by John Vannie
Notre Dame’s defense asserted itself in the second half and Cam McDaniel scored the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter as the Irish held off Michigan State by 17-13 on Saturday. The game was an exercise in frustration for both offenses, but Notre Dame took advantage of a few favorable pass interference calls as flags littered the field all afternoon.
The Irish started poorly with a three and out followed by a partially blocked punt that put MSU in business just 31 yards from the goal. The Spartans failed to capitalize, however, as Mike Muma badly hooked a field goal attempt. Notre Dame got on the board later in the first period when Kyle Brindza converted a 41-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
Brindza had another opportunity on the next Notre Dame possession, but missed from 38 yards. Connor Cook then put together the only touchdown drive of the day for Michigan State, which he capped off by hitting Macgarrett Kings in the corner of the end zone from 11 yards out for a 7-3 advantage midway through the second.
Tommy Rees answered for Notre Dame as the half drew to a close. A pass interference call on a fourth down pass kept the drive alive, and Rees hit Robinson on a crucial third down throw to give the Irish a first and goal at the Spartan two with seconds left in the half. Following two incompletions, Rees hit T.J. Jones, who made a leaping catch at the back of the end zone and managed to come down in bounds for the touchdown.
Leading 10-7, Notre Dame kicked off to start the third quarter and Michigan State immediately marched downfield with strong runs and crisp passes. The Irish defense gathered itself and forced a third down incompletion inside its own ten. Michael Geiger replaced Muma and capped off the eight minute plus drive by booting a 25-yarder for the 10-10 tie.
The Irish failed to move and it appeared that Michigan State had seized the momentum after a poor punt by Brindza. The Spartans picked up the tempo and were near midfield when disaster struck. Flanker R.J. Shelton attempted a deep pass on a first down reverse, but Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell and safety Matthias Farley were not fooled. Farley picked off the floater and brought it back near midfield, and a 15-yard penalty at the end of the play moved the ball to the Michigan State 37.
An apparent interception by Rees on third and ten went by the boards when the Spartans were guilty of pass interference. The Irish faced another third and ten on the next series, and once again a pass interference call gave them a first down. As MSU coach Mark Dantonio went ballistic on the sidelines, Cam McDaniel burst through from seven yards out to give Notre Dame a 17-10 lead just seconds into the final period.
The Spartans tried to answer, and a great catch by Bennie Fowler brought the visitors into the red zone. The Irish defense came alive at this point, and Dantonio again had to call upon Geiger to cut the margin to 17-13 with 10:40 remaining.
Needing to burn time off the clock, Notre Dame could not get its running game untracked against the stout Michigan State front. The Irish once again failed to convert on third down and one, forcing them to give the ball right back to the Spartans. A sack by the suddenly rejuvenated Stephon Tuitt stopped Cook in his tracks, and the Spartans had to punt it away.
Jones almost gave it back at his 20 when he muffed the fair catch, but the Irish held on to recover. A penalty on the Notre Dame sideline after the scrum pushed them back against their own goal. After another three and out, Brindza picked an opportune time to blast his best punt of the day, and the Spartans were forced to start back at their own 30.
Cook was ineffective, while Notre Dame’s Russell was stellar in coverage on a third down throw. Once again, Rees and his mates could not generate a first down, but Brindza followed with another long punt with two minutes remaining. Michigan State brought in Andrew Maxwell at quarterback, but his high velocity throws were off target. The Irish were able to take over on downs and run out the clock.
Although Notre Dame’s offense did not take control to ice the game in the fourth quarter, the defense elevated its game with a little help from the erratic Spartan quarterbacks. Dantonio and Michigan State loyalists will point to the four pass interference penalties and one defensive holding call, but most were obvious infractions and a by-product of their strategy to employ close, physical coverage of the Irish receivers.
Notre Dame enjoyed strong performances by Louis Nix, Tuitt, Russell, and Robinson, while Jones and DaVaris Daniels battled the aggressive Spartan secondary all afternoon. Meanwhile, their MSU counterparts dropped critical passes and did not make enough plays to win.
Let’s review the pregame questions for additional insights.
Which offense will create more manageable third down situations for its quarterback? Michigan State actually had shorter average distances on third down due to a more efficient ground game, but the Irish converted four third downs and one fourth down on major MSU penalties.
Will the Irish offensive line be able to protect Rees from the Spartan strip/sack specialists? The lone strip/sack turnover by Michigan State was overturned by the replay officials early in the contest, but Rees was well protected after that.
Can Cook and his young receivers continue to have success through the air against much stronger competition? Aside from the touchdown reception by Kings and the nice grab by Fowler, Michigan State’s passing game was lousy. The Spartan passing line was 16-35-1 for a measly 135 yards.
Which team’s running back by committee approach will be most productive? The trio employed by MSU outgained the Irish by a margin of 119-78, but it was not enough to put points on the board or play with the lead in the second half.
Will Notre Dame play with high intensity and emotion, particularly at the start of the game? The Irish started poorly and did not find the end zone until nearly halftime for the second straight week. Fortunately, the defense was better but they also missed too many tackles. Next week’s opponent will not fail to take advantage of this.
Which team will commit a costly turnover or suffer a special teams breakdown at a crucial moment? The unforced turnover by Shelton when the Spartans had the momentum set up the winning score by McDaniel. Special teams play was horrific by both teams, although Brindza’s fourth quarter punts came at the best possible moments.
The Irish will have to gear up for another undefeated opponent next week, and it’s likely that the Oklahoma Sooners will want to repay last year’s Notre Dame victory in Norman with their own statement game. Rees will have to be more accurate than his modest 14 for 34 and 142 yard performance this week, and the running game must settle down and become productive now that it’s clear the head-spinning five back rotation is not getting it done.
After 201 combined penalty yards and enough offensive ineptitude on both sides to fill a blooper reel, the best course for Notre Dame fans and players may be to forget this ugly performance as soon as possible except to say it belongs in the win column.