It's still a bit premature to worry about the Notre Dame football team getting big heads after winning four straight games, including two at the start of 2008 season, but Charlie Weis is not going to be caught off guard.
"I think generally the statement is, ‘OK, now you beat somebody, a program that everyone respects. And now you're going on the road, OK, playing against a nice solid football team. Are you going to spend a week watching TV and reading the newspapers and having everyone tell you that you're halfway decent now, or are you going to go try to grow from this?'" Weis said. "I think the most important thing now is for our team to make sure they grow from the experience that they just had and not have any form of a setback, because we're not good enough to just show up and think you're going to win."
In many respects this weekend's game against Michigan State (2-1) will be entirely different from the Irish's matchups against San Diego State and Michigan. Notre Dame will play on the road for the first time this season and for the first time will face an offense that does not feature the spread.
"I think this is a different set of encyclopedias now. I think that what's happened now, I think now the confidence level of the team has gone up. After this last game, it's gone up a whole bunch," Weis said. "But now they're going on the road for the first time against a smash mouth team that likes to play physical football. And it will be interesting to see now how we respond now that we've got some renewed confidence and some growing confidence, how we're going to respond playing on the road."
The Spartans rely heavily on senior running back Javon Ringer who has carried the ball 104 times through three games, has been named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week two weeks in a row and leads the nation with nine rushing touchdowns.
"He's one of the best backs in the country," said Weis. "You might stop him a couple times but that's not going to stop them from giving him the ball. They're going to keep on giving him the ball and you're going to have to keep on stopping him, because they're going to keep on giving it to him. You don't have to worry about whether or not they're going to take him out of the game plan, because that is not going to be the case. So you better bring your lunch pail with you because they're going to get behind those big linemen and hand him the ball and you'll have to stop him."
Ringer will run behind an offensive line that features three returning starters, including a pair of three-year starters.
"The thing that gets you, very striking thing, when you start working the statistics, is the balance between the rushing and their passing," Weis said. "They're averaging 193 yards rushing a game, 196 yards passing a game. They've done a nice job in time of possession controlling the clock. They've only allowed one sack this year."
Michigan State has fifth-year senior Brian Hoyer back at quarterback and Weis has seen his growth on film, especially in the second half of the Spartans' opener against California.
"I thought Hoyer really stepped to the plate and showed he's capable of making all the throws. And it's part of the maturation process," Weis said. "I'm sure that their coaching staff is fairly confident that this guy, if anyone ever took Ringer out of the game, which that remains to be seen because you haven't seen that happen. But if anyone could kind of stifle him at all, I'd still think they'd feel confident enough that Hoyer can make enough plays to win for them."
The Spartans had a couple of receivers get banged up in last week's 17-0 win over Florida Atlantic, but Notre Dame expects them to play.
"Mark Dell, he injured his ankle a little bit in the third quarter last week. But it looked like, watching on tape, he returned a few series later. He's the team's leading receiver this year with 13 catches for 320 yards. Averaging over 24 yards a catch, though, which is a little bit scary," said Weis. "(B.J.) Cunningham is their Z. He also got injured last week, he injured a knee. They're saying they expect him to play."
Michigan State's offense will give some Irish players the chance to see the field more than they did against San Diego State or Michigan.
"This will be a little bit different game than we played in the first two games, because the first two games were multiple wide receiver games most of the time. I think Michigan State's MO is more of 12 and 21 people, which are two wide receivers on the field in both those packages," Weis said. "Whether it's two tight ends with a back or two backs and one tight end, I think it puts you more into regular defense.
"Now there's some guys that haven't been heavily involved in the mix. For example, a guy like Ian Williams has been playing behind Pat Kuntz in nickel defense, now goes back to your starting nose. So there's guys that have just been waiting for this game because they know, this gives them an opportunity to be on the field a whole bunch more."
Freshman defensive lineman Ethan Johnson has seen time in both games, but could have a different role against the Spartans.
"He can play five technique or three technique. He can play either one right there," Weis said. "He's going to get on the field as soon as we can get him on the field, because you'll see him on the field again this week. I just don't know whether it will be a five technique or three technique, but he'll be out there."
Defensively, one of the Spartans biggest strengths would seem to prey on one of Notre Dame's biggest weaknesses.
"One of the stats that they're very good at is third down," Weis said. "Teams have only been converting at 29 percent. And we've had some trouble on third down. So it's going to be a challenge for us to fix this problem this week, because it's one of the main points of emphasis for our offense. In addition to that, people have tried fourth down four times and they haven't got a conversion. And on top of that, in the red zone, people are only scoring touchdowns 40 percent of the time in the red zone. They've played very good situational football."
According to Weis, the Irish offense needs to develop a confidence and an attitude when it comes to converting on third down that starts with the plays.
"I think we have to get to some staples on third down that the team goes in there and says I'm glad they called that play because we know we're going to get five yards. I know we're going to get seven yards, whatever it ends up being," he said. "Because we haven't been in all 3rd-and-longs. Like if our conversion ratio were at 25 percent because every snap were 3rd-and-10, that would be another thing. But that has not been the case. So that is one thing that we were addressing early this morning to try to start fixing that."
"In his career, he's played inside and out. He's definitely one of the best players on their defense. He sees time inside and out," Weis said. "In odd sometimes they'll put him as an outside rusher. Last week they also used him as a Mike linebacker at odd. They've lined him in a lot of different places and you've got to keep your eye on him."
The Spartans also get flexibility from their Will linebacker Eric Gordon.
"He's a very athletic, fast linebacker, that allows them the versatility to not have to go in and out of nickel all the time because he can play that position," said Weis.
In their first two games the Irish have had the benefit of seeing more tape on their opponents and they will in the third game as well, but now with two games of film available on Notre Dame that advantage begins to become negligible. The Irish staff knows that opponents will now have a better idea of what to expect out of Notre Dame, but the Irish do not plan on changing much until they have to.
"Let's face it, if something's working for you after two games that blatantly is obvious, well, you have to assume that they're going to do all they can to negate that. You just have to assume," Weis said. "Now, what you don't do is you don't all of a sudden say, ‘OK, Mike Anello has made a bunch of plays so let's take him off of special teams.' You give them an opportunity to show that they've fixed it. But when they're doing that, then if they end up putting more guys on Mike Anello, that means somebody else is going to be singled with an opportunity to make a big play."
It's unlikely that the Irish staff learned very much from Michigan State's victory last week over the Owls since the game was played in brutal conditions and was very sloppy.
"We have a lot of volume from that last year. And then they've played three games, not just one. So that Cal game was a heck of a game to watch," Weis said. "You learn something from each one of those games, from each one of the first three games and our game from last year. And you go back to their game against Boston College and the Bowl game. You have plenty of volume of stuff that they've done. But you don't have to look at just last week's game in a driving rainstorm."