Head-Knocking with the Spartans

Notre Dame prepares for 60 minutes of pad-popping action Saturday vs. the stout Spartans…

Over his last two meetings with Michigan State, head coach Brian Kelly's Irish have been held to 275 (2011) and 300 (2012) yards. Both totals marked the second-lowest yardage output of their respective seasons.

Both contests likewise featured Notre Dame's second-lowest number of first downs over the course their 13-game seasons, and last year, the Irish produced a sobering 1 for 14 effort when attempting to move the chains on third down.

But here's the kicker: Kelly's Irish won both battles over Mark Dantonio's Spartans. Handily.

Over the last two matchups, Notre Dame's defense has held Michigan State to 79 rushing yards on 48 total carries. They allowed just four rushing first downs -- combined.

They allowed no rushing scores, and last fall, never permitted Sparty to grace the red zone with its presence.

If you've traveled to South Bend this weekend looking for fluid offense and fireworks, you've come to the wrong place.

"(Michigan State) makes it very difficult to run the football," said Kelly. "You have to find ways to manufacture runs. You've got to be able to protect your quarterback. You've got to play tough, physical football for four quarters."

"Our kids have played in the game…they know the kind of game it is. So it's not like I have to stand in front of them and get them ready for this fight. They know what kind of fight it's going to be.  This isn't, you know, 'Hey, guys, please listen to me this week.' They know what they are going to get from Michigan State."

Kelly's troops echoed his sentiments across the board.

"I would say it will be the best defense in general, along with the best DBs we've seen so far," said captain T.J. Jones, a three-game starting veteran vs. the Spartans. "You can see it on film. They're all aggressive players. Their schemes, their mentality, it's all aggressive. We said it from Day One this week, it's going to be a physical game and the more physical team is going to win."

Notre Dame's own penchant for the physical helped limit Michigan State to 16 points over the last two meetings. Though their opponents vary greatly, it's the Spartans that boast the nation's top defense entering Saturday.

"This is a very aggressive defense and I believe the best we've seen up to this point on film," said junior running back Cam McDaniel."We have to be physical as well. They're also the best tacklers I'd say. Add their secondary (to that). They'll come down and smack you."

Chase Mode, Part IV

Connor Reilly, Devin Gardner, Rob Hunt, and now, Connor Cook.

Bob Diaco's defense has faced three mobile, if not run-first quarterbacks to date this season. Enter No. 4 for game four with the second-time Spartans starter Cook.

"What he does for them obviously is gives them the ability to run the quarterback and that has not been something that has been part of their offense in the past," said Kelly. "Now they have the ability to run some schemes in particular situations, down and distance, that force you to consider how you're defending them. 

"They are going to be a team up front that has a veteran offensive line, a lot of experience."

Though they're used to preparing for elusive triggerman, that doesn't make it any easier on Irish defenders.

"We've faced a lot of mobility back there so that's something we're prepared for," said senior safety Austin Collinsworth. "It definitely changes the game. You have to stay on your guy in scrambling situations because if you relax on your guy for a second, it's a big play waiting to happen."

That's the chief challenge on the back end. Limiting such opportunities starts up front.

"Pocket passers, you know where they're going to be," said senior linebacker and star of the teams' 2012 matchup Prince Shembo. "But running quarterbacks, you have to kind of get a feel for them. Really just don't let them outside. If you do (against pocket passers), usually you can hawk them down, but if they're fast, that's when it makes it difficult."

Shembo admitted defending a mobile quarterback changes the game plan -- a little.

"It adds another element. You have to change up the game plan a little bit," he said. "Couple of 'watch the quarterback plays' but you still have to be yourself. You can't change your game for one person…bring what we bring to the game."

The Irish defense did so in spectacular fashion last season, finishing with six tackles for loss, 48 tackles from their front seven rotation, and forcing Michigan State into five "three-and-out" possessions with two more of the "four-and-out" variety.

Notre Dame this season though has just 10 total defensive three-and-outs to its credit in three contests. Half however, came last Saturday in the comeback win over Purdue.

"Its something we can build on," Shembo said. "We have to maintain our focus, keep our fundamentals, technique, and know our assignments."

Notre Dame's most dominant defensive effort of the 2012 season came vs. the Spartans. With the Vegas oddsmakers listing 41 points as the game's over/under total, Diaco's unit might need an encore to advance to 3-1 as the Big 10 portion of the Irish schedule concludes.

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