Focus on Michigan State

Charlie Weis' normal weekly press conference is held on Tuesday. But because Notre Dame went back to training camp for a few days this week, it was moved to Thursday. The Irish used Sunday, Tuesday and two-thirds of Wednesday to get back to the basics and increase the physical play on both sides of the ball. The goal now is to focus on Michigan State and earn victory No. 1 on Saturday.

The Spartans come into the contest 3-0 and have won the past five games in South Bend. No Notre Dame opponent has ever won six straight. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:43 PM and NBC will have the national television coverage. Because of the Irish's porous play through three games, the odds makers have made Michigan State a whopping 14-point favorite on Saturday afternoon. Weis is not surprised by his team being a two touchdown underdog, although it's a safe bet the Notre Dame head coach will try to use it as motivation.

"It says that they're 3-0 and we're 0-3," Weis said. "It is what it is. It's a very practical thing. From where the teams are, based off the evidence you have right now, that's how you'd see it. As I say all along, the only way you can do anything about it is by changing it out on the field."

The biggest topic all week has been Notre Dame getting back to the basics and trying to find a core through training camp-like practices. It was about the only option for Weis after the first three games. Offensively, the Irish are dead last nationally in scoring offense, total offense, rushing offense and sacks allowed.

Just how bad has the offensive line been? The difference between Notre Dame and 100th in the nation in rushing (Texas Tech) is a 93-yards per game difference. A big part of this problem has been the sacks allowed, which count towards the rushing statistics. The difference between the Irish and 106th place in sacks allowed is just over four sacks a contest.

The line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball hasn't been stout either. Notre Dame is 111th in rushing defense. The Irish do rank 5th nationally in pass defense but that's because teams can beat the Irish by simply running the football. This, along with the offensive inefficiencies, is what caused Weis to change practice this week to a more physical tone. The hope is that it carries over to Saturday against Michigan State. Weis doesn't know for sure what the sessions following the Spartans contests will be like.

"That's something we're definitely going to have to consider because even if we win the game, you can't just say, ‘Okay, well, everything is all better now,'" Weis said. "That doesn't mean like all your problems go away just because you win one game. It means that you have a better frame of mind and you're more receptive to constructive criticism than when you lose the game. You only can get beaten down so many times as a player."

According to Weis, the players have responded effectively to the physical practices.

"More importantly, they haven't complained about it," Weis said. "So I don't know if they are doing cartwheels sitting there going full speed in practice. But they realize that something had to change. I didn't do it to penalize them. I didn't do it to hurt them. I didn't do it to punish them. I did it to try to fix the problems. And I think they were on board with exactly that."

The physical practices didn't make a create a whole lot of changes on the depth chart released to the media on Thursday. Sophomore offensive lineman Dan Wenger was injured in the loss at Michigan and Weis said on Tuesday Wenger is "iffy for a little while." The depth chart has fellow classmate Matt Carufel starting at right guard. Sophomore Sam Young, as was the case in the Wolverines contest, is at left tackle with junior Paul Duncan at right tackle. Defensively, it appears as if nothing has changed, although junior defensive lineman Derrell Hand is listed third at RDE and Weis said he expects Hand to play on Saturday. Weis didn't want to make wholesale changes to prevent players from becoming scapegoats.

"I think that the most important thing for us was not to create sacrificial lambs," Weis said. "That doesn't mean that there won't be quick hooks in some cases. But if I all of a sudden start pulling people and say, ‘This guy is going to start, this guy is going to start,' the obvious thing that goes with it is, ‘Well, it's their fault.' I think we're all part of the problem. I think there's a lot more bodies that you might see show up in the game this week."

One player who could see a boost in playing time is James Aldridge. The sophomore running back has almost been invisible through three games. Although Aldridge is second on the team with 17 carries, ten of those came late in the loss to Michigan. The sophomore is a power back and his physical presence fits perfectly with what Weis is trying to accomplish this week.

"This is a James Aldridge type of week.," Weis said. "That's exactly right. I would expect to see James early and often."

After today, the practices will be over for the week and Notre Dame's next task is to beat Michigan State. Never has an Irish team started a season 0-4 and the national ridicule hurled towards Notre Dame will only increase with another poor performance. After the Spartans, the Irish will take on Purdue, UCLA, Boston College and USC, who are a combined 10-1 this season. The road doesn't get any easier for the Irish. Taking care of business on Saturday will give the team some much needed confidence and momentum heading into another difficult stretch of contests.

"What you have to do is we have to go follow the script and play a physical game," Weis said. "It all starts there. There's several factors this come into game: getting off to a fast start, doing a better job of taking care of the football."


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