by John Vannie
Notre Dame’s defense rose to the occasion on Saturday and shut down Michigan State for a convincing 31-13 victory. Cornerback Robert Blanton, safety Harrison Smith and freshman defensive lineman Aaron Lynch stood out as the inspired Irish stopped the run early and slammed the door on Kirk Cousins and the Spartan passing game in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame won its first game of the season and reset the high expectations for this talented team.
The Irish clearly won the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball. MSU managed only 53 yards on the ground, and sprinted to a 21-10 halftime lead behind the strong running of Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray. Wood had two touchdowns and this tailback tandem earned 126 yards on 26 carries. When the Spartans attempted to use its safeties to slow the Notre Dame rushing attack, quarterback Tommy Rees threw over the top to his receivers in single coverage.
T.J. Jones hauled in a 26-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to give the Irish a commanding 28-10 lead, and the defense took over from that point. MSU could manage only a field goal in the second half as Dan Conroy hit from 35 yards early in the fourth quarter. A fumbled punt by Notre Dame’s John Goodman gave the Spartans a final shot with 4:28 left in the game, but Blanton’s interception near the goal line and subsequent 82 yard return set up David Ruffer for the game’s final three points.
The afternoon was not without some early drama. Notre Dame gave up a sack and fumble in the first quarter and Lynch returned the favor on the next series. Rees immediately tossed an ugly interception in his own territory when the defense got him the ball back, and cries of “Here we go again” resonated through the stadium. Redemption came shortly thereafter as the Irish held MSU to a field goal, and freshman George Atkinson returned the ensuing Spartan kickoff for an 89-yard touchdown.
Cousins responded with his best drive of the day to cut Notre Dame’s lead to 14-10, but a 92-yard second quarter drive by the Irish was capped by Wood’s six yard run around right end. Michigan State came back with a threat before halftime but the drive stalled at the Notre Dame two with less than a minute remaining. After a timeout, the Irish were ready for a lame fake field goal attempt by Mark Dantonio’s special kicking team.
Here are the answers to our pregame questions that provided insight into the outcome:
Will Notre Dame be able to convert on third and short? The Irish threw the ball to convert on the game’s first series, and they never looked back.
Which team will be able to generate pressure on the quarterback? With Lynch leading the way by abusing Spartan tackle Dan France, Notre Dame caused numerous sacks, hurries and holding penalties.
Can the Irish clean up their turnover problem and force a few of their own? No and Yes. Two of the three Irish turnovers were silly unforced errors, but Lynch and Blanton caused Spartan miscues and Smith’s pass breakups resulted in a turnover on downs.
Which team will have greater success in the ground game? Notre Dame dominated the early going and its ability to stay balanced set up a successful offensive showing.
Can the interior of Notre Dame’s offensive line contain MSU’s huge defensive tackles? Absolutely, and this was one of the keys to the game.
Will Cousins be able to continue his remarkable accuracy in the passing game? Not with Lynch and friends in his face.
Will the Irish special teams look solid or shaky? A mixed bag. Atkinson erased a lot of bad karma with his return, and punter Ben Turk got better as the game progressed. The Irish did allow a couple of long kickoff returns, but the gaffe by Goodman put a damper on an otherwise strong performance.
Although Cousins finished with 329 passing yards, most were checkdowns for inconsequential gains between the 20’s and he was unable to set his feet for longer throws throughout the day. The Irish offense remains a work in progress as they still commit too many mental mistakes, but the key takeaway from this game on that side of the ball is the physical domination of a quality defensive front.
Defensively, the Notre Dame secondary was stellar after last week’s collapse, and the players in front of them did their part by bringing relentless pressure and making sure tackles. This was a team victory in every sense of the term, but the question remains as to why success does not come a bit more easily for this group of players. The only thing to do now is look forward, and this is much easier to do at 1-2 instead of 0-3.