Notre Dame's Defense Is Down and Michigan State Needs to Capitalize

Andrew CoppensContributor ISeptember 20, 2013

Sep 7, 2013; East Lansing, MI, USA;Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook (18) scrambles out of the pocket against South Florida Bulls defensive lineman Elkino Watson (53)  during the 2nd half at Spartan Stadium. MSU won 21-6. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State's defense versus Notre Dame's offense—that is supposed to be the main attraction on Saturday as the two rivals get together under the lights in South Bend. 

However, it may be the exact opposite matchup that matters most when the Spartans and Irish square off for the Megaphone trophy for the 77th time this weekend. 

Over the past few meetings it has been the Notre Dame defense that has been the story, holding the Spartans to 13 and three points in the last two contests respectively. 

This isn't 2011 or 2012 though, and the Notre Dame defense hasn't looked nearly as tough as some thought they would heading into the season. 

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the following has happened already this season

Through three games, the Irish have already allowed 71 points and two rushing touchdowns. Notre Dame was eight games into last season before it had allowed as many points or its first rushing touchdown (Oct. 27 at Oklahoma).

Of course every year is different, but the pattern of success for the Irish in the last few contests against Michigan State has been to play great defense and capitalize on the opportunities MSU gave them offensively. 

This time around though, it needs to the Spartans that use that blueprint to their advantage—especially against a Notre Dame defense head coach Brian Kelly admits "is still coming together."

On the other hand, Michigan State's defense is giving up an average of 1.8 yards per carry this season and is stifling opposition offenses to the tune of just 16 percent on third down conversions—and those are just a few select highlights from a nasty defense in East Lansing to date.

Unfortunately the other part of the task falls on an offense that has been shaky at best and downright awful at other times through the first three games of the season. 

Connor Cook will get the opportunity to start against Notre Dame, but expect him to be on a short leash as head coach Mark Dantonio has made it clear that Andrew Maxwell still has chances ahead of him too

Sep 14, 2013; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back Jeremy Langford (33) is stopped short of the goal line by Youngstown State Penguins safety Tre' Moore (30) during the second half in a game at Spartan Stadium. MSU won 55-17. Mandat
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The one thing that may play into Cook's advantage is confidence. He gained some in the Spartans' 55-17 win over Youngstown State last weekend, going 15-of-22 passing for 202 yards and four touchdowns, and he's apparently been getting confidence from a high school teammate as well

In order for Michigan State to win it needs to find a good mix in the run game between Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford as well.

The duo has combined for 379 of the Spartans' 629 yards on the ground to date. They've also accounted for all five of the rushing touchdowns Michigan State has. 

Combine the decent numbers of Langford and Hill with the fact that Notre Dame gave up 166 yards on the ground to Michigan just two weeks ago and you begin to see where MSU needs to exploit the ND defense. 

It helps the Spartans that Cook is more of the mobile variety at quarterback and that is what hurt Notre Dame just two weeks ago against Devin Gardner. Notre Dame's passing defense hasn't been up to par this season either, allowing opponents nearly 260 yards through the air on average. 

They've also given up seven passing touchdowns on defense, so while the MSU passing offense hasn't struck pay-dirt against an FBS opponent this season, Saturday provides as good an opportunity as any to break that cycle.

The one guy to key on if you are Michigan State is Preseason All-American defensive end Stephon Tuitt. He has managed just one tackle over the past two games and while his physical presence is scary enough, if he isn't producing on the edge the Spartans can take advantage. 

If Michigan State has a chance to start 4-0 for the first time since the 2010 season it will be up to the Spartans offense to capitalize on a Notre Dame defense that just isn't the same as it was a season ago. 

The question is, was last week's offensive performance against an FCS opponent good enough to be confident that MSU can do it against better opposition?

Or was what we saw last weekend all a mirage? 

The answer to that dilemma should come early on in this one, but this might be Michigan State's best chance to have their offense control the game against Notre Dame and stamp another MSU victory on to the Megaphone for a few years—this series won't return until the 2016 season following Saturday's matchup.


*Andy Coppens is the Big Ten Lead Writer. Follow him on Twitter for more of the Big Ten discussion.