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Physical rivalry to be won by ‘last man standing’

Jack Hefferon | Wednesday, September 18, 2013

After a miniature two-game road trip, the No. 22 Irish will return to Notre Dame Stadium this weekend to face an elite defense, a quarterback coming into his own and one of their peskiest rivals when they host Michigan State on Saturday.

The Spartans (3-0) will be the third consecutive Big Ten opponent Notre Dame (2-1) has faced, with the Irish splitting contests at Michigan and Purdue over the past two weeks.

Michigan State and Notre Dame have played historically tight games over the last 15 or so years, and Irish coach Brian Kelly’s introduction to the rivalry three years ago was certainly one of them. Down three points in overtime, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio lined his players up for a game-tying field goal, only to fake it and claim a 34-31 victory.

The Irish took back the Megaphone Trophy the next year with a dominant 31-13 win and held on to it last season by going into Spartan Stadium and shutting down the home team in a 20-3 slugfest.

Kelly said he and his players know to expect a battle from the Spartans this weekend, especially with the history between the teams.

“Dantonio’s teams … are physical and certainly well-prepared in all phases of the game,” Kelly said. “It’s the Michigan State teams that we’ve come to know and respect, and again, it’s going to be one of those typical Big Ten games where [the] last man standing through four quarters comes out victorious.”

This Michigan State squad is especially daunting, as it enters this week boasting the nation’s best defense. Through three games, that unit has given up 12 points per game and limited opponents to 177 yards per game – the best mark of any team in the country.

Though those records come from games against Western Michigan, South Florida, and Youngstown State, Kelly sees a formidable challenge in the Spartan defense.

“Number of returning players on defense … outstanding defensive schemes. They make it very difficult to run the football,” Kelly said. “You have to find ways to manufacture runs. You’ve got to be able to protect your quarterback. Again, you’ve got to play tough, physical football for four quarters. You’ve got to take care of the football. All of the little things matter in matchups like this.”

And while the Irish are aware of the Spartans’ ability on that side of the ball, Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees said Notre Dame is ensuring it stays more focused on its gameplan than on its opponent’s gaudy statistics.

“Obviously you’re cognizant of the success they’ve had, but for us it’s all about what we’re doing on offense,” he said Wednesday. “It’s about our execution, and our understanding of our gameplan. We can’t focus too much on what they’re ranked, we’ve just got to get their schemes down and understand what they’re trying to do.”

While Michigan State brings depth and experience on defense, a relatively new face runs the offense. The Spartans were unable to settle on a quarterback through their first two games but had a leader surface when sophomore Connor Cook emerged with a four-touchdown game last week.
Cook saw limited time off the bench last season but is still largely an unknown entity. One thing the Irish do know is that Cook is averaging nearly five yards per carry this year and should be another dual-threat presence they’ll need to contain.

“We’ve faced a lot of mobility back there so that’s something we’ll be prepared for. I think we’ll be ready for [Cook],” senior safety Austin Collinsworth said. “But it definitely changes the game. You’ve got to stay on your guy in scrambling situations, because if you relax for a second, it’s a big play waiting to happen.”

The Spartans have impressed in three wins so far, but Saturday’s trip to Notre Dame will be their first big test of the season. Dantonio – an Ohio native – appreciates the regional rivalry every time these teams square off.

“I think it’s one of those games you take stock of,” Dantonio said. “It is a game for a guy who grew up in the Midwest. Notre Dame. You grew up with a lot of traditions that were involved before you got here. So just very humbled to be part of the process and part of the tradition.

“I want our guys to have fun down there. I want us to compete.”

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu