Two games into the season, Michigan State still has not allowed an offensive touchdown. Two Notre Dame quarterbacks might get a chance to change that.
Notre Dame plans to start sophomore Everett Golson under center with embattled junior Tommy Rees available off the bench as the No. 20 Fighting Irish visit the No. 10 Spartans on Saturday night in search of their first 3-0 start in 10 years.
Michigan State (2-0) ranks eighth in the FBS in holding opponents to 225.5 scrimmage yards per game, and the only two touchdowns scored against the Spartans are interception returns.
That strong defensive performance hasn't come against inferior opponents either, as Michigan State won its opener 17-13 over a then-ranked Boise State team that has finished in the top 10 in scoring in the FBS nine of the last 10 seasons.
Still, Michigan State defensive end William Gholston sees room for improvement.
"As a team we could do a whole lot more," Gholston said after the Spartans intercepted two passes and stopped Central Michigan three times on fourth down in a 41-7 win last Saturday. "Until they don't have any yards, I don't think we will be satisfied."
The Irish appear to have a variety of options available to try to solve the Spartans' defense. Coach Brian Kelly insists that Golson will be the starter for the third straight game. Rees, who started 12 games last season but whose status was put in jeopardy after he was arrested following a skirmish with police after a party in May, will be available as well.
Rees replaced Golson late in the fourth quarter last Saturday, returning from a one-game suspension to lead the Irish downfield for a field goal with 7 seconds left that produced a 20-17 win over Purdue. Golson had injured his thumb and was having some trouble gripping the football, but Kelly said he was ready to make the change even before the injury.
"We also made the decision with the flow of the game that Tommy could come in there and manage our two-minute drill, and he did a great job," said Kelly, who's 2-0 for the first time in three seasons with the Irish and in position to take the team to its first 3-0 start since 2002.
Kelly said he wants his starters to finish the game, but sometimes it's necessary to bring in a reserve such as Rees. He stopped short of saying that Rees would be the team's designated closer going forward.
"It's not a role. I see it as if we feel like Tommy can help us win a game or he can come in in a situation where we believe it's the right fit, then he'll be prepared to do so," Kelly said.
Notre Dame also expects to have Cierre Wood in the backfield Saturday. Last year's leading rusher was suspended for the first two games for violating team rules, but Kelly said he will be reintegrated into the offense.
Rees and Wood were valuable against the Spartans last season. Rees completed 18 of 26 passes with one touchdown and one interception, and Wood had two rushing TDs as unranked Notre Dame beat then-No. 15 Michigan State 31-13 in South Bend. The Spartans' defense had allowed six total points during the team's 2-0 start before struggling against the Irish, who had lost their first two games.
Notre Dame held Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell to 27 yards on seven carries in that game, but Bell has been hard to stop this season. He has totaled 280 rushing yards with four touchdowns in the first two games.
After relying heavily on Bell in the opener, Michigan State leaned on quarterback Andrew Maxwell last Saturday. The first-year starter was 20 of 31 for 275 yards with two TDs and no interceptions.
"You never want to be an offense that's one-dimensional, because once you're one-dimensional, soon you can be no-dimensional," Maxwell said.
Maxwell's quick development will likely be put to the test against the Irish.
"It will be a whole other level for him in terms of pressure," Michigan State quarterbacks coach Dave Warner said. "We're about to find out a lot more about him."
Notre Dame leads the series 46-28-1, but the Spartans have won 10 of the last 15 meetings, including the past two in East Lansing.
Notre Dame has lost six straight road games against ranked teams by an average of 16.7 points dating to a victory over then-No. 22 Purdue on Oct. 1, 2005. Michigan State has won four in a row against Top 25 teams at home, including this season's opener.