KEYS TO GAME: Control the Football

Notre Dame simply imposed their will against both Georgia Tech and Penn State by using a ball-controlled offense reliant on the running and receiving of Darius Walker, keys throws to tight end John Carlson, and then when defenders relax, hitting longer routes to Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight.

1. DON'T LET NOTRE DAME CONTROL THE FOOTBALL -Notre Dame simply imposed their will against both Georgia Tech and Penn State by using a ball-controlled offense reliant on the running and receiving of Darius Walker, keys throws to tight end John Carlson, and then when defenders relax, hitting longer routes to Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight.

Notre Dame had 10:50 more time of possession than Georgia Tech. In similar fashion, they had a 7:57 minute advantage over Penn State at halftime, and a 10:35 advantage after three quarters.

With the new clock rules in place, and the clock not being stopped dependent on the situation, there are simply less plays in a college football game than last year.

The Spartans do not want to see Notre Dame chew up clock while keeping the Spartan offense on the sidelines. If Notre Dame controls the ball, they also control the tempo of the game, thus allowing Charlie Weis to break out the entire offensive playbook which could lead to keeping the Spartans on their heels defensively.

If MSU's defense can't get off the field, it could be a long day.

Usually, time of possession is a non-factor in determining who will win a football game. Come this Saturday however, time of possession could be critical.

2. WHO WILL MAKE A BIG PLAY? Whether it is the luck of the Spartans, or the luck of the Irish, this game in the last several year has featured game changing big plays, and as they say, big-time players, make big plays, in big games. MSU will need someone to step up and make plays for the Spartans to win. Consider the recent series season history as proof:

2004:Notre Dame's Tom Zibikowski had a 75-yard yard fumble return for touchdown as he wrestled the ball out of the hands of Jason Teague.

2005:Jason Teague got revenge for his costly fumble from the year before by going 19-yards for a touchdown in overtime to pull out a 44-41 victory that saw the Irish push the game to an extra session by scoring 21 unanswered points after trailing 38-17.

This is the type of game where the "stars" must make big time plays. The Spartans have no time feeling comfortable and cozy with their 3-0 start. They need to keep the pedal to the metal if they are planning to have the season they want to achieve.

3. PRESSURE BRADY QUINN - Look, the key factor in Michigan putting a "beat down" on Notre Dame was not a shody Irish defense, but the fact that they faced enormous pressure from the Michigan defense. At first glance, one would assume the Irish defense collapsed with a final score margin of 47-21.

The Irish offense coughed up five turnovers, and the UM pass rush and defensive intensity contributed to three sacks, seven dropped passes, and 12 quarterback pressures. Two of those turnovers lead directly to Wolverine touchdowns.

The Spartans do not have the front four that UM doesin rushing the passer. The MSU defensive front has something to prove, and what a better game to prove their worth than before a national viewing audience. If the Spartan defensive line can move their game to the next level, that will bode well for MSU. The Spartan defense must be in attack mode.

4. FORCE TURNOVERS - No secret here, one of the things that the Spartans must do is get their defense off the field, and they have to rely on more than defensive stops to achieve this.

It's important that they attack a little more, force some turnovers, get the ball back and change field position. If MSU can force turnovers early in the game, and keep Irish confidence from rising, it would be enormously helpful. Forcing turnovers also will be helpful in regards to time of possession, which is a critical key in this game.

5. WITHSTAND THE EARLY ONSLAUGHT OF NOTRE DAME -The Irish are like a wounded animal that is backed into the corner. We expect them too come out fast and attempt to control the tempo of the game. The Irish also know that the Spartans have gotten off to slow starts against Idaho, EMU, and Pitt. So what you have is a Irish team looking to start fast after being embarrassed at home, and a MSU team that has been a bit lethargic and not used to starting fast.

Something has to give here, and for MSU, let's hope they get their wake up coffee before the game and not in the 2nd quarter or later. MSU must match Notre Dame's intensity or even exceed it.

6. STOP NOTRE DAME ON FIRST DOWN - This is going to be a big indicator of how the MSU defense should fair in this game. Weis is not the same play caller when he is facing 2nd and 10 yards to go, or 2nd and 9 yards to go.

Forcing the Irish to convert long down and distance opportunities will put more pressure on Weis, Brady Quinn, and the entire Notre Dame offense to make plays, and allow the MSU defense to dictate action a little more. Charlie Weis has been adamant about doing a better job on third down this week, and has been most vocal about this part of the Irish offense after converting only two of 14 third down conversions against Michigan. We feel down and distance opportunities for the Irish offense will be something to key a close eye on.

6. MSU MUST GET OFF TO A FASTER START AND FINISH STRONG - Did we mention that MSU tends to be a slow starter in games and against an opponent like Notre Dame that could be lethal? Yes, we did mention this previously, but it is worth repeating. The old adage of a football game being 60 minutes long has never been more appropiate than for this game. A penchant for slow starts and not closing out games does not bode well if your opponent is Notre Dame.

7. EXPECT NOTRE DAME'S BEST DEFENSIVE EFFORT -The Irish defense played well in the second half againt Michigan, in fact, Notre Dame was expecting Michigan's stretch play with zone blocking and effectively strung it out without much damage. It was when Michigan unexpectably decided to gouge them up the middle did things go wrong for the Irish.

Also consider that they held Georgia Tech to 10-points and led Penn State 41-3 until giving up some late, meaningless points. For those expecting an offensive explosion by the Spartans against the Irish defense, it may happen, but it won't be the foregone conclusion some would lead you to believe.

Clearly, MSU could use some of the same offensive balance that the Wolverines had to offset Irish defense that is better than people given them credit for being. MSU's offense needs to stay on the field and use a run/pass combination and be effective on first down.

8. SPECIAL TEAMS - In the first week of the season, Idaho nearly broke a kick back for a touchdown. In week two, MSU fumbled a kick return, and were lax in covering an onsides kick. Against Pitt, they nearly had another kick return go against them for six points had it not been for the heroics of a touchdown saving tackle by the Spartans Ryan Allison.

On the flip side, David Grimes did fumble a kick return against UM, but the Irish have been working hard on their return game and MSU will have to be ready. Now is not the time to give up six points, or even solid field position due to a lapse in kick coverage. Most underestimate the importance of field position in winning a football game, hopefully for the Spartans, they will not.

9.SECONDARY PLAY - It goes without saying that the MSU secondary will be tested by one of the premier play callers in the game in Charlie Weis, and by one of the premier quarterbacks in the nation in Brady Quinn.

Again, the emphasis for MSU will be not giving up the big play, and moreover, getting the ball back for the offense. We are still not quite sold on the secondary although it has improved over last year. It's that attention to detail and focus as the year goes by that will determine how MSU does this year.

10. PENALTIES - Against Pitt, the Spartans were flagged for nine penalties, good for 75-yards, many of the silly variety. You don't want to take away aggressiveness, but you do want to play smart football. Some of the holding penalties were inexcusable because they were away from the play and not where MSU could have used this leverage as an advantage. You can play over penalties against lesser opponents. Against good opponents, they are killers. Notre Dame has committed a whopping 28 penalties for 228 yards themselves.

This is the fortieth anniversary of the famous "Game Of The Century" 10-10 tie of 1966, or the fact, that Weis and the Irish weren't too happy about the MSU flag being planted in their turf last year?

Forty-five Spartans from that 1966 game will attend the game, and game programs will reflect the 1966 season as well. The scoreboard will read "10-10" during warm-ups, and these players will be introduced at a pre-game ceremony. Then, those 1966 players will form a human tunnel for the new players to run through prior to the game. Bubba Smith will also have his number retired. Clearly, it will be something to see.

Both teams have a lot on this line going into Saturday night's contest. It will be the team that can maintain their focus and plays smart, physical football that will have the advantage.


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