Spartans prepare for marquee game vs. Notre Dame

"I don't know, everybody talks about jinx, I hope that's the case, that somehow they're snakebit when it comes to this game," --Michigan State coach John L. Smith on his team's recent success against Notre Dame.

Defensive end Greg Taplin 40-yard interception return with 6:56 left proved to be the winning score.
RECENT HISTORY: Michigan State has won four of the last five meetings.

(EAST LANSING) What is it about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish that brings out the best in the Michigan State Spartans?

Don't ask John L. Smith. "I don't know, everybody talks about jinx, I hope that's the case, that somehow they're snakebit when it comes to this game," said Smith.

"I think it's a great rivalry, it goes back to years and years and years. It's just a big game for us. It's one that hopefully our team will get up for and play [well] again."

What give you that success over the last few years? I don't know to be honest. The field is more level in college football, every time you go to the field in a rivalry game you have a chance to win it. So you get a break here and there, you go up," stated Smith.

"If you take a look at it, that's kind of the way it was last week with them. They got a break, they got a block on the punt, they ended up getting the momentum on their side and they ended up getting a win. Hopefully, this week it will be the case with us."

Michigan State alumnus and Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham thinks it's all mental.

"What I would say is that Michigan State believes that it plays its best football against Notre Dame. That belief has been passed on going back probably many, many years, that they just feel like that is a game they play great in."

Willingham admitted that when he was a player at Michigan State that he felt the same way. "That was a part of the process, very much so."

But Notre Dame defensive lineman Brandon Hoyte says he doesn't even care about any of that.

"To be honest with you and to be blunt I could care less what happened in the past. It doesn't matter what happened last week and it doesn't matter what happened in the past with Michigan State. I think we just need to stay focused and focus on what we need to do as a team to build and get better every game."

But, Spartans fans, like their coach, hope things stay the same. Michigan State has had tremendous success in the last five years against Notre Dame, but in order for things to continue that route, Michigan State is going to have to play much better than they did in their 24-7 win over Central Michigan.

"We're going to have to improve a bunch this week. We have to go to the field and play as good as we can play and hopefully we'll have success. So we're looking forward to it [it'll] be a great test for us."

MSU is hoping for big improvement in their quarterback play.

Unlike the last two weeks, Michigan State has named redshirt freshman Stephen Reaves as the starter over fifth year senior Damon Dowdell and sophomore Drew Stanton.

Smith says Reaves has a certain "cockiness," which gives him the confidence to succeed.

"I think he's confident in his abilities and I think he's grown a bunch as he's come through his redshirt year and all that. He's been knocked down a notch or two just like every freshman gets when they step into a college program. I think it's a good positive thing."

Smith likely decided that Reaves strong play early and his confident demeanor give him the best chance to succeed early. However, if Reaves should falter, he will not hesitate to turn to slow healing Drew Stanton, who came on in relief of Reaves and led the Spartans to their final touchdown drive.

Willingham says he respects Reaves' talent.

"It would really be inappropriate for me to comment on how we would plan to attack him or what we would prepare to do for him. But I do know that we respect his skills, his ability, and what they've done in their system. We know Coach Smith and Coach Baldwin, who probably head up their offensive group, have a great plan for us."

When Reaves throws, look for him to go to his favorite receiver Kyle Brown and junior Matt Trannon to provide big plays

Meanwhile, the Spartans would like to get their ground game going to take the pressure off Reaves and/or Stanton. While junior Jason Teague has been the starter, Michigan State seems bound and determine to feature freshman Jehuu Caulcrick a big brusing running back who fits the coaches preference for a one back set.

But the Spartans can expect tough sledding from a Notre Dame 3-4 defense that throttled the Michigan running attack and that has only given up some 80 yards rushing.

"To have given up 70-some yards is something we've worked constantly at in the off-season to be able to do something like that," said Irish defensive lineman Kyle Budinscak. "We're proud of the way our front-seven has played so far but before we pat ourselves on the back we have 10 more (games) to go."

Linebacker Mike Goolsby said knowing and executing their respective assignments has been the key to shutting down opponents run game.

"Pretty much just executing your assignments. The front-four just played tremendous for us and there were times where as a linebacker I'm trying to get into my gap and there was no gap because they had everything closed up. They clogged everything up for us. Those front-four rotating in and out did a great job for us."

The play of Notre Dame's interior front of Greg Pauly, Trevor Laws and Derek Landri has been key for the Irish. Willingham says he has tremendous confidence in all three.

"The play in that threesome, and we've tried to alternate them fairly equally, I don't know if the numbers indicate that, but first of all we have a great deal of confidence in each guy, that they can step in and play to a high level.

When you talk about having a successful defense, it usually starts right up the middle. If you can have great play in the center of your defense, then you create havoc, you cause things to happen, you make it better for your backers, you make it better for your ends, you make it better for the secondary. Those guys have done that. Their play has been good, even though we want it and expect it to be better."

Notre Dame's special teams came up big in the win over Michigan. A blocked punt keyed the turnaround in momentum and eventually led to the Irish victory.

The Spartans can't allow special teams giveaways. They continue to rely on their two outstanding kickers, punter Brandon Fields and place kicker Dave Rayner, to give them an advantage in field position.

The Spartans offensive line must improve its play over the last two weeks and account for Notre Dame pass rusher Justin Tuck who is just 1/2 sack short of the all time Notre Dame pass rushing record.

"That's a great feat, especially playing at a place like Notre Dame and knowing all of the great players that have played before you and to get it would be a great thing," said Tuck as he reflected on his accomplishment. "In the same right, it doesn't mean much in the whole scheme of things. This is a team-focused football team. If I don't get it and we still win, then I'm still a happy person."

Conversely, the Spartans would like to get heat on quarterback Brady Quinn who was shaky vs. Michigan (10-of-20 for 178 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions). If the Spartans can get some heat on Quinn, safeties Jason Harmon and Eric Smith are very capable of providing big plays.

Quinn has behind him a one-two punch at running back with the emergence of freshman Darius Walker (31 carries, 115 yards and 2 touchdowns vs. Michigan). Walker shredded the Michigan run defense in the absence of junior Ryan Grant, who is expected to return this week and start.

"If we were probably healthy today," said Willingham, " (with) Darius, Ryan, Marcus (Wilson), Travis (Thomas), I would probably start Ryan.

Regardless of who gets the call, Michigan State must limit Notre Dame's ability to run the football and convert 3rd down opportunities. The Spartans have found themselves on the short end of the stick in both of their previous games.

When Quinn goes to the air, he looks to Maurice Stovall (5 catches for 82 yards vs. Michigan) and Rhema McKnight (3 catches for 42 yards vs. Michigan) "If you can keep your defense on the sideline," said Wilingham, "then what you've done already is made them a better defense statistically. That also should be reflected in their physical conditioning. The fewer plays you play, the more energy you should have, and you don't wear down if by chance the ballgame comes down to those critical moments, that you have just one more step advantage on your opponents."

Smith says the Spartans coaching staff is aware of what a challenge Notre Dame will present and is acting accordingly.

"The biggest thing [we need to do is] keep things simple enough [so] that we don't have too many run "fits" [and] our guys don't know where they fit in.

I think it's been partially us as coaches.

We may have given them a few too many things. We've asked a few of our linebackers to do, out of necessity purposes, [to] back up three spots which is maybe unrealistic.

So I think you have some breakdowns just because of what we're asking our kids, number one. We have to make sure that we pare it down and keep it simple and be sure that they can understand where it is they have to "fit". If we'll do that we're going to be OK."

PICK: Michigan State plays their best ball when Notre Dame shows up. However, underneath the glare of a national television audience and relying on so many freshman, this one's going to come down to who makes the most big plays. The Spartans trip up the leprechaun once again.

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