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Commentary: Not sneezing at MSU rivalry game

Sam Werner | Thursday, September 17, 2009

Michigan State may not be the most storied rival in Notre Dame football history – that distinction would belong to USC – and the Spartans are not Notre Dame’s most hated enemy – we visited them last week.

No, the series with the Spartans doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of the Irish-Trojan rivalry, or the good ol’ fashioned hate of a showdown with the Wolverines, but the Spartans sure do have Notre Dame’s number of late.

The Irish have beaten USC and Michigan four times apiece in Notre Dame Stadium since the last home win over the Spartans, and that includes two two-year breaks from the series with the Wolverines.

Read that last paragraph again.

Michigan State has never lost in the renovated Notre Dame Stadium. Lou Holtz was the last Irish coach to beat the Spartans.

I could go on all day with fun facts about the last time Notre Dame beat Michigan State at home – Jimmy Clausen was five years old and Bill Clinton was a year and a half into his first term – but I’d much rather look forward than back, and that’s the same attitude this team has taken.

While they should be aware of the 16-year drought, focus on the one-year winning streak that should start Saturday. From a short-term point of view, learn from last week’s loss, but don’t let it consume you.

“It’s just one loss,” Clausen said in a press conference Tuesday. “And now there’s 10 more games to be played in the season. As much as we don’t want to lose a game, that’s in the past. That happened Saturday, and we are getting ready to play Michigan State this Saturday.”

You see, this is a team that knows a thing or two about ending streaks.

They went to Hawaii last December and, in addition to the demoralizing losses to Syracuse and USC, Notre Dame had a not-so-little bowl losing streak on their minds. They blew out the Warriors, and this team, virtually all the same players from the Hawaii Bowl, should use that experience Saturday.

By all accounts, this year’s team is better prepared to respond to a loss than last year’s squad, and that was evident in miniature form last weekend. When the Wolverines took a 31-20 lead early in the fourth quarter, instead of packing up shop à la the 2008 team, the Irish responded to eventually take the lead. That mini comeback should be replicated in macro form this Saturday, only this time, Notre Dame might actually hold on to the lead.

There’s one other factor at work this Saturday that should motivate Notre Dame, or at the very least inspire coach Charlie Weis.

In terms of job security, this game, and the two that follow it, are collectively the most important games of Weis’ tenure at Notre Dame.

If Weis wins all three, against Purdue and Washington after Michigan State, the team will have momentum and a top-25 ranking heading into the matchup with USC. A 4-1 Irish team may even have a puncher’s chance against the mighty Trojans.

But if Notre Dame should lose one of these three games, well, Weis might not even make it to the USC game.

That’s an exaggeration of course – I fully expect Charlie Weis to finish out the season – but a loss prior to USC will commence the final countdown of Weis’ Notre Dame career.

There’s no excuse for sloppy practices this week. Weis is coaching for his job, and the players have a streak-buster mentality.

“Last week was last week,” defensive captain Kyle McCarthy said. “It wasn’t our worst week of practice but I would definitely say it wasn’t our best. So obviously the leaders and the coaches are going to take care of that, and we’ll get it right this week.”

Put me in the camp who believes the Irish will get it right this week, and Notre Dame can finally end one more embarrassing streak.

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

Contact Sam Werner at swerner@nd.edu