Notre Dame, Michigan State renew football rivalry tonight
Don't count MSU out against Notre Dame
One flat performance and a puzzling early schedule. That's all it took for the college football world to forget about the defending Big Ten champions.
Michigan State opened the season with an uninspiring performance against Furman, an FCS team that finished with a losing record last year. The Spartans didn't dominate the time of possession, the turnover battle or line of scrimmage, and as a result, they didn't dominate on the scoreboard.
But when Mark Dantonio took the podium after the game, he wasn't concerned. He's seen Michigan State play down to its competition for years, including throughout the 2015 season that saw the Spartans land in the College Football Playoff.
Even with Connor Cook at the helm, Michigan State let teams like Western Michigan, Air Force, Purdue and Rutgers hang around. Schools that have no business threatening teams at the top of the Big Ten were pushing the eventual conference champions to the limits.
So it's no surprise that Michigan State found itself up only one possession late in the fourth quarter. It's also no surprise that the Spartans eventually won by 15 points. It's what they do.
Then, before the season could even get going, Michigan State had to sit out a week. Two weeks of hearing about how Furman played them tough. Two weeks of hearing about how great Ohio State and Michigan and Wisconsin have looked.
But finally the wait is over and the Spartans face a completely different challenge. They have to travel to South Bend and take on a top 20 team in a hostile environment.
Notre Dame is led by star quarterback DeShone Kizer, who has completed 71.4 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and one interception in two games. He's also rushed 23 times for 112 yards and two touchdowns. He's an accurate passer who makes good decisions for a young quarterback, and can turn broken plays into big gains with his legs.
Kizer is one of the best players the Spartans will see this season, but he's not the most important quarterback in this matchup. For the Spartans to pull off an upset, Tyler O'Connor will have to follow the blueprint drawn out by Texas and Shane Buechele.
Buechele exposed Notre Dame's secondary by roasting the Fighting Irish deep down the field in Week 1. He connected for gains of 72 and 68 yards and completed four passes of more than 20 yards.
Can O'Connor exploit the holes in Notre Dame's secondary? He was very efficient against Furman, completing 13 of 18 passes, but he didn't take many shots down the field. This will be his biggest test since he helped the Spartans upset Ohio State in 2015.
If O'Connor struggles, L.J. Scott has to come to the rescue. Scott is the team's top offensive weapon after gaining 5.3 yards per carry against Furman and averaging 4.8 yards per carry his freshman year.
Texas rushed for 237 yards against the Notre Dame front seven, even finding success when the entire stadium knew quarterback Tyrone Swoopes was going to take the snap and try to make a play on the ground.
Swoopes ran Notre Dame's defense into the ground, so Scott should be able to do the same.
The Spartans will get Notre Dame's best effort Saturday. The Fighting Irish are desperate after losing the season opener and can't afford to drop a home game and fall to 1-2. Even with games against Stanford and USC on the schedule down the road, it would be difficult for Notre Dame to recover from two early losses.
Michigan State is an eight-point underdog, and most people expect Notre Dame to take care of business at home. But the build-up to this game feels a whole lot like last season's MSU-OSU game, in which the Spartans were 13.5-point underdogs. Nobody expected Michigan State to win in Columbus, especially without Cook, but three hours later, the Spartans came out on top.
Dantonio's team has made a habit of winning ugly games. We should know by now that that's no reason to count them out.
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