Five keys to the Notre Dame-Michigan State game

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune


Brian Lewerke came to Michigan State labeled as a pro-style quarterback by all four major recruiting services. Yet the 6-foot-3, 212-pound sophomore has shown himself to be plenty capable as a runner in his two starts this season. Lewerke leads the Spartans with 150 rushing yards and two touchdowns on only 17 carries. Notre Dame’s defense will need to keep Lewerke from escaping the pocket and force him into a one-dimensional player.


Speaking of one-dimensional players, Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush became one in the win over Boston College. His 207 rushing yards, a school record for quarterbacks, and four touchdowns only took some of the spotlight away from his dreadful passing performance (11-of-24 for 96 yards and one interception). Wimbush might not have to win Saturday’s game with his arm, but he needs to show improvement and an ability to keep drives alive in the passing game.


Michigan State ranks first nationally in third-down down defense through two games. The Spartans have only allowed a first-down conversion three times on 28 third downs. The best way for Notre Dame to avoid third-down frustration? Success on first and second down. The Irish can avoid third-and-long (or third down at all) with a consistent running game and easy completions on early downs. Wimbush and the Irish offense have only converted on 37.5 percent of third downs.


Three of Michigan State’s four scoring drives against Western Michigan included runs of more than 40 yards. Lewerke’s 61-yard touchdown run started the scoring and wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. and running back L.J. Scott set up the final two touchdowns with runs of 46 yards and 44 yards, respectively. Notre Dame’s defense must prevent big gains on the ground to force the Spartans into having to move the ball methodically down the field. That could be a big ask for Lewerke and Co.


The Irish will have a significant advantage in experience Saturday. Twelve of Michigan State’s 22 projected starters are redshirt sophomores with six each on offense and defense. And only four of Michigan State’s projected starters were starters in last season’s 36-28 victory over Notre Dame. The Irish need to find ways to force the younger Spartans into tough situations that lead to momentum-swinging mistakes.

Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3) runs the ball for a touchdown during the Notre Dame-Michigan State NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)