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Irish toughen up for football the Spartan way

| Friday, September 16, 2016

It’s a familiar refrain when Notre Dame lines up against Michigan State.

“[Michigan State head coach] Mark Dantonio’s teams, obviously a hallmark of their teams, are physical,” Brian Kelly said.

“You have to play physical football,” Kelly added to his description of Michigan State football. “They’re a physical team. They’ve got a mindset of the way they want to play. They’re going to run the football. They’re going to be physical on defense.”

Forgive anyone who didn’t realize that first quote is from Kelly’s preview press conference before the two teams’ 2013 matchup while the other was from Tuesday’s preview for this weekend’s showdown between No. 18 Notre Dame (1-1) and No. 12 Michigan State (1-0).

The tone is the same.

Even before Dantonio took over the Spartans in 2007, the Spartans have fielded a reputation as one of the most physical teams in the country year in and year out. This formula has led to success on the field recently, including an appearance in the College Football Playoff last season and a 13-1 2013 campaign that ended in a Rose Bowl victory and a No. 2 ranking in the final AP poll.

The Spartans’ only loss that season? That game at Notre Dame Stadium in 2013, an ugly, gutsy 17-13 Irish victory.

Senior linebacker James Onwualu is one of just six players on the Notre Dame roster who played in that game, appearing on special teams, but Wednesday he said that game left its mark, in more ways than one.

Senior linebacker and team captain James Onwualu finishes tackling Nevada sophomore receiver Ahki Mohammad in the backfield during Notre Dame’s victory over the Wolf Pack last weekend. Onwualu finished the game with five tackles, tied for most on the team.Emma Farnan | The Observer
Senior linebacker and team captain James Onwualu finishes tackling Nevada sophomore receiver Ahki Mohammad in the backfield during Notre Dame’s victory over the Wolf Pack last weekend. Onwualu finished the game with five tackles, tied for most on the team.

“[Physicality is] part of their culture at that university and within their team,” Onwualu said. “ … I remember their special teams being pretty tough. I mean their guys, a lot of teams show up and you can tell how the game’s going to go by and how their special teams played. So on the first kickoff, are they coming to knock my head off or are they trying to block me and see what happens? Michigan State is the kind of team that will play every single snap on special teams.

“So I remember coming out of that game a little banged up. Felt physically tired and a lot of times playing special teams, that doesn’t happen.”

Preparing for a team like Michigan State brings about an added intensity to practices, Onwualu said.

“You’ve got to practice tough all week long, so that when Saturday comes along, you’re not just trying to flick the switch on,” Onwualu said. “You’ve already been practicing like that every week.”

Part of the Spartans’ in-your-face mentality is their pride in playing press coverage on receivers, allowing them to stack the box against the run game. This will put pressure on Notre Dame’s receivers to take advantage of the man opportunities, senior receiver Torii Hunter Jr. said.

“The emphasis is just to make plays because we’re going to have to make plays on the other side,” Hunter said. “Because they’re going to try to stop the run and they’re going to try to get an extra man in the box at all times. They’ve got some pretty hard safeties.”

Hunter said he is “fairly confident” he’ll play Saturday after missing last weekend’s game against Nevada while recovering from the concussion he suffered in the third quarter against Texas. Hunter said he passed all the concussion protocol tests Sunday and participated in non-contact drills Tuesday.

Hunter’s return will provide a boost of experience at the receiver position for the Irish, but junior quarterback DeShone Kizer said he believes the rest of the young Irish receiving corps is more than capable of handling the pressure.

“Those guys are out on the island,” Kizer said. “We have an opportunity with receivers that we recruit to kind of expose that island. They’re not getting a lot of inside help from linebackers who are box-folding guys and safeties who want to play low.

“ … I believe we have the talent all the way across the board to attack that one-on-one coverage when we need to.”

Kizer added he’s familiar with the Michigan State brand of football growing up in northern Ohio, just an hour and 45 minutes from East Lansing, Michigan.

“The perception I have being a Midwest guy is these are two powerhouse teams in the Midwest who are going to play inside the tackles and play you tough,” Kizer said. “ … I was able to learn that they’re a team who is going to be who they are and be that well. I’ve been watching their corners play man coverage since I think I’ve watched football. I’ve been watching their front line be big, strong guys since I’ve watched football.

“And that’s exactly who they are today.”

Kelly said it’s this identity that makes playing the Spartans such a tough task.

“You’re getting an aggressive defensive front seven,” Kelly said. “They’re blanketing you in the back end of the defense and they’re forcing you into mistakes.

“Then, offensively, they’re very methodical. They’re extremely methodical. They’re going to run the football, take their shots. A four-yard completion in a passing game is just fine with them because it puts them in a very good situation to continue to run the football and stay controlled with the chains.”

Kelly also admitted he had a tough competitor across the field in Dantonio, even if Kelly said he would have the advantage in a heavyweight bout.

“[Dantonio] is not that tough. He’s only about 190 pounds, so I don’t have much of a challenge with him,” Kelly said. “But [his] team is a challenge.”

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About Zach Klonsinski

A History graduate, Zach spent all four of his years on campus as a resident of Knott Hall. Hailing from Belgrade, Montana, he covered a wide variety of sports in his time at Notre Dame, including Football, Hockey, Men's Basketball, Men's Soccer, Women's Tennis, Fencing, Rowing, Women's Lacrosse and other events around campus. You can contact him in his post-graduation travels and job search at [email protected]

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