Michigan St.-Notre Dame Preview
By JEFF BARTL
(AP) -- Four of the last six matchups between Michigan State and Notre Dame have been decided by three points, though possibly none more thrilling than the Spartans' overtime victory last season.
Just ask Mark Dantonio.
Nearly one year to the day after suffering a heart attack following that game, Dantonio leads No. 15 Michigan State against turnover-prone Notre Dame on Saturday in South Bend.
The play called "Little Giants" - a fake field goal resulting in a 29-yard touchdown pass from holder Aaron Bates to Charlie Gantt - made national headlines and gave the Spartans a 34-31 victory over the Fighting Irish on Sept. 18.
Soon after, Dantonio was in the hospital recovering from a mild heart attack which would keep him off the sidelines the next four games.
"Had it not won the football game, it would be a bad big play, I guess," Dantonio said. "Because of the circumstances in the game, all the circumstances after the game, the whole thing, it probably took on a little bit more of a meaning."
The fifth-year coach for the defending Big Ten co-champion Spartans (2-0) has attempted to downplay last year's excitement leading up to the rematch, especially given his squad's performance in last Saturday's 44-0 victory over Florida Atlantic.
The Spartans held FAU to one first down - the first time a Michigan State team had done that since 1944 - and limited the Owls to 48 yards of total offense.
Kirk Cousins, who threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns last season against Notre Dame, went 16 for 20 for 183 yards and two scores.
"It was good to play a much cleaner game," Cousins said after the Spartans struggled in a season-opening 28-6 win over Youngstown State. "Certainly (Saturday) is going to be a great test for us, but that's why you come to Michigan State - to play in games like this."
Nine of the last 11 meetings have been decided by seven points or less, and Saturday's matchup could be just as exciting if Notre Dame (0-2) can hold onto the ball.
The Irish committed five turnovers in each of their two defeats, negating 500-plus yards of offense in both games. They're coming off a tough 35-31 loss at Michigan last Saturday, allowing the winning touchdown pass with two seconds remaining after taking the lead with 30 seconds left.
"The one stat that really matters for me is the turnover takeaway, and there's a direct correlation to percentage of winning when you turn the ball over," coach Brian Kelly said. "There's no stat for me that tells the story more than that."
Sophomore Tommy Rees, who has supplanted Dayne Crist as the Irish's starting quarterback, threw two interceptions but had 315 yards and three touchdown passes.
Junior running back Cierre Wood rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown, while Michael Floyd caught 13 passes for 159 yards.
Kelly has been happy with the movement of the offense, but the amount of turnovers has limited scoring opportunities. He seems confident Notre Dame can turn it around.
"If we do not beat ourselves, we've got a chance to be the kind of football team that we all believe that we can be," Kelly said. "I can see it. I've coached almost 250 football games. I can feel and see a football team coming together.
"They've got to take care of the football. They've got to execute better, and they will. I know it's just a matter of time for them."
Dantonio, who is 3-1 against the Irish, knows Saturday will be a tough matchup despite Notre Dame's recent struggles.
"Notre Dame's a rivalry game for us, exciting for us," Dantonio said. "When you look at that, we're a 2-0 team, they're where they're at. You really have to throw out the records."
Irish receiver Theo Riddick, who caught two TDs last week, had 128 yards and a score in last season's matchup.
B.J. Cunningham, Michigan State's all-time leader with 153 receptions, had 101 yards and a score in that meeting.
Updated September 13, 2011