Notre Dame Football: Keshawn Martin

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.

Early 2012 opponent power rankings

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
3:00
PM ET
With 2011 in the rearview mirror, here is an early look at Notre Dame's 2012 opponents, with the game date and site in parantheses.

1. USC (Nov. 24, away): Matt Barkley's return makes the Trojans a trendy preseason national title pick and Barkley a likely preseason Heisman frontrunner. They host the Irish in the regular-season finale, and how sweet it would be for Notre Dame should they knock their rivals off with the highest stakes on the line.

2. Oklahoma (Oct. 27, away): Like the Trojans, the Sooners return their prized quarterback (Landry Jones) and will, at the very least, enter 2012 as the Big 12 favorite.

3. Michigan State (Sept. 15, away): Kirk Cousins and Keshawn Martin are gone, but the Spartans return four offensive linemen and plenty of production on the defensive side of the ball as they go for a third-straight 11-win season.

4. Michigan (Sept. 22, home): Denard Robinson and several key skill players likely return, but the Wolverines lose a lot on each line and will rely on several young players to fill the void.

5. Stanford (Oct. 13, home): Perhaps the biggest mystery entering 2012. We just don't know how much this team will drop off following the likely loss of Andrew Luck. Time will tell.

6. BYU (Oct. 20, home): Another wild card. Much will depend on the growth of dual-threat QB Riley Nelson and the Cougars' offense.

7. Purdue (Sept. 8, home): The Boilermakers finished 2011 with back-to-back wins for the first time this season and have a bit of momentum under Danny Hope. Some see them as a darkhorse Leaders Division contender in 2012.

8. Miami (Oct. 6, Chicago): The Hurricanes will likely be led by a defense that returns eight starters for Al Golden's second year.

9. Wake Forest (Nov. 17, home): Quarterback Tanner Price is back, but the Demon Deacons must eliminate the mistakes that cost them five of their final six games and two assistants their jobs.

10. Boston College (Nov. 10, away): The Eagles got better as the season went on and hope new offensive coordinator Doug Martin can bring the unit up to speed with the defense, which loses Luke Kuechly.

11. Navy (Sept. 1, Dublin): Can Trey Miller build off 2011, when he was forced in midseason for the injured Kriss Proctor?

12. Pitt (Nov. 3, home): New coach Paul Chryst will have his work cut out for him on a team with quarterback, protection and, at least in the past calendar year, coaching issues.

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