EAST LANSING, Mich. — The numbers have been staggering.
In its last two games with Notre Dame, Michigan State has rushed for only four first downs. The Fighting Irish have held the Spartans to a combined 48 carries for 79 yards with nary a touchdown on the ground. And the end result has not been pretty for MSU: 31-13 and 20-3 losses.
So, Spartans guard Blake Treadwell didn’t hesitate in evaluating the key element in Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game (NBC) against No. 22 Notre Dame at South Bend, Ind.
“Our offensive line has to execute,” Treadwell said. “If our offensive line does not execute, we won’t win.”
MSU no longer has Le’Veon Bell, who rushed for 2,741 yards the last two seasons but had only 104 yards in those last two Notre Dame games. The Irish no longer have Manti Te’o, the linebacker who contended for the Heisman Trophy and gained national attention and empathy for discussing the death of his girlfriend, who turned out to be imaginary, after last year’s game in East Lansing.
So, two very key elements from the last two seasons have moved on to the NFL.
However, two formidable, sizable linemen return to anchor Notre Dame’s three-man front that weighs nearly one half ton.
Louis Nix III, who tips the scales at 357 pounds and is 6-foot-2, had 7.5 tackles for losses with 50 total last season. He was the Moose Krause Defensive Lineman of the Year for the Irish in 2012.
Stephon Tuitt, a 6-foot-6, 322-pounder, was a first-team All-American and had 12 sacks last season for the second-most in one season for Notre Dame.
They are joined on the line by sophomore Sheldon Day (6-2, 290 pounds) to make it 969 pounds for the trio. Nix and Tuitt combine for an amazing 679 pounds.
“Well, Nix and Tuitt, they’re big, firm guys,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. “They control the center box … You saw what happened last year. Although, we went away from the run a little bit in the second half a little bit too early. They controlled our line of scrimmage last year.”
They are the Incredible Bulk.
When asked about their girth, Dantonio said, “Is it hard to believe? Yes. 680 pounds, yeah, hard to believe, two guys. Have to put three together. But that’s the state of the game today.
“When I played back in the late ’70s, players weren’t that big. I think into the ’90s, players were big…280 pounds or so. Those were big guys — 280, 290. Now it’s 310, 320. It’s probably upped itself in the last 10 years, probably the last 15 years.”
“Players are bigger and faster. There’s more power involved, more velocity. I think there’s people that are training differently, eating nutritionally, believe it or not. Lay off those biscuits. But I just think it’s maybe the nature of things getting better and better, faster, more high tech.”
Dantonio is countering Notre Dame’s size by starting redshirt freshman Jack Conklin (6-6, 326 pounds) at right tackle over Fou Fonoti (6-foot-4, 298). Three other 300-pounders will start on the offensive line: offensive guards Treadwell (6-3, 304) and Dan France (6-6, 312) and left tackle Donavon Clark (6-3, 300).
France explained the key to winning the battle in the trenches.
“It’s all about getting your hips down and your hands in,” France said. “It’s about holding your ground and getting leverage.
“I’ll mostly be going against Day, and he uses his hands on every play. He’s very good with his hands.”
Treadwell, who along with France are the lone seniors on a young line, held an impromptu clinic after Tuesday’s practice to hone “kick set” techniques. Performing the basics with proficiency is key in any game, and particularly this one.
“This is the biggest defensive line we’ve faced,” Clark said. “I’ll be going against Tuitt, and he’s all about power and force. I have to make sure my feet and body stay square, and keep my body low.”
It all comes back to leverage, and that’s where football line play and wrestling are similar.
“I’m going against Nix most plays,” said Treadwell, a huge man who still gives up 53 pounds to Nix. “His size brings a lot of power. He drives linemen back five and 10 yards.
“It’s about leverage, and who brings it.”
Wanting it more is what separates players matching sharp technique and abilities, and the Spartans want to reverse their fortunes from the failures of 2011 and 2012.
“Last year, we ran well in the first half but went to the hurry-up (passing offense) and didn’t get it done,” France said. “The year before, we just did not execute plays. That’s motivation itself – not getting it done.