by John Vannie
With its season and even its overall credibility headed for the abyss on Saturday night, Notre Dame staged a miraculous rally to defeat Michigan State 40-37. Terrail Lambert’s two fourth quarter interceptions keyed a furious comeback, during which the Irish erased a 37-21 deficit in the final eight minutes to stun 80,000 rain-soaked Spartan fans.
Brady Quinn threw five touchdown passes, not including one to MSU’s Ervin Baldwin as Notre Dame dug a deep first half hole. Most of Quinn’s production occurred after the break even when the Irish had to abandon any pretense of a running game. The Spartans outrushed Notre Dame by 248-47 on the night, which in most cases translates into victory.
On this bizarre night, however, Michigan State suffered an inexplicable meltdown that was aided by questionable coaching decisions and a better conditioned Irish team. The Spartans led 31-14 at halftime on the strength of quarterback Drew Stanton’s play and a slew of miscues by Notre Dame.
Stanton hit Kerry Reed for a 34 yard score to complete a 73 yard, three play drive on MSU’s first possession while the Irish were going three and out. The Spartans extended the lead to 17-0 by the end of the opening period, which looked like the fifth quarter of the Michigan game to Notre Dame fans.
Quinn hit Rhema McKnight for a 32 yard score to put his team on the board early in the second period, but Baldwin stepped in front of a screen pass on the next Irish series and returned it for a 19-yard touchdown. Trailing 24-7, Coach Charlie Weis gambled on a fourth down in his own territory and was rewarded when Quinn hit John Carlson for 27 yards. Jeff Samardzija finished the drive by taking a pass to paydirt from 17 yards as Notre Dame closed the gap to 24-14.
The Spartans had the last word before halftime, though. A special teams penalty on the Irish gave MSU excellent field position, and Reed’s second touchdown reception a few plays later stretched the lead to 31-14.
Notre Dame gave its faithful some hope after the break by scoring on a 62-yard strike from Quinn to Carlson. Weis gambled again on the next Irish possession by calling for a pass on fourth and nine near midfield. Quinn was blitzed and the ball fell incomplete, whereupon Michigan State cranked up its running game and rumbled into the end zone. A missed extra point kept the score at 37-21, but it hardly seemed to matter.
The Irish were supposed to have the wind at their backs in the fourth quarter, but a monsoon hit East Lansing and the wind shifted 180 degrees. This proved to be only the first in a series of bizarre events in the game’s final fifteen minutes.
With the Irish seemingly unable to move the ball, a pass by Quinn was tipped forward into Carlson’s hands for a first down. Samardzija then grabbed a slant pass and wove his way through the Spartan secondary for a 43 yard score. Darius Walker was stopped short on a two point conversion try, so Notre Dame trailed by 37-27 with 8:18 left.
At this point, the Spartans inexplicably folded. Not only was the Irish defensive line beginning to assert itself, but Coach John L. Smith pulled the plug on his high-octane offense. Smith’s ultra conservative play calling went unrewarded when Chinedum Ndukwe stripped Stanton of the ball and recovered on the MSU 24.
Notre Dame appeared to squander the opportunity when consecutive penalties pushed them back more than 15 yards, but a blatant pass interference call on the Spartans gave the Irish new life. Quinn found McKnight in the left corner of the end zone, and Notre Dame was suddenly within one score with five long minutes left. In keeping with the bizarre theme, Carl Gioia missed the extra point and the Irish trailed by four at 37-33.
Derek Landri and Mike Richardson led the defensive charge as the visitors tried to get the ball back for a chance at victory. A third down blitz forced a poor pass over the middle by Stanton. Lambert picked off the floater and scampered into the end zone from 27 yards to put Notre Dame ahead for the first time in the contest. The Irish led 40-37 with just under three minutes remaining, and Michigan State suddenly had to crank up its dormant offense.
An apparent interception by Tom Zbikowski on the ensuing series was negated by a penalty, and the Spartans were able to keep the drive moving. The Irish defense was relentless, however, and the effort paid off a few plays later. With time running down to less than a minute, Stanton’s third down pass near midfield was broken up by Richardson. The ball bounced off Lambert and the intended receiver, but did not hit the ground. Lambert was able to pull it in before going out of bounds, and Notre Dame had secured an improbable win.
Sitting at 3-1, the schedule suddenly looks more manageable and Irish hopes for a return trip to the BCS are quite realistic. A berth in the championship game is still very remote, but this team needs to concern itself with short term improvements.
Although Quinn, Samardzija and Lambert gained a measure of redemption this week, Notre Dame still must make dramatic improvement. The team commits far too many penalties and suffers breakdowns both in pass coverage and in protecting the quarterback, but no one can say they don’t have heart.
This incredible victory under adverse circumstances will help heal the wounds and focus the team on the road ahead, whereas another embarrassing loss would have dealt Weis and his staff a serious setback in their efforts to rebuild the program. Meanwhile, Notre Dame fans will need a full week to recover from this game and the month-long roller coaster ride that is finally coming to a close.