Notre Dame Football: Edwin Baker

ND's 2012 opponents, Week 3: MSU

July, 18, 2012
7/18/12
10:30
AM ET
Week 3: Sept. 15 at Michigan State (at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.)
Time/TV: 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Series: Notre Dame leads all-time, 46-28-1
2011 record: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten; first place, Legends Division)
Head coach: Mark Dantonio (44-22, five years)
Returning starters: Offense: 5; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Le'Veon Bell, LT Dan France, C Travis Jackson, DE William Gholston, DE Marcus Rush, LB Denicos Allen, LB Max Bullough, LB Chris Norman, CB Johnny Adams, CB Darqueze Dennard, S Isaiah Lewis

Key losses

QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, WR Keshawn Martin, WR B.J. Cunningham, TE Brian Linthicum, DT Jerel Worthy, S Trenton Robinson

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Le'Veon Bell* (948 yards)

Passing: Kirk Cousins (3,316 yards)

Receiving: B.J. Cunningham (1,306 yards)

Tackles: Max Bullough* (89)

Sacks: Denicos Allen* (11)

Interceptions: Isaiah Lewis* and Trenton Robinson (4)

Three questions for ... Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg:

Their in-state rivals seem to be generating most of the hype this summer, but the Spartans bring back an awful lot from a division-title team last year. Is Michigan State the team to beat in the Big Ten?

Adam Rittenberg: I believe so. Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin enter the season as the potential favorites, but I like Michigan State because of its defense, which I believe to be the single best unit in the Big Ten right now. Despite losing standout tackle Jerel Worthy, the Spartans return a lot of talent. They're headlined by defensive end William Gholston, a bona fide All-America candidate who ended last season with a breakout performance in the Outback Bowl. Junior linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen also return, and the secondary could be the strongest part of the unit. Michigan State was a top 10 defense last year, and even in its loss to Notre Dame, it held the Irish offense mostly in check.

The bigger questions marks come on offense, as almost every valuable skill player departs.

How good is Andrew Maxwell, and, perhaps more importantly, can he be the kind of leader that Kirk Cousins was?

AR: Some are saying Cousins is the greatest quarterback in team history, so Maxwell certainly has some big shoes to fill. The good thing is he has had time to prepare for this role. This isn't a true freshman being thrown to the wolves. Maxwell has been Cousins' backup the past two seasons and has a lot of similar personality traits to his predecessor. The coaches really like what they've seen from him in practices and scrimmages, but he certainly needs to prove himself in the spotlight. He missed the second half of spring ball with a knee injury but is back to full strength. It's really important he builds chemistry with a new look receiving corps that includes Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett.

Maxwell's role is important, but Michigan State undoubtedly will be much more of a run-first team in 2012. An offensive line that struggled at times last season returns almost fully intact, and junior running back Le'Veon Ball also is back in the fold. Bell has the potential to be a superstar, and he'll see his carries load increase.

What's the ceiling on this defense, which returns eight starters and plenty of more young talent?

AR: This defense can be at least as good as it was last season, if not better. Sure, Worthy is a big loss, but defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said Worthy and Anthony Rashad White, who returns, were virtually interchangeable at the end of last season. If several young players step up on the D-line, Michigan State should be strong there. The secondary appears to be the defense's strength, and cornerback Johnny Adams, a likely high draft pick next April, leads the way. There's also a lot of excitement about Bullough and Allen at linebacker. Michigan State will have to lean on its defense, particularly early in the season with so many changes on offense, but the unit looks ready to answer the bell.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Here's a look at the first half, which closes with the Fighting Irish leading the Spartans 21-10 after a fake field goal try that this time didn't go MSU's way.

Stat of the half: 13. Notre Dame has held MSU to 13 yards on the ground on 14 carries, bottling up Edwin Baker and getting pressure on Kirk Cousins. The problem, of course, has been stopping the intermediate throws.

Best player in the half: Cierre Wood. The running back has set the tone on offense for the Irish, carrying the ball nine times for 64 yards and two scores. The Irish will rely more on him and Jonas Gray playing with a lead in the second half.

What Notre Dame needs to do: The Irish need to continue to pressure Cousins, who has taken some nasty hits in the first half. Aaron Lynch has gotten through MSU's offensive line several times and delivered a few blows himself.

What team Michigan State needs to do: The Spartans have done a solid job on Michael Floyd so far, limiting him to three catches and 45 yards, with one catch accounting for 33 of those yards. But MSU needs to keep getting the ball to its main threat, B.J. Cunningham. He has four catches for 64 yards so far and has been all over the field, causing problems for the Irish defense. He'll become a more important weapon with MSU playing from behind.
SOUTH BEND, Ind -- Cierre Wood's six-yard touchdown run, his second of the day, did more than just put Notre Dame up 21-10. It gave an offense that had not recorded a first down since its second drive of the game a much-needed boost.

And, consequently, it gave the Fighting Irish's defense a much needed break after a pair of turnovers and a kickoff return for a score kept the unit running onto the field without any real rest.

The Irish went 92 yards on 10 plays, taking up four minutes, 49 seconds. Tommy Rees' 33-yard pass to Michael Floyd was the big play, but Notre Dame's ground game has opened things up, with Wood and Jonas Gray each getting nine carries and running for 64 and 54 yards, respectively.

On defense, the Irish have bottled up Edwin Baker and the rest of Sparty's ground attack, limiting it to eight yards going into what is likely its final drive of the half. Kirk Cousins has had success on play-action and has completed 8 of 12 passes, but the Irish have been getting to him in the backfield, and the run threat can only last so long.

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