Final thoughts before kickoff

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After two Saturdays away from the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish are back home and playing their third consecutive Big Ten opponent. The Michigan State Spartans have climbed into the bottom of the Top 25 in the Coaches Poll on the strength of their defense, a unit that’s statistically at the top of the heap at the quarter-turn of the season.

They’ll go head to head with an Irish offense that’s hoping to get on a roll after a strong second half against Purdue. Just as important, it looks like the Irish defense might have found its way after a struggle to start the season.

An ugly stat has floated around the past few days. Notre Dame has already given up 71 points this season. That didn’t happen until the Irish played Oklahoma last season, eight games into the season.

But after holding Purdue to just one rushing first down and under 300 yards, the defense gained some momentum in the second half as well. Add in some personnel tweaks during the week, and a Spartans offense that looked lost in its first two games, and some momentum could be building as the Irish enter the toughest stretch of their season.

Let’s run through some final thoughts before kickoff.

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Just how good is this Spartans defense? We’ll find out this afternoon. Many have poked a few holes in the Spartans’ No. 1 ranking, considering they’ve played a schedule that’s a collective 0-7 against FBS competition.

Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has referred to his unit’s performance as average, knowing that Saturday’s contest against the Irish will be their first true assessment.

“We’ll find out Saturday. We’re getting into the beef of our schedule,” Narduzzi told MLive.com. “We’ll find out, really, where we are. We’ve been average. We’ll find out, it’s hard to tell.

Underestimate this group at your own risk.

Another Saturday, another chess match for Tommy Rees. Among Narduzzi’s comments were some complimentary things said about Irish senior Tommy Rees. While some Irish fans grumble about the offense’s refusal to “call it and haul it,” Narduzzi talked about the challenges Rees’s ability to check at the line of scrimmage present.

“It’s give and take. They have an athletic quarterback a year ago, and now they have a quarterback who can maybe mentally get them in better plays,” Narduzzi said of Rees. “He does a lot of checking with one second to go, to get them in a perfect play, and that’s to their advantage if they can do that.

“It’s a big chess match. It’s a lot easier to check it on offense than it is on defense, I think. You can have one guy out of place on defense and it’s a big problem.”

Who wins the battle in the trenches? The interior of the Spartans defense is manned by two senior defensive tackles, sixth year player Tyler Hoover and fifth year senior Micajah Reynolds, who averaging 6-foot-6, 298-pounds between them, and eleven years in a college weight room. While the Spartans’ starting DEs aren’t mammoth, the front seven has upperclassmen starting everywhere, less Shilique Calhoun, who has been one of the breakout stars of the defense.

Finding a way to control the line of scrimmage, even if it means some tough sledding for a while, is going to be key if the Irish want to find some offensive balance. Still, it’s hard to see the Irish’s 91st ranked ground game make its breakout against this group.

Will the Irish live and die by the pass? 

When you hear the Irish head coach talk about “manufacturing runs” it leads you to believe that the Irish know it might be tough sledding up front. But controlling the football, and keeping on the positive ledger in the turnover department, is critical.

Not to mention throwing against this secondary. Tommy Rees will be challenged by some excellent personnel and this afternoon is a great test for TJ Jones, Davaris Daniels and company.

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Can Notre Dame win the battle on third down?

Something has to give. The Spartans have been playing elite third down defense, allowing just 16 percent of opponents third downs to be converted so far this season. The past two seasons, the Irish haven’t been much better, with Notre Dame beating the Spartans both times despite converting less that 25 percent of their chances (including a 1-for-14 effort last season).

Tommy Rees has done an excellent job on third down thus far, converting 24 of 44 tries. If he can convert at the same clip this afternoon, Notre Dame will be in very good shape.

Will the Irish defense dominate the Spartan’s offense? It should. Outside of the offensive explosion against Youngstown State, the Spartans offense scored just two touchdowns against Western Michigan and South Florida.

The Spartans hope they’ve found something with Connor Cook, who played very well last weekend against Youngstown State. But the Spartans offense has yet to score more than a touchdown in each of the Irish’s last two wins.

Running back Jeremy Langford has been the primary ball carrier, but Nick Hill has been more dangerous. They’re listed as co-starters with battering ram Riley Bullough.