ND looks to get physical against Michigan State

Friday, September 21st 2007, 2:37 pm
By: News On 6

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) _ Notre Dame can't hide how bad it has been, so it's going to try to run.

Coach Charlie Weis is done trying to outscheme his team's shortcomings. He's not counting on gimmicks to try to get the Fighting Irish a win Saturday against Michigan State (3-0). He's not focusing on where Notre Dame can exploit the Spartans.

Instead, he's focusing on finding something his players can do to avoid becoming the first 0-4 team in 119 seasons of Notre Dame football.

``We have to make some good things happen,'' Weis said. ``Too many times when you get in a situation like this you're hoping for something good to happen. When you hope for something good to happen, you might be waiting a long time. I think Saturday we have to make some good things happen.''

Some of those good things are tackling better and establishing a push along the offensive line so the Irish can run the ball. Depending on the run might sound odd for a team that's last in the nation with a total of minus-14 rushing yards over three games.

But the Irish have been forced to pass because they've trailed so much in losing three blowouts. That's led to the Irish giving up a nation-high 23 sacks for 167 yards in lost yardage.

What makes that even more worrisome is the Spartans are tied for the lead in the nation with 17 sacks.

So the Irish, who went through unusually physical practices this week to try to reverse their fortunes, wants to establish the run. Weis, who usually develops a game plan to take advantage of an opponent's weakness, enters this game with the idea that simpler is better.

``The picture is very clear when you're doing it this way. Now you don't have a lot of firepower this way,'' Weis said. ``But there aren't many mental mistakes.''

In a typical season, the game between the Irish and the Spartans would spur talk about the last season's sideline skirmish in which Weis said he was slapped _ and former Spartan coach John L. Smith all but called him a liar.

There would be talk about how the Irish haven't won a home game against Michigan State since Lou Holtz was coach and how the Spartans could become the first opposing team to win six straight at Notre Dame Stadium. There would be talk about how some Michigan State players planted the school flag on the field at Notre Dame Stadium two years ago.

There also would be discussion about Weis' alleged vow to an alumni group that he would never again lose to the Spartans.

None of that mattered this week, as the Irish weren't focusing on anything except their performance. The Spartans weren't doing a lot of talking about those things either. But they remember.

``You have to use it as motivation,'' linebacker Kaleb Thornhill. ``You know you say forget the past, but you have to use it as motivation for the future.''

The biggest motivation, though, is the way the Spartans lost last year. Michigan State led 31-14 at halftime, but the Irish outscored the Spartans 19-0 in the fourth quarter to win 40-37. The loss sent the Spartans' season into a tailspin, losing eight of their last nine.

``That loss burned a hole in your heart,'' Thornhill said.

First-year coach Mark Dantonio said when his staff members arrived in East Lansing, they met with the players and evaluated their strengths and weaknesses. The players told the coaches they needed to be better in the fourth quarter.

``We came to the conclusion we can't unravel in tough times,'' Dantonio said.

So the Spartans have been practicing how to overcoming adverse situations.

``So when those situations hit us we're not surprised by it. We're ready to go,'' tailback Jehuu Caulcrick said.

Caulcrick believes it helped the Spartans in last week's 17-13 victory over Pittsburgh. They may need it again this week. The last seven games between Michigan State and Notre Dame have been decided by less than a touchdown, with the winning points being scored late in the fourth quarter or overtime in six of those.

Weis was asked Thursday if his players, who have lost their first three games by an average of 30 points, had shown any signs they are ready for a close game.

``I think they would welcome a close game at this point,'' Weis quipped.

So would a lot of Irish fans.