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Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

Sep 19, 2010, 12:19 AM EDT

Very rarely can you summarize a football game in one sentence, but head coach Brian Kelly did in his post-game press conference, just minutes after a fake field goal attempt in overtime won the football game for Michigan State 34-31:

“It came down to one play,” Kelly said. “Michigan State executed the play. We did not.”

While many will argue a picture is worth a thousand words, the shocking conclusion to another classic Notre Dame-Michigan State game underscores the things that took place the other 63 minutes on the football field. There will be years to debate the clipping call on Lo Wood at the end of regulation and the expired play-clock before the Spartans pulled their miraculous “Little Giants” fake field goal. Until then, let’s take a look at the five things we learned during Notre Dame’s 34-31 overtime loss to Michigan State in East Lansing.

1. Championship football teams play consistent football. Notre Dame does not.

Dayne Crist completed 60 percent of his passes for 369 yards and four touchdown passes. Those numbers are good enough to win for most football teams, but the Irish’s offensive miscues are what cost Notre Dame the game. In year one of both the Brian Kelly spread offense and the Dayne Crist era, the no-huddle, hurry-up offense is going through phases of boom and bust, capable of looking other-worldly on some drives and incompetent on others. With thirty-three seconds on the clock and Dayne Crist already sailing a pass dangerously high through the secondary, Brian Kelly decided to play for overtime. While a clipping call nullified the great field position the Irish had, Kelly’s decision to play for OT said all that was needed about Notre Dame’s offense. They’re too dangerous to trust right now.

Defensively, the Irish stop the run and cover the pass wonderfully on some series, and on others they look like they’re wearing roller skates. Manti Te’o’s play personified the Irish’s struggles with consistency. Even though he made double-digit tackles for the second consecutive game, Te’o’s missed tackle in the Spartans’ backfield on a screen pass to Le’Veon Bell crushed the Irish, turning a 3rd and long into a touchdown on the very next play. There are moments when the Irish play BCS caliber football. Unfortunately, the moments when they don’t have cost the Irish two football games.

2. Brian Kelly is a riverboat gambler.

Many expected Brian Kelly to coach football games the way he handles himself with the media — measured, politically savvy, and deftly able to steer clear of anything that’d be examined or second-guessed. But on the sidelines, Kelly operates on the other end of the spectrum, playing his gut and taking chances that make him an easy-target for those looking to question his coaching choices. The decision to play for the touchdown at the end of the first half against Michigan was just the first hint that Kelly’s a different man roaming the sidelines than he is in front of a microphone.

Staring at a 4th and 1 with just over six minutes remaining, Kelly opened himself up for ridicule, opting to go for it from the Irish 42-yard line, instead of playing safe and punting the ball away. Dayne Crist didn’t get it — he fumbled the ball off his own blocker as he cut north for first down yardage — and the Spartans recovered, taking over at the Notre Dame 44. The Irish defense picked up the slack and forced a punt, but Kelly’s shown in the first three games of his tenure that he’s willing to take risks that leave him open to questioning.

3. The lack of depth in the secondary is killing the Irish defense.

With Jamoris Slaughter and Dan McCarthy still hobbled, the Irish are forced to play Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta as deep-cover safeties. This is not a winning combination for the Irish. While Smith made a nice play on a deep-out, Motta just isn’t the type of guy that is comfortable in open space yet, and the long pass interference call is a perfect example of what can happen when you have an in-the-box strong safety type playing sky coverage over the top.

Darrin Walls and Gary Gray might be the most talented cornerbacking duo the Irish have had since Shane Walton and Vontez Duff, but taking 95-percent of the defensive snaps for an Irish team that has no desire to possess the football is a recipe for disaster. To his credit, Kelly understands the predicament he’s putting his defensive backs in.

“Those kids are warriors. We had three defensive backs that played through some significant injuries,” Kelly said after the game. “We’re so thin back there, with out being able to get Slaughter on the field. That put Blanton in a lot more of the corner position which took a little gas out of his tank. We’re just really thin there. They’re battling. I’m proud of the way they battled, and they were banged up pretty good.”

Newsflash to the Irish secondary: it doesn’t get any easier next week. The best quarterback on Notre Dame’s schedule, Andrew Luck of Stanford, is coming to South Bend.

4. Theo Riddick and Darius Fleming answered the bell.

If the Irish are going to play winning football, they’ll need Theo Riddick on offense and Darius Fleming on defense. For two weeks, neither player did much, failing to make an impact on the field or in the stat ledger. But that all changed today. While the Irish didn’t win, two essential playmakers found their stride, and for the Irish’s sake, it better be here to stay.

With the spotlight on him all week, Theo Riddick stepped up big, catching 10 balls for 128 yards and a touchdown. He was elusive in the open field, turning multiple short passes into big gains.
“He broke out. He’s an exciting player,” Kelly said. “We knew that he was going to be
able to add to our offense, it was just a matter of time. And now he
gives us that third weapon that we had been looking for to balance off Rudolph and Floyd.”

It’ll likely be forgotten because of the fake field goal, but Fleming’s sack in overtime, to go along with his fourth quarter sack, where gigantic plays for an Irish defense that held its ground late. Fleming was one of the only pass-rushers to get consistent pressure on Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins, and while it’s in a losing effort, he got pressure from the Cat linebacker position, something critical for a Bob Diaco defense.

5. Different coach, same team.

For those that say the Irish can’t get it done at the end of the ballgame, rewind your DVRs and watch the first half of the football game. The Irish lost to Michigan State not because of a fake field goal, but because they failed to capitalize when they had the other team on the ropes. Two costly red zone turnovers (by two of Notre Dame’s best offensive players) stalled out drives when the Irish needed to get points on the board.

Even though it’s only three games into the Brian Kelly era, the vultures are once again circling the Irish football program. Staring at a home-date against Jim Harbaugh’s high-powered Stanford team, there’s a realistic chance the Irish are looking at a 1-3 record, with games against Boston College and Pitt still ahead. All in all, if you’re looking for negativity, there’s plenty to be found. (Just take a look at the comments around here.) After the game, Kelly said there’s a simply way to combat that.

“This is about belief. What do you believe in, after a loss as difficult
as this, what do you believe in?” Kelly said. “Do you believe in your teammates? Do
you believe in your coaches? Do you believe in the preparation? If you
do, you’ll come back and we’ll work harder and we’ll continue to work to
get better. If you don’t believe, then these are times when you start
to see teams pull apart. It’s all about belief at this point.”

While Kelly used a Van Halen reference earlier this week to talk about how important Mike Elston’s return to the football team is, he’d be better off referencing another 80s hair-band to get his point across this week.

To quote the ubiquitous Journey anthem: “Don’t Stop Believing.”

100 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. Always@FanBut! - Sep 19, 2010 at 10:38 AM

    I agree with FightinMad35, it’s just so hard to get comfortable even when the Irish are ahead by one or two touchdowns. The most frustrating thing for me yesterday was watching them run short yardage plays on 3rd down. Why would you not run pass plays past the 1st down marker? It’s beyond me. And even though “nobody” was prepared for a Michigan State’s fake field goal, isn’t it common sense to be prepared for a fake no matter what with two or three players defending? Worst case is, they make the field goal and your back to OT. Best case is you stop the play and win.

  2. James - Sep 19, 2010 at 10:39 AM

    goirsish1, you have to be kidding me. ND last year would have lost this game by 20+ points. Kelly is using Weis’ players and making them as best as they can. He runs a COMPLETELY different system than Weis did and it WILL TAKE TIME to pay off for us.
    This year’s team is already better than last years, regardless of record.
    If you can’t see that, you’re blind

  3. pocochel - Sep 19, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    Someone a few posts back called it an “unmakeable” field goal. Wouldn’t you think that under the circumstances the right defensive call would have been to anticipate a fake and stay in the base defense. There’s no need for a rush on a 46-yard attempt from the right hash. Let him kick it. His odds in that kind of a pressure situation are certainly under 50%.

  4. Dale - Sep 19, 2010 at 11:38 AM

    sorry ’bout ur team. I am glad to see ur comments on Kelly! I am a UC fan. Kelly left C. Mich. for UC (where his players were recruited by another coach prior). He played w/ Dantonio’s players at UC and then left us for ND with crap. He takes undeserved credit, and his riverboat gambling approach to coaching used to drive me nuts. I’m glad Dantonio outcoached BK. Sweet Justice. BK won’t have to recruit at Notre Dame, ND recruits itself and he has successfully locked down the Catholic atheletes in Cincinnati. Look at your roster. What a plan, kinda weaselish to me, though. Dale

  5. Mark - Sep 19, 2010 at 12:03 PM

    Amen to this. If you can’t stand to watch, get off the bus. Three games and you’re giving up?
    Be honest: you weren’t even on to start with.
    Damn that end was hard to see, but these guys are players! They bring heart and, despite not having it down after 3 whole real-game lessons with new coaches (who didn’t recruit them to ND) and new systems (geez, what could possibly be wrong with them that they don’t get it all already?!?), seem clearly to be making positive strides each time.
    Frustrating to watch? Yeah, sometimes. But they play with hope and desire. I’ll take it. It will turn into wins – something some folks seem to have no other means by which to measure present or future success.

  6. Irishpinoy - Sep 19, 2010 at 12:15 PM

    You guys are funny. It’ll take a full season to get this team in gear. Both offense and defense are just beginning to adapt to this new system. Dayne Crist will be a Heismann material once he and his teammates fully understands this offense. It took Michael Jordan and the Bulls years to win a championship. I feel that this team will get there in less time. People are criticizing Kelly’s play-calling. But I like what he’s doing. He’s preparing this team for next year. Go Irish!

  7. Chris - Sep 19, 2010 at 12:16 PM

    A couple thoughts…
    * Michigan State has a good team. Cousins, Le’Veon Bell, Edwin Baker, Larry Caper, Keshawn Martin, Mark Dell, BJ Cunningham, Charlie Gantt, Greg Jones, Jerell Worthy…these are good players. There’s really no shame in losing to Michigan State in OT on the road. And it took a fake field goal to do it.
    * Notre Dame got royally screwed, and we should never forget that. The last play was not a judgement call-type “there should have been holding,” but rather a black-and-white delay of game against Michigan St. They should have been pushed back 5 yards, forcing a 51 yard field goal attempt.
    * Notre Dame was prepared for a fake. Did you not notice how the holder had to wait to throw it? That’s because Notre Dame covered all of the receivers. But then about three players, two Irish and a Spartan, fell over each other and Gantt got wide open.
    * I bet if an SEC team, ESPN’s favorite conference, were to get screwed by a missed delay of game penalty, the network would be up in arms over it. But since it happened to Notre Dame, it appears that everyone is taking a “aww isn’t that cute” approach to the missed call. Seriously…Notre Dame lost on a play that shouldn’t have happened. We cannot lose sight of this. Notre Dame is only 1-2 because the officials apparently were not watching the play clock. If the correct call is made there, Michigan St. attempts a 51 yard field goal. If their kicker can make that, then I give them all the credit in the world. But I’m not about to give them credit for a play that shouldn’t have happened. Congrats for distracting the officials for doing their jobs, I guess.
    * Yes, I am bitter about this loss, because the officials had a direct affect on who won and loss. This isn’t “there was a questionable hold in the 2nd quarter that took a key TD off the board,” this is, “there was a blatant delay of game on the winning TD in overtime.” So yeah, I’m bitter about that. I’m not one to blame the officials, who have a very tough job, but when they miss such an obvious call on the game-winning play, I get upset.

  8. SpankMonkey - Sep 19, 2010 at 12:21 PM

    pathetic whining about officiating …. would not expect anything less from ND fans … never anything to do with a football program that really belongs in D1AA or D2 to compete … always something else

  9. FightinMad35 - Sep 19, 2010 at 12:37 PM

    Why can’t fans expect and hope ND wins now?? that’s not jumping on or off the bandwagon. that’s what everybody wants for their team. TO WIN!!! right now. I’m exhausted of saying myself “they’re playing with heart and be patient and the team is making strides or we would have lost by 20 last year”. Nonsense, that I have to stop too. Insert the famous Herm Edwards quote here!!!! Did last year’s team lose a game by more than 7? I can’t recall that happening. This year so far is looking eerily similar to last year. The offense looks great and unstoppable at times, the defense can’t hold up, the entire ND nation is disappointed and hopeful about the next game. The refs blew a few calls last night, sure. We missed a few tackles, turned the ball over and had a few penalties.. still a loss and it still s*cks. If any of you are like me it’s a cloud over my sports interest until the Irish are playing and winning again. It’s raining right now with the weatherman predicting overcast skies for the next few weeks with some super stiff competition on the schedule.

  10. TLNDMA - Sep 19, 2010 at 12:55 PM

    Nice Moniker,classy.

  11. obviouscall22 - Sep 19, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    Why isn’t anyone talking about Michigan St’s last play coming after the play clock went to 00. On the scoreboard and on TV, the play clock clearly goes to 00 and the ball has not been snapped yet.
    Does the replay booth not review time?
    The play should have been blown dead, and the Irish would have seen the fake coming.
    Notre Dame should have won this, but another blown call in football.

  12. ed - Sep 19, 2010 at 1:48 PM

    Not to add fuel to the fire as the Irish did not play consistent enough to win this game…but here goes.
    Note MSU No. 23 on the last play of the game. That receiver was an ineligible man downfield — meaning that there were not one, but two penalties missed on the last play.
    Perhaps the coach for MSU can take a look back at the tape and wipe that smug look and bravado off of his face. ‘We were prepared’…Yeah, prepared to get two breaks to execute.

  13. Tim - Sep 19, 2010 at 2:33 PM

    Same as last week. A gutless defense that cannot man up when it counts. There is no cofidence on the defensive side of the ball and as long as that continues there will be no victories. Get off the backs of people who give real assesments of the football team. You guys who are 20 something only know Notre Dame as a losing program. Older guys like myself (46) have seen this program play at a higher level and against better competition. This kind of play would not have been tolerated. Just because we give honest assesments doesnt mean were not true fans it just means were not drinking the kool aid. Anyone who thinks this team is headed in the right direction needs to be drug tested.Everone is just happy they play hard well news flash people, thats not good enough at Notre Dame.

  14. Herving - Sep 19, 2010 at 2:59 PM

    I seem to recall Saban going 7-6 first season at Alabama? Is that right? Let’s give this team some time. Self-inflicted wounds will be corrected. No doubt the cupcakes in the beginning of the schedule would have helped this team as it has Michigan State.
    I’m confidant Kelly will get things turned around. The recruiting of top defensive players will help.
    All that said, last night was cruel very cruel!!!!
    Cheers to all!

  15. FightinMad35 - Sep 19, 2010 at 3:06 PM

    I’m so tired of fans of other teams saying how bad and irrelevant ND football is, yet after an opposing player has a good game against us he’s now in the Heisman race, your team is suddenly top 25, your program is headed in the right direction…I know ND is most team’s college super bowl but don’t talk crap about ND nation then use ND’s national spotlight as leverage for your team’s greatness. Last year and so far this year after every ND loss a new player or team emerged as college football’s next great thing or top 25. I wish Dr. Lou would make this point to Mark May sometime, although May has been kinda tame with the ND hate this year..

  16. TLNDMA - Sep 19, 2010 at 3:23 PM

    Don’t see a #23. 24 lined up off line so he’s eligible and 83 is lined up at end. If 24 had been on line he would have covered up 83 and making him ineligible. That would have been an illegal formation.
    Harrison Smith got plowed over by these two guys. He probably should have been a little farther off the line of scrimmage if he was going to cover a pass catcher.

  17. TJ - Sep 19, 2010 at 3:57 PM

    Oh, my god. You people are nuts! End of the world nuts!! Can anyone realize how ‘average’ this team is? Michigan and MSU are both average Big 10 teams. This team is still stuck in the CW mentality. Remember BK saying after Purdue (before that, even) that this is a process????? Just because ND got what I believe is the right coach, things were not going to turn around in one season. It’s a process!!! I truly believe this is BK’s way of politely telling us the team was in such bad shape when he arrived because of a) poor mental toughness, b) poor player development by the previous coaching staff, that it’s going to take time. It’s a process!!! The coaches have to develop, not just the 4-5 stars you have, but the ENTIRE TEAM INCLUDING BACKUPS. IT’S A PROCESS!!! Get the idea?

  18. relaxarnold - Sep 19, 2010 at 4:17 PM

    Tim, gutless defense? This kind of play is not tolerated? What did you and all of the other “old timers” expect? Did you not notice that in this last decade alone, ND has changed its HC more than most of us have changed our car oil? As an “old timer” consistency comes with time. You’ve said that the defense can’t come through when it counts, interesting point: there were a lot of times through out the game that “counted” and the defense delivered, one in mind was the failed 4th down attempt on their own 40. Defense held.
    Our Tenure in ND nation doesn’t afford us the “right” to judge an obviously “improving” team after only three games. Would you agree that if our team last night would have wiped out Purdue? I think they would’ve. I like what I see…yes its hard to watch them lose, but more so because I see how hard they work. Yes the defense returns almost all, but how does a coach “deprogram” them from the “screw up and I bench you” mentality from Tenuta? I see them flying to the ball in purposeful angles, I see them taking calculated risks, I see them being much more stronger up front. We will be better, because contrary to popular opinion, we are very young defensively. When the leader of your defense are a handful of underclassmen….give them a chance, and let them prove to you why there is hope in tomorrow!

  19. NDFANFOREVER - Sep 19, 2010 at 4:17 PM

    What fan doesn’t want to see his or her team win? But there is something called reality and patience which too many so-called ND fans lack. Who seriously expected this season to be pain free? BK is basically rebuilding a program. That’s going to take time …not three games. I’m much more concerned about next season.
    And yes Lou Holtz’s first season (5-6) mirrored Faust. The next season they went 8-4 and the next season? National championship. Am I saying BK is Lou Holtz and history will repeat itself? Nope, though I think BK and Holtz have a lot more in common than any ND coach in between their tenures.
    So if watching ND football this season is causing you that much pain, you can’t take the taunts from coworkers (tho lets be honest as a ND fan shouldn’t you have thick skin by now), or if you’re going to sit in a corner pouting about black clouds…then maybe it’s time to find another team.

  20. TLNDMA - Sep 19, 2010 at 4:36 PM

    TJ, I agree. Notice how many of Kelly’s first class are getting playing time, if only on Special teams. These were not blue chippers either. I think that points to the new staff not being exactly thrilled with what was in the cupboard when they got here in Dec.
    It would have been nice to win the last two games. They are really only two plays away from being 3&0. The lack of depth at Qb and in the secondary can be pointed at directly for these two losses. Anyone who follows this team should have kown injuries at these positions were going to have consequences. They had the injuries and paid the price. You can’t blame THIS staff for that.

  21. Tim - Sep 19, 2010 at 5:00 PM

    Well let me set you straight. We do have the right the judge a team after 3 games. True they will get beter but not with the players on this team. When Charlie Weis made stupid calls everyone killed him. When kelly does it people say where getting better.This defense is gutless and i am comparing them to great Irish defenses like the 88 team Chris Zorich, Frank stams And Michael Stonebreaker who ALWAYS came through in the clutch when it mattered. Sorry but kelly has had enough time to change there mentality. These group of kids are spoiled underachievers and have no idea what it takes or means to play for Notre Dame. Don’t always try to find a silver lining because there isn’t one.You mean to tell me this defense has mental toughness and guts, well they dont. Defense wins championships which is while it will be a long time unless we start recruiting kids with a sack. Look at the other top teams they play with pride and attitude Nebraska is a good example. They seem to have made it back quick because they have the husker pride thing and they care. You may except mediocore but some of us demand more.

  22. FightinMad35 - Sep 19, 2010 at 5:27 PM

    Reality and patience are terms associated with losing. BK is rebuilding a program that is loaded with talent ranked 3rd behind Texas and Florida over the past 5 years according to the Wall Street journal. Shouldn’t take much.. Since you’re so concerned about next year then stop posting and quoting me here and we’ll see ya next year! I’m concerned about yesterday and last week and the losses that will bother me until next week’s potential win. Being a ND fan requires thick skin, BECAUSE OF ALL THE LOSING!! I don’t know what you can see that qualifies as obviously improving with 2 losses to average teams.. that means ND is less than average right now. I see highly recruited players and a highly respected coach being outplayed and outcoached… that will be true until the wins come. It may pain you to see us “so called fans” tell the truth about the state of the program but the truth does occasionally hurt.. but then again you didn’t expect this year be pain free so you were prepared for it…I on the other hand have this silly little hope that maybe ND can win every game it plays.. I don’t see improvement yet. I see the same old Notre Dame football that’s been played the past 15 seasons. Just enough competing to lose close games that could/should have been won. Now that I have your permission I will go back to my clouded corner and grieve while I search for another team!!! Or maybe I’ll just stop being bothered by the tough losses and wait til next year cause lord knows it’s gonna be the best season ever in the history of ND football. NEXT YEAR!!! Your ND fanhood level is no greater than anyone else so get your head out of your you know should rename yourself NDFANNEXTYEAR….

  23. Tim - Sep 19, 2010 at 5:34 PM

    Thank God for your comments. I thought i was the only one who saw last nights game. Don’t be to hard on him he still lives in his mothers basement which is why he thinks the way he does.

  24. NDFANFOREVER - Sep 19, 2010 at 6:20 PM

    You only proved my point. During my time as a fan I’ve known one really great season….1993 and yet I have more than enough patience to give BK time.
    But I do take it back you aren’t pouting…more like a three-year-old throwing a tantrum. Grow a pair. Maybe you should find another sport to watch altogether. Maybe there’s a knitting league you can follow.

  25. Dayton - Sep 19, 2010 at 6:20 PM

    Hey, did anyone see Brian Kelly’s post-game press conference? Wow, the guy just looks broken. I hope his spirit isn’t broken because I’m guessing the players’ spirits’ are. They need to be able to look at their coach and see someone who has it together, someone who believes in them and believes that they’ll win. I will say, BK’s post-game reactions seem to resemble those of his players and, I’m guessing, all of us. That’s good to see. Weiss, on the other hand, never really seemed all that broken up after losses; he just sorta seemed indifferent. Maybe I have a short memory, but I can’t really remember seeing Charlie Weiss all that upset after a tough loss. If I am misstating, then someone needs to refresh my memory. The point is, I’m willing to have more patience for a guy who takes these losses just as badly as the most die-hard Irish fans out there. Now, let’s see how he and his players deal with this kind of adversity.

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