what power football is about:
It's not like we've got a bunch of guys that don't know what it's like to go up against a physical, Big Ten opponent like Michigan State. But there's other guys that don't know what it is to get punched in the mouth by a big, physical team like Michigan State, too. So there's still growth that's going to happen with this football team as we evolve.
After a few scoreless possessions to open the contest, Kizer leads a touchdown drive, connecting with St. Brown shortly before the end of the first quarter.
Michigan State responds with a field goal, forces a punt and finds the end zone to pull ahead, 10-7. However, Notre Dame retakes the lead on a Josh Adams touchdown and holds a 14-10 edge at halftime.
The third quarter proves to be the decisive frame, as the Irish put 10 points on the board and enter the fourth quarter with an 11-point lead. Another field goal puts the Spartans in a 24-10 hole.
Although O'Connor and Shelton pull Michigan State within seven, Notre Dame hangs on and improves to 2-1. The Spartans drop to 1-1.
Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Michigan State 20
All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report College Football Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.