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Monday, September 12, 2011
MSU defense provides stiff test for Irish

By Matt Fortuna

In the second half of Saturday's 35-31 loss to Michigan, Notre Dame went 0-for-3 in third down situations of three yards or fewer. That problem looks manageable when compared to that of Florida Atlantic's, as the Owls managed just one first down Saturday.

In the entire game.

Cierre Wood
Notre Dame might lean on Cierre Wood, 20, and the running game against Michigan State.
FAU's opponent was Michigan State, which dominated on all cylinders in winning 44-0. The 15th-ranked and defending Big Ten co-champion Spartans allowed just 44 yards of total offense, stopped the Owls on all 10 third-down plays and scored a touchdown on defense.

Not exactly what the Fighting Irish are itching to see after a pair of mistake-filled losses.

Notre Dame's offense has a nation-leading 10 turnovers through two games, severely hindering an offense that is 10th among FBS schools in total yards but tied for 69th in points scored. It will face an MSU defense that ranks third against the pass, fourth in total defense and third in scoring defense.

At 2-0, the Spartans have looked like a much more complete team than the South Florida and Michigan teams that have beaten the Irish on the way to their 2-0 starts. The Spartans are sound overall on defense, efficient on offense and, as Notre Dame learned the hard way last season, well-coached.

If there is one area MSU has shown deficiencies in through two weeks this season, it might be its rushing defense. In a 28-6 Week 1 win against FCS opponent Youngstown State, the Spartans surrendered 128 rushing yards. Despite playing from behind most of the game, the Penguins finished with more yards on the ground than they did through the air (126).

That's not to say that Notre Dame should run all over Sparty, which still boasts the nation's No. 22 rush defense. But the Irish should try to establish a ground game early.

For one, Greg Jones is no longer in the green and white. Jones, now with the New York Giants, finished last season as the school's third-leading career tackler, with 465 takedowns. His 46.5 tackles for loss were tops in school history.

Notre Dame had plenty of success running the ball up the middle early Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich. Cierre Wood carried the ball four times for 29 yards on the Irish's opening drive, and both he and change-of-pace back Jonas Gray combined for 22 yards on four carries on drive No. 2. Both series ended in touchdowns.

Wood finished the evening with 134 yards on 25 carries; Gray with 66 yards on six carries. Wood, who had 104 yards in Week 1, became the first Irish back to rush for 100 yards in two straight games since Armando Allen did so against Michigan and MSU in 2009.

Unlike Allen, Wood fumbled against Michigan, with his team driving in the fourth quarter. Gray fumbled in Week 1 at the goal line, resulting in a 96-yard touchdown for USF.

The key, of course, is protecting the ball while trying to expose a potential weakness in the defense. Then again, with the Irish, that's been the problem all along in this young season.