Sept. 16, 2005
Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis did not spend much time celebrating his team’s headline-grabbing upset at No. 3 Michigan last weekend. While on the team bus heading back to campus, Weis reached into his bag, pulled out his media guide and took a look at the series history between Notre Dame and Michigan State.
Weis’ check of the series history would be the key to his motivation for the Irish this week. The Spartans have won more games in Notre Dame Stadium (11) than any other Irish opponent. The Spartans have also won four consecutive games in `The House that Rockne Built,’ becoming just the second Irish opponent to accomplish that feat (Purdue won five in a row from 1954-62).
“I met with the team on Sunday and (the series history) is the first thing that they heard me talk about. Like any one else who knows the psychology of football, I realize that this is a perfect opportunity for the guys to feel so good about themselves that they may forget to show up and play a team that’s been beating them on a regular basis here,” said Weis.
While Weis will keep his team’s emotions in check this week, Notre Dame fans are looking forward to welcoming the Fighting Irish to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time this season. The team’s first trip out of the famed Stadium tunnel could be a special moment this afternoon.
Much has been made about the team’s challenging early-season slate in 2005. Notre Dame faces four road games in its first five contests – a daunting task that no Irish team has ever faced. Only on three other occasions, has Notre Dame had four road games in its first six contests to start the season (1987, 1989 and 1997).
So far, the Irish have been up to the task with victories over No. 23 Pittsburgh (42-21) and No. 3 Michigan (17-10). The team’s eventual reward for the early-season challenge, five consecutive home games in October and November, looks more promising and enjoyable for Irish fans every day. With the two victories, Weis also became the first Irish coach to win his first two games on an opposing team’s field since Knute Rockne’s 1918 team defeated Case Tech and Wabash.
The Spartans – off to a 2-0 start this season with wins over Kent State (49-14) and Hawaii (42-14) – also will be motivated to erase the memories of a 31-24 Irish victory in East Lansing last season on the way to final record of 5-7 in 2004. Notre Dame junior safety Tom Zbikowski posted one of the most memorable moments of the ’04 season in that contest, forcing a fumble, recovering it and returning it 75 yards for a touchdown.
Michigan State welcomes back last season’s starter at quarterback, 2004 team MVP, junior Drew Stanton. He earned his starting spot against Notre Dame last season when he came off the bench to account for 159 yards (110 passing, 49 rushing) and score on a four-yard touchdown run.
Stanton has been even impressive so far this season, completing over 78 percent of his passes (43 of 55) for 598 yards and five touchdowns. His favorite targets have been wide receivers, senior Kyle Brown (12 catches, 133 yards, one TD) and junior Jerramy Scott (11 catches, 155 yards, two touchdowns).
Sophomore running back Jehuu Caulcrick has led the MSU rushing attack, posting 231 yards in two games with three rushing scores. Freshman Javon Ringer has added 159 yards on 22 carries and four touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball for Michigan State, keep an eye on `Bandit’ linebacker and converted safety Eric Smith. The senior is second on the team with 12 tackles to go along with an interception. Sophomore Sir Darean Adams also has been highly active for the Spartans on defense this year, leading the team with 16 stops, three tackles for a loss and one sack.
For the Irish, the first two weeks have put them back on the national college football scene as they have returned to the top 10 in the Associated Press poll for the first time since 2002.
Brady Quinn has been efficient leading the Irish offense this season. The team has averaged 189.5 yards per game rushing and 373.0 total yards of offense in the first two games this season.
The new coaching staff has drawn much of the media and fan’s attention, but in all that commotion, the development and effort of the Irish players might be overlooked. Junior quarterback Brady Quinn is backing up his spot on the Maxwell Award Watch List (for the top collegiate football player) with four touchdown passes in two games, a 65-percent completion percentage and a 138.65 pass efficiency rating.
Quinn has spread the ball around this year to eight different receivers with sophomore running back Darius Walker and senior tight end Anthony Fasano leading the way with eight catches each.
Walker is close to eclipsing his reception total from the entire 2004 season (10) and has been a force running the ball as well. He has back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances for the first time in his career after running for 100 yards at Pittsburgh and 104 yards last week at Michigan. He had 98 yards on 26 carries versus Michigan State last season.
Walker is taking advantage of an offensive line that might be establishing itself as one of the top units in the nation. Seniors Mark LeVoir (tackle), Dan Stevenson (guard), Dan Santucci (guard) and Bob Morton (center/guard) along with juniors Ryan Harris (tackle) and John Sullivan (center), have cleared the way for 379 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns in the first two games of the year.
While the offense has earned its share of attention, the defense has proven to be a dependable unit capable of great performances.
A year ago, the Irish defense surrendered over 248 yards passing per game. So far this season the rejuvenated defense has limited it’s opponents to just 108 yards rushing and 221 passing yards per contest.
Defensive captain and senior linebacker Brandon Hoyte has led the way with 21 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks. Classmate Corey Mays has been a terror from his linebacker spot, posting 11 tackles, breaking up two passes and laying down a number of big hits.
Another defensive standout has been junior safety Tom Zbikowski. Remembered for his outstanding performance at Michigan State a year ago (75-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown and an interception), Zbikowski has started the 2005 campaign in fine form. He is tied for second on the team in tackles (17) and has picked off two passes – one in each game this year – and has also been on of the team’s most production punt returners.
The Irish face several challenges in the third week of the 2005 season. Will the Irish be able to avoid a letdown after one of the team’s biggest victories in the last three years? How will the team react to playing in front of the home crowd for the first time in the Charlie Weis era? Can Michigan State continue its recent pattern of success at Notre Dame Stadium?
These questions will be answered Saturday afternoon while the entertaining and enjoyable development of the `05 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team continues to build on its early success.