Irish coach Brian Kelly called Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell a “throwback” runner Tuesday afternoon. If any game on Notre Dame’s schedule this season is going to harken back to days of smashmouth yore, Saturday night’s matchup with the 10th-ranked Spartans is it.
Irish coach Brian Kelly met with the media Tuesday to talk about preparing for Michigan State.
Michigan State, like the Irish, has found success by building on a foundation of a strong run defense. Mark Dantonio’s defense is giving up an average of 109 yards per game on the ground so far this season. Their big and fast quartet of linebackers are as good as any the Irish will see this season.
Notre Dame quickly shelved its running game last Saturday against Purdue, settling for only 52 yards on the ground against a team that stacked the box and dared sophomore quarterback Everett Golson to beat them through the air. Golson did just that, but Kelly said Tuesday that he’ll need to do a better job of committing to the run moving forward.
“We weren’t in a great position to run the football most of the time. I think in retrospect we could’ve done a better job as a staff in finding ways to just lock some runs in there and get after it,” he said. “Clearly, we’re going to have to play better up front against Big Ten opposition, in particular Michigan State.”
Kelly said Saturday’s game, which pits strength versus strength on both sides of the ball, will be won along the line of scrimmage.
“If Michigan State can exert their will on both fronts, the offensive line and defensive line, I think we probably know how that game’s going to go,” he said. “We feel like we have to be able to exert our same kind of presence on both sides of the ball.”
Notre Dame’s front seven on defense will face its toughest challenge to this point of the young season against Michigan State’s running game. Bell ran his way into early Heisman talk with a 210-yard performance against Boise State on opening weekend. Last year, the Irish held Michigan State to just 29 rushing yards in 31-13 victory. Kelly said the rematch this season will be a good test for what he hopes is the cornerstone of his program.
The return of junior outside linebacker Danny Spond should give Notre Dame an extra boost against Bell and the rest of the Spartans rushing attack. Spond missed the first two games of the season because of migraine issues that started in fall camp. He has been cleared to practice for the first time this week.
Senior running back Cierre Wood also returns to the field for the first time this season and should give the Irish run game an extra weapon. Wood sat out against Navy and Purdue for violating team rules. An extra back will help Notre Dame grind away at the Spartan defense, but Kelly said his offense will need to rely on some big plays to get the job done on the road.
“They’re so stingy on defense that you have to find a way to get some big chunk plays. You’re not going to go three yards and four yards. You’re just not going to build a consistency on offense doing that against this kind of defense,” Kelly said.
Golson Still Developing Mentally
Big plays haven’t been a problem through two weeks for Notre Dame. The Irish completed seven passes for more than 20 yards in their 20-17 win over Purdue last weekend. Golson, who threw six of those balls, has lived up to Kelly’s expectations so far in the physical aspect of playing quarterback.
Kelly said he expects Golson to start and finish the game against Michigan State, unlike last week when junior Tommy Rees came in to lead the two-minute drill offense against the Boilermakers. To guarantee a full 60 minutes, Golson needs to clean up the mental part of his game. Kelly said the next three days will be important ones in Golson’s development as a quarterback as he tries to make the next step toward being a complete player under center. Still, the coach is much happier to be preaching communication and proper reads than worrying about if he has a player that can physically get the job done.
“He’s seeing it for the first time,” Kelly said. “I call it housekeeping: getting the play, verbalizing it, getting everybody sent and making sure everybody’s set.”
Along with Spond’s return, Kelly said he expects to get back most if not all of the players who missed time late against Purdue for practice this week. He didn’t address most specifically, but did say sophomore DaVaris Daniels was in a walking boot for his sprained ankle Sunday and the team will proceed cautiously with his workload this week.
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