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Schedule Preview: Michigan State

Spring Football in getting underway across the country, and Notre Dame's opening game is less than 180 days away. Blue & Gold Illustrated will be breaking down the 2012 schedule and ranking teams based on difficulty during the next two weeks to get you ready for spring practice.

Defensive end William Gholston, center, will be a big playmaker for the Spartan defense in 2012.

No. 5: Michigan State

Sept. 15, 2012 — East Lansing, Mich.
Last Meeting: Notre Dame upset the Spartans 33-13 for its much-needed first win of the year after starting 0-2 last September. Freshman George Atkinson III returned a kick for a touchdown, and senior Robert Blanton sealed the win with a late interception.

Spring Practice Dates: March 27 – April 28

Season Outlook:
Michigan State missed a long-awaited trip to the Rose Bowl by a field goal when they lost to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game last year. They ended the season on a high note by outlasting Georgia to win the Outback Bowl in triple overtime and finish the year 11-3.

This year the Spartans have to replace starting quarterback and team leader Kirk Cousins along with six other starters on offense. They have to do it in a hurry, too, before starting the year with a true test against Boise State. Head coach Mark Dantonio has built the type of program in his six years in East Lansing that can fill the gaps of seven starters during an offseason. The Spartans return the majority of their top ten defense and will be tough again in 2012.

Top Returners: RB Le’Veon Bell, DE William Gholston
Bell outshined would-be senior Edwin Baker, who decided to enter the NFL Draft, by taking over the bulk of the carries as a sophomore. He led the team with 13 touchdowns and 948 total yards. That role will likely grow larger next season with almost every other playmaker on the Spartan offense graduating or leaving for the NFL.

Gholston is frighteningly quick for a man who is 6-foot-7 and weighs 280 pounds. The former five-star recruit from Detroit had his character called into question after throwing a punch during the Spartans win over Michigan in October, but no one can doubt his talent. The sophomore was the best player on the field when Michigan State beat Georgia in the bowl game, finishing with seven tackles and two key sacks. Next season he will anchor a staunch Michigan State defense along with junior linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen.

Top Newcomer: QB Andrew Maxwell, WR Aaron Burbridge
Maxwell has been on campus for three full years and will not get his shot to run the Spartans offense. The redshirt junior has thrown a total of 51 career passes while backing up Kirk Cousins. The former high school All American has waited patiently for three years and likely has a solid grasp on the offense. He is almost identical to Cousins in size and his coaches claim he’s more athletic than his predecessor.

The Spartans graduate four of their eight X and Z wide receivers, which should leave space for freshman Aaron Burbridge to get an early shot on the field. Burbridge is the top prospect in the state of Michigan, according to 247Sports. His 4.40 speed and 6-foot-2 frame could come in handy for Maxwell this year.

Biggest Losses: DT Jerel Worthy, WR B.J. Cunningham
Last season Worthy became the first Michigan State defensive linemen to be named an All American since Bubba Smith. He was one of the top run-cloggers in college football and picked up 30 tackles and 3.5 sacks while gift-wrapping many more for his linebackers. After Worthy’s father suffered a stroke, he decided to leave a year early for the NFL Draft to help his family. He leaves a dearth of experience at the defensive tackle spot for the Spartans this year.

Cunningham was a consistent pass-catcher for Michigan State for the past four years. He wraps us his career as the school’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards. He always played well against the Irish as well, averaging eight catches and 111 yards in the teams’ last three meetings. As a senior he caught 12 touchdown passes and was named the Spartans' MVP.

Spring Question? Who will emerge as the team’s next group of playmakers on offense? Cunningham, Keith Nichols and Keshawn Martin are all gone this season. So are Cousins, Baker and tight end Brian Linthicum. Bell will undoubtedly have a lot of that responsibility heaped on his shoulders. But if he is going to have another big year he will need others like tight end Dion Sims and two-way player Tony Lippett to make some plays and ease the pressure.

Why They’re Here:
Notre Dame could very well go into all five of the games remaining on our schedule countdown as an underdog. Playing Michigan State at home is not an easy task, especially against a strong returning defense. The Irish stopped Michigan State’s running game in its tracks last season. If they can do the same to Bell again they’ll have a decent chance to win a low scoring affair.

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