Countdown to kickoff

Clausen needs to show poise and consistency; Floyd is ready

September 18, 2009, 4:08 PM

By: Eric Hansen

Countdown to Notre Dame-Michigan State

Windell Middlebrooks

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Windell Middlebrooks will be on hand Saturday, hoping to deliver an ND victory.

6. Outside Influences: Windell Middlebrooks, the Miller High Life delivery man in the commercials, of all people, is in South Bend, Ind., this weekend to cheer on the Notre Dame football team in its quest to end a school-record, six-game home losing streak to Michigan State on Saturday.

If that magic fails, former ND Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown is in town, to be honored Saturday for his impending induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Brown's Heisman Trophy platform was built with a spectacular special-teams performance during a 31-8 rout of the Spartans early in 1987 season -- Sept. 19 to be exact.

That started a long win streak against MSU that was finally truncated in Bob Davie's first season as ND's head coach (1997). The Irish haven't won at home against MSU since. Also in town, the 1949 Irish team that squashed the 10th-ranked Spartans, 34-21, on its way to a national title.

5. Isn't That Special?: Whatever short-circuiting happened on offense and defense in the second half of last Saturday's 38-34 loss to Michigan, the Irish special teams being, well, ordinary, didn't help. There was a missed 28-yard field goal, a 94-yard kickoff return given up for a touchdown, and a 28-yard punt that allowed the Wolverines to start their go-ahead scoring drive on their own 43-yard line.

The Spartans had their own special-teams issues in a 29-27 loss at home to Central Michigan -- among them an offsides penalty on a missed Chippewas field goal, with the do-over providing the winning margin, and not being able to recover an admittedly textbook onside kick in the closing seconds of the game.

If the game is closer than the oddsmakers' 10-point spread, special teams could make the difference in the final outcome.

4. Better Focus: ND sophomore wide receiver Michael Floyd has proclaimed himself 100 percent recovered from a cut to his right knee, suffered at Michigan, that required 15 stitches to close. Fellow starting wideout Golden Tate vows to be recovered too -- from what he calls a lack of focus that caused him to drop several passes in the Michigan game.

"I thought I should have gotten a couple of calls, and I didn't," Tate said of what he interpreted as pass interference and defensive holding. "One thing I need to work on is getting defensive backs' hands off of me.

"I think I got frustrated, and I think my focus started to go elsewhere. So I think that's why I might have started to drop a few balls."

3. Notable Numbers: Michigan State's magic number is 24. Since 1990, the Spartans are 98-28-1 (.776) when scoring 24 points or more in a game, and 18-81-1 (.185) when scoring 23 or fewer. ... In all 22 of Charlie Weis' losses as head coach at Notre Dame, the Irish were outrushed by their opponents.

2. Beyond Numbers: Irish junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen reached 5,000 career passing yards faster than any other Notre Dame quarterback in history -- 25 games (Brady Quinn previously held that distinction at 27). And Clausen is on the brink of another couple of milestones: He needs 28 completions to move past Steve Beuerlein into third place on ND's all-time completion list and Clausen is three TD passes away from hopping over Rick Mirer into third place on that career list.

But most important from Clausen on Saturday will be his poise and consistency. His postgame locker room speech to his teammates Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich., was a great start.

1. Living In The Past: Those who know Irish defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta say there is no way ND's sluggish defensive numbers will hold up for the rest of the month, let alone the entire season.

History is on Tenuta's side. Of the previous eight teams he served as defensive coordinator for in this decade (at Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Ohio State), only once did his team rank lower than 27th in total defense and just once did it rank lower than 31st in rushing defense. And never did his defenses finish outside the top 50 in rushing, total or scoring defense.

Currently, the Irish aren't higher than No. 50 nationally in any of the four major defensive categories (rush, pass, total, scoring).

"People just need to be patient," former Ohio State coach John Cooper said. "His system has survived time, trends and, at times, young talent. It's going to work."

Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com and the South Bend Tribune.

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