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Notre Dame vs. Michigan State Preview/Prediction

The first true road game of the season.

Week one delivered a high level of excitement to the Irish fan base. It seemed as if everything was clicking on both sides of the ball (with the exception of the secondary), as the ground attack ran train on the Navy defense, the front seven forced turnovers left and right, and Everett Golson calmly settled in for a long tenure as the man under center. After traveling overseas, with mountain-high expectations, and stomping on a rival opponent 50-10, we all figured Notre Dame football was a strong force to be reckoned with once again.

That all changed the following week, as the Irish squeezed past a mediocre Purdue program in the closing minutes, closing out the victory with a 27-yard field goal by Kyle Brindza with :07 left to win 20-17. As the offense struggled to establish a ground game, the defense revealed its vulnerability in the secondary (as if it hadn't already), and Golson struggled to find comfort behind his pass protection, which allowed 5 sacks on the day, fans could already feel the tides turning on ND's season. What started as high hopes quickly transformed into heavy worries.

It's time for Notre Dame to put all of that in the past, however, as the Irish travel to East Lansing to take on No. 10 Michigan State. Although the past two weeks created mixed emotions about what lies ahead, Saturday's showdown against the Spartans will provide the best opportunity to measure ND's talent, evaluate its place amongst the Top 25, and predict how successful it will be going forward. Here's a preview of what is sure to be an intense, heated matchup:

Key for Notre Dame:

Based on what we have already witnessed, it is clear that the Irish must establish their ground game early on. In the first drive against Navy, ND ran for 45 yards en route to an 11-yard TD courtesy of Theo Riddick. The offense's ability to rely on its rushing attack took part of the pressure off Golson's shoulders, allowing him to ease into the QB position and make smart, comfortable throws. The next week, the offense totaled 52 rushing yards all game. The Irish struggled throughout the entire day to establish a rhythm offensively, mainly because of the absence of a ground attack. Not to say that they need to run the ball all day against MSU, but they do need to create balance on offense in order to compete with Sparty, which allows the seventh fewest yards/game in the nation.

Why the Irish could win:

Despite Michigan State's talent on the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame's defense actually matches up well. The secondary may get a few needed breaks throughout the game, thanks to first-year Spartan QB Andrew Maxwell, who threw 3 INT's in his first big game against Boise State. In addition, although Le'Veon Bell is receiving praise as one of the best backs in the country, Irish fans can feel confident that Manti Te'o, Stephon Tuitt, and the rest of the front seven will be up to the challenge of stopping Bell's power and explosiveness. Expect MSU to be put in a lot of third-and-long situations, which favor the Irish defense.

Irish X-Factor:

All eyes will be on RB Cierre Wood this weekend, who makes his 2012 debut after serving a two-game suspension. Not only can he add to the quick, versatile Irish backfield (which already is deep with Riddick, George Atkinson, and Cam McDaniel), but he also poses a threat in the passing game, being an ideal screen back that creates mis-matches against defenders. If Wood establishes his presence early in both the ground game and aerial attack, he can make everyone else's job easier and facilitate a more fluid Irish offense.

Prediction:

In the match-up of two first-year quarterbacks, one must look at the talent around them to predict the outcome. Not many teams can stretch the Sparty defense, but ND's offensive depth in the backfield and on the O-line will be too much for MSU to handle all night. This will pinch the LB's and open up opportunities for Tyler Eiffert and the rest of the of the Irish receiving corps. It'll be a close one, but ND marches to victory in East Lansing.

Notre Dame 24, Michigan State 17