- Associated Press - Friday, September 16, 2011

SOUTH BEND, IND. (AP) - It’s only the 16th game of Brian Kelly’s coaching career at Notre Dame as the Irish face No. 15 face Michigan State. For the many fans growing impatient at an 0-2 start, Saturday’s matchup could be the most crucial of his short tenure.

Kelly says he’s not listening to the critics who are wondering why the Irish can’t stop making mistakes or losing close games.

“I really don’t put any more pressure on myself than I do for the opener, to the last game,” Kelly said. “I treat them all the same.”

Another loss would give the Irish an 0-3 record for the first time since they dropped the first five in 2007 under Charlie Weis and would leave Kelly with a .500 record at South Bend. It would also pretty much wreck Notre Dame’s chances of making a BCS bowl.

“Every game we play here is a big game,” Kelly said.

There have been plenty of difficult losses _ last week’s 35-31 defeat at Michigan saw the Wolverines score 28 fourth-quarter points, including the game-winner with 2 seconds left after driving 80 yards in a half-minute.

But no one can ever forget last year’s numbing loss at Michigan State.

The epic finish featured a fake field goal in overtime that turned into a game-winning TD pass from holder Aaron Bates to Charlie Gantt and a 34-31 Spartans’ victory. It’s been replayed numerous times this week.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who suffered a heart attack hours after the emotional victory, noted that the series has been full of late heroics and wild finishes.

“I think whether they come here, we go there, there’s going to be a great football game. That’s what I’ve really seen in my time here,” said Dantonio.

“There’s not very many games that have gotten lopsided. They’ve all been close, had comebacks, had great action.”

Nine of the last 11 games between the schools have been decided by seven points or less.

Notre Dame won 33-30 two years ago in South Bend, clinching it with an interception at the 4-yard line with just under a minute left. But from 1997-2007 the Spartans fashioned six straight wins at Notre Dame Stadium.

Saturday’s game will be the Spartans first on the road this season and also MSU’s first real test after easy wins over Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic, in which it gave up a total of six points. Florida Atlantic had one first down and 48 yards last week _ the fewest yards allowed by Michigan State since it held Notre Dame to 12 yards in 1965.

If the 75th meeting in the series needed some spice, Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi may have provided it. According to the Lansing State Journal, Narduzzi hinted that the Irish may have been stealing the Spartans’ defensive signals.

“They don’t look to the sidelines as much (normally), but against us they did for some reason,” Narduzzi said. “Whether they’re stealing our signals, I don’t know. But we’ve got something (changed this year) on the signals, too. You never know. Guys are thieves, you know.”

He said Michigan State would use four different people signaling in formations Saturday.

Kelly said the Irish have enough problems without pilfering signals.

“I’m worried whether or not we’re going to get the play in and call the right play. That’s just too much for us to handle. No, I don’t think it’s appropriate to film anybody’s sideline and pick up signals,” he said.

“You don’t need to do that. We’ll take care of what we can take care of. Believe me, that’s the last thing on our minds. We got our hands full with our own guys.”

The Irish have 10 turnovers _ five interceptions and five fumbles _ and 17 penalties in the first two games, pretty much wiping out their 510-yard total offense average.

Sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees was poised at times last week in his first start of the season since taking over for the demoted Dayne Crist. In other instances, Rees made mistakes with two interceptions and a fumble when the ball slipped out of his hand.

He and Michael Floyd will confront the Michigan State defense with a combination that the Spartans have not seen so far this season. Floyd, Notre Dame’s career leader in nearly every pass receiving category, has 25 catches this season, 23 of them from Rees.

After facing quarterbacks B.J. Daniels and Denard Robinson, whose running abilities made their offenses unpredictable, the Irish go against Kirk Cousins, who is 18-9 in 27 career starts with a strong and accurate arm.

Michigan State’s balanced offense features wide receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin and a physical running game with Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell.

Linebackers Max Bullough, Chris Norman and Denicos Allen head up the tough Spartans’ defense.

Eyes will be on Kelly, whose sideline anger at his players has been framed by TV cameras this season. And also on Notre Dame cornerback Gary Gray, who was burned several times last week, including for the game-winning TD against Michigan.

“He’s had great games for us. He’s been a consistently solid performer for us. If he lets one game change the way he plays then shame on him,” Kelly said of Gray.

“Really that’s what I told him. I said, ‘You don’t have time to feel bad for yourself. You need to get back up and get going.’ And those are the things we are trying to teach our guys every day _ how you overcome adversity.”

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