The Spartans ground game out-gained the Irish over this span, 978 yards to 405.
Saturday, Brian Kelly's crew flipped the script, holding Michigan State to 29 rushing yards on 23 carries. Thanks to Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray and an athletic Irish front wall, Notre Dame ran for more than 100 yards prior to intermission, en route to a 21-10 halftime edge.
The fact that Notre Dame won the battle of the line of scrimmage (10 quarterback hurries vs. the Spartans pass protection) was not lost on Kelly. Nor was it happenstance.
"That's where we started this journey," Kelly noted his first days on campus in December 2009. "To begin with recruiting on defense, and playing a tougher style of football. And to do that, you've got to be able to control the line of scrimmage. You also have to do it physically. You have to develop in the weight room, develop a work volume that allows you to do that and play consistently.
"The foundation of this program has got to be built on being able to control the line of scrimmage. That's how you build consistency. We're getting better at that level."
Win or lose, the Irish have been the superior team up front this season. The same holds true for 2010 in each of their eight victories, and arguably in none of their five defeats (Notre Dame surrendered more than 200 rushing yards in four of five losses last season – Stanford's hammering the only exception).
"I like the way we play the game, other than we get sloppy," Kelly assessed of his team at the season's quarter-point. "(We've controlled) the line of scrimmages against quality opposition in the first three games. We've been able to run the ball effectively. (But) the special teams has been inconsistent, and obviously the turnovers have been the areas of concern."
Aside from notable, famous, nearly season-crippling breakdowns in pass coverage in Ann Arbor, the Irish pass defense has played well, too. Removing the fourth quarter of the Michigan contest from the equation, the Irish have surrendered just 580 passing yards (11 quarters), a 57 percent completion rate with three touchdowns and three interceptions (11 quarters). The ridiculous 4th Quarter effort vs. the Wolverines (7 completions, 204 yards and 3 TD allowed plus a Robert Blanton interception) will skew the season's stats hereafter.
"We played the kind of pass defense that I know we're capable of this past weekend," Kelly continued. "We didn't see that in a small picture against Michigan. So all in all, the most important thing for us is that we continue to clean up the little things, because the big picture looks really good for me, and the big picture starts with developing a toughness, a mentality, both on the offensive and defensive line.
"We're seeing that through how we defend the run, how we've been able to run the ball more effectively. Those things are pretty clear to me."
Five GuysThe defensive wall, notably Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Aaron Lynch at defensive end, plus Louis Nix, Sean Cwynar, and vs. the Wolverines, Hafis Williams at nose guard, has received the bulk of the early-season credit.
The unit has undoubtedly been the team's best position group with what appears to be reinforcements (Stephon Tuitt) to follow.
But the Wood/Gray combo hasn't amassed 447 rushing yards and 5.45 yards-per-carry without a little help.
"Watt's a physical player, there's no question," Kelly said when asked specifically of the junior from Glen Ellyn. "He brings a strength; I don't want to gloss over Chris Watt, because he's been really solid for us, but Trevor Robinson and Zack Martin – really good players. I mean, Martin did some things that if I showed it to you on film, you wouldn't believe it. He's just that good."
So the develop of Chris Watt; (center) Braxton Cave is a better player; (and) Trevor Robinson is not even close to the player he was last year – physically so much better.
"And then a consistency out of (right tackle) Taylor Dever. It's a good unit."
The group has allowed just three sacks this season – Saturday like the first true OL error with a resulting lost fumble. But it's the aforementioned pairing of Martin and Dever on the edge that adds a unique element to the running game.
"Both of those guys are extremely athletic for their size; they're impressive when they move," said Kelly of Martin and Dever. "I mean, our pull plays are pretty good. We've got a high efficiency. When we pull our tackles, we're difficult to deal with. So those guys fit the profile that we're look for at that tackle position – extremely athletic."
As noted on these pages post-game, Notre Dame's first victory of the season was also its least impressive outing statistically.
That's not happenstance, either.
"If you looked at it statistically, if you put up the stats of first three games and said, ‘Pick which game they won,' I don't know that you would pick this one," he said of the Spartans.
"But I think we all know how games are won: You control the line of scrimmage. I think really when we really pare it all down, our ability to have a running game that opens up so many other things that we can do, where we can get a one-on-one match up and hit T.J. Jones for a big touchdown (as did the Irish Saturday for their final touchdown).
"So if we go back to it, the Louis Nixes and a Sean Cwynars that are grinding it out inside, and the Chris Watts and Trevor Robinsons," Kelly concluded. "Those are the guys that really had an impact."
As it should be.