NOTRE DAME, IN (UHND.com) – Charlie Weis took his team back to training camp this past week and for about thirty minutes, it appeared to be paying off for the winless Irish. Notre Dame scored its first two offensive touchdowns of the season on Saturday against Michigan State, but the Spartans scored 14 unanswered points in the second half to pull away for the 31-14 victory.
From the onset of Saturday’s game, it was apparent Charlie Weis wanted to establish the running game. The first three plays from scrimmage for the Irish were all runs and the result was a first down. It was a stark contrast from the opening series a week ago when a botched snapped doomed the Irish drive before it started.
Coming into this week, the Fighting Irish were still in the negative yardage rushing the football, but found a semblance of a running game early. Sophomore James Aldridge and freshman Robert Hughes pounded the ball early and often for Notre Dame and through two quarters, Notre Dame’s newly found running game had them in the game.
“If I want to pick one bright spot in the game, that would definitely have been the play of the running backs in the game,” Weis told the media after Saturday’s loss. “There was some semblance of a running game. And I think that that’s, you know, that’s a start.”
Aldridge, who notched his first career 100 yard game with 108 yards on 18 carries, ripped off a 43 yard run in the second quarter to set up the Irish in Michigan State territory. A few plays later, Hughes was powering his way into the end zone to cut the Michigan State lead to three at 17-14.
Unfortunately for the Irish, that would be as close as they would get the rest of the game.
At halftime Weis had three point of emphasis for his team. “First of all, we had to start off on kickoff coverage pinning them back. How did I do? The ball ends up in plus territory,” Weis told the media. He would add, “Then I said, we have to get off the field on third down. How did I do? Convert a 3rd and 9, and 3rd and 17, and next thing you know they are in the end zone.”
Michigan State’s opening kickoff of the second half set them up on the Notre Dame 45 yard line and their conversions on 3rd and 9 and 3rd and 17 to setup a 16 yard touchdown pass from Brian Hoyer to Mark Dell to put the Spartans up 24-14.
On the day Hoyer completed just 11 of 24 passes including an interception to David Bruton in the second quarter, but four of his 11 completions went for six.
Weis’s third point of emphasis at half time dealt with his offense, “And then I said we have to get a sustained drive so that the defense isn’t on the field the whole day, and how did I do again?”
The Irish gained just two first downs in the second half after Michigan State started stacking the line of scrimmage to stuff Notre Dame’s new found running game.
Notre Dame’s second half offense struggles are best summed up with their first drive of the half. After MSU extended its lead to 24-14, the Irish opened their drive with an 18 yard run by Aldridge. Two players later they faced a 3rd and 2 from midfield. On 3rd down Aldridge gain just one yard and on 4th and, Hughes was stuffed for no gain giving Michigan State the ball right back. On the play, it appeared as though there would be room for Hughes to easily pick up the first down, but John Sullivan and Matt Carufel could not maintain their blocks and Hughes got hit in the backfield.
That sequence of plays sums up Notre Dame’s offense against Michigan State in a nutshell. At times the Irish ran the ball with authority and at other times they were stuffed in the backfield.
Part of the second half offensive woes stem from a lack of a passing game to compliment the running of Hughes and Aldridge. Jimmy Clausen completed just 7 of 13 passes for a modest 53 as the Notre Dame passing attack was stymied yet again this week. “I think Jimmy was playing solid. I didn’t think he was bad. I didn’t think he was good,” Weis said of his freshman signal caller.
Despite Clausen’s struggles, Weis still had positive words for his QB after the game. “He’s far from being the problem here,” Weis said of Clausen. “We have a whole litany of things that are involved in being the problem, but he’ll continue to develop the way he’s been developing, he’ll continue to get better, and positive things are ahead for him.”
For now though, the Irish are staring an unprecedented 0-4 in the face with road games at Purdue and UCLA up next and home games against Boston College and USC on the horizon.
Dubious Records Set
Notre Dame set two milestones on Saturday that they hope to never eclipse. Saturday’s 31-14 loss to Michigan State gave Notre Dame its first 0-4 start in its 119 year history and gave the Spartans a record six straight wins over the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium.