Top-25 foes collide in East Lansing, as the 10th-ranked Michigan State Spartans play host to the 20th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish this weekend at Spartan Stadium.
Mark Dantonio's Spartans have looked the part of an early favorite in the Big Ten. Michigan State opened the season with a hard-fought 17-13 win over then nationally-ranked Boise State and followed that with a complete dismantling of instate rival Central Michigan last weekend in Mount Pleasant, 41-7.
Brian Kelly's Irish opened the season in Ireland, blowing out Navy, 50-10. The team returned home last weekend and outlasted Purdue in South Bend, 20-17, thanks to a 27-yard field goal by Kyle Brindza with seven seconds remaining.
Kelly credits ball control for the 2-0 start, compared to last year's 0-2 start.
"We made the plays we needed to in this game. You can go back so South Florida; we turned the ball over. Michigan, we turned the ball over. If there's probably one common denominator, other than the late fumble that Everett had, we have taken the ball away more than we have turned it over, and I think that has a lot to do with it."
Notre Dame holds a 46-28-1 series advantage, including an 18-15-1 edge in East Lansing. The Irish have won 15 of the last 20 meetings at Spartan Stadium, but Michigan State has won the last two matchups on their home field. Nine of the last 12 meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less.
The offensive numbers for Notre Dame were inflated in the win over Navy and rather bland against Purdue. The truth about this unit's potency probably lies somewhere in between. Notre Dame does have some balance though, with a good mix of the run and the pass.
Quarterback Everett Golson has played the first two games, completing 67.3 percent of his throws for 433 yards, with two TDs and one INT. However, Tommy Rees, who was suspended for the opener, led the Irish on the game-winning drive against Purdue. Golson is listed as the starter for this game and should once again be aided by All-American candidate Tyler Eifert (eight receptions, 120 yards, one TD) at tight end and DeVaris Daniels (six receptions, 119 yards) at wide receiver.
Kelly was quick to clear up any doubts about who his signal-caller is going forward.
"Everett was having a hard time gripping the football. This is not going to be an excuse for Everett that he's pulled out because of an injury. We also made the decision with the flow of the game that Tommy could come in there and manage our two minute and he did a great job. I will further say, there is no quarterback controversy. Everett Golson is our starter."
The ground game has been paced by Theo Riddick (4.7 ypc, two TDs) and George Atkinson III (9.9 ypc, two TDs) thus far, but the backfield will get a huge boost with the return of senior Cierre Wood, who was suspended for the first two games. Last season, Wood rushed for over 1,100 yards and scored nine TDs.
The Irish defense has been good in both outings thus far. The team handled Navy's vaunted option attack and is only giving up 119.0 yards per game through two weeks. The pass defense is yielding just 195.0 yards per game
Senior middle linebacker Manti Te'o is among a few favorites for the Butkus Award this season and hasn't disappointed in the early going. The 6-foot-2, 255-pounder leads the team with 18 total tackles, with one interception and one fumble recovery. Sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt has gotten off to a fast start as well. Of his eight total tackles, four have come in the backfield in the form of sacks.
Dantonio is well aware of Te'o and what his leadership brings to the Irish defense.
"When you look at Notre Dame, I think first of all you look at who they are as people, their personnel, excellent personnel. Defensive side of the ball, big, physical up front, very active linebackers. Obviously No. 5 Te'o is an outstanding player, makes it all work for them."
The Spartans are putting up impressive offensive numbers in their own right, at 478.0 yards per game, but the undeniable strength is the ground game (193.0 ypg) thanks to junior tailback Le'Veon Bell. The 6-2, 244-pound workhorse already has 62 carries on the young season. He is averaging 4.5 yards per touch and is netting 140 yards per game, with four TDs.
Bell has made quarterback Andrew Maxwell's job a bit easier. The junior signal-caller has completed just over 60 percent of his throws, for 523 yards and two TDs, although he has thrown three INTs.
Wide receiver Bennie Fowler (10 receptions, 135 yards, one TD) and tight end Dion Sims (10 receptions, 113 yards, one TD) are the top targets in the passing game.
The MSU defense has yet to really be challenged and the stats reflect that. The team is yielding a mere 225.5 yards per game, showing equal disdain for the run (54.4 ypg) and the pass (171.0 ypg). The unit has only seven TFLs and one sack in the first two games, but has been opportunistic with five forced turnovers (three INTs, two fumble recoveries).
Junior middle linebacker Max Bullough leads the team in tackles with 11, with 2.5 TFLs. Fellow junior Denicos Allen (five tackles) hasn't produced big numbers yet, but is regarded as one of the Big Ten's top defenders.