Michigan State Game Review: Irish Dominate for Major Program Win

Sep 15, 2012; East Lansing, MI, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt (7), running back Cierre Wood (20), cornerback Josh Atkinson (43), running back Theo Riddick (6), and center Braxston Cave (52) celebrate after Notre Dame defeated the Michigan State Spartans 20-3 at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE

Notre Dame did it. They finally won the big game, at night, on the road, in prime time, as the underdog against a highly ranked top 10 opponent. That breaks a streak of 9 straight losses to teams in the AP top 10 and ends Michigan State's long home winning streak.

Let's break down this momentous win for the Fighting Irish.

Defensive Line

This was truly an outstanding effort by everyone who stepped on the field. 5th year captain Kapron Lewis-Moore, who coach Kelly said in his Sunday presser was not 100%, didn't play a lot of snaps but still chipped in 2 quarterback hurries. Louis Nix added 5 tackles and continues to play like a NFL early round pick. Not to be outdone, Stephon Tuitt added 4 tackles, a forced fumble, one quarterback hurry, and yet another sack to his season totals.

Better yet, true freshman Sheldon Day played his best game yet with a sack and a pass breakup---he's looking like he'll be a special talent for the next 3 to 4 years. Also, Tony Springmann played his best game of his young career with many disruptive snaps, including a half sack, as well as a near interception.

The defensive line kept the Spartan rushing game in check and was in quarterback Andrew Maxwell's face on so many snaps that it didn't seem fair. If KLM can get healthy and the line keeps playing this way, Notre Dame is going to be very difficult to beat. From start to finish, this was the best performance by an Irish defensive line against a top team in many, many years.

Linebackers

What more needs to be said about the rock of Irish football in Manti Te'o? He loses his grandmother and girlfriend earlier last week and goes out and finishes with a team-leading 12 tackles to go with a tackle for loss, fumble recovery, and two pass break-ups. Before Saturday night our hearts were heavy for Te'o but after his production, and more importantly the character he displayed after the win, our hearts are filled with so much pride for a great young man.

Prince Shembo played like a man possessed in his best game in an Irish uniform: 9 tackles, 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss, and 2 quarterback hurries. He was seemingly all over the place, especially early in the game. I think we all saw what the Notre Dame front can do with a great game from the cat linebacker spot, and it's downright scary for Irish opponents.

This was the best game collectively from Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese that I've witnessed---no glaring mistakes. Fox played a lot more but both filled their responsibilities admirably. Carlo filled gaps and attacked State running backs, while Fox stayed strong in coverage. That's pretty much Diaco's dream for these two splitting time in the middle. Also, it was sure nice to have Danny Spond back at dog linebacker and he no doubt strengthened the Irish's defensive pass coverage.

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"You take it from them!" Mike Carter/US Presswire

The best part of the game from the linebackers was the tackling and the handful of broken up passes over the middle. In the event that Michigan State did complete something underneath, the ball carrier was tackled then and there. No 6-yard passes turned into 20 or worse---on almost every check down the ball carrier gained no more yards after he caught it. Great tackling!

Secondary

Where is Zeke Motta and what have you done with him? Seriously though, he's turning in a great senior season right now. Unfortunately with Slaughter gone for the season he's going to have to step up even more. However, it's nice to have some faith in Motta's abilities to lead this secondary.

I continue to be impressed by Matthias Farley at safety, and now he'll be stepping into a starting role and bigger responsibilities. I love that he's playing smart football, and that he's very physical. Losing Slaughter hurts but Farley could develop into a very solid starter on this defense. He'll make mistakes no doubt, but I look for him to start laying the wood in run support---this kid loves the contact.

Speaking of contact, there's no Deion Sanders on this Notre Dame defense at corner. Unlike in the past, DC Bob Diaco had the corners playing up tight on their receivers and dared State to beat them deep.

Nope, didn't happen.

They played tough and it was great to see Russell selling out his body to break up a pass in the end zone---what a welcome change from the past where even with good coverage Irish corners would look confused and puzzled as the ball came down to the receiver. We're seeing a special will to win from Russell, and I suspect that's part of the reason why the coaching staff raves about him so much at corner.

After a very solid game against Purdue, true freshman nickelback Elijah Shumate had a bit of a coming out party with a couple of key pass breakups and great coverage all night against State. His combination of size and athleticism---mixed with what looks like high intelligence---should have Irish fans smiling brightly for his future. We'll probably see a lot more of Shumate with the injury to Slaughter.

Offensive Line

Good game overall, but a great bounce back effort from the putrid Purdue game. The bad was that they struggled blocking for most of the game, and State ended up with 6 quarterback hurries and a sack---and that's with Golson moving out of the pocket by design on numerous playcalls.


The good is that they protected Golson a lot better than most of us probably thought, and when the chips were on the table late in the game the line blew open some holes and sealed some edges to put a dagger in the Spartans' comeback hopes.

Michigan State deserves a lot of credit for clogging up the middle and shutting down the Irish running game in between the tackles, but Notre Dame largely neutralized the entire Spartan front seven, and that's a win for the Irish.

Tight End

A bit of a throwback game, no? Zero catches on only a few targets for Tyler Eifert but a lot more blocking for all three of the often-used tight ends.

Koyack continues to spin his wheels a little bit out there. I feel like he's going to have a career very similar to Zeke Motta in the sense that we know he's talented and he plays a lot, but before we know it his junior and senior seasons arrive and we're still not going to know what we have out of him.

I'm going to assume that this will be the only game this season where no tight ends catch a pass. Quite a feat by Michigan State to shut them down, but the resulting victory for Notre Dame should feel pretty sweet for this group that did a lot of blocking.

Wide Receivers

TJ Jones couldn't hold on to a ball that should have been an interception, but this was his best game at Notre Dame. He played physical, is showing a much more physical edge this season, and was a reliable target on the night.

I'm quick to criticize John Goodman, and he did get out-muscled for a ball he should have caught, but his effort on the touchdown pass was crucial to setting the tone. I'll take that day in the office every time from him.

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Cierre Wood was an impact player Saturday. Matt Cashore/US Presswire

We saw Robby Toma doing his thing, which is taking short passes and racking up sneaky good yards after the catch. Such a great player.

My only gripe would be to try to get Davonte Neal the ball more. I believe he only has two touches this season and none in the past two. He's seeing the field a lot but he's so electric I'd hate to waste football games without him doing something on offense. I'd rather he not have a GA-type freshman season where he's a return specialist but gets about 10 touches all season on offense.

It sounds like DaVaris Daniels wasn't 100% so the staff didn't feel the need to push him against State. Looks like he'll be fine for Michigan though.

It's only one catch, but it's nice to see Daniel Smith continuing to be involved with the offense. And even without a catch, we nearly saw freshman burner Chris Brown connect on a long bomb too.

Running Back

Welcome back, Cierre Wood. Early on it looked like he wasn't going to be involved much in his first game back from suspension, but he picked up over 40 rushing yards to pace the offense down the field from deep in Irish territory for a field goal to go up 17-3 in the fourth quarter. That's how you show you're the No. 1 running back on this squad.

A bit of a tough night for Theo Riddick who finished with 30 rushing yards on 12 carries and 16 yards on 3 receptions. He had this number called up the middle more than the other running backs and he was effectively contained. As tough as the State front seven was I thought Riddick could have used better vision and cut up field quicker than he was---it was a bit of the old Theo Riddick that we saw in the past but not so much this year.

George Atkinson was bottled up on all but one carry, and that one carry was an early 32-yard dagger that really took the wind out of the sails of the Spartans defense. That's an extra weapon the Irish are lucky to have. Keep using it.

Quarterback

You won't see it from the stat sheet (43% accuracy, only 178 passing yards), but Everett Golson gets huge bonus points for leading the team to a victory. He smartly threw away several passes, showed off his playmaking ability and talent on both touchdowns, and controlled the offense magnificently given the circumstances.

He's still got a lot of work to do---he's late on some throws, hasn't developed accuracy down field yet, and was uncharacteristically a little shaky with shorter throws against Michigan State---but my goodness, the sky is the limit with EG.

Remember, we're supposed to be worrying about him being injured, fumbling the ball, burning timeouts like Marlboro's, and throwing picks---not having turnover-free victories against Michigan State on the road.

Can you believe we'll have another 50 games with him as this team's quarterback?

Special Teams

Ben Turk had one so-so punt, but overall this was his most consistent game of his career. When Notre Dame needed him to flip the field position, he did so.

Kyle Brindza looked awfully comfortable with the field goal kicking duties, and I like that he can kick it out of the end zone seemingly at will on kickoffs. We'll see if Tausch ever earns his place kicking job back.

I know he fumbled a punt return (and then picked up a penalty for running after signaling for a fair catch---what a stupid rule) but Neal impresses me with his confidence back there. He's going to eventually break one.

Not much of a workload for GA3 as State only sent two kickoffs the entire night. Does anyone think he'll take one back this year for a score? It's a lot harder than he made it seem as a freshman.

Final Thoughts

You probably already knew this, but Saturday night's win was huge for this program. I've been very adamant in the past that the Irish needed to start winning these big games (even more so than to stop losing to lesser opponents) and this one felt like a big breakthrough.

Hopefully it's a turning point game because it sure feels like one right now. There's a chance that Michigan State might turn out to be not that great this season, but their defense is too good for them to fall apart.

This one just feels different because the offense went 1 for 14 on third down and we were okay with that because the defense was playing like the '66 title team.


We dominated up front, out-rushed Michigan State, and came up with timely and big "chunk" plays (as coach Kelly calls them) to secure this victory. In the past (see Michigan 2011), we have let teams back into the game even after completely controlling the first half and longer.

Not this past Saturday.

State didn't even enter the Notre Dame red zone. They only gained 2.0 yards per rush and just 3.4 yards per play. That is just phenomenal defense against a ranked opponent.

Yes, this feels different. It feels like we're finally seeing Brian Kelly's fingerprints all over the team and it's starting to pay dividends. It's starting to pay dividends to the point where some pretty exciting things may appear on the horizon.

Maybe most of all, this felt different because the coaching on both sides of the ball felt damn near perfect. No, the offense wasn't doing much at times (especially to start the second half) but Kelly & Co. knew they didn't need to push for more points with the way the defense was dominating.

That plan of attack is a complete 180 for a Brian Kelly-led team, and I think it's one that (for now) is going to pay off. Notre Dame walked into a hostile environment and just owned the opponent in a big game with suffocating defense...damn that feels good.

Next up, those pesky Wolverines.

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