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For Notre Dame, limiting mistakes is key to defeating Spartans

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, September 15, 2011

A year removed from the fateful “Little Giants” disaster, Notre Dame needs to avoid more careless mistakes to top No. 15 Michigan State.

The Irish (0-2) have caught the Spartans’ coaches’ attention with their 10 turnovers already this season, and the Michigan State defense, led by linebacker Max Bullough, will indeed be looking to force more of the same.

“I would like to say we’re going to continue to get [turnovers] and they’re going to keep making mistakes, but sooner or later you fix the mistakes,” Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said to reporters Wednesday. “You just hope they don’t have a clean game, but we have to force [turnovers]. We have to make it happen.”

Along with forcing turnovers, Narduzzi’s unit will focus on Irish junior running back Cierre Wood. Wood has averaged 119 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry this season, compared to Notre Dame’s total of 92 yards on the ground against Michigan State (2-0) last year.

“We need to do the same thing,” Narduzzi said. “We have to make them one-dimensional. We cannot let the run game get started. If they get the run game started, then they can spread you out and throw it like they do, [and] we’re going to have problems. So we have to stop the run.”

On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame’s defense will have its work cut out going up against a much more physical team than either Michigan or South Florida. The defending Big Ten champions have tallied 347 net rushing yards already this season, and quarterback Kirk Cousins is 34 of 42 for 405 passing yards.

“They’re big, large-bodied guys, all across the board,” Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “Their wide receivers are big, and physical, and block. Their tight ends are big, and physical, and block.

“Their quarterback, I think he’s a three-year captain. He’s a big-bodied guy that can run that pro-style offense. It’s a physical, smash-mouth, rugged team.”

In last year’s overtime loss, Notre Dame allowed the Spartans to rush for 203 yards and for Cousins to complete 24 of his 34 passing attempts.

Along with being more physical than either of Notre Dame’s first two opponents, Michigan State features a quarterback, Cousins, who does not thrive outside the pocket as South Florida’s B.J. Daniels and Michigan’s Denard Robinson do.

“[Cousins] doesn’t seem to scramble to run,” Diaco said. “He seems to scramble to pass, which is a little different. But he’s a proficient runner, so they still need to be disciplined in their rush lanes.”

Not that the Irish defensive front isn’t licking its chops at the prospect of a drop-back passer for once. Diaco said Irish junior linebacker Manti Te’o and his colleagues are eager for the change in approach.

“I would think they’re looking forward to a team that’s going to come in here as the defending champions and pride themselves on rugged, smash-mouth football,” Diaco said. “I think if you were a competitor that would energize you and have you wanting to rise to the occasion.”

Yet, the Spartans are not entirely about smash-mouth football, as was made evident in last year’s fake field goal to win 34-31 in overtime. Notre Dame has not forgotten the “Little Giants” as it prepares for this weekend.

“Everybody has their responsibility to do,” Diaco said of possible trick plays. “They need to be disciplined and put their eyes on their work, not take them off their work, and finish the play.”