Having sandwiched some high-scoring victories against weaker opponents between a one-point loss to Georgia, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish stay on the road with an intriguing and important matchup against the Michigan State Spartans. Last year, a victory at South Bend was the high point of the Spartans’ season before it then proceeded to fall off a cliff.
The intrigue stems from the fact that Michigan State is coming off a bye after having defeated a pair of MAC teams, which doesn’t offer a strong gauge how they’ll perform against the Irish. The Spartans have been most deadly during the second and third quarters, having tallied 49 of their 63 points during those periods.
Below are some of the key matchups to watch:
Brandon Wimbush vs. Michigan State Defense
The passing portion of Wimbush’s overall game is something that still needs to work out the kinks before Notre Dame can feel comfortable about veering away from the run. Wimbush’s legs have certainly been a huge asset thus far, with the redshirt sophomore coming off a game in which he broke a school record for quarterbacks by collecting 207 yards rushing against Boston College.
Containing Wimbush will mean cutting off his running options, with the Spartan defenders still unscored upon after eight quarters. The three touchdowns the team has allowed occurred following a pair of offensive fumbles and kickoff return. Wimbush had a trio of runs for more than 30 yards against BC, including a 65-yard score that was a thing of beauty that showed off his ability to avoid tackles.
Nick Watkins vs. Felton Davis
While Michigan State has also focused a good portion of their offense on their running game, Davis has been one of the main receivers for Lewerke. He’s grabbed four passes in each of the first two games and reached the end zone twice in the season-opening win over Bowling Green. Though he’s more of a possession receiver, Davis offers a big target at 6-foot-4 and has good hands.
Davis’ 2016 campaign was plagued by injury, which mirrors Watkins’ situation that saw him sit out the entire season. In the latter case, Watkins has offered solid coverage during the first three games of 2017. He did fall victim against Georgia to two receptions that required an amazing one-handed grab in the end zone and outstanding leaping ability to haul in a clutch pass, flaws that fall into the category of “what can you do?”
Josh Adams vs. Joe Bachie
Adams has been the cornerstone of the rejuvenated Irish running game in the team’s three games this season, with his 443 yards having been gained in healthy chunks. With a current average per carry at just under eight yards, Adams will remain a fixture in the lineup and could be setting the stage for some individual accolades once the season winds down.
Among those looking to bring him down will be middle linebacker Bachie, who’s risen to a prominent role for the Spartans in a short period of time. The sophomore can be found all over the field, which explains why he’s Michigan State’s leading tackler in 2017. Finding a way to neutralize him on Saturday will give Adams the opportunity to keep those stellar yardage numbers at a high level.
Nyles Morgan vs. LJ Scott
The improved Notre Dame defense has seen Morgan be more active when it comes to creating turnovers and keeping most opposing runners in check. Against Boston College, Morgan forced a fumble and was joined by fellow backer Te’von Coney on making a key fourth down stop during the third quarter that moved momentum in favor of the Irish for good.
Such plays will be needed in the unfriendly climate of East Lansing, with the Spartans having multiple running weapons in the backfield. The main threat is Scott, who follows in a long line of productive Michigan State running backs and has been favorably compared to current Pittsburgh Steeler Le’Veon Bell.
Sam Mustipher vs. Raequan Williams
Having Mustipher at this key position during Notre Dame’s two victories has played an important role in opening up some massive holes for the Irish running game. With that side of the offense presently serving as the most reliable option, Mustipher needs to maintain the high standards that has the Irish running game already on the verge of breaking the 1,000-yard barrier.
Williams is arguably the best player on the defensive line and will offer Mustipher a stiff challenge from the tackle slot. As a freshman last year, he collected a sack in the win over the Irish and with an additional year of experience, his presence could be even more problematic unless Mustipher can keep him in control.