Season on the Brink

Turnovers, taking back the trenches, and a staff-defining outcome are all part of our weekly game prediction.

A disappointing 0-2 start need not be – and has not always been – a death knell for a Notre Dame football season.

Dan Devine started 0-2 in his fourth season, 1978. The defending national champions proceeded to win eight straight and later play a bowl game with enough historical impact to evolve into an Irish fan's children's storybook, The Chicken Soup Game.

But 0-3? No squad in program history has recovered from those depths – the 2007 team suffering the ignominy most recently, finishing 3-9. The 2001 unit also began 0-3, ended 5-6, and ushered in the Willingham era.

And that's it.

In the 122-year history of Notre Dame football, only Charlie Weis' 2007 lost cause and Bob Davie's final edition began a season 0-3.

With that uplifting afternoon reality out of the way, it's time to find out how Brian Kelly's Irish can avoid a third straight loss vs. the best team they've faced in nearly a calendar year.

Trenches first; Turnovers certainly

203, 105, 203, 219, 248…the five most recent rushing totals produced by the Spartans vs. the Irish in their September matchups.

92, 133, 16, 117, and 47…yep, the same statistic, this time belonging to the Irish.

Notre Dame's 10 2011 turnovers laid waste to their opening efforts. The team's rush defense and lack of a running game has been the criminal component in the bulk of their losses to Michigan State since the series resumed in 1997. The Spartans have won 10 and lost just four in that span, winning the battle of ground games in nine of their 10 victories.

But it was late in the 2010 contest in East Lansing that the Irish front wall first began to stiffen, holding the Spartans to minus six rushing yards in the game's fourth quarter and overtime. Before the Irish can worry about attention to detail – this week's oft-referenced practice theme – Bob Diaco's unit must establish its will at the line of scrimmage.

It's the goal of the Spartans as well.

"Minus 6 yards rushing in the fourth quarter on the road against a team that wants to impose its will on you rushing the football," said Kelly of a silver lining in the wake of last year's East Lansing loss. "What I liked about our defense that will carry the day is they played tough when tough was required, and that's what we've been preaching."

The battle of the trenches always comes first, though this week, considering Notre Dame's penchant for self-inflicted wounds, the team's obscene turnover tendencies must be eradicated as well.

"We're 120th (last) in the country in turnover/takeaway. That number is startling," Kelly admitted. "We need to take care of the football. If we do that, we're going to be a good team; we're just not right now because we're turning the football over."

Michigan State has lost one fumble this season; quarterback Kirk Cousins has not thrown an interception while Irish signal-caller Tommy Rees has tossed 11 in 13 competitive quarters of college football (losing two fumbles along the way).

It's advantage Spartans until proven otherwise.

Broken Record(s)

Six career games with at least 10 receptions…none of which were won by the Irish.

15 career contests with at least 100 yards receiving…just six posted in Notre Dame victories, and three of those occurred before November 2008.

Michael Floyd is the most important player on the Notre Dame team – its offense would be a scattershot unit without him. But for more than three-fourths of his Irish playing career, the team has faltered when he's been the overwhelming focal point of the attack.

Last Saturday night, however, to borrow a word from the loss-laden staff – was the aberration. Floyd was the best player on the field; his fellow targets: Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones, and Tyler Eifert followed his lead, each contributing mightily to the cause. And head coach Brian Kelly utilized the talents of two running backs: Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray with aplomb, churning out 198 yards.

Floyd was dominant; the Irish should not have lost, and they didn't lose because he caught too many passes for too many yards. They might have, however, lost because their quarterback threw too many passes, and I don't just mean the pair that was caught by the other team or the mysterious fumble of a would-be pass intended to be fired to Floyd.

Kelly's Irish have thrown the ball between 35-55 times in his 15-game tenure on nine occasions. They've won twice. His squad has thrown the ball fewer than 35 times on six occasions. They've won all six.

The old adage – one rarely referenced in the modern game – still holds true in South Bend: "When you pass, two of the three outcomes favor the defense." The Irish need Floyd, his cohorts, and Tommy Rees to win, both Saturday and going forward. But the offense plays into the hands of its competition when it gets pass-happy.

It's up to Kelly to continue to tweak the appropriate offensive balance vs. a traditionally solid though unspectacular Spartans defense.

Tell-tale tussle

Barring multiple overtimes or excessive cloud to ground lightning, by 8:00 p.m. in South Bend Saturday night, Notre Dame will either be perceived as a dangerous 1-2 football team or the season's biggest disappointment.

Neither outcome is particularly attractive. One is absolutely essential.

Kelly's Irish are 8-7. Lou Holtz's first 15 games saw the same W-L mark. So too did Bob Davie's. Davie won eight straight from Game #16 forward; Holtz won five consecutive and 23 of his next 27.

The 2011 Irish need one.

One to offer evidence that faith is not misplaced. One to suggest that the staff in place is better prepared to bring Notre Dame back than would be any other middling group that loses as often as it wins.

One, just one, to restart the 2011 season.

At 1-2, the Irish have a chance to be relevant between the lines. At 0-3, they're just a lead storyline – a punch line among college football fans whose teams win more than lose at home or can make it through back-to-back Septembers with more than one victory in tow.

It's time to get one; otherwise time will begin to run out.

I think they're far better than they've shown – and I'm not just referring to the roster.

Notre Dame 33 Michigan State 27


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