Irish defensive line readies for powerful Spartan rushing attack
Renee Griffin | Friday, September 16, 2016
If there’s a single word Irish players and coaches have repeatedly used to describe No. 12 Michigan State in the week leading up to Saturday’s game, it’s “physical.”
That’s especially true of the Spartan offensive line, which will meet a Notre Dame defensive front that allowed 237 yards on the ground in the double-overtime loss to Texas in Week One, then 99 rushing yards to a weaker Nevada squad last Saturday.
Michigan State’s run-first offense put up 171 rushing yards, including 105 from sophomore back L.J. Scott, in its only contest of the season so far, a 28-13 win against FCS opponent Furman. Perhaps more importantly, the Spartans averaged more than 150 rushing yards per game en route to a 12-2 record last year.
“They’re a running team, and their offensive line is known for their physicality,” Notre Dame junior lineman Daniel Cage said. “Up front, we gotta make sure we get off the ball, be just as physical back. It starts up front with the D-linemen. We set the tone.”
The line is led by senior captain and end Isaac Rochell, who has 14 total tackles and is striving to replace the leadership role held by class of 2015 alumnus Sheldon Day.
The top players surrounding Rochell are sophomore defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, graduate student nose tackle Jarron Jones, junior end Andrew Trumbetti and Cage, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had the best game of his college career against the Wolf Pack.
Part of Cage’s recent growth has been due to altering the management of his sleep apnea, a disease in which a person’s breathing starts and stops while asleep.
“He had a sleep pattern problem, which is allowing him to gain the rest,” Kelly said. “Then it’s a trickle down from there. He’s getting the right nutrition, which is giving him an opportunity to train better at a higher level.”
Cage said he’s looking forward to the physicality of the Spartans despite some nerves.
“I love games like this, really,” he said. “Just to show how tough I really am, and the other team, and our team as a whole, it really sets the standard of how things like this should go and it’s gonna set us on the right track.
“It’s gonna be a little nerve-wracking for me, but right now I’m just focusing on my technique and focusing on the game plan.”
Health has also been a factor in the performance of the veteran Jones, who missed all of 2015 with a torn MCL.
“I think Jarron is feeling more comfortable coming back from an injury,” Kelly said. “He’s certainly understanding leverage and understanding what he needs to do to continue to get more work for us and him, and Daniel had two really good games and we’re going to need it.
“Obviously, playing teams like Michigan State and Stanford and teams that are going to really pound the football, we’re going to need more of that than we got from them this past weekend.”
Jones hauled in an interception off a Nevada screen pass deep in opposing territory last week, which led to an Irish touchdown a few plays later. He said after the game that the defense’s performance against the Wolf Pack was heartening after the squad gave up 50 points to the Longhorns.
“It picked up our confidence a lot, just being able to go out and execute,” Jones said. “It showed us that we do have the ability to make plays. Just having this win under our belt is huge, especially going into a game like Michigan State.”
Tillery, meanwhile, is second on the line behind Rochell with six overall tackles. He said the line is prepared for the unique ground game challenge that the Spartans will bring to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night.
“They run the ball in a lot of different, creative ways, and it’s our job on the D-line to stop it,” Tillery said. “What [coaches have] been preaching all week is that we have to come ready to play and we have to fire off the ball and do what we do best.
“We’re really confident in our game plan, we’ve got some good stuff for ‘em. It’ll be fun.”
While the running game will be the at the forefront of Michigan State’s offensive game plan, the pressure is also on for the Notre Dame defensive line to get to Spartan senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor, who has seen action in 15 games over his five-year career. The Irish are one of just five teams in the FBS to have zero sacks through two weeks of play.
Tillery said he and the rest of the linemen were more than ready to end that slump.
“Trust me, we know,” Tillery said. “We know about it. It’s something that’s kind of a chip on our shoulder.
“When we get one, it’ll be a big party on the field.”