- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There were times this week when Cam McDaniel went in the film room and saw 11 players in green jerseys all at once, with a ball-carrier on the ground nearby.
McDaniel, Notre Dame's second-leading rusher, knows just what kind of test awaits this Saturday when 3-0 Michigan State comes to town. The Spartans have the nation's top overall defense, rank No. 4 nationally in rush defense and are tied for fourth overall in fumble recoveries, with four on the season.
"They like to stop the run," McDaniel said. "They're physical run-stoppers. Their safeties fly downhill and everybody gets in on the action. You can stop the tape when the ball-carrier's being taken down and sometimes there are 11 guys between the hashes or around the ball, and that's something we know is going to be a challenge that we're looking to be up to."
The Irish have yet to get into much of a rhythm on the ground so far this season. Five backs have seen carries, with three splitting the majority of them. USC transfer Amir Carlisle leads all rushers in carries (30) and yards (148), but McDaniel got the call late Saturday after Carlisle fumbled in the fourth quarter against Purdue.
Up 31-24 after getting the ball back with 7:22 left, Notre Dame turned to the junior from Coppell, Texas, on 10 plays during its final drive, with McDaniel tallying 42 yards and picking up two first downs to help run the clock out.
"It was just an opportunity that presented itself for me at that moment," McDaniel said. "I just had to be ready and I was ready in my mind and was just ready to go, and when the opportunity presented itself I knew that I was capable of getting the job done and just went in and executed. Obviously there's things that I still need to work on individually as a back, but it was enough to get the job done last Saturday."
McDaniel, who has 29 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown through three games, said getting implemented in the passing game was something he could work on, though that is an area that has also plagued his backfield colleagues so far this season.
George Atkinson III, No. 1 on the depth chart entering this season, had trouble catching the ball two weeks ago at Michigan, though he has made an impact on the ground by rushing for 98 yards and a touchdown on just 18 carries.
While there is no true pecking order just yet and each of the backs has said it is not an issue, there is no mistaking the drop-off from last year, when Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood were around to lead a rushing attack that averaged better than 200 yards per game in the regular season. (They finished at 189.38 after losing to Alabama in the title game.)
This year's outfit churns out 125 yards on the ground per contest, currently 92nd nationally. And while, like last year, there are three returning starters up front, the offensive line is shouldering some of the responsibility for the sub-par production one-quarter of the way through the season.
"We've got backs that can run the football and we have to block for them," fifth-year left tackle and two-year captain Zack Martin said. "But all the backs are capable of running, and if you go in and watch the tape you can see that it's not on them."