Notre Dame football notebook: Ground game key in ND-MSU matchup

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Halfway through Brian Kelly’s Tuesday press conference, the Notre Dame head football coach’s Michigan State preview turned into an out-and-out Cam McDaniel lovefest.

Even the politician in Kelly ran out of gushing phrases to throw at the barrage of questions about the plucky junior running back from Coppell, Texas, who helped close out Saturday night’s 31-24 escape at Purdue with 10 clock-eating runs in the final 7:22.

The reality is — and Kelly acknowledged as much — that the script could change all over again Saturday when Michigan State (3-0) and the nation’s No. 1 defense comes to town.

There are still five viable options in ND’s running back rotation, including heretofore little-used freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston.

“They are all contributing,” Kelly insisted. “I think we'll continue to see it week to week. Next week, maybe we'll talk about somebody else.”

Whoever emerges from juniors McDaniel, George Atkinson III, leading rusher Amir Carlisle and freshmen Bryant and Folston, they’ll have to be at the top of their game. Winning the running battle Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium (3:30 EDT; NBC-TV) isn’t just a game within the game.

In this smash-mouth series, it is the game.

Since Kelly’s first season at ND, 2010, the Irish are 25-2 in games in which they outrush their opponent. MSU, during the same time span, is 27-3 when it wins the running battle. Within the series itself, every winner since 2002 has checked the box of having the higher rushing total except once.

That was in 2006, when ND rallied from 16 points down in the fourth quarter for a 40-37 victory in East Lansing. Mich.

A similar score Saturday between the 22nd-ranked Irish (2-1) and this incarnation of the Spartans (unranked in AP, 24th in the coaches poll) seems beyond remote, given the Spartans’ dominating prowess on defense and its gargantuan struggles on offense.

At least, it appears, MSU has settled on a No. 1 quarterback in sophomore Connor Cook. The week before, against Youngstown State, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio listed four co-No. 1s on the depth chart.

Cook, the least likely option to emerge when you talk to MSU insiders given his inconsistency in throwing the ball, has completed a modest 55 percent of this passes, but he does add the dimension of being a runner. The 6-foot-4, 218-pounder averages 4.7 yards a carry on 15 attempts.

Demoted starter Andrew Maxwell, a fifth-year senior who contributed minus-28 yards rushing in last year’s 20-3 loss to the Irish, has become a square peg in the MSU coaches’ eyes.

Under a different offensive coaching regime, MSU never ran a play in the ND red zone in the 2012 game, and only 17 of its 70 plays were run on the Irish half of the 50.

ND won that game last season, despite racking up only 300 yards in total offense and going 1-for-14 in third-down conversions against a Spartan defense that finished fourth nationally in total defense in 2012.

This year’s version could be even better.

MSU has forced 24 three-and-outs on 43 possessions this season (56 percent) against admittedly two FBS languid offenses (Western Michigan and South Florida) that haven’t scored more than 17 points against any other FBS defense, and against FCS member Youngstown State.

The Spartans are fourth nationally against the run, No. 1 in pass-efficiency defense, No. 1 in fewest yards-per-play allowed (2.9), No. 12 in scoring defense and No. 2 in third-down defense, having allowed just seven third-down conversions this season in 45 tries by Western Michigan, South Florida and Youngstown State combined.

The Irish had seven third-down conversions in the second half of the Purdue game alone (in seven tries), and their 21-point fourth quarter matched the highest-scoring fourth period since 1994 (Michigan) and highest on the road since putting up 21 in 1997 against Pitt.

ND senior quarterback Tommy Rees, if he can solve the nation’s top pass defense, has a shot to become the first Irish quarterback ever to start a season with four games of 300 yards or more in passing.

No one in the FBS has thrown for more than Rees’ 969 passing yards this season against FBS competition. He’s seventh overall when FCS competition is factored in.

Rees has struggled in the past against teams that feature strong running defenses, in that they’ve been able to push him out of game-manager mode and into having to win or lose the game with his arm. That’s likely the template MSU will try to employ as well.

“When you're talking about the No. 1 defense, there's a reason for it,” Kelly said of MSU. “It's personnel-driven and certainly there's scheme. So you have to be aware of both.”

Two things MSU is doing defensively that it didn’t do last year are getting more pressures on the quarterback and scoring defensive touchdowns. And sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun (6-4, 250) is in the middle of both surges.

Calhoun has two sacks for a Spartan defense that ranks 14th nationally in that category after finishing 93rd last season. He also has a team-best eight quarterback hurries. And Calhoun has scored three of MSU’s four defensive touchdowns. A year ago the Spartan defense had none.

“You have to find ways to manufacture runs,” Kelly said. “You've got to be able to protect your quarterback. Again, you've got to play tough, physical football for four quarters. You've got to take care of the football. All of the little things matter in matchups like this.”

Zaire returns

Freshman quarterback Malik Zaire has finally been cleared by doctors to resume practicing full speed after being restricted the past three weeks because of a bout of mononucleosis.

But that wasn’t the only hurdle he had to clear.

Kelly was put off because Zaire announced via Twitter Sunday that he was back. So ...

“He learned his lesson relative to what is information that needs to stay within the program,” Kelly said. “He touched the stove, and we've managed that, gotten through it.”

The broader question, though, is what Zaire’s role would be moving forward. Kelly originally was adamant about Zaire taking only reps with the varsity and staying away from scout-team duties.

But Zaire, who started the year No. 3 on the QB depth chart, would certainly give the No. 1 Irish defense more game day-like looks in practice with some scout-team duty. And given the fact that he has missed three valuable weeks, are there really enough reps in practice to play catch-up to the point he could push senior Andrew Hendrix for No. 2?

“It's a good question,” Kelly said, “and to be honest with you, I think we are probably going to look at doing both (repping with the scout team and the varsity).”

Day day-to-day

Kelly’s hope is that starting defensive end Sheldon Day’s ankle sprain will be healed enough by Wednesday that the sophomore will be able to practice the rest of the week and be available for Saturday’s game.

“He's made really good progress,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He's going to stay in a walking boot today, and we'll take it off tomorrow. ... We'll see how he goes from day to day.”

Freshman Isaac Rochell is listed behind Day on the depth chart, but if the sophomore is unable to play, Kelly will probably go with a replacement-by-committee from a group that includes Rochell and sophomore Jarron Jones as well as senior nose guard Kona Schwenke and junior outside linebacker Ishaq Williams.

Up to speed?

Remember when former Irish All-America linebacker Manti Te’o’s time of 4.82 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the National Scouting Combine last February caused a media firestorm?

Te’o eventually ran a 4.69 in March at ND’s Pro Day and ended up being a second-round draft choice by San Diego.

How do the pro scouts view ND’s current starting insider linebackers?

According to one pro scouting service, Dan Fox would be expected to run a 4.8, while Carlo Calabrese a 4.85 based on actual times and/or estimates.

Notable numbers

•Notre Dame’s 31-24 win at Purdue Saturday night on ABC drew a respectable 4.8 million viewers, but down from the 8.6 million the Irish and Michigan pulled in the week before on ESPN.

•Two seasons ago, then-Irish freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch had five tackles, with a sack, a forced fumble and six quarterback hurries in a 31-13 upset of Michigan State. In his first season at South Florida, he still is looking for his first sack there.

Through three games for the Bulls, Lynch has six tackles and one QB hurry.

•MSU’s only two non-conference losses in its past 13 non-league

matchups have come against Notre Dame (31-13 and 20-3).

•Notre Dame rotates off the Michigan State schedule the next couple of seasons, but comes back on in 2016. It will be the first break in the series since 1995-96.

•The Irish will be shooting for their 10th successive win at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.

•In the last six ND games decided by a TD or loss, Kelly is 6-0.

•Notre Dame has limited Michigan State to four rushing first downs combined in the past two meetings.

•Kelly is 8-9 in his career vs. the Big Ten.

Notre Dame running back Cam McDaniel (33) celebrates after scoring a rushing touchdown during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, in West Lafayette, Ind. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER