SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- If nothing else, Notre Dame knows what it will see this Saturday as it goes for its first win of the season.
"The Big Ten champions are coming to town," Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. "They're a smash-mouth team, pride themselves on knocking people around, and if you're a tough guy and you see yourself as a big guy and tough guy, well then you're getting ready for that game and you're mentally preparing for that style of battle."
Michigan State doesn't boast a B.J. Daniels or a Denard Robinson, dual-threat quarterbacks who create nightmares for opposing defenses as they prepare. The Spartans play a more deliberate brand of football, one reliant on a running game that utilizes four different backs and a defense that currently ranks fourth overall in the country.
In other words, the Irish know what they're getting, know what they need do and know they just have to go out and do it.
"They're the same team every year," center Braxston Cave said. "They're big, they're physical and that's their game -- they're going to try to come in and out-physical you. And this isn't a team you want to out-physical, and we're planning on proving that on Saturday."
The Irish have shown a steady run game themselves this year, with Cierre Wood surpassing the 100-yard mark in each game and the team rushing for 315 yards overall.
But the offense's fourth-quarter performance Saturday in which it went 0-for-3 in third-down situations of three yards or fewer itches at the linemen.
"Definitely," Cave said, "because you'd like to go man-on-man and just out-physical the other team, but when you get those extra guys in there it becomes maybe one against two, and that's really not in your favor sometimes."
Running game coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Warinner believes the ground game has been much more efficient in the second season under this staff, short-yardage plays excluded.
That's where execution comes into play, and the Irish's ability in those situations will determine whether the run game can ultimately be deemed successful or not.
"Production is what you look for, and that doesn't necessarily mean the total number of yards," guard Trevor Robinson said. "It means being efficient when you need to. Just like being a balanced offense doesn't mean you run the ball and pass the ball the same amount of times; it means you do them efficiently when you need to."
As the Irish have learned through two weeks, turnovers and blown assignments can be costly, something that takes on even greater meaning this week against a sound team like MSU.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly succeeded Mark Dantonio as head coach at Cincinnati, and he knows the trademarks of a Dantonio-coached team.
"He demands discipline, attention to detail," Kelly said of the MSU coach. "He demands all those things on a day-to-day basis, a toughness to his football team. He wants them mentally and physically tough, and that's what you've got to be to be a Big Ten champ like they were last year. I know Mark does a great job in attention to those specific areas."