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September 20, 2013

Test Time in South Bend

EAST LANSING - They have their starting quarterback and the defense is set.

So when No. 24 Michigan State (3-0) hits the field in South Bend, Ind., at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday for the program's 77th meeting with No. 22/21 Notre Dame (2-1), the only question that will need to be answered is how much the team has grown in three victories leading up to the Spartans' toughest test of the young season.

At stake, chance to get a gauge on how far the team has come since its opener against Western Michigan before the start of the Big Ten schedule, which begins on Oct. 5th at Iowa.

"(It's) a high profile game for us,'' seventh-year coach Mark Dantonio said. "We're going to find out a little bit more about who is who in our football team as we move forward.''

With sophomore Connor Cook firmly entrenched as the starting QB, after beating out incumbent senior Andrew Maxwell and the sometimes stiff but inconsistent challenges of redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor and true freshman Damion Terry, MSU will get a chance to find out where it is as a team offensively by the time the Spartans depart Indiana on Saturday night.

While the Spartan defense, which is surrendering a nation's lowest 177 yards a game through three contests, seems to be ready to stifle a Notre Dame offense that has done fairly well under the guidance of senior Tommy Rees, who was handed the job after last year's starter Everett Golson was suspended for academic reasons, this will be the defense's first REAL big test of the season.

Led by the trio of senior linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, and junior safety Kurtis Drummond, who enters Saturday's contest as the Spartans' leading tackler with 17 stops, MSU will open the game with seven defenders who have accumulated double-digit tackles three games into the season.

"(They) make it very difficult to run the football,'' Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "You have to find ways to manufacture runs, you've got to be able to protect your quarterback (and) you've got to play tough, physical football for four quarters.''

And with sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun leading the turnover parade - the Spartans have forced four fumbles and four picks - it's safe to say that MSU's defense will once again be crucial to the team's chances of winning for just the 14th time in 41 meetings in South Bend.

"Max Bullough inside has just been a stalwart for them defensively. Denicos Allen, their Will linebacker, (is) a guy that can put pressure on all offenses,'' Kelly said. "And certainly where they are able to do so many good things is in the back end of their defense, experience at the corner position, where they can play so much man-to-man coverage.''

The Irish lead the overall series 47-28-1 and while the two teams have split the last 10 meetings for the Megaphone Trophy right down the middle, Notre Dame has captured three of the last four meetings. As a matter of fact, the last time MSU won at Notre Dame was back in 2007, when MSU shocked the Irish, 31-10.

In order for another Spartan upset to occur, MSU must force Rees - who has thrown for nearly 1,000 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions - into bad decisions and make sure his stay in the pocket is an uncomfortable one all day.

"He does a great job throwing the ball down the field. I've been very impressed with him standing in there and taking a hit, getting out of a bad play, getting into another one,'' Dantonio said. "He makes it happen.''

While getting to Rees, who leads a passing offense that averages 326 yards, will be paramount, it's not like he doesn't have more than capable weapons surrounding him.

Juniors Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson III give Notre Dame a nice 1-2 punch out of the backfield with Carlisle heading the charge with 148 yards on 30 carries.

In the passing game, senior T.J. Jones and junior DaVaris Daniels are the top targets for Rees. Jones leads the pass catching duo with 19 grabs for 289 yards and a touchdown.

"(I'm) very impressed with No. 10, DaVaris Daniels, (and) obviously with Jones, No. 7,'' Dantonio said. "I think Rees is throwing the ball very effectively, making big plays (and) big plays is what has kept their offense moving.''

On an offensive line that features one senior and two performers already in graduate school, left tackle Zack Martin, a Lombardi and Outland Trophy Watch List candidate, leads the way for a run game that is putting up just 125 yards a contest.

The Spartans will counter with a defense that has allowed just 12 points a game, held it first three opponents to 50.3 rushing yards and has produced four touchdowns. MSU's defense is giving up just 2.9 yards a play.

While MSU's defense is expected to keep the Spartans close throughout the game, Cook and MSU's offense is going to have to provide adequate production.

Cook's four TD tosses and 276 passing yards will need a boost from a run game that is led by juniors Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill.

Although Langford leads the run game with 200 yards, a 4.5 yards a carry average and four TDs, Hill, who paces the team in all-purpose yardage, has come on and provided 179 yards on just 25 carries, while scoring one TD.

Sophomore wideouts Macgarrett Kings and Aaron Burbridge have emerged as the leading pass catchers, combining for 16 receptions for 179 yards and a score.

While the numbers say Notre Dame's defense can be had - the Irish are giving up 372 yards of total offense a contest - the team is surrendering just 112.7 yards on the ground.

That number is bolstered by two outstanding defensive linemen in senior Louis Nix III and junior Stephon Tuitt.

"(Louis) Nix and (Stephon) Tuitt, they're big, firm guys. They control the center box,'' Dantonio said. "You saw what happened last year. They controlled our line of scrimmage last year.''

Notre Dame's linebackers aren't bad either, led by senior Prince Shembo and graduate students Dan Fox - Notre Dame's leading tackler - and Carlo Calabrese.

The secondary is headed up by senior cornerback Bennett Jackson, a Bednarik Watch List selection, while junior linebacker Jarrett Grace has been a pleasant surprise becoming the team's second-leading tackler with 20 tackles.

"It's going to be one of those typical Big Ten games where last man standing through four quarters comes out victorious,'' Kelly said.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:

FROM MSU: Senior captain and guard Blake Treadwell was on point when he said his team's play on the line, especially on offense, would determine the outcome of Saturday's game. The Spartans need to be able to run the ball with some consistency and not be put in a situation where Cook, in his first start on the road in a hostile environment, has to win the game.

FROM NOTRE DAME: If Rees is able to handle the pressure and calamity served up by the Spartans' defense, the Irish should be in good shape. Much of Notre Dame's success on offense will be determined by their quarterback's decision making. He must stay patient, be a solid game manager and avoid the temptation to always try and make the big play.


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