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Michigan State Game Review: Flags All Over the Place

Notre Dame took an ugly win on Saturday to make it 3 straight victories over Michigan State.

Oh, he mad.
Oh, he mad.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

It was an ugly game for both offenses but Notre Dame came out on top with a 4-point victory just like I predicted. Here's the last review of a game with Michigan State for a while.

Play Call of the Game: McDaniel 7-yard Touchdown Run

For as infuriating as the play-calling has been this season at least the Irish tried to run the ball inside the Michigan State 10-yard line. Even better, it worked! How about that!

I'm still wondering how the blocking was so magnificent on this play and then so lackluster for the rest of the game.

Armchair Quarterback

I mentioned this in the Instant Reaction comment section but I see two major ailments with the play-calling:

1. Lack of Running in Obvious Running Situations

Upon further review this wasn't that bad. The Irish didn't run the ball once on a third and long which isn't surprising in the least bit. Of those nine opportunities on third and long the team had 4 incompletions, two completions both for first down, and three penalties on Michigan State all resulting in first down.

In 12 opportunities with third and short the Irish ran the ball 5 times. That's really low.

Now, the offense clearly sucks at running in this situations---those five rushes gained a total of 4 yards and made just 1 first down---but sometimes you have to take your medicine. Especially in this type of an ugly game taking your medicine might have helped the offense at later points in the game when the defense has to think about the run more.

On the other 7 opportunities on third and short the Irish had 2 incompletions, 2 first down completions, 1 touchdown pass, and two first downs by way of penalty on State. Again, these stats aren't terrible but here are a couple situations I thought running the ball was the smart play:

A. Notre Dame's second series of the game. You've just survived a punt block and missed field goal by State. You have a nice drive going and even a field goal would have been a huge momentum swing early in the game. On third and three in territory where you're most likely going to go for it on fourth down why not try a run? Instead, the Irish go deep into the end zone to Daniels and it falls incomplete. Not a terrible call---and Daniels was being held and nearly caught it anyway---but a run might have been better. Then, of course on fourth down Koyack misses a block and Rees has to chuck it into the end zone again for another incompletion.

B. Notre Dame's second to last series of the game. They get the ball deep in their own end with 3:12 to play and nursing a 4-point lead. It's 3rd and 14 with State having only one more timeout. Odds are you're punting the ball here. Even Mike Leach is thinking, "Yeah, we're going to run the ball here." But the Irish try yet another long pass. It doesn't have to be this hard.

2. Forcing Long & Difficult Passes in Short-Yardage Situations

This only exacerbates the team's problems on offense. It's okay to try and throw a dagger here and there in a game where points were tough to come by. It's fine to try and exploit Michigan State's defensive backs on islands too. But it doesn't make much sense to try and complete so many tough down field throws with Rees at quarterback when you only need 5 or 6 yards to move the chains.

Turning Point: Maxwell's 8-yard Run on 4th & 20

What was he thinking? There were under 2 minutes to play and the 8-yard gain does nothing. Throw the ball down field and see what happens! Did you see how many flags the refs were throwing!??

Surprising Stat: 4 receptions for 91 yards

That's the stat line for true freshmen Corey Robinson and Will Fuller. I'll admit I was way off with these youngsters. I thought they'd take some time to develop and get bigger but both of them are getting some regular minutes. Robinson just led the team in receiving for a game and Fuller's 37-yard catch was beautiful.

Unheralded Star: KeiVarae Russell

The sophomore finally looked like he did last season with a couple physical tackles and three pass breakups.

Missed Opportunity: Rees on the deep ball

There were several medium to long throws that could have really gone for big gains which Rees just didn't quite put on the money. Hitting a couple of throws could have totally changed the complexion of this game, and frankly, the way we viewed the offense afterward.

Bad Flag of the Game

The pass interference call down near the goal line where Robinson jumped over the corner was a bad call. Mayock highlighted the play about 74 times just in case you didn't know. Still, that one bad call doesn't invalidate many other legit penalties on Michigan State and others that weren't called too. Sorry, Spartan fans.

But the worst was the non-call on the hay-maker punch by a Spartan defender right in front of half the referee corps. How does that not get called? Four (4(!)) refs were standing right there and clearly saw the punch, because one reacts and pulls the player away while the others watch--but no laundry on the field? That was bad. [UPDATE: FDM has GIF-ted us with the replay below.]

Rees Reaction

The copious amount of balls thrown juuuust out of bounds was annoying, but not as annoying as turnovers. Interestingly, Rees had about the same type of game as Golson did last year against State.

  • Rees, 2013, 14 for 34, 142 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT
  • Golson, 2012, 14 for 32, 178 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT

I know I'm not the only one wincing from time to time waiting for a back-breaking interception so it's nice that it didn't happen on Saturday. With the line's pass protection a good quarterback could really carve up a secondary but we should know by now that Rees isn't that guy.

Red Zone TD Success: 66%

Overall, a pretty solid effort considering the offense's production in the game. There was a drive that stalled at the MSU 29-yard line (turnover on downs) which probably makes this feel worse than it really was.

Otherwise, the Irish scored touchdowns after getting inside Michigan State's 10-yard line and Brindza missed a field goal when a drive stalled at the MSU 20-yard line.

Special Teams Focus

Other than a couple nice punts late in the game and some nice booming kickoffs from Brindza this was not a good effort. It was very sloppy as Pat will undoubtedly show this week in his recap.

Trench Analysis

I feel confident saying that Notre Dame has the best pass blocking in the country right now. There are a lot of good defenders in the front sevens of Michigan, Purdue, and Michigan State and they have been getting stoned in pass rushing.

I'm not an O-line expert and it seems obvious that this group should be run blocking better but it feels like the running backs aren't doing them any favors. I know that probably doesn't make sense but a really talented back with great vision and cutting ability would likely do wonders for this offense. Notre Dame just doesn't have that guy right now. Very few broken tackles, not slipping through the small holes, not being decisive when holes are there---a lot of this is on the linemen and the offense facing 8 men in the box but the backs aren't doing the little things either.

The defensive line has yet to put together a complete all-around great game. The pass rushing looked better in this game but the run defense took a small step back. The rushing from Tuitt and Shembo late in the game really bothered the Spartans but Jeremy Langford did rush for 4.9 yards per carry and gained 68 yards.

Freshmen Update

11 freshmen saw the field against Michigan State.

Fuller and Robinson caught passes as already mentioned while Onwualu got in on special teams. Jaylon Smith was starting against at outside linebacker, Folston got a few carries, and Luke played some at nickel corner.

Elmer played a snap or two on the offensive line, Rochell likewise on the defensive line, while Bryant and Redfield played on special teams. Devin Butler even saw a few snaps on defense.

Final Thoughts

The 224 total yards by Notre Dame were the fewest of the Kelly era in South Bend. The previous low mark was last year's victory over Michigan in which the Irish gained 239 yards.

Saturday's 3.39 yards per play on offense was also a record low for a Brian Kelly coached Notre Dame team. That was the lowest mark for an Irish team since the 2008 loss to USC in which the offense averaged 1.86(!!!) yards per play.

Limiting Michigan State to 3.58 yards per play was the 5th best performance by an Irish defense under Brian Kelly. The better games since 2010 have been Michigan State last year (3.39), Army in 2010 (3.41), Wake Forest in 2012 (3.48), and South Florida in 2011 (3.53).

Somewhat eye-brow raising that Greg Bryant was the only running back to not get a carry.

If this isn't a major bowl winning team (the sooner we stop using the term 'BCS' the better) there are three key games on the schedule. The Irish just won one of those games. The other will be the Arizona State game (or a split of the OU/ASU games) and the BYU game.

This was the last game against Michigan State for a while. When the series resumes in 2016 Everett Golson will have ran out of eligibility and the Irish will be entering the Malik Zaire/DeShone Kizer era.

Notre Dame has looked a lot like the 2011 defense so far in terms of turnovers generated with just 4 through 4 games. The better news is that the Irish have only lost 3 turnovers on the season.