NOTRE DAME, Ind. - The Michigan State Spartans are coming to town this weekend and they bring with them the top-ranked defense in the nation. The 177 total yards a game MSU is surrendering through three games is 13.7 yards better than No. 2 Virginia Tech in that category. Good defense is something the Irish have become used to when they face the Spartans.
"They've had success on defense since I've been (here)," Irish quarterback Tommy Rees said after Wednesday's practice. "They do a great job of rallying to the football and really playing tough, hard-nosed defense. I think that's one of the biggest challenges they present. They really get after you. They're physical and they're extremely well coached in what they're doing."
Michigan State also owns the top-ranked passing efficiency offense (a rating of 68.1), while allowing 160 yards a game though the air. Rees's 323 passing yards a game and 154.7 passer rating rank No. 13 and No. 32, respectively. The Irish QB plans to focus less on his opponent's stats and more on what he and the offense need to do.
"You don't have to prepare differently," said Rees of facing the tough MSU defense. "Obviously you're cognizant of the success they've had, but for us it's all about what we're doing on offense. It's about our execution and our understanding of our game plan. You can't dwell too much on what they're ranked or anything like that. You've just gotta get their scheme down and understand what they're trying to do and go out and execute to the best of our ability."
The Spartans are also fourth in rushing offense (50.3 yards per game) through the first three games of the season. The stout Spartan front is also one of three FBS teams (Wisconsin and USC) to allow only four running plays of 10-plus yards in 2013. They also have not allowed more than 51 rushing yards in a game so far.
"They like to stop the run," said Notre Dame running back Cam McDaniel. "They're physical run-stoppers. Their safeties fly down hill and everybody gets in on the action. You can stop the tape when the ball carrier is being taken down and there (are) sometimes 11 guys in between the hashes or around the ball. That's something that we know is going to be a challenge that we're looking to be up to."
Notre Dame's run game has been pedestrian at best so far this season. The team's 125 yards a game ranks 92nd in the nation. The Irish are averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Amir Carlisle's 45-yard run against Temple is the team's longest carry of the season. George Atkinson's 16-yard gain against Michigan is the team's longest carry in the last two weeks.
Notre Dame is averaging nearly 30 points a game offensively, but Michigan State's 12 points a game average ranks 12th in the nation. Points this Saturday could, as is the norm in Notre Dame - Michigan State clashes, be at a premium.
"When they're giving up as little points as they have, you have to take advantage of the opportunities," said Irish receiver T.J. Jones. "A missed opportunity here could be the difference between winning the game and losing momentum and losing the game."
Michigan State's stout defense has made up for a lackluster offense to date. The Spartans rank 84th nationally with an offense that is averaging 369.7 yards.
"They're a good offense," ND safety Austin Collinsworth said. "They can run the ball. Obviously they've got some talented players on that side and we've just gotta be able to make plays and execute."
Nearly 210 of MSU's yards a game are on the ground. The team's passing yardage is also drastically skewed, because 270 of its 480 total passing yards (56%) this season came in last week's 55-17 blowout win over FCS opponent Youngstown State.
Connor Cook had 202 yards in that game with four touchdown passes to four different receivers. Those are the only four TDs the Spartans have thrown this year. Cook has taken over at quarterback after splitting time with last year's starter, Andrew Maxwell, in the first two games against Western Michigan and South Florida.
Cook's 70 rushing yards (25 last week) bring an element to the offense that Maxwell lacked. The Irish have faced three quarterbacks already who possess the ability to run.
"We've faced a lot of mobility back there," said Collinsworth. "So that's something we're going to be prepared for. I think we're going to be ready for him."
"It definitely changes the game," Collinsworth continued of facing a mobile QB. "You've gotta stay on your guy in scrambling situations, because if you relax for a second it's a big play waiting to happen."
Regardless of opponent, this Saturday's clash with the Spartans is a big game for the Irish, because there is a big difference between being 3-1 and 2-2 with more tough games coming in succession against Oklahoma, Arizona State and Southern Cal.
"I think it's a huge game for us," Jackson said of Michigan State. "I know the staff and the team looks at it as a turning point - just to get moving in the right direction (and) get all of our mistakes fine-tuned and just get rolling as a team."
"They pride themselves on toughness and being a smash-mouth football team," Jackson continued. "So do we - especially on defense. It's going to be a good match-up between the two of us."
Jackson and fellow corner KeiVarae Russell have had their ups and downs this year after looking dominant at times in 2012. Russell's focus this week is simply on getting better.
"I think our mindset is just to execute this week," said Russell. "The first three games we haven't executed to the best of our abilities. That's the biggest thing this week - just focus on the execution and when the play comes your way just make a play."
A win on Saturday would give the Fighting Irish their third consecutive home win over Michigan State. That hasn't happened since a four-game winning streak from 1987-1993.