Notre Dame DL Jerry Tillery developing a nose for production

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —If Jerry Tillery holds a grudge, he’s got a great poker face.

The Notre Dame junior nose guard on Wednesday night dissected last September’s domineering 36-28 Michigan State victory over the Irish with all the raw emotion of a guy watching a chick flick.

“They were really good up front, and we didn’t play our game,” the 6-foot-7, 306-pound Shreveport, La., product deadpanned of a clash that included a 36-0 run by the Spartans and a decided advantage throughout the game on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

“But that’s last year. And this is a completely different team. And we know we’re a completely different team. So what happened last year — with a different defense, at home — has no bearing on what’s going to happen on Saturday.”

What likely will have a bearing Saturday night (8 EDT; FOX) is who pushes around whom, particularly in the running game, when the Irish (2-1) visit MSU (2-0) at Spartan Stadium in the last scheduled meeting between the Midwestern rivals until 2026.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is 45-7 at ND (.865) when the Irish win the rushing battle compared to .648 overall. MSU counterpart Mark Dantonio is 75-16 (.824) when his teams hold that edge, compared to (.686) overall.

The Spartans held a 260-57 command in rushing yards last year in South Bend in the second-to-last game for eventually deposed ND defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

A difference in this year’s Spartan offense is the introduction of a starting quarterback with a dual-threat skill set.

Brian Lewerke, a 6-foot-3, 212-pound redshirt sophomore, actually comes into the game as MSU’s leading rusher, with 150 yards on 17 carries (8.8 avg.) and two TDs in comfortable wins over MAC teams Western Michigan and Bowling Green.

He’s also an anomaly on the Irish schedule. Lewerke is the first dual-threat QB ND faces this season, and the Irish won’t likely run into another one until John Wolford of Wake Forest on Nov. 3.

“Rushing lanes are critical,” Tillery said of Lewerke. “You can’t leave this guy to let him run around and through our defense. And so that’s our goal on Saturday, and we’re looking to get that done.”

What the once-loquacious Tillery has ceded in terms of the quantity and colorfulness of his words, he’s made up for in production on the field.

Tillery heads to East Lansing as ND’s fourth-leading tackler (16) and on an arc to shatter his previous career high (37) and give Kelly the most production from the nose guard position in terms of tackles in Kelly’s eight seasons at ND.

Last season, for instance, Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage combined for 55 tackles, when Tillery was shifted to defensive tackle. The year before when Cage and a freshman version of Tillery tag-teamed, it was 30 tackles from that position.

The next step in Tillery’s evolution is flashing the big-play potential that Louis Nix did at the position in 2012, and setting a more authoritative tone for the Irish defense, especially against the run.

The two things first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense does well to date are third-down efficiency (16th nationally) and turnovers gained (27th). Rushing defense is at a modest 78th.

The Irish fared much better against Georgia’s vaunted duo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb (136 combined rushing yards) on Sept. 9 than against unheralded Jon Hilliman and AJ Dillon of BC last weekend (170 combined).

“This is still about going from not a particularly solid run defense to one where we want to be a really good run defense,” Kelly said, “and it still comes to fundamentals.

“We were a little loose in some of those fundamentals at times, and that will be the message moving forward. If we want to be a really good defense, we'll have to be fundamentally better than we were on Saturday.”

The all-business look in Tillery’s eye seems to suggest he’s eager to show off improvement Saturday night. Kelly has seen that look, too.

“Jerry is a different committed player in a sense from last year to this year,” Kelly said. “He's worked extremely hard in the weight room. He was doing a lot of things. He's really focused on football. It's important to him. It's showing on Saturdays.”

Notre Dame nose guard Jerry Tillery (99) is funneling his larger-than-life personality into on-field production for the Irish this season. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)