Notre Dame plays Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday night (8 p.m. EST, ABC) for its first true road game. Besides this being one of the three games this weekend between AP Top 25 teams, here are some other key storylines.
First Tough Test
Notre Dame should definitely get some credit for playing a dominant game in Ireland and then squeaking out a win against a solid Purdue team only a week later. However, neither of those games compare to how difficult this one should be.
While many have claimed that the Irish have the toughest schedule in the nation, that brutal slate of games does not really begin until this Saturday. Not only is this Notre Dame’s first true road game, but it is also its first game against a ranked team. Considering five (5!) of Notre Dame’s next six games are against schools currently in the AP top 25, it’s time for the litmus test.
The Irish need to show they belong and that they will be able to compete with all of the talent on their schedule this year.
Under the Lights (and the Microscope)
The pressure on Everett Golson in this game is enormous. This will be his first game on primetime national television in a hostile atmosphere. Michigan State not only should be the best defense ND faces this season, but its front seven’s ability to stop the run is phenomenal and will force Golson to throw.
Furthermore, Golson will face even more scrutiny now that Tommy Rees delivered on the game winning drive last week against Purdue. While Brian Kelly insists there is no quarterback controversy, Golson needs to take advantage of the games where he is trusted as the unquestioned starter.
His stat line was not bad (289 passing yards, 2 total TD, 0 INT and a 67.7% completion percentage), and another performance like that against MSU will please the Irish faithful. Another relief appearance by Tommy Rees though would really blow up this issue.
Golson vs. Gholston
Who is the guy Golson should be most worried about while trying to hold onto the starting job? That would be junior defensive end William Gholston, a star that will likely be a first round NFL draft selection.
Gholston has insane quickness and athleticism for a man his size (6-foot-7, 278 lbs). He is the type of guy you have to account for on every snap and is a sure bet to make some impact plays.
While Purdue did have a solid defensive line, the offensive line of Notre Dame struggled a bit last week. Facing a much better front seven this week, the Irish need to step up their game in order to get the run game going and give Golson time to throw in the pocket.
Welcome Back, Cierre
Speaking of the run game, the offense should be bolstered by the return of running back Cierre Wood. Notre Dame’s expected lead back joins Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III on the depth chart, a nice stable of backs that can relieve a lot of the pressure Golson will face from MSU.
Wood rushed for over 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011. Splitting carries with Jonas Gray, he gave the Irish 61 yards and two touchdowns against the Spartans last year. Another performance like that would be a great return to action.
Notre Dame might not feature the best running back in this game, but if the group is better collectively than Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell, Notre Dame will have a great chance to win.
Maxwell Seeks Redemption
Michigan State junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell is also a first year starter like Everett Golson. Unlike Golson, Maxwell has already been put through a tough test in national primetime at Spartan Stadium. He had a brutal first half against Boise State, throwing three interceptions. After settling down in the second half however and getting Le’Veon Bell 50 touches (crazy statistic), he was able to squeak out a victory for the Spartans.
They may not be so lucky this time out if Bell has to put the offense on his back the whole game. Maxwell performed much better against inferior competition last week (275 yards and a couple touchdowns against Central Michigan), but the Spartans need some of that against a unit that is better against the run.
From a Notre Dame perspective, the secondary needs to step up and give the inexperienced signal-caller some trouble. Le’Veon Bell will produce like he usually does, but if ND can keep the Spartan offense one-dimensional, it will be able to limit the big play and keep itself in the game until the end.
Navy and Purdue both performed well in the passing game; a similar mediocre performance by the secondary could be dangerous. Giving Maxwell any confidence, especially early, could spell doom.