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Notre Dame vs. Michigan State Recap: Irish Upset Sparty with Tough Defense

You mad, Kirk Cousins? (Photo by John Gress/Getty Images)
You mad, Kirk Cousins? (Photo by John Gress/Getty Images)
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That win was a long time coming wasn't it? 

But it felt so good.

It was the biggest win against rival Michigan State since 1993.

Say what you want about Brian Kelly and this program, but he keeps pecking away at the bad streaks and adding to new ones that the team desperately needs.

Losing streak to USC?


Pathetic November records?

4-0 last year.

Incompetence against ranked teams?

Beat Utah last year and a top 15 team on Saturday.

Tip your cap to the men in blue and gold who could have laid down and gave up, but instead, came out and played a heck of a game (particularly the defense) when so many teams in the past would have wilted. 

Maybe this season won't turn out to be one for the ages, but don't sit there and tell me things aren't changing in South Bend---because they are.

Position grades after the jump.

Offensive Line: B+

Let's be honest, the offense didn't do much of anything in the second half, and that was largely because Michigan State was stuffing the run, but not too much blame can be put on this offensive line. Michigan State has a very physical front seven and once Notre Dame went into a bit of a shell with the playcalling, even the best offensive lines will find it hard to open holes for running backs. 

Notre Dame got a workman-like 114 yards on the ground, which by all accounts, is a pretty good day against a Spartan team with a stout defensive line and quality linebackers. True, the bulk of those yards came in the first half, but it's more than the Irish ran for last year and it simply sufficed for the day.

Also, the line continues to be excellent in pass protection with the only sack given up on the early fumble by Rees. The line could have protected better, but Rees also should have released the ball quicker---he has to realize he can't stand in the pocket all day and expect not to get drilled.

Wide Receiver: B-

Pretty quiet day from these guys, particularly from Floyd who was in beast mode during the first two games. Fact of the matter is the Irish didn't move the ball too well through the air and it hurt the receivers' grade.

Floyd had a few big catches, and his numbers were still decent, but not anywhere near where he's accustomed to as the superstar playmaker of this offense. TJ Jones made a couple nice grabs and his touchdown reception was absolutely beautiful---he slowly continues to grow.

I'm not really sure where Theo Riddick is in this offense and it's puzzling.

As a pure receiver it seems like he's regressed, or he isn't getting open or Rees isn't finding him when he is open. He had such a rocky start to the season and I'm not sure where his head is at right now. And it's also a little puzzling that he's not getting the ball in his hands on any wildcat or jet sweeps---it's like he's not even on the field sometimes and he's too good of a player to say that about.

Tight End: C

Eifert ended the day with only two catches, but they were both huge receptions for the team. He dropped a ball that could have kept a drive alive, and he wasn't quite the threat this team needs him to be, but the passing game really struggled on Saturday so you can't blame the tight ends too much.

It will be interesting to see how much the struggles in the second half for the offense were due to a lack of blocking from this position. Does Eifert have what it takes to be an adequate blocker? How much will this team miss Ragone?

Running Back: B

The second half was downright abysmal for the running game, but Wood and Gray still churned out 126 yards between themselves with two scores, and a few long runs. Pre-2011 Notre Dame and we would have been pretty excited with their overall numbers, but with the way the second half played out we can only be somewhat happy.


Wood's 2 rushing TD's was the first multi-TD game by an Irish back in over two years.

On the plus side, Notre Dame won't face too many teams with the strong defensive line and confusing defensive schemes like Michigan State. Clearly, it had an effect on the running backs in the second half. Even with the struggles, a couple touchdown runs by Cierre Wood were wonderful, and Jonas Gray is proving he can come in and be a factor without derping up the game every fourth carry----so we got that going for us.

Quarterback: C+

My initial grade was a little bit lower, and for the most part I thought this wasn't Rees finest hour. But now that I take a step back it didn't seem THAT bad. Two turnovers of course (Two Turnover Tommy---will that stick?) but he's right there at 70% completions and no stupid mistakes after a somewhat shaky start in this game.

Rees' touchdown pass to Jones was a perfect throw and the clutch second half play that put the Irish up by 18, effectively shoveling large amounts of dirt into Michigan State's grave.

If you're going to turn the ball over, you have to remain calm, stay accurate, and throw a dagger or two when the opportunity presents itself. Notre Dame still needs better play from the quarterback position, but Rees continues doing enough to lead this team and keep his job.  

It would have been nice if the passing game opened up a little bit and picked up the slack from a struggling running game in the second half, but the truth was Kelly simply wasn't asking Rees to do that and he was happy to play conservative and run some clock. You're not going to see 26 pass attempts in a somewhat close game from this offense very often.

Defensive Line: A+

Remember how we were saying before the game that the Irish matched up better against a more traditional, run-first offense, and that Notre Dame could use its strength up front and get more pressure on a pocket passer?


You couldn't have asked much more from the defensive line because they dominated, not just the offensive line, but the entire game. They were the biggest reason Notre Dame came away with this victory.

Last year, the Spartans ran for over 200 yards while setting up a perfectly balanced offense that did a lot of damage to Notre Dame. This year, Michigan State's running backs gained 53 yards on 17 carries---a measly 3.1 yards per rush.

As a team, Michigan State gained 29 yards rushing on 23 carries, and there were no runs over 8 yards.

Mark Dantonio was extremely hesitant to stop running the ball and get out of his team's balanced offense, but he was eventually forced to by the Notre Dame defensive line.

Not only was the run defense stout, but Cousins almost never had time to drop back and get a pass off without feeling pressure or with a gold helmet (or two) collapsing the pocket in a hurry. In short, we had high hopes for this defensive line and this was the type of game we dreamed about---they made a power running game with a history of running over the Irish, completely and absolutely one-dimensional.

Even better, the line was rotating in and out and utilizing the full two-deep and showcasing the young bucks on the line like Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix.

Oh, and Aaron Lynch.

Oh my God, Aaron Lynch!!!


MSU triple teamed Tuitt, and paid the price.

Lynch saw minimal playing time against South Florida and even less against Michigan. So this was his first full game being in the regular rotation, and I guess it was pretty good for a true freshman:

5 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 forced fumble don't really capture his impact in this game. But do you know what does?

6 quarterback hurries.

Per the Twitter account of Blue & Gold Illustrated's Lou Somogyi:

The ND team leaders in "QB Hurries" for all of 2010 had 5 total — and freshman Aaron Lynch was credited with 6 vs. MSU alone. Amazing!

Lynch was damn near unstoppable to the point where he was either being held, in the quarterback's face, or forcing a hurried throw by Kirk Cousins every time he blew off the line in the second half. It was a breakout freshman moment for Lynch whose potential is so ridiculously high for someone so young.

Linebackers: B-

I was tempted to give a lower grade here, but the linebackers deserve a lot of credit for helping to shut down the Michigan State running game. However, this defense is set up to give the linebackers a lot of playmaking opportunities and they have been pretty quiet in both this game and throughout the first three games.

Te'o led the team with 12 tackles, but could probably play a little better. 

Fleming was really strong off the edge and played well, while a group of Calabrese, Fox, McDonald, and Williams all saw the field and played admirably. 

At times, the Spartans were having a field day completing passes underneath the Notre Dame zone coverage, and this is a big weakness for the Irish defense and the linebackers in particular. It also didn't help that Notre Dame was without both of its Dog linebackers in Prince Shembo and Danny Spond and was forced to play a true freshman (Troy Niklas) at one of the most demanding positions on the field. Niklas struggled at times, but that is to be expected for someone thrust into a starting spot like that so quickly.

Secondary: B+

There was some bad, but also a lot of great play to boost this unit's grade.

First the bad: Gary Gray had another sub-par game (thankfully better than last week though), Cousins completed 34 passes, gained 329 yards through the air, and B.J. Cunningham had a big day with 12 receptions and 158 yards. In sum, there is plenty to work on and improve at corner and safety.

Now the good: The secondary made some plays at key moments with players like Harrison Smith (4 pass break ups) stepping up and forcing some incompletions late in the game to seal the victory.

But really, it was the Robert Blanton show.


Blanton put on a show against Michigan State.

Check out this stat line from Blanton:

6 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 82-yard interception, 3 pass break ups, and one sack for a loss of 11 yards.

There isn't much else to say about Blanton's game, other than it was one of the most dominating performances by a corner in a very long time for Notre Dame. He was simply all over the field and came up with a big interception to effectively seal the victory.

It wasn't the best game from the secondary, but thanks to Blanton it was a good bounce back effort after the disastrous fourth quarter at the Big House.

Special Teams: B

Ruffer nailed his only field goal, Brindza continues to look great on kickoffs, and Turk had one of his most consistent performances of his career (41.5 average, 2 punts inside the 20---including one down to the 1-yard line). 

Best of all, George Atkinson took back the first kick return for a touchdown since the Hawaii Bowl at the end of the 2008 season. Atkinson's touchdown was a big momentum boost after Michigan State had just notched a field goal off an Irish turnover.


In Dan Patrick voice: "Gone."

On the negative side, the kick return coverage was bad and Goodman had (what could have been) a crushing fumble on a late-game punt. At this point, should Notre Dame not even put back a return on punts and just focus all their energy trying to block the punt?

Final Thoughts

This was obviously a huge win for the program, and a much needed jolt of confidence that was needed for a team that has really played well through three games but hasn't seen it pay off in the win column until Saturday.

In a lot of ways, the game played out exactly how I thought it would: Notre Dame wreaks havoc on State's offensive line, makes the opponent one-dimensional, Cousins eventually turns the ball over in a key moment, and the Irish pull out a close, yet slightly comfortable multi-score victory.

There were three more turnovers, but at least that's an improvement over the 10 coughed up during the first two games. Better yet, the Irish had half as many penalties as Michigan State and 33 less penalty yards too.

I continue to believe in this team and am convinced that they are well coached and slowly becoming a very dangerous team on the college football scene. Up next are three very winnable games and an opportunity to get a ton of momentum before the bye week and a huge matchup against USC under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium.

A lot of people from each fan base couldn't believe that I thought Notre Dame would win this game by 17 points, and to their credit, there sure was a lot of history pointing to the game being much closer than what I predicted.

However, I just had a feeling that this would be a big win for the team because I've really liked the way they played this year and they were simply due. It seemed like poetic justice to lose the first two games against two good teams---only to beat the first ranked team faced on the season---while Michigan State faltered after playing two cupcakes and even admitting they had been practicing for Notre Dame for three weeks.

Some aren't satisfied with a "they're due" argument, but it seemed damn obvious to me. Notre Dame was due for a big win to turn this season around, and they were due for their first comfortable win over Michigan State in a long time too.

There's no doubting that the 0-2 start to the season sucked, yet if we're going to be so obsessed with history (as we were with Notre Dame struggling at home against MSU---by the way we've won two in a row now), then we should know that this season is far from over and that there is still plenty of great things that could happen to this team.

Let others cast Notre Dame aside because of the rocky start and make jokes about the Irish never living up to the hype. Brian Kelly is just going to continue building this program and beating ranked teams, bumps in the road be damned.

Other quick observations:

  • Before yesterday's game, the Irish picked up their first verbal commit for the 2013 class in OL Steve Elmer. The 6'6" 300 pound tackle from Midland, Michigan is one of the best linemen prospects in the midwest and should be a high four-star recruit.
  • Michael Floyd now owns every major receiving category in Notre Dame history. He is the first Irish player to ever catch 200 career balls.
  • Per Notre Dame's Media Relations Director Brian Harding: The Fighting Irish currently own the Megaphone (MSU), Jeweled Shillelagh (USC), Ireland Trophy (BC), and Shillelagh Trophy (Purdue) together for the first time since 1996.
  • I won't complain about going ultra-conservative in the second half on offense. That's what LSU does all the time and it usually works, especially when your defense is playing well and you're nursing a three score lead. But where's the creativity on offense? With Rees, the quarterback doesn't run---are sweeps, end arounds, and the wildcat formations completely removed from the playbook too?
  • I'm not really comfortable with the other safety spot opposite Harrison Smith. More specifically, it seems like Jamoris Slaughter is definitely outplaying Zeke Motta and I would probably think about keeping Slaughter at safety full time while using Jackson or Wood as the nickel man. Do you see Motta ever making a play, and isn't he constantly taking bad angles? It is just me?
  • I'm all for players expressing themselves with funky fresh apparel, but what is going on with Kyle Brindza's cleats?

Your moment of Zen: