Notre Dame concludes the Big Ten portion of its schedule at 3:30 ET Saturday against Michigan State. Here are five things we'll be watching for as the Fighting Irish try to make it three in a row over the Spartans.
Getting the ground game going: Notre Dame has struggled to establish a true run game so far this season. Granted, the Irish have spent much of the past two games playing from behind, but they still average just 125 rushing yards per game, good for 91st nationally. While there appears to be a clear separation between the junior running backs (George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel) and the freshmen (Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston), there is still no true pecking order. McDaniel carried the ball 10 times on Notre Dame's final drive against Purdue to run out the clock, but Carlisle has the slight lead in carries (30) and rushing yards (148) so far this season. How things shake out Saturday, and moving forward the rest of the season, is anyone's guess.
Defensive line play: Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt entered 2013 as preseason All-Americans seemingly destined to become high first-round draft picks this spring. Nix has just eight total tackles and one tackle for loss through three games. Tuitt has four tackles to go with a sack and a gifted pick-six courtesy of Devin Gardner. Of course, numbers don't tell the whole story with defensive linemen, but Notre Dame's opponents in the first three games have done a great job of establishing a quick passing game, taking the defensive line out of the game. It remains to be seen whether Michigan State has the personnel to negate the strengths of the Irish's front.
Sheldon Day's status: Speaking of defensive line play, let's not forget about the third starter, sophomore Sheldon Day. The Indianapolis native suffered a sprained ankle late last Saturday at Purdue and was in a walking boot this week before returning to the practice field Thursday. Coach Brian Kelly said that Day is a game-time decision, and his potential absence could further test a line whose depth has been shrinking since the summer.
Punt return unit tries to improve: TJ Jones totaled 41 punt return yards through Notre Dame's first two games, just five yards shy of the Irish's total for all of last season. Last week at Purdue, however, Jones and the punt return game looked like the unit of the previous two years, with Jones making the mental mistake of fair-catching a punt at his own 4-yard line in the first quarter, then nearly going after a punt that bounced by him in the third quarter, a very dangerous move. Colleague Brian Bennett predicted a special teams score Saturday for Notre Dame, as the Irish look to put the horrors of their recent punt return history in the past.
Tommy Rees' momentum: Don't look now, but the senior is seventh nationally in passing yards with 969 to go with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Rees leads the nation in passing yards against FBS opponents. He was strong in the second half at Purdue and had a strong sideline presence in between drives, demanding teammates' undivided attention as he eventually led them out of a late hole. Rees earned a game ball for his efforts, and he will look to keep the rhythm going against the Spartans' top-ranked defense.