State may stay grounded against Irish

Senior quarterback Drew Stanton rushed for 105 yards against a Pittsburgh defense that seemed primed to stop the spread attack, but was outfoxed by what the Farmington Hills Harrison star had up his sleeve.

EAST LANSING - Michigan State coaching staff took a page out of legendary Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer's book when they opted for, well, the option.

Senior quarterback Drew Stanton rushed for 105 yards against a Pittsburgh defense that seemed primed to stop the spread attack but outfoxed by what the Farmington Hills Harrison star had up his sleeve.

Pitt was caught off guard by a signal caller who, although is correctly billed as one of the nation's top passers, was equally adept at running the football and the option attack at that.

"When they discovered we weren't handling (the option), they kept coming back to it," Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt admitted.

But running your quarterback can be a risky gamut, as it exposes MSU's least expendable player to considerable risk. Still, with nationwide exposure on prime-time television, look for State to throw caution to the wind and pull out all the stops for what could be a program defining win.

Look for MSU to use the option, at key junctures in the ballgame.

The Spartans know they can run the football. Currently ranked 5th of NCAA Division I-A schools in rushing the football (average 258 yard per game), State will have their full stable of running backs at their disposal.

Sophomore starter Javon Ringer shook off an injury and rushed for 156 yards on just 15 carries. Junior bruiser Jehuu Caulcrick chipped in with 64 more and freshman A. J. Jimmerson (10 yards on three carries) showed he is capable of carrying the freight as well.

But the "X" factor for Notre Dame is Stanton. If he's running the ball effectively he becomes a load for any defensive coordinator.

Do they bring eight men into the box and force Stanton and his senior receiving corps (Matt Trannon, Jerramy Scott and Kerry Reed) to move the ball in the air hoping for a miscue, or do they play nickle and allow the talented backfield to gash their front seven?

Notre Dame has had considerable trouble stopping the run allowing on average 132 yards per game. Michigan's Michael Hart rushed for 124 yards on 31 carries against the Irish, but the Spartans sport the Big Ten's best rushing offense.

Now, Michigan State's 'green' offensive line is showing signs of beginning to gel into a cohesive unit.

Senior center Kyle Cook is providing veteran leadership for a talented, but not very experienced group, particularly on the right side where MSU field two first-year starters, guard Roland Martin and tackle Jesse Miller.

Because the Irish's deficiency in stopping the run, expect defensive coordinator Rick Minter to try to disguise his coverages most of the evening.

Minter could come out in a 'Cover Two' look and walk a safety (Chinedum Ndukwe, 11 tackles vs. Michigan) up into the box on potential run downs, while switching up to a 'Man-Free' look in certain situations to fool Stanton - who has the freedom to audible into a different play - into making a mistake and throwing into coverage.

The Irish believe one of Stanton's few weaknesses is decision-making, so look for Notre Dame to blitz more than they did last week. Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin may be more assertive in play calling than normal to free his quarterback to just make plays.

While Michigan State has the personnel advantage in the matchup of offense against defense, the Spartans will have to account for the presence of senior strong safety Tom Zbikowski, a true difference maker in the deep secondary. Zbikowski is a hitter deluxe who can wreak havoc if the Spartans don't keep him honest.

MSU hopes big tight end Kellen Davis can keep Zbikowski occupied and keep him from free lancing in the secondary. If the Spartans are able to run the ball successfully it has the added benefit of keeping the Irish offense off the field.

Ed. note: What is man-free coverage? Man-1 (or "man free") means that the free safety is playing a deep zone while the rest of the secondary plays man-to-man coverage. The safety is generally responsible for the middle third of the field, starting about 18 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Any receiver who runs a seam, post, or deep crossing route gets picked up by the free safety, effectively creating double coverage.

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