SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The next three weekends could very well determine in what direction Notre Dame goes this fall.
After a date with Michigan State this weekend, the Irish face back-to-back ranked opponents: At home vs. No. 14 Oklahoma, then in Dallas against No. 23 Arizona State. Notre Dame gets a bye after Arizona State before facing USC.
Win all three and Notre Dame, despite a shaky start, could have the momentum to be on its way to a BCS Bowl. A loss in any one of these pivotal games could doom those hopes.
Michigan State may not be ranked, but the Spartans come to South Bend with the nation's best defense. That's the bad news. The good news is that Brian Kelly's Notre Dame teams have played Michigan State well since he took over, with a fake field goal the only thing separating Kelly from a 3-0 record against Mark Dantonio.
"It's not like I have to stand in front of them and get them ready for this fight, Kelly said. "They know what kind of fight it's going to be. This isn't, you know, hey, guys, please listen to me this week. They know what they are going to get from Michigan State."
That'll be a tough, physical matchup that projects on paper as being low-scoring. Consider this: Through three games, Michigan State's defense has allowed a 16 percent success rate, a stat that measures an offense's success in getting 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down and 100 percent on third/fourth down, per Football Outsiders.
Notre Dame has averaged 68 plays this year. If Michigan State limits them to a 16 percent success rate, they'd gain "successful" yardage on about 11 of those plays.
"That's one of the biggest challenges they present, is they really get after you," quarterback Tommy Rees said. "They're physical and they're extremely well-coached in what they're doing, and I think obviously you see why they've had success and why they've been rated high."
Outside of last weekend's game against FCS-side Youngstown State, Michigan State's defense has buoyed a lagging offense. Two of Michigan State's three touchdowns against South Florida were courtesy of defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who returned a fumble and an interception for scores in a 21-6 win.
Notre Dame's expecting a low-scoring, grind-it-out kind of game, which makes capitalizing on any small mistake by the Spartans defense that much more important.
"When they're giving up as little points as they have, you have to take advantage of the opportunities," wide receiver T.J. Jones said. "A missed opportunity here could be the difference between winning the game and losing momentum and losing the game."
Notre Dame was tested by Purdue last weekend, but Purdue wasn't a test. Michigan State is a much better barometer of where the Irish stand, and the same goes for Oklahoma and Arizona State after it (USC, too, may be a far different team on Oct. 19 than they are today).
A four-game stretch last year wound up defining Notre Dame's season: A close win against Stanford, a closer-than-expected win over BYU, a titanic win at Oklahoma and a narrow escape against Pittsburgh teed the Irish up for a berth in the BCS Championship. That may be an unattainable goal this fall, but the next best thing will either still be on the table or off the table a month from now.
"The next few weeks are going to be pretty tough, and we're going to see what kind of team we are and what kind of team we want to be," wide receiver DaVaris Daniels said. "We'll definitely find out."