Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Joe Rexrode reports for the Detroit Free Press.
EAST LANSING, Mich. — It’s time for Notre Dame’s first true road test of the season, and it comes from No. 10 Michigan State.
Spartans beat writer Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press talks about new quarterback Andrew Maxwell, tailback Le’Veon Bell and just how good this unyielding Michigan State defense really is.
Q: (Quarterback) Andrew Maxwell looks like he had a better game against Central Michigan after throwing three picks against Boise State. How’s his development coming along as a quarterback and how is he building chemistry with his new receivers?
Joe Rexrode: Yeah, Maxwell definitely took a step forward in the second game after some shaky moments in the opener. It didn’t hurt that he was playing against Central Michigan.
Then again, one of those picks was a perfect pass that a receiver bobbled to the cornerback, and Maxwell connected on all five passes on the winning and put-away drives in the Boise State game. So it’s been more positive than negative for him.
The key would be the chemistry you mention. Outside of No. 1 receiver Bennie Fowler and tight end Dion Sims, Maxwell still has some building to do with the others. The Spartans have a lot of young talent at receiver, but the passing game is still pretty far from a smooth operation.
Q: A week after Notre Dame struggled against Purdue’s defense, they’re facing Michigan State’s, which hasn’t given up an offensive touchdown yet. How good is this defense? Who should the Irish be looking out for?
JR: It’s very good. Is it great? I’m not ready to say that yet. I think the Spartans miss the interior pass rush of Jerel Worthy, and there have been more miscues — little ones that obviously didn’t cost much — than coordinator Pat Narduzzi would have liked.
Still, that’s probably nitpicking for a group that stuffs the run and has terrific defensive ends in Will Gholston and Marcus Rush, and cornerbacks in Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. Max Bullough is an excellent middle linebacker and Isaiah Lewis is a very good strong safety. Those are the standouts so far.
Q: Le’Veon Bell is on a lot of early Heisman Trophy watch lists after his 217-yard, 2-touchdown performance against Boise State. He rushed for only 27 yards against Notre Dame last year. What makes him a bigger threat this year? How do you see the reps breakdown between Bell and Maxwell against Notre Dame?
JR: When MSU played at Notre Dame last season, its offensive line was in disarray and totally not ready for that challenge. It showed. And then two starters on that line were lost for the season in that game. So if Bell is ready to do more, it’s because the offensive line has grown a lot and can stand up to Notre Dame’s front.
If that’s not the case, Bell isn’t going to add to his Heisman resume. Frankly, this is the matchup I’m most interested to watch. I have no idea how it’s going to go.
Q: It’s hard to pinpoint looking at a numbers standpoint, since Michigan State looks so solid across the board, but can you find a weakness in this team? How could Notre Dame exploit it?
JR: The obvious weakness, or at least uncertainty, is that passing game. That’s why, if Notre Dame can stop the run, I think we’re looking at a really low-scoring game. The Spartans are obviously strong on defense and very sound in the kicking game.
I think Notre Dame’s front seven is very good, perhaps as talented as any the Spartans will see. So if the Irish force third-and-long all night and get after Maxwell, they won’t need tons of points to win the game.
Q. Michigan State is a narrow favorite in this game, but — as we’ve seen in 2010 and 2011 — anything can happen when these two teams meet. What do the Spartans have to do to improve to 3-0 on Saturday?
JR: Run the ball enough to take some pressure off Maxwell. Stop the run on the other side. Cover Tyler Eifert. And finish at least even in the turnover battle.