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ND preparing for MSU's ground attack

9/15/2010

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It took only two weeks for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to understand how fickle a town South Bend can be.

"I'm not surprised by it at all," he said Tuesday about the inevitable backlash the Irish's 28-24 loss at home to Michigan sparked. "There will be plenty of room on the bandwagon, too, when we start winning. Look, this is a process for me and our coaches and our players that, you know, we're going to work at every single day. Those are expectations in this business that you're going to have each and every day."

Notre Dame faces a stout Michigan State (2-0) team Saturday at 7 p.m. in East Lansing on ABC. It's the third Big Ten opponent for the Irish in as many weeks, and Spartan Stadium will be a difficult venue in which to regroup.

MSU has won nine of the last 13 contests but Notre Dame's faired well in East Lansing, winning 15 of the last 19 games there. The Spartans feature a more traditional offense compared to what the Irish faced last week in Michigan's Denard Robinson.

Edwin Baker, a 5-foot-9, 208-pound true sophomore, rushed for 183 yards in MSU's 30-17 victory last week over Florida Atlantic at Detroit's Ford Field. The Spartans are averaging 261 yards per game on the ground, 11th best in the country, and Baker's operating at an average clip of 150 per game. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had 142 yards passing, a touchdown and an interception last week for coach Mark Dantonio's squad.

"[Michigan State has] a great rushing attack with three backs that have all shown their capabilities in running the football," Kelly said. "That's not even including [the injured Larry] Caper, who is clearly one of the better backs as well. Kirk Cousins is an accomplished quarterback, a lot of starts underneath his belt, savvy kid. Again, this is a balanced Big Ten offense, very physical up front. Coach (Mark) Dantonio plays a physical brand of football both on offense and defense."

Already with 20 tackles, senior linebacker Greg Jones is responsible for most of the Spartans' hard-hitting defense, which has allowed just 130 yards rushing heading into Week 3.

"Obviously, defensively Jones, rightly so, is one of the best linebackers in the country," Kelly said. "Very physical up front. Experienced at the linebacker position."

With a variety of issues the Irish feel they need to iron out before getting on the bus Friday. Here are Kelly's reactions to some of them:

Quarterback conundrum

When junior QB Dayne Crist was sidelined for most of the first half Saturday, Notre Dame struggled to move the ball with both freshman Tommy Rees and junior Nate Montana. Kelly is unsure who will No. 2 against MSU.

"Don't know," he said. "I think their situation will be decided as I get a chance to see them and evaluate them during the week. I think they're competitive kids, they want to learn, they want to get better. I think the only way that you get that is with experience. Both of them certainly feel like they can get better. I think they'll understand that practice for them is absolutely crucial, staying locked in all the time. Not that they weren't."

Winning close games

Notre Dame lost six games in 2009 by a combined 28 points and Saturday's last-minute defeat to the Wolverines was an unpleasant reminder of the Irish's recent inability to finish when things get tight.

"Have to play better at the end of the game," Kelly said. "But a lot of that has to do with, you know, the belief that you are going to win, as well. I think I come back and would say to you again, I still believe that that's a belief that you know you're going to win, not that you think you're going to win. We're building that. So competing is one thing. We're going to compete. That's not good enough. Competing is one thing; you got to win the games. So, you know, part of that is coaching. Part of that is technique.

Mystery virus

Defensive line/special teams coach Mike Elston was not at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday and will remain absent from Irish practices until his undetermined illness is identified and treated.

"All I can tell you is he is still not with us," Kelly said. "In his absence, our coaches have done a great job. We team coached the special teams. I thought we did a pretty good job. You know, the best analogy that I heard was that for our coaches to really step in there, they really picked up for one of the best special teams coaches in the country and did a very good job. I think there's a lot of confidence there that we can continue on with that."

Mike Denbrock will serve as interim D-line coordinator until Elston returns and Lorenzo Guess, a strength and conditioning assistant, will fill in for Denbrock with the tight ends -- a position of great strength for ND. Guess coached TEs for Kelly last year at Cincinnati.

"We should have a pretty seamless transition," Kelly added. "Again, that is just for a short time. We're expecting that Coach Elston will be back with us pretty soon."

Relying on Riddick

Sophomore Theo Riddick's transition from running back to receiver has been slower than Kelly anticipated. A 37-yard catch against Michigan in the closing seconds of the first half represents most of his total production this year (52 yards on four receptions).

"Well, I still think we're a work in progress there," Kelly said. "It's something that he's learning more every day about how to be a championship wide receiver, not just a guy. He's worked hard at it. We have to be a little bit patient in that process of getting him to where we need him to be. I see a comfort level with him each and every week where he's starting to feel a lot more comfortable."

Slow going for Slaughter and McCarthy

Starting safety Jamoris Slaughter (ankle) did not play against Michigan, nor did reserve Dan McCarthy (soft tissue injury).

"[Slaughter] moved around yesterday," Kelly said. "I think we're closer with him and McCarthy, both of those guys. But, again, I think it's going to be probably Wednesday before we know for sure. ... (With McCarthy) we have been trying every mode of treatment. We have gone to everything. I think we start acupuncture and incense this week (laughter). We're trying everything."

Jones' rookie mistake

An NBC replay of T.J. Jones' 53-yard touchdown revealed that the freshman released the ball in celebration before crossing the goal line. Officials did not see it and the score stood. Kelly saw it on film the next day and asked if the play was addressed.

"What do you think?" he said jokingly. "Do you want to know what happened? We pulled his pants down and gave him a spanking. No, that's discipline. That's a young kid that's got to have understanding, act like you've been there before. You're not flipping the ball off before you get in there. It's unacceptable, and he heard it. It will be the last time he does it because he won't be back on the field if he does it again.