Trouble Spot #4: Michigan State

A potential top tier defense and the first true road test of the season await Brian Kelly's Irish in East Lansing

As noted previously, "Trouble Spots" doesn't rank only the overall strength of each foe, but also takes into account the slotting of each on the Irish schedule.

Click here for the introduction and an explanation of the series, as well as Trouble Spot #12 for 2012, the Naval Academy.

Click here for Trouble Spot #11 (Wake Forest) and here for Notre Dame's 10th toughest game situation, Boston College and for the contest that finished 9th, a neutral site battle vs. Miami in Chicago.

?This week's rankings examine Purdue, and the matchup vs. the Boilers following a potentially taxing schedule that includes two cross-Atlantic flight in five days, plus the season's ultimate "trap," a home date vs. Pittsburgh to open November.

Thursday we looked at the dreaded "Sandwich Game" and a home tilt with Brigham Young. Yesterday we examined Stanford, a potential Top 15 foe, but one that falls at an opportune time on the 2012 slate.

Michigan State Game Slotting/Situation

Thanks to a Friday night opening game matchup vs. Boise State, the Spartans will, for the first time in four seasons, encounter a legitimate foe prior to taking on the Irish. A trip to Central Michigan (picked last in the MAC West) follows in Week Two before the Irish head to East Lansing in Week Three for what is likely to be a prime time contest.

The Spartans represent Notre Dame's first true road game of the season following an opener in Dublin and the Week Two home opener against Purdue. One potential concern for Brian Kelly's crew is the early September travel schedule: the Irish are likely to feel the effects of two cross-Atlantic flights and three games -- the final of which promises to be a physical affair -- in a 15-day span.

Notre Dame hosts Michigan a week later.

Inside the Spartans

Gone is three-year starting quarterback Kirk Cousins who produced one close loss, one miracle win, and a blowout defeat in his three matchups vs. the Irish, respectively. In his stead steps junior Andrew Maxwell, a player who purportedly possesses both the arm and quick feet to excel in modern college football.

Joining Maxwell in the backfield are two-year standouts Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper, both of whom enjoyed past successes vs. Notre Dame before being shut down by Bob Diaco's unit last season, and dating back through the fourth quarter of the teams' 2010 matchup.

Long-time perimeter Irish killers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin are both gone, though Bennie Fowler is an experienced rotation member now stepping into a starting role at wide receiver. Tight end Dion Sims is a good one; he scored the Spartans only touchdown vs. the Irish in South Bend last September.

Four starters return up front. Despite their reputation, Michigan State was not a great running team last fall, averaging fewer than 4.0 yards per carry and finishing 78th in the nation at 137 yards per game. Defense: Trouble awaits. That's an advanced warning for whomever steps under center for the Irish in Week Three, whether it be veteran sitting duck Tommy Rees, or mobile but potentially wide-eyed rookies Andrew Hendrix or Everett Golson. The Spartans return five of seven starters up front and three of four from the defensive backfield. The unit ranked sixth nationally last season in total defense and will be better in 2012.

Defensive end William Gholston is the team's best player and NFL prospect while linebackers Chris Norman, Denicos Allen, and Max Bullough make up one of the most versatile units in the nation. Cornerback Johnny Adams could be the best the Irish will face at the position over the season's first seven games.

Outside Looking In: Lindy's Sports has the Spartans slotted at #12 nationally while Athlon Sports has the Spartans ranked 18th and fourth among Big 10 teams, behind Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Phil Steele placed them 19th and in line for a third straight 10-plus win season.

Final Thoughts

The sticking point in this matchup for Irish fans is the soon-to-be resolved quarterback situation. If its Rees, he struggled vs. the Spartans last fall, throwing an interception and fumbling but also tossing a beautiful sideline route score to T.J. Jones. Rees completed 18 of 26 on the day but for a paltry 161 yards.

Notre Dame jumped to a 28-13 lead on the strength of a punishing rush defense, first-half running by Cierre Wood, and a game-changing kick return score by George Atkinson III. They subsequently held on over the final 24 minutes, earning just 32 total yards on their final 17 meaningful plays…before engaging in more meaningful kneel-downs to conclude the victory.

If its Hendrix or Golson under center in Week Three, the young signal-caller will encounter the first hostile environment of his career, and probably in prime time to boot. (Kick-off is yet to be determined, but three of the last four matchups in East Lansing have been played under the lights.)

In my estimation, the teams enter the game on similar footing, as Diaco's defense will be the most disciplined Maxwell will have seen to date -- other than possibly in practice -- and despite the environment, Maxwell is just as likely to experience first-time signal caller mistakes as any Irish triggerman.

"Familiar" with each other from the 2006-07 coaching transition at Cincinnati, Kelly and Dantonio have split their two meetings since Kelly arrived in South Bend. Prior, Dantonio took two of three from former Irish head man Charlie Weis, (though everyone reading this column could have similarly coached the Spartans to a win over Notre Dame in 2007).

It's a relative wash on the sidelines where Kelly has had the more distinguished last six seasons but Dantonio's enjoyed more success -- and six more victories -- over the most recent two.

Michigan State is one of a probable four peer teams Notre Dame will encounter this season. If the Irish are to improve upon two seasons of 8-win purgatory, the journey begins in East Lansing in Week Three, and it'll be a slugfest.

Next in the Series: Trouble Spot #3 will be published Sunday. Top Stories