Defensive Backs Hope to Step Up Again This Week

The Irish travel to East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans this Saturday in a nationally televised game that is scheduled to start at 6:07 pm, South Bend time. This will be the second night game of the young season for the Irish, and they know it will be a hard-fought game in a challenging and hostile environment.

Irish defensive backs coach Steve Wilks has seen his unit play two solid games so far this year. The first-year coach says he expects a physical game this weekend against the Spartans.

"Well, I'll tell you what, just talking about their personnel, I think they have three great quarterbacks," Wilks said of Michigan State. "We don't know yet which one is going to start, but just looking at the offense in general, they are going to try and establish the running game.

"They did that last year and I'm sure they feel they can run the football again this year, and that is one of the main things we feel we have to stop is the running game.

"We want to try and put those guys in a situation where they have to pass the football and make them one dimensional. So the biggest thing right now is the running game for them."

The secondary was a little shaky at times against BYU but showed marked improvement against Michigan. However, the first-year Irish coach says his unit has a long ways to go before he's satisfied with their play.

"I think we can get a lot better," Wilks said. "Even with last week's win, there are a lot of things we need to continue to improve on. One of the biggest things this week is going to be our tackling. We missed a lot of tackles last week and that is one of the things we talked about is being sure tacklers.

"Another of the things I hope to expect is a little consistency. Coming off last week's win and the performance we had, we have to continue to come out each and every day and practice as we have and try and get better and let that carry over into the game. The biggest thing as always is to try and not give up the big play.

"We have to make sure we keep everything inside and in front of us and stop the run. Our defensive line is doing a tremendous job, and our front seven really. We just have to keep running to the ball and putting those guys in a position where they have to pass."

Two of the biggest surprises to the fans thus far have been the steady performances by fifth-year cornerback, Preston Jackson, and rookie safety, Tom Zbikowski. Coach Wilks said he is not surprised by the play of these two starters.

"Preston's leadership is the key to his play," Wilks said of Jackson. "He is a true leader out there, not only with the secondary, but with the defense and the team as a whole. And he shows that when he is out there on the football field.

"He is a smart football player. He puts himself in the right position to make plays as he did against BYU, when he made that interception, and the plays he made Saturday. So I'm looking for him to continue to improve and be the player that I know he can be."

"I am definitely happy with Tommy Zbikowski's progress," said Wilks when asked about the play of the sophomore strong safety "We are talking two games and Tommy has performed well for us. He is going to be a very good safety. And right now I'm truly pleased with his performance."

Keeping players focused after a win is often a concern for the coaching staff, but not for the energetic Wilks. He says his unit knows they have a lot of games left in a young season.

"I don't really think it is hard to keep them focused because our guys understand this was just one win. It was a big win, but just one win," Wilks said.

"We have to continue to keep getting better and come out and perform and play to the level of our competition and do those things we know we have to do to win this football game."

Senior Preston Jackson agrees with his coach and believes the Irish secondary has a lot of room for improvement.

"I'm pretty hard on the secondary so right now I would give them a grade of B minus," said Jackson. "We struggled a few times in the first game, but we bounced back and made some plays late in the first game, and in the second, and as you can see, we are getting better and better.

"As long we correct our mistakes and continue to gain confidence, I expect we will be A plus by the end of the season."

Jackson said the loss to BYU has been a real motivator. He said his unit stepped up to the challenge against Michigan last Saturday.

"Whenever you lose, you always want to come back in the next game and bounce back and get a W," Jackso said.

"We could have been playing anybody, Penn High School, and got a W it would have felt good. We are always going to play hard every game; even though we lost that first game, we need to bounce back and get W's and keep our confidence up.

"I think we played more assignment football against Michigan," Jackson said when asked why the Irish were successful against Michigan. "We were a lot more disciplined and we attacked the ball more when it was in the air.

"We actually played like we were wide receivers when the ball was in the air, and I don't think we did that in the first game."

This is the last game the senior from Florida will play against the Spartans and he is really looking forward to it.

"Michigan State has been a thorn in my side every since I've been here," Jackson said. "I think I'm 1-3 versus Michigan State. They just play hard against us."

Sophomore Tom Zbikowski is at the other end of the line compared to Jackson as this will be his first time going against Michigan State, but he says he knows what to expect.

"We know we have to get ready for this week; it's going to be a physical battle," Zbikwoski said. "The whole team is physical. It is going to be the same thing as last week. It's going to be roll your sleeves up; it's going to be head on, nose on. It's going to be another battle."

The rookie safety had a good performance in his first game against BYU, but Zbikwoski says he felt much more comfortable playing against Michigan.

"The first game I just wanted to play," Zbikwoski said. "I was looking more not to make mistakes and just do everything I could do. Last week I tried to make more plays and just keep building on it from there.

"There are always things to learn, whether you are a four-year veteran, or like me, with a second game start. You have to learn from every single play and every single game."

Zbikowski gives credit for his improved play to the veteran Jackson.

"He has helped me a lot," Zbikowski said of Jackson. "With him being a nickel, I'm always on that side so we're always talking. He's helping me out all the time and it's great to have a veteran now that really knows the game. He has been in a few Michigan and Michigan State games and he fills you in on what you need to know."

This week's game will be the second road trip and second night game for the Arlington Heights, Ill. native, and he said he is up to the challenge.

"I love home games, but you know you kind of get something out of being booed," the sophomore said. "When you get booed, I enjoy it but some people might think it's hostile, but for me I feed off of it."

While Zbikowski might enjoy getting booed, he admits the victory in the home-opener against Michigan was special.

"With my family in the stands and my friends I played football with since I was in the second grade that would die to be in my position; so the first home game I ever start, and it being against Michigan, the No. 8 team in the country, and beating them, I just don't know too many things that get better than that, especially at Notre Dame," Zbikowski said


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