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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, September 23, 2017 5:40 pm

Pregame: Notre Dame (2-1) vs. Michigan State (2-0)

CHRIS GOFF | The Journal Gazette

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Let's call it like it is: This game has a scary look to it for Notre Dame.

Michigan State is 55-17 at home under coach Mark Dantonio, whose defense tends to dominate on its own turf. The Spartans have given up only 17.4 points per game in their past 30 home games.

"Michigan State does what they do, and they do it very, very well, and they've done it very well for a great period of time," Irish left tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "As an offensive lineman, I love playing against Michigan State. It's always one of the toughest games, one of the biggest fistfights you're going to be in just because of the way they play."

If oddsmakers are correct, expect another close game. The Irish are a three-point favorite. Ten of their past 15 matchups with Michigan State have been decided by seven points or fewer.

There’s really no overstating the importance of this game for the Irish. If they beat Michigan State, they can prove to themselves and others that they’re capable of winning a big game on the road against a quality opponent.

Lose, and the opposite happens. Because of their home loss to No. 11 Georgia two weeks ago, the Irish already face questions about how improved they really are. Falling to 2-2 would test their confidence and mental toughness.

"I think playing at (Boston College last week) was a tune-up, if you will, for us to enter into a louder and more boisterous atmosphere," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "(The Spartans) have probably had the first 10 plays scripted since May. They're going to look like really good plays. We've got to sustain things for the first few minutes and just hang in there. When the game settles in, if you're doing really well, it starts to quiet down. If you're not, it's really loud."

Kickoff is at 8:12 p.m. at Spartan Stadium. What to watch for:

1. The green and white are green: One caveat: Michigan State is very young on defense, especially at cornerback (sophomore Josh Butler and freshman Josiah Scott) and defensive line (sophomores Kenny Willekes, Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams are three of the starters). Dantonio's defenses play aggressively and physically, but, given its youth, this edition is vulnerable to misdirection runs, counters and play-action passes.

The group Dantonio is running out there this year is still learning. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long should keep that in mind when calling plays. The Spartans' defense doesn't play a lot of zone, so this could be a game where the Irish take more shots downfield.

2. Keep flipping the field: Tyler Newsome quietly has been a huge weapon for Notre Dame. The punter was instrumental in the first three games with a 47.3-yard average on 18 punts. Five of those punts were downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line, and Newsome already has 10 punts of more than 50 yards.

3. Toe the line: Thus far, Michigan State has chosen to operate a dink-and-dunk passing attack, especially with first-year starter Brian Lewerke at quarterback. He has only four completions of at least 20 yards. If Lewerke relies too much on his checkdowns, there might not be a lot of ball-hawking chances for Notre Dame's safeties in the deep middle.

It would make sense, then, that defensive coordinator Mike Elko has his troops crowd the line of scrimmage until the Spartans prove they can stretch the field.

"I think that's the next step," Lewerke said. "That's something I've realized along with everyone else is that it's something I need to be able to do if we want to start beating good teams like Notre Dame."

4. Milestone watch: Josh Adams ranks 14th in Notre Dame history with 2,211 rushing yards. He is 85 yards shy of passing Ryan Grant (2,220), Emil Sitko (2,226), Tony Brooks (2,274) and Randy Kinder (2,295) for 10th on the all-time list.

5. Heavy workload: Notre Dame's defense has been on the field for 229 plays, the 16th most in the FBS among teams that have played no more than three games.

"We've looked at differentials," Kelly said. "Time of possession, snap differential. Still kind of early, but we're going to let the numbers say what they say right now. It's not a time to delve into those numbers at great depth."