Sept. 19, 2003
In the current state of college football, teams regularly rebound from an early-season loss, no matter how disappointing, to have outstanding seasons. But that turnaround becomes increasingly difficult when a team drops consecutive games in the initial weeks.
Today in Notre Dame Stadium, a pair of squads coming off losses a week ago will try to get back on the winning track, as the Irish (1-1) take on Michigan State (2-1), which has been victorious in each of its last three trips to the “House that Rockne Built.”
Notre Dame split its first two games of the season. In week one, the Irish rallied from a 19-0 deficit for a 29-26 overtime victory against Washington State. Notre Dame scored 20 points in a nine-minute span in the fourth quarter to take a 26-19 lead before the Cougars found the end zone in the final minute to send the contest to overtime. After Washington State missed a field goal, Irish senior Nicholas Setta nailed a 40-yard field goal – his fifth of the contest – to deliver a victory for the Irish.
Last week, in the first of three consecutive games against Big Ten Conference opponents, the Irish ran into a buzzsaw in the form of fifth-ranked Michigan. The Wolverines scored in every quarter en route to a 38-0 victory in “The Big House.” Heisman Trophy hopeful Chris Perry had a big day, rushing for 133 yards and scoring four touchdowns.
Michigan State, which will see nothing but Big Ten teams after this Saturday, opened the season with a 26-21 victory at home against Western Michigan. Senior quarterback Jeff Smoker set a pair of MSU records in the contest: career passing yards and career total offense. In all, he had 324 yards passing and three touchdowns against the Broncos.
On Sept. 6, the Spartans beat Rutgers 44-28 in the 1,000th game in MSU football history. The Scarlet Knights took a 21-14 lead before Michigan State scored the next 30 points to move to 2-0 under new head coach John L. Smith. Smoker had another big game, throwing for 351 yards.
Smith took over as Spartan head coach after compiling a 41-21 (.661) record in five seasons at Louisville. Among the changes he instituted upon taking the reins was removing players’ names from the back of the Spartans jerseys, reversing a tradition held since 1980 and producing a visible sign of a more team-oriented approach.
A week ago, Smith suffered his first loss in green and white. Michigan State held a 19-7 lead until Louisiana Tech scored a pair of touchdowns in the final 70 seconds, recovering an onside kick to set up an 11-yard scoring pass with two seconds remaining.
Two Michigan State strengths figure to be important keys in today’s game: an explosive aerial assault and a front seven that has ferociously clamped down on opposing runners.
Smoker is the key to the former. He is in his fourth season as the Spartan starting quarterback and the toe injury he suffered in the second quarter a week ago that sidelined him during the second half was a major factor in Michigan State’s defeat. This season, MSU is averaging 289 yards passing per game, the top mark in the Big Ten. Smoker has completed 63.5 percent of his passes for six touchdowns in less than two and a half games, while backup Damon Dowdell was seven of 12 for 54 yards vs. Louisiana Tech. Six times in his career, Smoker has passed for over 300 yards in a game, and last season, he had 281 yards through the air in a losing effort against the Irish.
Despite the loss to graduation of Biletnikoff Award winner Charles Rogers, MSU has a number of dangerous young pass catchers this season. Sophomore Agim Shabaj has been the most effective thus far, catching 19 balls for 303 yards and three touchdowns this season. A pair of other sophomores has over 100 yards receiving: running back Jaren Hayes (11 receptions, 154 yards, two touchdowns) and receiver Kyle Brown (six receptions, 126 yards, one TD). All three have already caught touchdown passes of greater than 50 yards.
Notre Dame’s secondary will face the challenge of slowing down the Spartan passing game. That unit features a pair of returning starters and a few players who have stepped into larger roles this season. Among the latter are senior strong safety Garron Bible and classmate cornerback Preston Jackson, who each have 14 tackles this season, tied for second-best on the team. Senior free safety Glenn Earl will make his 20th career start today, having racked up 147 tackles, three sacks and three interceptions in his career. Cornerback Vontez Duff is in his third season as an Irish starter, having snagged five interceptions and broken up 15 passes in his career.
The Irish linebacking corps also will be challenged in facing a Michigan State offense that regularly employs four- and five-receiver sets in Smith’s spread offense. Senior Courtney Watson, a first-team All-American and Butkus Award finalist a year ago, missed the opener, but returned vs. Michigan to make a team-high 12 tackles. Junior Brandon Hoyte, meanwhile, has played well early, leading the Irish with 21 tackles. He has 10 or more stops in each of the last three games, dating back to the Gator Bowl. Senior Derek Curry has 11 tackles in the first two games and the lone Irish interception, the first of his career.
Michigan State’s run defense has been among the best in the nation this season. The Spartans held Western Michigan to just six yards on the ground before limiting Rutgers to -2 and surrendering 61 against Louisiana Tech. The emphasis on controlling the line of scrimmage was a priority for Smith when he took over after last year’s Spartans gave up over 213 yards per game on the ground, including four games in which the opponent rolled up over 300 yards.
A key factor in Michigan State giving up only 21.7 rushing yards per game (the third-best average in Division I-A) has been a penchant for catching opposing rushers and quarterbacks in the backfield. Through three games, Michigan State has registered 28 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. Leading the way is junior tackle Matthias Askew, who has tackled opponents for a loss on six occasions, while racking up five sacks. Senior linebacker Mike Labinjo, the leading Spartan tackler with 23, has a pair of sacks and four tackles behind the line of scrimmage. But Michigan State’s run defense dominance has been a team effort with 11 different players notching tackles for loss thus far.
Notre Dame has a pair of running backs that will try to solve the Spartan run defense. Senior Julius Jones has returned from a year absence to average more than five yards per carry in the first two games and score a 20-yard touchdown to give the Irish the lead for the first time against Washington State. Junior Ryan Grant, who became just the seventh back in school history to gain 1,000 yards in a season a year ago, has 118 yards on 27 carries, an average of 4.4 per attempt. The pair has combined for over 3,000 career rushing yards.