Sept. 16, 2016
By John Heisler
When Irish head coach Brian Kelly's 2016 Notre Dame football team takes the Notre Dame Stadium field Saturday night for the second of three consecutive home games (the first time in nine years that has happened), here are five things to watch:
1.The two different quarterback situations
The Irish play a long list of opponents in 2016 with first-year quarterbacks-and that continues Saturday night against Michigan State's fifth-year senior and captain Tyler O'Connor (13 of 18 passing for 190 yards and three TDs vs. Furman in the Spartans' 2016 opener). Before the current season, O'Connor (he's from the same high school, Lima Central Catholic in Ohio, as 1966 Irish captain Jim Lynch) had thrown a combined 54 passes over his first three seasons (including one start in 2015-a win over Ohio State). Meanwhile the Irish counter with another Ohio product in junior DeShone Kizer (he's from Toledo) who ranks fifth nationally this week in passing efficiency at 195.9. Kizer (30 of 42 for 371 yards, seven TDs, one interception; 23 rushing carries for 112 yards, two TDs) rates sixth nationally in 2016 with his seven scoring throws.
2. There's differing prep time
Who is in better position for this contest? Is it a Michigan State team that played its only 2016 outing at home 15 days ago and has had a long wait and lengthy preparation opportunities to face the Irish? Or is it a Notre Dame team that had to come out of the gate at full speed in front of 100,000-plus fans in Austin, Texas, versus the Texas Longhorns and then played a home game a week ago against Nevada to make adjustments from that first game and, ultimately, built some confidence?
3. These two teams will be physical...
It may well be the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State game that ended in a 10-10 tie, but there's no need to watch the fuzzy video of that brutal contest to recall how these two teams go after it on the gridiron. These are football programs that take great pride in knocking other teams into the dirt (or, in this case, the FieldTurf). Expect nothing less Saturday night in Notre Dame Stadium.
4. The fight for Midwest supremacy
If there's a suggestion that there's some amount of interest in college football in places like South Bend and East Lansing (not to mention Columbus and Ann Arbor and others), then this game between two ranked squads counts for a lot. What better way for Notre Dame to suggest it belongs in the playoff discussion than by defeating a team that made the playoff a year ago and is the only team in the country to finish in the top six of the final Associated Press polls the last three years? And what better way for Michigan State to put itself on the 2016 map than by winning against a ranked Irish team, especially considering the Spartans have not been victorious in Notre Dame Stadium since 2007? And whatever happens Saturday, the two teams do it again Sept. 23, 2017, in Spartan Stadium.
5. Defensive progress
Brian Kelly liked the way his defense responded a week ago against Nevada coming off a challenging opening week at Texas. Against the Wolf Pack, the Irish tackled better, played the ball in the air better and generally competed at a more efficient level than they did in Austin. The Spartans present another difficult test that will be another telling early-season measuring stick for Notre Dame.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler follows the Irish football scene for Fighting Irish Media. He'll be in the Notre Dame Stadium press box Saturday night, so look for his Sunday Brunch piece, an inside recap of what happens as Brian Kelly's squad continues its 2016 home season.