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Weis can earn his keep Saturday

Ken Fowler | Friday, September 22, 2006

Two weeks ago, Joe Paterno called Charlie Weis “one of the best” coaches in football at exploiting opponents’ weaknesses. A week later, Weis was helpless in the face of the Michigan onslaught.

But Weis can’t dwell on what people say or what happened a game ago. Weis must put the past behind him and do what he does best – find a soft spot in Michigan State and attack it.

Weis did just that against Pittsburgh, Purdue, BYU, Tennessee, Navy and Syracuse in 2005. Calling swing pass after swing pass in the face of BYU’s 3-3-5 defense helped Weis secure a 10-year contract extension worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $30-40 million.

If there were ever a time to earn that salary, it’s now.

Against Georgia Tech, the Irish offense struggled mightily with one main exception – the no-huddle offense. Notre Dame found comfort in the hurry-up attack again against Penn State. And when the offensive woes returned to Notre Dame Stadium against Michigan, Weis’ only successful strategy, limited as it was, amounted to sending Brady Quinn to the line in a no-huddle offense that moved downfield not because of a strong plan but because of the Wolverines’ confusion.

At this point, Weis may have gone to the well too many times. So Weis’ job is to figure out what this Notre Dame team can do to beat Michigan State.

On offense, he must figure out a way to neutralize Michigan State’s speed rushers Justin Kershaw and Ervin Baldwin on the ends while not feeding into the hands of 300-pound behemoths Clifton Ryan and Ogemdi Nwagbuo in the middle.

That might mean utilizing counters and misdirections against the Spartans – something the Irish have not done a single time this year. Or it could equal running out of a two-tailback set – another void of the Irish offense. Or maybe Weis will have Notre Dame’s guards pull more than they have this year to help clear a path for a struggling Darius Walker.

Weis must make that call and figure out what will work best against a defense that has surrendered just 78.67 yards per game, No. 22 in the nation. It’s what he’s paid for.

But it’s not the only thing.

On the defensive front, he faces the challenge of getting more pressure on the quarterback – Notre Dame is just No. 65 in the country in sacks – against a team that is in the top-25 in protecting its quarterback. And that quarterback just happens to be the elusive Drew Stanton.

To make the challenge even tougher, the average weight of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen (277 pounds) is more than 30 pounds less than Michigan State’s offensive linemen (309 pounds). Compare that to the 10-pound advantage the Irish offensive line maintains over the Spartan defensive line, and sit’s easy to see the potential problem.

But Weis may have a solution. The Irish used “stunt” rushes more in their first two contests than they did in most of 2005. By creating a little confusion on the offensive lines of Georgia Tech and Penn State, the Notre Dame defense kept quarterbacks Reggie Ball and Anthony Morelli off balance enough to control the game.

Weis and his defensive staff – coordinator and linebackers coach Rick Minter, line coach Jappy Oliver and secondary coach Bill Lewis – must figure out how to stop Stanton’s Spartans, who have gained a Herculean 506.33 yards per game, third best in the NCAA.

They can.

Weis, Minter, Oliver and Lewis shut down Michigan in September of 2005. They kept USC in check four weeks later. And they held Georgia Tech and Penn State to minimal production earlier this year.

Weis and Co. have beaten opponents almost singularly by using Xs and Os in nearly half of their games coaching at Notre Dame. There’s a reason why JoePa, college football’s most revered leader, sang nothing but praise for Weis.

But like Heisman Trophy caliber players, coaches have bad games. Weis had one against Michigan.

And like Heisman Trophy caliber players, coaches must rebound from those bad games and put in one of their best performances.

Weis has shown he can do it before, just ask BYU. The question is, will he do it again?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Ken Fowler at kfowler1@nd.edu