Notre Dame faces must-win against recent nemesis

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Saturday's game against Michigan State looms as a virtual must-win situation for Notre Dame's BCS hopes, which is a bit problematic since the Spartans have dominated the Irish in recent years.

Michigan State has won two straight and nine of the last 12 meetings against Notre Dame and, even more impressively, has taken six straight in South Bend. The Spartans' last loss in Notre Dame Stadium came in 1993.

"That's one stat I'm certainly well aware of," head coach Charlie Weis said. "If you think this team comes in after losing last week feeling like they have no chance to beat you, well, the last six times they've come in here, they've done it."

Both sides approach this week's game with an air of desperation. Michigan State lost last week on a last-second field goal to Central Michigan. The Spartans can't wait to try to change the conversation after that embarrassment.

The Irish lost 38-34 at Michigan in a game they led in the final three minutes. A 1-2 start would be disastrous and would mean they would probably have to run the table -- including a win over USC on Oct. 17 -- in order to win 10 games and have a realistic shot at the BCS.

Notre Dame first has to put the pain of last week's loss to bed, something that last year's team might not have been able to do. But the players said they had all but erased it from the memory banks by the time Tuesday's practice began.

"I think we have a much more mature team this year," safety Kyle McCarthy said. "We know we have to put last week behind us no, matter how hard it is, and move on. There's a whole lot of football left to be played."

In the locker room after last week's loss in Ann Arbor, Weis challenged his team to "do something about it" if they wanted to avoid feeling the sting of defeat again. He left that purposefully vague, and it was up to the team captains to take charge.

"It starts with me and the other captains on down," center Eric Olsen said. "Jimmy [Clausen] did a good job [on Tuesday] of coming out and not hanging his head but coming out with fire and emotion. I tried to do the same thing. I think the guys picked up on that and gravitated to that. We can't hang our heads after one loss."

The question on Saturday won't be one of focus but rather one of toughness for the Irish. Michigan State plays a bruising, physical style that has given Notre Dame fits of late. Last season, for instance, the Spartans had 203 yards rushing to just 16 for the Irish in a 23-7 victory.

Notre Dame likes to think it has gotten much tougher this year, and the play of the offensive line through two games suggests that is the case. Clausen has yet to be sacked this season despite facing two teams with good pass rushes, and the running game has been vastly improved. Still, Michigan State figures to be a harder-hitting team than either Nevada or Michigan.

"They're one of the more physical teams we'll play all year," McCarthy said. "That's just their mentality, something they have in their program. They're a hard team to play, and we'll definitely be sore on Sunday."

If the Irish don't find a way to end the Spartans' streak, they'll be a lot more than sore. Their season will be in a world of hurt.