Big Ten Notebook: Despite sorry start, MSU coach not doubting Irish

Todd Porter

The Notre Dame punchlines are piling up. The Foldin’ Domers. Notre Don’t score a touchdown. The Louse of the Irish.

Mark Dantonio isn’t laughing.

Michigan State is off to a 3-0 start with Dantonio in his first year as head coach. The normally stoic Dantonio said, with a poker straight face, Notre Dame is a good football team. Never mind the Irish have yet to score an offensive touchdown in three games or finish a game in the black on the ground.

“I look at it in terms of the reasons this play didn’t work,” Dantonio said. “I see the same thing when I look at our football team. This is a game of inches. One inch, either way, makes the difference between success and failure.”

With losses to Georgia Tech, Penn State and Michigan, the Irish hope to reverse their fortunes by returning to South Bend for the Spartans. Michigan State has won seven of the last 10 in this series, including five in a row at Notre Dame Stadium. A win Saturday and MSU will be the first team to win six straight in South Bend.

Dantonio said Notre Dame’s struggling offense is a combination of youth (freshman Jimmy Clausen at quarterback) and “facing some very good defenses.”

Michigan is 63rd in the country in total defense. Georgia Tech is 24th, and Penn State is No. 8.

“They’re much like many teams when you have a freshman quarterback. There’s a learning curve,” Dantonio said. “They’re a well-coached football team, and they have outstanding talent. ... They’ve played three outstanding football teams, and things are difficult. I’m sure we’re going to get a team that’s backed into a corner.”

Notre Dame Head Coach Charlie Weis has called this week a return to boot camp. Meanwhile, Dantonio is pleased with his team’s start but isn’t ready to crown the Spartans a success.

Michigan State was 3-0 last season, too, before finishing 4-8 under John L. Smith, who was fired. The Spartans lost a two-score lead to Notre Dame, then the game, 40-37.

“We’re in that proving-ground area,” Dantonio said. “This is a long season. We haven’t even played our first Big Ten game. ... Our players came to the conclusion, as well as our coaches, we can’t unravel in tough times.”

BEST OF BIG TEN

The best matchup is looking like Penn State at Michigan. The last two times the Nittany Lions went to

Michigan Stadium they lost on the last play of the game. That includes a controversial decision two years ago to add time to the clock.

JOE PA ON STAGE

Each week during the Big Ten coaches’ conference call with reporters, Penn State Head Coach Joe

Paterno can be counted on for at least one good laugh. He was asked a question about the demeanor of fellow coaches on the sideline and whether or not it’s authentic.

“I’ve been around long enough to put diapers on half of those guys,” Paterno said.

Half?

SPREAD THEM OUT

The Wolverines’ 0-2 start came against teams that run the spread offense with a mobile quarterback. Paterno laughed when asked if he would use the spread against Michigan and go with Daryll Clark over Anthony Morelli.

“Morelli is our quarterback, and he’s doing a heck of a job,” Paterno said of the senior QB who has thrown for 628 yards and eight touchdowns. “You’ve got to do what you know how to do. The Appalachian State thing, as far as I’m concerned, was a little bit of a fluke. ... We’re not that kind of team.”

While Big Ten fans are laughing at Northwestern’s loss to hapless Duke, don’t laugh too hard at Appalachian State’s upset. The Mountaineers might be the best college football team in North Carolina.

AS THE CROWE FLIES

Actor Russell Crowe made an appearance with Michigan Head Coach Lloyd Carr at his weekly press conference. Carr and Crowe became good friends after Carr used “Cinderella Man” to inspire his team last season.

“It was nice to have Russell here with us,” Carr said. “The players enjoyed him, and he certainly seemed to enjoy himself.”

THERE’S HOPE

Off to a 1-2 start after embarrassing home losses to Oregon State and Appalachian State, Carr is stressing to his players what they have left — an opportunity to win the Big Ten.

“There’s always something to play for as long as you have one game left,” Carr said. “We’re at the beginning of the conference schedule. ... There’s a trophy there. There’s a lot of things to play for and a lot of great rivalries ahead of us. We’re excited in these next eight weeks to do something.”