Michigan State’s 2012 defense was simply outstanding. The defense finished 9th in the nation in total defense and allowed 274 yards per game. The defensive front loses William Gholston who tortured Notre Dame in several matchups, but they return seniors Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds as well as junior James Kittredge who played extensively last season. Marcus Rush and rising sophomore Shilique Calhoun should fill in well at the defensive end positions.
The strength of the Spartan’s defense will center on the linebacker position. Max Bullough, the all Big-Ten Linebacker and 3 year starter, led the team last year with 111 tackles and is the defense’s unquestioned leader and signal caller. Bullough will have the luxury of having two rising stars to his left and right with outside linebackers Denicos Allen and Taiwan Jones.
The secondary will be anchored by Darqueze Dennard, a 2012 first team All Big-Ten cornerback who will be coveted in next year’s NFL draft. Safeties Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond will anchor the back end of the defense.
This game has a habit of foreshadowing the season for both teams. The game’s national attention and early season scheduling historically propels the victor to a string of wins and a strong postseason finish. A 2006 comeback win for Notre Dame vaulted the team into the national spotlight and a BCS bowl matchup against LSU. After 2010’s improbable win, the Spartans won nine out of the next 10 games and finished 11-2. I don’t think we need to discuss the 2012 Notre Dame team.
The 2013 matchup will again provide fans with an undefeated matchup of two programs with BCS aspirations. Notre Dame will meet the Spartans after two straight games against B1G opponents with tough defenses and pocket passers. Last year Notre Dame’s defense harassed Maxwell and caused fits for LeVeon Bell. Without Bell, Diaco will use his front seven to bring pressure on Maxwell while remaining confident that his corners can handle the Spartans’ receivers in one-on-one coverage.
On offense Notre Dame will struggle to run against Michigan State’s front seven. Bullough and his partners in crime will plug any holes created by Notre Dame’s offensive line and punish George Atkinson in what may be the most physical game of his career. When the rushing game stalls, Kelly will place the offense on Rees’ arm. Rees must take advantage of Notre Dame’s size with Niklas and Daniels, and possibly dial-up a big play over the top to Chris Brown or TJ Jones. Yards will come at a premium against the Spartans, but Rees can catch them sneaking to the line of scrimmage if he makes the correct pre-snap reads.
In the end, the game will come down to turnovers. Notre Dame’s defense should force Maxwell into a couple errant throws or possibly pop the ball loose from Michigan State’s inexperienced running backs. On offense, Rees needs to maintain his composure and take what the defense gives him which will allow Notre Dame to control the ball and take advantage of their possessions. But if Rees panics and makes ill-advised throws, the Spartans could easily walk away with the victory.
I predict a low-scoring game with Notre Dame’s defense too much for Maxwell and company. The Irish go to 4-0.