Offensive Notebook: Michigan State

SOUTH BEND - James Aldridge is like a broken record. For weeks he has said, "When coach calls my number, that's when I go in." Well, Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis called the sophomore's number a lot on Saturday. It paid dividends, as the nation's worst -rushing offense, finally showed some signs of life.

In his first career start, the 6-foot 222-pound Aldridge carried the ball 18 times for 104 yards. That's monumental, as the Irish came into the game with minus-14 yards rushing (mostly because of quarterback sacks) on the season. Led by the Crown Point, Ind., product's effort, the Irish's rushing totals finally got out of the red. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough, as Notre Dame (0-4) dropped its fourth game in a row to start the season, a 31-14 loss to Michigan State (4-0).

"Well, it's always good to have a good game, but it's not good enough," Aldridge stated. His longest rush was a 43-yard scamper where he bounced outside and raced down the sideline setting up the Irish's second score. "We have to get back and practice tomorrow, keep trying to see what we can do."

Trying to find some kind of offensive rhythm, Weis has played all five of his tailbacks in the first three losses. Aldridge only had 17 carries on the season, including just one for minus-three yards in the loss to Penn State.

Aldridge waited patiently, and as time was dwindling down last Saturday in the 38-0 loss at Michigan, he showed he was a competitor in mop-up time. Aldridge's number was called 10 times, and he ran for 51 yard, by far the most productivity of any Irish back.

With that performance, Aldridge proved to be a good starting point, as the Irish got back to basics this past week in practice, trying to find an offensive identity. In a nutshell, Weis told the media to expect him to call Aldridge's number a lot against the Spartans. After the game, he said he wanted to call it five or 10 more times, but the game didn't warrant him to do that.

"Yeah it felt good, but it's not good enough," Aldridge said. "We've got to do more. So we're going to go back to practice tomorrow and hopefully get better, plugging away."

Aldridge is beginning to become a broken record when talking about practice as well.

***Aldridge's success, and the offense's success can be squarely put on the offensive line's shoulders. Going back to training-camp mode and basics this past week in practice, Weis emphasized being more physical in practice, and for a half, that physical play showed on the field.

The group responsible for yielding 23 sacks, the most in the nation, and paving the way for the worst rushing attack in the country, came out with a little more vigor against the Spartans. The Irish finished with 117 yards rushing, 76 of it coming in the first half. They also ran for the first two offensive touchdowns of the season.

"I think that it's pretty evident we came out, we were able to establish the run game in that respect," sophomore left tackle Sam Young said. "We took a step forward. Obviously we're not there yet. Like coach Weis said it continues, the mentality. In that respect I think it did help us and it's only going to continue to help us."

"I think it definitely helped," fifth-year senior center John Sullivan said. "Got the running game going a little bit in the first half. It's definitely directly correlated to being more physical, running hard, and I think training camp had a lot to do with that, so I think that was a great thing.

But the unit allowed four more sacks, and wasn't nearly as productive after halftime. Pressured much of the afternoon, Irish quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen and Evan Sharpley combined for 11-of-20 passing for just 86 yards.

"You've got to look at things you did positive and build off them," Young said. "You've got to look at the things you did poorly and you've got to learn from them. And you got to keep stepping forward. We're obviously in a rut right now, we've got to keep digging ourselves out and that's the only way you can do that.

***Trailing 31-14 in the fourth quarter, Weis brought in Sharpley off the bench to replace Clausen.

"I think Jimmy was playing solid," Weis said. Clausen was 7-of-13 passing for 53 yards. He was sacked three times. "I didn't think he was bad. I didn't think he was good.

"You know, because we are about ready to go into a different type of mode in a game that he has not had as much repetition, which was a version of the no-huddle, try to pick up that odd or scramble package that they have, the pressure, I didn't think he would have enough familiarity in doing that at that time. And so I won't let a guy who isn't more veteran at trying to run that package, that's the reason why I did that."

Sharpley finished the game, 4-of-7 passing for 33 yards.

***On the Irish's fourth possession, sophomore guard Eric Olsen replaced Paul Duncan at tackle for a series.

***Shaken up in the second half, Sullivan said after the game he was totally fine. He remained in the game.


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