South Bend, IN (Sports Network) - The 22nd-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish close out a three-game run through the Big Ten, as they play host to the Michigan State Spartans this weekend at Notre Dame Stadium.
Brian Kelly's Irish are 2-1 on the young season with wins over Temple (28-6) and Purdue (31-24) sandwiched around a loss at Michigan (41-30). The Irish had to come from behind to knock off the Boilermakers, outscoring Purdue 21-7 in the fourth quarter to get back in the win column.
Mark Dantonio's Spartans are off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 2010. Michigan State has been fueled by suffocating defensive play, knocking off Western Michigan (26-13), South Florida (21-6) and most recently, Youngstown State (55-17).
The Irish hold a 47-28-1 series advantage and are 28-13 all-time in games played in South Bend. These two teams have split the last 10 meetings, but Notre Dame has won three of the last four matchups, including a 20-10 decision last season.
Michigan State's strength on offense is its ground game. The Spartans are averaging an impressive 209.7 yards rushing per game, on just under five yards per carry (4.9). It has been several contributors to the attack, with Jeremy Langford (4.5 ypc, four TDs) and Nick Hill (7.2 ypc, one TD) leading the way.
While the passing game is second in the offensive arsenal, sophomore quarterback Connor Cook (276 yards, four TDs) has played well in spots.
While the MSU offense has shown flashes of strong play, the defense has been consistently strong this season, ranking first nationally in total defense (177.0 ypg) and pass efficiency defense (68.14 rating), second in opponent's third-down conversion (.160) fourth in rush defense (50.3 ypg) and fifth in pass defense (126.7 ypg). An opportunistic bunch, the Spartans have already recorded four defensive touchdowns, after not doing so all of last year. Sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun has been the leader in that regard, with three defensive touchdowns to his credit thus far.
Junior safety Kurtis Drummond leads the team with 17 total tackles. He is followed by senior linebackers Max Bullough (15 stops) and Denicos Allen (15 tackles). Allen is tied with senior tackle Tyler Hoover and junior end Marcus Rush for the lead in sacks, with two each.
Despite MSU's success on defense, Dantonio sees room for improvement.
"We can always play better. I think there's not one player out there that thinks they are hitting on all cylinders, and that's a positive, because we've been successful thus far defensively."
The Irish fell behind in the first half against Purdue, but quarterback Tommy Rees brought them back with two fourth-quarter TD passes. In all, Rees completed 20-of-33 pass attempts, for 309 yards and the two scores.
Rees has led a passing attack that is netting 326.0 yards per game, as he has completed 60.7 percent of his throws thus far, for 969 yards and seven touchdowns. Wideouts T.J. Jones (19 catches, 289 yards, one TD) and DaVaris Daniels (17 catches, 299 yards, four TDs) have been a potent one-two punch downfield.
Kelly is pleased with Daniels' progress and likes what his receivers have done for the offense as a whole.
"Well, certainly it gives us another big play receiver. I think T.J. has shown his ability to be that guy, as well now you have Daniels that can certainly get down the field and make big plays. It definitely stretches the field for us. Certainly our ability now to vertically push the ball enhances what we want to do now with both of those guys."
Notre Dame's rushing attack, which was so effective in 2012, has struggled in terms of consistency in the early stages of 2013, averaging 125.0 ypg. Amir Carlisle (49.3 ypg), Cam McDaniel (41.7 ypg) and George Atkinson III (32.7 ypg) have shared the workload.
A very stingy unit in 2012, Notre Dame's defense has taken a step back in terms of production this season. The team is yielding 23.7 ppg and 372.0 ypg.
Dan Fox (24 tackles, 2.0 TFL), Jarrett Grace (20 tackles), Carlo Calabrese (18 tackles, 3.0 TFL, one fumble recovery) and Prince Shembo (10 tackles) make up a strong linebacking corps. Bennett Jackson (17 tackles, one INT) and Matthias Farley (13 tackles) are leading the way in the secondary, while All-American Stephon Tuitt (four tackles, one sack, one INT) and Louis Nix III (eight tackles) are the players to watch up front.