There will be plenty of focus on the quarterbacks this week as Michigan State prepares to host Notre Dame on Saturday night, and much of that focus will be on how each can make things happen running the ball.
Michigan State fans have watched sophomore Brian Lewerke make big plays with his feet in each of the Spartans’ two victories while those following Notre Dame are getting excited about junior Brandon Wimbush, who ran for 207 yards and four touchdowns in the Fighting Irish victory over Boston College on Saturday.
It was the most yards ever for a Notre Dame quarterback, surpassing the 146 yards of Bill Etter in 1969.
“I thought he had some great reads in the option,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said on Sunday, “got the ball out on the perimeter, and I think that's what makes him very difficult to defend.”
Michigan State has had extra time to prepare for Wimbush and the Irish offense during a second-week bye and will start to dial in on a plan to stop him in the next couple of days.
Through two games, the Spartans have been effective stopping the run, holding Bowling Green to 67 yards and a strong Western Michigan attack to 116 yards, more than 100 yards below what the Broncos gained in a loss to Southern Cal.
But none of those used the quarterback extensively and there are no plans for the Irish to get away from that plan this week.
“We've run a lot of options, so a lot of the offense has option principles in it for him,” Kelly said. “We'll continue to do that.”
Wimbush was effective on the ground in the season-opening win over Temple, gaining 106 yards. However, he was stymied by Georgia in a Week 2 loss.
He’s also been a bit erratic as a passer, going 11-for-24 for 96 yards and an interception against Boston College. But Kelly sees his rather inexperienced starter making progress.
“He's seeing (things develop) but it's a little bit late, and consequently that's a little bit of his passing game, too, which forces him to rush things and overthrow a little bit, more recognition,” Kelly said. “I'll give you an example. He threw a beautiful corner route to Durham Smythe because he loves that route, so it came out of his hand beautifully. He was positioned great in the pocket. And so when he sees things and he's confident and he knows them, he's synced up and he syncs up our offense wonderfully. We've just got to get him to that, and when we do, I think we've got great balance.”
While Kelly and the Irish focus on getting Wimbush into a groove throwing the ball, they’ll also be putting plenty of work into slowing down Lewerke, who led the Spartans in rushing in the opener with 69 yards before running for 81 against WMU, including a 61-yard touchdown run.
Using a defender to spy Lewerke is an option Kelly is considering.
“I think there's definitely times within the down and distance that the quarterback is going to be somebody that is going to have somebody on him,” Kelly said. “(Boston College) had somebody for Wimbush, and he either got too nosy on a run play or we beat him to the perimeter, and that will be the same thing with Lewerke. You have to have somebody that has him and is accounted for. If you don't, he'll hurt you.”
Kelly emphasized on Sunday how the Irish will have to be ready for a physical matchup with the Spartans, something his team has grown accustomed to facing Michigan State over the years.
The key this time for Notre Dame is having its young quarterback adjust.
“We'll do our best to turn up the intensity here in practice, but again, he's going to have to be emotionally in the right place,” Kelly said. “He's got the skills and the strategy necessary to keep those distractions out, and we're pretty confident he'll be able to do that.”
Notre Dame at Michigan State
Kickoff: 8 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Notre Dame 2-1, Michigan State 2-0
Line: Notre Dame by 4