Notre Dame will face their other Michigan-based rival this Saturday in the form of the Michigan State Spartans. While the Spartans are not exactly a central fixture of the national sports media, they have quietly worked their way to the No. 1-ranked total defense in the nation.
The accolades do not end with their ranking. MSU defensive end Shilique Calhoun has been named the National Defensive Player of the Week by The Football Writers Association of America in their latest press release.
Notre Dame, conversely, has been struggling on defense, leaving Tommy Rees and the Irish offense to pick up the slack.
With the Spartan D only allowing 177 yards per game, Brian Kelly will need to have the offense in top form when they take on the Spartans at Notre Dame stadium.
Here are four ways he can get around the Michigan State defense:
1. Run Power
In the stable of running backs available to Kelly, Cam McDaniel has emerged as the go-to guy for power rushes. Sure, he only averages 4.3 yards per attempt, but add three of those together and you have a first down and then some.
MSU has the No. 4-ranked rushing D in the nation, so the scat back, outside-the-line style the Irish have been fond of in the past runs the risk of producing negative yardage.
Running power may not always produce huge runs, but the risk of negative yardage is substantially reduced as the rusher runs north-south directly into the line, not out and around.
2. Continue to Deliver on Special Teams
One area the Irish have markedly improved in this year is special teams. When I say special teams, I am specifically referring to kick and punt returns.
Notre Dame is currently ranked 12th in kick return and 44th in returning punts. That might not blow your hair back but consider that last year they were ranked 93rd and 116th, respectively.
Getting good field position is critical to the success of the hot and cold Irish offense.
If George Atkinson III and T.J. Jones are able to continue their hot streaks in returning the ball and avoiding costly mistakes, it will ease pressure on the offense.
3. Rees/DaVaris Daniels in the End Zone
The MSU defense has one Achilles heel: the red zone. The Spartans are tied for last (ranking 91st) inside the 20-yard line.
Daniels has been on fire this season, with 17 receptions for 299 yards and four touchdowns.
He is averaging a whopping 17.6 receiving yards per reception. Yes, you read that correctly. To put that into perspective, consider that Heisman-hyped USC wide receiver Marqise Lee is only averaging 13 yards, and Oregon State Biletnikoff Award candidate Brandin Cooks sits just below Daniels at 17.2.
For those of you who say a wide receiver is defined by more than just his receiving yard stat sheet, I'd like to point out Daniels' 82-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter against Purdue.
If Rees can continue the success he has had with Daniels into the red zone, the Irish offense will be able to put points on the board.
Execution must be stressed above all else this week during practice. The best laid plans mean nothing without proper execution and Notre Dame has stalled on execution several times in the last three weeks.
This is the most obvious of the four points, but that does not make it any less valid. Without execution, none of the points made above will mean anything.
I'm going to finish this article with a quote often attributed to Mark Twain via Twainquotes.com: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."
Michigan State may have the No. 1 overall defense in the country at the moment, but that is largely due to their strength of schedule—or lack thereof.
I'm not saying the Spartan D should be taken lightly, but if all offensive cylinders are firing, this will be a manageable game for the Irish.
For all things Notre Dame follow Emily O'Neill Elmer on Twitter @emilystorms.
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