In the fourth installment of a 12-part series previewing Notre Dame's 2013 opponents, I'll take a detailed look at the Michigan State Spartans, the Irish's third and final Big Ten Conference foe of the season.
The day was Sept. 18, 2010, and the play was called "Little Giants."
Clinging to a 31-28 lead against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium, Notre Dame's field-goal defense unit braced itself for an attempt at a block, only to be caught on its heels by a fake field-goal pass from kicker Aaron Bates to tight end Charlie Gantt that resulted in a game-winning touchdown.
The scoreboard loomed large for the Irish, displaying a final score of 34-31 in favor of the Spartans, a loss that dropped head coach Brian Kelly's squad to 1-2 in his first season on the job.
Since that demoralizing loss in East Lansing, Mich., Notre Dame has taken control of the series, winning the ensuing two meetings by a combined score of 51-16.
The Spartans will make the trip south to Notre Dame Stadium in search of their first victory against the Irish since the Little Giants triumph, a moment that has been etched into the history book of The Battle for the Megaphone Trophy.
This season's contest will be the fourth of the 2013 slate for each team, and will be the first road trip of the season for Michigan State.
What should you expect from head coach Mark Dantonio's Spartans when they take the field at Notre Dame Stadium?
Game Day Information
Who: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State
When: Sept. 21, 3:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
Michigan State Team Information
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (seventh season, 51-28 record at Michigan State)
Conference: Big Ten
Returning Starters: Offense (seven), Defense (six)
2012 Record: 7-6 (Defeated TCU, 17-16, in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl)
Aside from the triple-option attack employed by Navy, Michigan State's physical, downhill style has been the most consistent offensive approach on the Irish's schedules for the better part of the past decade.
The Spartans' offense is reliant upon the rushing attack, as evidenced by former running back Le'Veon Bell's 382 carries last season, which resulted in 1,793 yards. While Bell is gone—the 6'1", 250-pound back was selected 48th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in April's NFL draft—the Spartan offensive line that paved the way for him returns three of five starters.
That figure would have been four, but incumbent starting right tackle Skyler Burkland made the decision to end his career in football after suffering a rash of injuries during his first three seasons at Michigan State.
Despite the loss of Burkland, the Spartan offensive line must plow ahead in the hopes that the combination of running backs Nick Hill (5'8", 190) and Jeremy Langford (6'0", 208) will effectively fill the void left behind by Bell.
Yet Michigan State's most pressing concern is the passing game, which struggled mightily last season—the Spartans finished 85th nationally in passing offense, averaging just 209.2 yards per game.
Receivers Bennie Fowler, Keith Mumphery, Tony Lippett and Aaron Burbridge will be counted upon to spark some life into a passing offense directed by second-year starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell.
During Dantonio's tenure at Michigan State, the Spartans have earned a reputation as one of the stingiest 4-3 defenses in the Big Ten Conference.
The unit, which prides itself on stopping the run, ranked eighth nationally in rushing defense last season.
However, the Spartan defense rarely touched opposing quarterbacks, recording a paltry 13 sacks last season, which earned the unit a national ranking of 93rd. The losses of defensive end William Gholston and defensive tackle Anthony Rashad White won't help matters, though the Spartans return two veteran leaders at linebacker in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen.
The secondary may be the strongest unit of the Spartan defense, with cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safeties Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond each returning.
The group finished last season as the Big Ten Conference's leader in passing efficiency defense while also earning top honors in interceptions with 14.
Should Michigan State shore up its issues in the pass-rushing department, the Spartans may have a championship-caliber defense on their hands.
After losing three of four to Michigan State from 2007-10, Notre Dame has beaten the Spartans at their own game in winning the previous two meetings in the series.
The Irish have outrushed the Spartans 236 yards to 79 during the last two editions of the rivalry.
That is the single most telling statistic of Notre Dame's two consecutive victories, and more of the same seems to be in the works once again this season, especially with defensive end Stephon Tuitt and nose guard Louis Nix wreaking havoc along the defensive line.
With the Irish boasting such a stout, quality front seven, along with a steady, experienced quarterback in Tommy Rees, Notre Dame should be the narrow favorite in this contest.
Predicted Score: Notre Dame 17, Michigan State 10
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