MSU-Notre Dame Preview

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Notre Dame has a chance to move closer to glory.
A year after finishing with just three wins, the Fighting Irish have a shot at being 3-0 for the first time since 2002 and second time since 1996.
They beat Michigan 35-17 last week after opening with a lackluster win against San Diego State at home, setting up a road test Saturday against Michigan State.
"The confidence level of the team has gone up," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "After this last game, it's gone up a whole bunch.
"But now they're going on the road for the first time against a smashmouth team that likes to play physical football."
Like the Irish, Michigan State (2-1) is hoping to establish itself as a respected team with a win in the rivalry that dates to 1897.
"This is definitely one of those games that you have to win to say you had a successful season," Spartans running back Javon Ringer said. "This is a must-win game for us."
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio tries to avoid building up one game, but acknowledges it's tough to do that this week.
"You don't want to make any game an end-all game, but there is a different buzz when you're playing Notre Dame," Dantonio said. "It's always a game that gives you national exposure, and this year it can take us to 3-1. There's a big difference between that and 2-2."
Michigan State opened with a seven-point loss on the road against California, then routed Eastern Michigan and shut out Florida Atlantic at home.
The Spartans plan to give Ringer the ball early and often, just as they have so far this season. He leads the nation with nine touchdowns and 104 carries, including a career-high 43 last week, and ranks third with 498 yards rushing.
Weis insisted, however, that Michigan State does not have a one-dimensional offense.
"The thing that gets you, when you start working the statistics, is the balance between the rushing and their passing," he said. "They're averaging 193 yards rushing in a game, 196 yards passing in a game."
Notre Dame also strives for balance and hopes quarterback Jimmy Clausen puts together a strong performance after two uneven ones. Clausen has completed 56 percent of his passes for 384 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions in the first two games.
His teammates are giving him opportunities to succeed, preventing opponents from sacking him after giving up an NCAA-record 58 sacks last season.
Michigan State defensive tackle Justin Kershaw has observed a much better quarterback on film than the one who played in last year's 31-14 loss to the Spartans.
"He looks a lot more comfortable," Kershaw said. "He's throwing the ball and moving around better than he did. It seems like he's commanding the offense better, too."
Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer hasn't improved his production from a year ago, completing just 44 percent of his passes with only one touchdown and two interceptions. Dantonio likes Hoyer's chances to come through with a clutch performance if he doesn't get sacked much or turn the ball over a lot.
"The team that protects its quarterback and doesn't turn the ball over is probably going to be successful," Dantonio said.
It also might help to be on the road. Since 2001, the visitors have won every game in the series.
"That's a good thing then, right?" Weis joked.
Close games have been a trend, too.
Michigan State's lopsided win last year was the only game that wasn't decided by a TD or fewer points in eight years. In six of those games, the go-ahead score came late in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Players and fans on both sides -- and some who simply watched the game without a rooting interest -- likely will remember the last matchup in East Lansing.
Michigan State blew a 16-point lead in the fourth period, falling behind on an interception return for a score with 2:53 left, sealing the collapse with another turnover on its final drive.
"It was one of the most memorable games that I've been a part of," Notre Dame receiver David Grimes said. "Had a great ending."
The Irish won their next seven games before getting routed by USC and LSU.
Now, they're winning again.
"This is the next step on the curve," Weis said. "You can sit there and say, `OK, now what are you going to do? You've had some moderate success, what are you going to do with that success?"'

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