Michigan State came into Notre Dame Stadium and walked away with a win for the sixth straight time by a margin of 31-14. No opponent in Irish history has ever achieved the feat. More historic was the 0-4 start by Notre Dame, another infamous first. To the Irish's credit, the players made the Spartans earn their fourth victory in four games. For a half, the contest was competitive. By the time the clock read zero, it was another double digit loss. Head coach Charlie Weis saw signs after the contest that this team wants desperately to get out of this losing funk and turn around the fortunes of the program.
"The thing that encouraged me the most after the game in the locker room the players showed obvious emotion about the outcome of the game," Weis said on Sunday. "It's probably the first time that so many players were moved by the outcome. That is the one thing that people don't get to see that's the greatest reason for optimism."
Weis took the Irish back to the drawing board last week. After three straight losses by 21 points or more, the Notre Dame head coach made the players go through three "training camp" practices. The goal: to get more physical on both sides of the ball after being pushed around by Georgia Tech, Penn State and Michigan.
The result: a running attack that produced a 100-yard rusher in James Aldridge. The sophomore running back carried the ball 18 times for 104 yards. Freshman Robert Hughes added 33 yards and a touchdown.
However, in the second half, the ground attack came to a screeching halt. On the other side of the ball, Michigan State was able to control Notre Dame's defense with Javon Ringer's 144 rushing yards and Jehuu Caulcrick's 83. Spartan quarterback Brian Hoyer threw a career-high four touchdown passes. The effort was there for the Irish but in the end could not stop the Spartans from winning a 17-point road victory. All this led to the emotional outpouring in the Notre Dame locker room, which is what Weis wanted to see.
"I would be more concerned if they didn't show that emotion," Weis said. "That's when you really start to worry. When they don't show that emotion, then you start to get concerned. As long as they show that emotion, then you know they care. As long as they care, you're not going to be too overly concerned about it happening anytime soon. That's the signs I'm looking for. That's the facial expressions I'm looking for."
What's next? The Irish will once again be in a "training camp" mode for part of this week. The one difference is that the team will watch film of the previous game. After the loss to Michigan, Weis did not show the Wolverines game film to his players. Up next is a road trip to 4-0 Purdue, who has been keeping the scoreboard operator busy this season. The Boilermakers are seventh nationally in scoring offense. Notre Dame will again be a double-digit underdog in West Lafayette. The odds won't be in Irish's favor. Weis wants to know which of his players are steadfast in turning this dreadful start around.
"You look for guys that are going to throw in the towel," Weis said. "That's an important part of our job. As I said to them in the locker room, ‘Fellas, either you're all in or all out.' It's got to be one or the other. The boat is going to sail with or without you. It's okay if you're out. But you're all in or all out. For the majority of the people, they're all in."
***The biggest disappointment Weis had with his team on Saturday was special teams. What didn't the unit do wrong against the Spartans? Fifth-year senior Geoff Price had a couple of beautiful punts with a long of 56 yards. But it was a few shanks by Price that led to sophomore Eric Maust seeing action with three punts for an average of 43 yards per boot. Price's average was 36.7. Weis attributed it to a "bad day at the office."
In relation to this, Michigan State clearly won the battle of field position. The Spartans average field position was their own 43-yard line. Notre Dame's? Their own 25-yard line. The Irish had no punt returns on the day while the best kickoff return was Golden Tate's 27-yarder. A key play occurred on the opening kickoff of the second half when Michigan State's Devin Thomas return a kick 52 yards to Notre Dame's 45-yard line. The Spartans later scored on the drive to increase their lead to 24-14. Special teams was anything but for the Irish.
"We spend a lot of time on special teams," Weis said, who made the move before spring ball to include all the coaches teaching with the unit. "Every practice. We're not light on walk through time, meeting time or practice time on special teams. There's many people involved in it and we're just going to have to get better because it's not good enough."
***Senior defensive end Justin Brown did not dress on Saturday. Brown rolled his ankle during the week of practice. A game-time decision was made to sit the senior. Weis said Brown would be available on Sunday to practice. In Brown's place, junior Derrell Hand recorded three tackles in his first action of the year after being suspended for three games for his arrest of solicitation of a prostitute in early August. Weis said Hand didn't play good or terrible but was "okay."
***Two freshman saw extensive action in passing situations. Outside linebackers Kerry Neal and Brian Smith were brought in to rush the passer. The two lined up at the defensive end positions and had some success. Neal recorded his first sack, tackle for loss and pass breakup of his career. Smith added three tackles. Notre Dame only has four sacks through four games and the two youngster will continue to see action in passing situations.
"Right now, I don't think they're prime time, every down players," Weis said. "But their progress is growing at a much higher rate than a lot of other people. One thing they've shown is that they can get after the passer. We definitely needed some edge pressure, which they definitely provided."
***Weis on freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen's progress: "The two things he does best is read coverages and he can make every throw. Those are the two things he can do. At this point in his career, what he's doing is calling plays in the huddle more than running the offense. There's a big difference. It's part of the evolution of a quarterback. Early in their careers, they relay the plays from the sideline to the huddle and go to the line of scrimmage and run the play. That will grow while he's here from calling the plays to running the offense. That is a natural evolution that occurs over time."