NOTRE DAME — It’s time to find out what this year’s team is made of.
They blew out Navy in Ireland. They squeaked out a win against Purdue at home.
Now it’s time to see if Notre Dame is truly a force to be reckoned with or if the Irish will fall to a Top 10 team in a night game for the 11th straight time.
No. 10 Michigan State (2-0) will open its doors for one of No. 20 Notre Dame’s (2-0) toughest away-game atmospheres on its schedule.
It’ll also be a true test to Everett Golson’s mettle. He won’t be able to fall back on the running game as he did against Navy nor will he have the crowd’s support when he played Purdue at home.
Can a first-year quarterback handle the pressure of a night game against a Top 10 opponent in a hostile stadium?
Here’s how the Irish and the Spartans measure up.
MICHIGAN STATE OFFENSE
The Spartans are led by quarterback Andrew Maxwell — who replaced the graduated Kirk Cousins — but their true star lies in tailback Le’Veon Bell, who is on several early-season Heisman Trophy watch lists.
Bell rushed for 210 yards on 44 carries against Boise State but was limited to 70 yards on 18 carries last week against Central Michigan. He scored two touchdowns in both games.
Last year, the Notre Dame defensive line kept Bell out of the game, but the Michigan State offensive line is stronger and more in-tune this time around. How Bell fares against the Irish front seven should be one of the most interesting match ups of the game.
If the Irish can keep Bell at bay, Maxwell will shoulder most of the burden.
After a shaky, 3-interception performance against Boise State in the season opener, Maxwell found his footing against Central Michigan and threw 275 yards for two touchdowns.
Bell has had trouble building chemistry with his young receiving corps, but he’ll look for the mismatch 6-foot-5, 285-pound tight end Dion Sims provides against the Irish secondary.
Keep an eye on Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who lost his girlfriend and grandmother within 24 hours of each other earlier this week. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said that Te’o would play today, but the All-American linebacker will be doing so with a heavy heart.
MICHIGAN STATE DEFENSE
First thing’s first, the Spartans haven’t allowed an offensive touchdown this season.
Sure, Notre Dame isn’t Boise State or Central Michigan, but Michigan State returns eight starters from last year’s already-solid defense.
Among those veterans are an imposing linebacker corps composed of Max Bullough, Dencios Allen and Chris Norman, who combined for 248 tackles (31.5 for a loss) and 16.5 sacks last season. Allen alone accounted for 11 of those sacks.
Defensive end William Gholston will also be a handful for an Irish offensive line still smarting after being manhandled against Purdue last week. Gholston is a giant 6-7, 275-pound end who — along with fellow end Marcus Rush — has only allowed 2.4 yards per rush from opposing backs this season.
Tonight will be Cierre Wood’s first game back since his suspension, and George Atkinson III will need to utilize his speed after one carry for zero yards against Purdue.
Notre Dame’s offensive line will need to be sharp, but so will Golson. Spartan cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard will be ready to pounce on any miscue: They’ve combined for four interceptions and 17 pass break-ups this season.
Nine of the last 12 games between Michigan State and Notre Dame have been decided by seven points or less. Tonight’s match up is likely no different.
This game will be low-scoring, likely decided by a late-game drive or a turnover returned for a touchdown. Notre Dame keeps things close but ultimately can’t contain all of Michigan State’s weapons and can’t maintain a rhythm against the Spartan defense.
MICHIGAN STATE 21, NOTRE DAME 17