Heart Not Enough Against MSU

SOUTH BEND - For a half, there were a few joyous moments. Robert Hughes reminding Notre Dame fans of a time when Jerome Bettis use to plow through opposing tacklers for bruising gains. The luck of the Irish giving the team the ball inside the 10-yard line, setting up the first offensive touchdown of the season. James Aldridge resembling Reggie Brooks and looking like the five-star recruit he was.

Above all and most importantly, the Irish showed heart.

But in typical 2007 fashion, reality brutally set in yet again for Notre Dame (0-4). This time, a 31-14 home loss to Michigan State (4-0).

"I do know that after last week's game, the guys could have done one of two things, okay," head coach Charlie Weis said. "They could have come in and thrown in the towel, or they could have come in slugging it out, and they came out slugging it out, and you could see that from the start of the game."

It's true, as the Irish fought to a 17-14 halftime deficit. But the harsh truth is pretty much the same song and dance. The offensive line failed to generate a push at the line of scrimmage in key situations. The tackling was suspect. The Irish couldn't stop the run even though they knew it was coming. They allowed four touchdown passes. And for the most part, the offense was inept again. Oh yeah, and punter Geoff Price has a case of the shanks.

Training camp part two, week two, begins on Sunday. This time, Irish players will be allowed to digest the film from the loss, and soak up the dimly lit bright side, and learn from the mistakes made. At least there is isn't pitch darkness coming from this game film, as there was from last Saturday's 38-0 loss at Michigan.

As Weis later said in his post-game press conference, there was a semblance of a running game. The nation's worst rushing offense, the Irish came into the game averaging nearly minus-five yards per game on the ground. Aldridge immediately showed that today would be a different day, leveling a Spartans' defender and falling forward for six yards on his second carry of the day.

The 6-foot, 222-pound Aldridge showed power, finesse and big-play ability, gaining 104 yards on 18 carries, with a long of 43 yards.

The freshman Hughes, a 5-foot-11, 238-pound bulldozer was very impressive in his limited touches. Right after Aldridge hit a seam and bounced outside for 43 yards, Hughes followed that up with a similar 17-yard run of his own. He also set up the Irish's first touchdown with an eight-yard run, carrying Michigan State players to the one-yard line. His first-career touchdown, a three-yard dive in the second quarter, that cut the Spartans' lead to 17-14, was equally impressive.

Hughes finished with 33 yards on six carries, running behind an offensive line that looked light years more physical than three weeks before. Training camp helped a little bit.

"I would have liked to give it to (Aldridge) about another five or 10 times, but just the game didn‘t warrant me being able to do that," Weis said. "And I wanted to get Robert into the mix because he brings that even bigger body than James. He's 15 or 20 pounds heavier than James. If you're going to try to play a slug-it-out mentality, you'd better have a couple of big bodies that can handle it."

So the Irish are a little closer to finding a core offensively, and an identity. And that is a power-running attack that opens up play action.

The progress was only slight, as starting quarterback Jimmy Clausen and reserve Evan Sharpley combined to complete 11-of-20 passes for 86 yards. That's a woeful 4.6 yards per throw average. They were also sacked four times. Notre Dame could find its way into the basement of every major offensive category in the nation.

Then that thing against the rush. Notre Dame came into the game ranked 111th nationally against the run, and allowing 219 rushing yards isn't going to help that stat.

As some problems begin to mount, and as some solutions slowly begin to show, Weis also has to worry about the commitment of his players, and losing his team. He'll be hoping for the same effort with less mistakes next Saturday at Purdue.

"They have to believe there's going to be a payoff," Weis said. "I mean, you keep on working until there is a payoff. And at this point, you know, there's been no payoff. You keep on working for the next one until there's a payoff, and there's going to be one. You know, hopefully it's against Purdue."

The question will be asked all this coming week. How has the team responded to another loss? A defeat that marks the most ever losses to begin a season in program history. Will it be a struggle for guys to show the same heart they did against Michigan State?

"I think our team has a lot of competitors on it," sophomore left tackle Sam Young said. "I'm not worried about that. Last week the same thing could be said, oh are we going to come out, and I remember Sunday everybody came out and everybody was ready to get to work. And I think the same thing is going to happen this week."

Receiver George West agreed.

"I've been playing football my whole life," the sophomore stated. "It got me all the way here. I'm not going to let some losses or some rough times make me forget about the reasons why I'm here and what I love to do.

"I love to play this game. So I feel like regardless of what's going on, if we go out there and keep working hard, we'll eventually put Ws on the board."

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