by John Vannie
Notre Dame jumped to an early lead by scoring two touchdowns in the first 20 minutes and its swarming defense took complete control from there as the Irish beat tenth-ranked Michigan State by 20-3 in East Lansing. Everett Golson passed for one score and ran for another while Kyle Brindza added two fourth quarter field goals to pace the visitors. Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s defensive front seven, lead by Prince Shembo and Manti Te’o, shut down the Spartans and harassed quarterback Andrew Maxwell all night.
The 3-0 Irish drew first blood less than five minutes into the contest when John Goodman hauled in a 36 yard rainbow from Golson with one hand in the end zone while being held by a defender. Michigan State tried to answer, but Dan Conroy missed a 44-yard field goal on the ensuing possession.
The game settled into a defensive battle as the teams entered the second period. A perfectly executed misdirection by Notre Dame resulted in a 32-yard burst by George Atkinson to put the Irish in scoring territory. A 14 yard pass play to T.J. Jones moved the ball inside the five, and Golson beat the Spartan defense to the pylon on a keeper for a 14-0 lead with 10:50 left in the half.
Maxwell and running back Le’Veon Bell tried to rally Michigan State’s shaky offense, but Sheldon Day, Tony Springmann and Shembo had their way with the MSU front line. The Irish secondary, featuring a number of young and unproven players such as Matthias Farley, Josh Atkinson, KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate, were able to blanket the Spartan receivers with tight coverage and sure tackling throughout the evening.
Conroy managed a 50-yarder late in the quarter to cut Notre Dame’s halftime advantage to 14-3, but Michigan State was unable to generate a serious threat when play resumed. The teams each punted three times in a scoreless third quarter, although the Irish gained a field position advantage as Ben Turk kicked the ball magnificently despite being roughed up on one occasion.
Notre Dame’s offense could not repeat its first half success, but it seemed that the defense would be good enough on this night if the Irish could avoid a turnover or special teams gaffe. That nearly happened early in the fourth quarter as DaVonte Neal misplayed a punt and Notre Dame was pinned back at its own four yard line. With the outcome very much in doubt, Cierre Wood came to the rescue by ripping off two stellar runs of nine and 26 yards to move his team out of trouble. Wood then added another 8-yarder on a fourth and one play, and Theo Riddick followed up with a 15-yard burst. Brindza capped what might be the most compelling drive of the young season by hitting a short field goal with 6:21 remaining.
Now trailing by 17-3, Maxwell took to the air. He and the Spartans could manage only one first down before failing on the next series by fumbling the ball over to the Irish on fourth down. Brindza closed the scoring with a 47-yard blast that split the uprights. His long kickoffs for touchbacks and clutch place kicking have been a pleasant development for Notre Dame’s previously moribund special teams, especially in light of the fact that first team kicker Nick Tausch went down with an injury.
The victory was truly a total team effort, as the Irish dominated the line of scrimmage, pressured the quarterback with four sacks and numerous hurries, stopped the Spartans’ vaunted running game, and generated a balanced attack of their own. Several unheralded players made significant contributions in all three phases. Still, there is room for improvement as the offense managed only one third down conversion in 14 tries.
Let’s review the answers to the pregame questions for a closer look at the key matchups.
Which team will need reinforcements to stop the run and leave itself vulnerable to the pass?Notre Dame had a 122-50 yard advantage on the ground and was able to keep the Spartan defense off balance. Golson was only 14 for 32 but generated several more big plays.
Can the Irish offensive line rebound from a poor performance against Purdue? Definitely. Golson was not sacked and the line obviously came to prove a point in this game.
Which young quarterback will best avoid mistakes and execute in the passing game? Neither quarterback threw an interception and each had trouble with accuracy at times, but Maxwell was unable to get his team inside the red zone.
Will MSU’s changing defensive alignments force Notre Dame to burn its timeouts? The first series of the game had Irish fans reaching for the Guinness, but things settled down as Golson wore a wrist band as a security blanket.
Can Cierre Wood reenergize the Irish ground game? Yes. Wood’s clutch runs in the fourth quarter and extra gear of speed reminded Notre Dame fans as to why he is the starting tailback.
Which kicker will perform best under pressure? Conroy was one of two with a 50-yarder, but Brindza stole the show with numerous booming touchbacks and perfect scoring kicks.
Will Eifert and his fellow receivers get open against the MSU secondary for big plays? The beauty of this game for the Irish is that other receivers such as Robby Toma, Goodman and Jones made positive plays while the Spartans shut down Eifert.
Now at 3-0 for the first time since 2002, Notre Dame has one more debt to repay to the University of Michigan before the team can take advantage of a well deserved break in the schedule. The Wolverines have come out ahead on the scoreboard in each of the past three years, but the Irish could have and probably should have won all of them. Despite the number of walking wounded on the roster right now, this team has discovered the benefits of playing error-free football and allowing many of its talented athletes to play without fear.