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Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

Sep 17, 2011, 9:19 PM EDT

Robert Blanton

Robert Blanton wasn’t taking the bait. After doing everything but putting on Superman’s cape in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State, NBC’s Alex Flanagan asked the senior cornerback if this was the best game he’s ever played.

“No, ma’am,” Blanton replied matter-of-factly.

The response is the perfect one for a veteran leader on a football team that needs to keep playing better if it wants to continue digging out from it’s 0-2 start. But his answer might be truthful as well, as it was Blanton that swung the momentum of the Irish season last year, when he came off the edge and blocked a Utah punt and returned it for a touchdown, opening the floodgates and turning around a season that had reached a treacherous tipping point after losing 28-27 to Tulsa.

With the season on the brink, it was Blanton who did it again, having a monster game with six tackles, an interception, three tackles for loss, a quarterback sack, and three passes broken up.

“You talk about guys that lead by example,” Brian Kelly said when asked about his senior cornerback. “He also leads, but he’s probably one of our more emotional leaders out there. So when you need a big play, he seems to be around the ball quite a bit.”

Blanton was all over the field for the Irish, and with Notre Dame out to a big lead, the ball was in the air plenty of times, with Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins forced to throw 53 times. Late in the game, with Cousins deep in Irish territory and the chance to cut the game to a one-score deficit, Blanton stepped in front of the senior quarterback’s pass and snatched back the game’s momentum, sealing the victory with an 82-yard return to the Spartans 12 yard line.

The Irish certainly weren’t perfect, but Notre Dame convincingly beat the defending co-champs of the Big Ten and salvaged their season.

“You’ve got to make your own luck,” Kelly said after the game. “And we did.”

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State.

1. That’s the Notre Dame defense that everybody expected. 

After playing their worst quarter of football in the Brian Kelly era, the Irish defense went out and made an impressive statement against a team that needed to run the football to win the game. The Irish defense held the Spartans to 29 yards on 23 carries, a minuscule 1.3 yards per carry, with the two-headed monster of Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker — a duo that ran for over 200 yards and two touchdowns last year against the Irish — held to only 53 yards.

More impressively, the Irish defense had continual pressure on Cousins. While the Irish only got two sacks, the defensive line and linebackers were in the backfield all afternoon, and the Spartans 12 penalties were mostly a product of not being able to stop an Irish pass rush with a reconstructed offensive line.

“I think our defensive mentality is such that they feel like they can play with anybody,” Kelly said after the game.

After imploding last Saturday in front of a prime-time audience, the Irish defense, led with 12 tackles by Manti Te’o, ten by Gary Gray, and eight by Harrison Smith, put on quite a show.

2. Against a stout opponent, the Irish running game beat the Spartans’ rushing attack.

While the Irish offense sputtered for most of the second half, the Irish’s opening drive dictated the tone of the afternoon, with Cierre Wood and the Irish pounding the ball down the Spartans’ throat for an opening drive touchdown that was just what the home crowd needed. After losing yardage on the game’s opening play, Wood had carries of 11 yards, 16 yards, two yards, and 11 yards before bursting around the corner for 22 yards and a touchdown. That’s 59 yards on the opening drive for Wood, or more than Florida Atlantic managed the entire game.

Wood scored two rushing touchdowns on the afternoon, but if you’re looking for an encouraging statistic, it’s that Jonas Gray led the team in yards, rushing 65 yards on only 12 carries, pounding the ball hard between the tackles and nearly breaking a few runs with his deceptive speed. More importantly, Gray showed he had Kelly’s confidence when he took carries deep in Irish territory with the game on the line.

Wood’s play early this year may be the most encouraging thing for this offense, but Gray stepping up as a capable No. 2 running back is what the Irish will need if they’re going to make a run this season.

3. Here come the freshman. 

With the Irish needing a spark, Notre Dame turned to two of its youngest players to provide it, with freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch and running back George Atkinson making game changing plays.

“Aaron is an outstanding pass rusher,” Kelly said after the game. “I think he showed that today. If he didn’t get to the quarterback, he got held.”

What Lynch did was nearly replicate a performance from last spring that had Irish fans anxiously awaiting the pass rush specialist’s impact on the Irish defense. While it took until the season’s third week, Lynch was all over the field, playing defensive tackle in some alignments and rushing off the edge in others, constantly drawing penalties and chasing down Cousins when he was back to pass. Lynch made five tackles, had one sack and had an incredible six quarterback hits on Cousins. (Ethan Johnson was second with three.) With Lynch and Stephon Tuitt getting more comfortable, the Irish should be able to roll through four guys at the position, giving the Irish plenty of depth.

On special teams, Atkinson gave the Irish the lift that it needed, returning a first quarter kick 89 yards for a gigantic touchdown. It was the Irish’s first kick return for a touchdown since Armando Allen, and Atkinson was the first freshman to run one back since some guy named Raghib Ismail did in his debut season.

Atkinson’s speed was apparent, and watching the freshman running back pull away from Bennett Jackson and everybody else on the football field reminds you of his game-breaking ability. While the freshman was also guilty of laying a fumble on the ground late in the game, credit Kelly and special teams coach Mike Elston for seeing an opportunity against the Spartans’ kickoff team and taking advantage of it.

In all, six freshman saw the field, with outside linebacker Troy Niklas forced into the starting lineup in place of Prince Shembo after the sophomore missed the game with a family medical emergency. Niklas contributed three tackles at the ‘Dog’ linebacker position and while he wasn’t perfect, he stepped up and contributed when the Irish needed it most.

4. Turnovers are still killing the Irish. 

There’s no celebrating three turnovers. The Irish’s two first half turnovers nearly kept the Spartans in the game if it weren’t for the solid work of Bob Diaco‘s defense, giving up only three points in “sudden change” situations. Tommy Rees was blinded-sided early in the game by defensive lineman Kevin Pickelman, and the hit jarred the football loose giving the Spartans the ball. Rees also threw a bad interception in the first half, at that point his seventh pick in seven quarters.

After the game, Kelly mentioned Rees’ interception and fumble were part of his maturation process, with the sophomore knowing immediately the mistake he made on the interception.

“Tommy’s developing,” Kelly said. “I’m not happy with the interceptions, but he knows what’s happening and he’s going to continue to get better.”

If you’re looking for a head-scratcher, John Goodman provided the weekly heart-attack for Irish fans, with the sure-handed senior muffing an easy punt return deep in the Irish territory when a fair catch would’ve basically iced the game. The ball slid through the seniors arms, the Spartans recovered, and were on the verge of scoring a touchdown that would’ve brought the game to one score when Blanton stepped in with his heroics.

Asked if Kelly can take the bad with the good as log as the Irish win the game, the usually slick-talking head coach became unexpectedly tongue-tied.

After stopping and starting, tripping on all the words that probably wanted to come out, the head coach managed to get his message out succinctly.

“I don’t. No.”

5. It might have been a little early to bury the Irish secondary. 

If you only watched the highlights of the Irish’s meltdown against the Wolverines, you’d be excused to think that the Irish secondary was one of the weaknesses of the team. But with Kirk Cousins forced to throw the ball 53 times, the Irish secondary stood up well against the pressure, with Blanton, Smith, Gray, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter all making their presence felt during Saturday’s victory.

While the story of the game is rightfully Blanton, Smith played an incredible second half, breaking up an impressive four passes by Cousins and covering the field sideline-to-sideline as the Spartans tried in vain to play catch-up. And after a game to forget, Gray shrugged off an early completion over his head to add ten tackles and one pass break-up.

“I think they played outstanding down the stretch,” Kelly said of his secondary. “Came up with a big interception. It’s nice when you’re coaching a team and they’re able to bounce back from adversity as a team, as a unit. As an individual, Gary Gray played one of his best games at Notre Dame since I’ve been here.”

Cousins was able to throw for 329 yards, not exactly minimal yardage, but the Irish secondary kept the big plays to a minimum. While B.J. Cunningham had 12 catches for 158 yards, his longest was the sideline fade on Gray. With the pressure on the Irish secondary, the group came up with an interception and eight pass breakups, a great day at the office for a group that needed to rebound.

In a season that still holds lofty aspirations, the Irish got the win they desperately needed.

“They just needed to finish,” Kelly said after the game. “Finish the game, find a way to win.”

  1. notredave - Sep 17, 2011 at 9:40 PM

    Nice win!

    Aaron “First Step’ Lynch is everything I thought he would be. Three years and he’s probably gone.That kid need to see a lot of playing time. Beast Mode!!

    Go Irish! Beat Pitt and get a measure of revenge for the Tulsa loss.

  2. borromini - Sep 17, 2011 at 9:53 PM

    Here come the Irish!

  3. mpkennedy3 - Sep 17, 2011 at 10:06 PM

    That was the ND team we were hoping for at the start of the year. The turnovers still need to be addressed, but if you can lose the turnover battle by 2 and still beat the #15 team in the country by 18, You are a pretty good team. Here is to hoping the team can build on that, and start a winning streak.

    • terryb101 - Sep 18, 2011 at 9:05 AM

      yep, need to work on the turnovers, but we can withstand a couple as long as the defense doesnt collapse.which didnt happen yesterday …if the defense keeps it up and not have those 15 mins. in the bermuda triangle. we will be good ,they mite be able to run the table..lets hope so

      • tedlinko - Sep 18, 2011 at 1:30 PM

        That Bermuda Triangle is named Denard. I’m not sure there’s another one of those on our schedule. The D has played 11 quarters of somewhere between solid and stifling defense. If we can just get to somewhere around average in terms of turnover margin, we still have a chance for a very strong season.

      • terryb101 - Sep 19, 2011 at 12:13 PM

        well usf didnt have Denard,and the defense couldnt get off the field and give the ball back to offense.we could do this all day, but the point is, if the defense plays the entire game without the mental lapses then we will be real hard to beat.

  4. notherpoint - Sep 17, 2011 at 11:07 PM

    This team could be unstoppable with a good qb! Floyd is the best I’ve seen at adjusting for underthrown passes

  5. notherpoint - Sep 17, 2011 at 11:09 PM

    Can’t wait to see ‘drix and Gholst , and their legs

    • lostandfoundatkennywood - Sep 18, 2011 at 12:45 AM

      Ya lookin forward to next year already? After that int you couldn’t hardly look past the poise Rees showe.d tho……

    • mateothedreamer - Sep 18, 2011 at 11:04 AM

      i completely agree! rees is a gamer and will perform when asked to. i love his poise and accuracy. but if we’re gonna get 2+ turnovers a game outta the position, we should take advantage of a running qb’s explosiveness. i really trust it will not throw off the cohesiveness of this offense. i wonder if kelly is saving it for a particular game? or if he’s waiting for one of them to reach a level of understanding he trusts first?
      any bets on the first game we see the ‘change of pace’ qb in?

  6. papadec - Sep 18, 2011 at 4:08 AM

    It started out as a great day when class of 2013 OL recruit Steve Elmer, from MICHIGAN, committed to ND before the game. For me , that set the tone for the whole day. I can see today’s game setting the stage for the regular season finale @ Stanford. A 10-2 ND knocking an undefeated Stanford team out of the BCS Championship game consideration & ND getting a BCS Bowl invitation. GO IRISH !!!!!!!!!

    • ndgoldandblue - Sep 18, 2011 at 9:58 AM

      I don’t want to be negative because a win just changes my mood for the whole week (it’s funny how that happens), but the Navy game in the middle of the season scares the hell out of me. It scared me last year as well, and my fears were justified. I know that I’m looking a little too far ahead, but if the Irish play smart football (which they started to do in the game yesterday), they should rattle off four straight wins by the time they get to Navy. I still like the Irish against USC. But it’s this damn Navy game that has me scared. They took South Carolina to the limit yesterday, and that is a very good South Carolina team. After the game, the SC defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he never wants to play them again. Marcus Lattimore said, “As far as playing your assignment and doing what you are supposed to do every play, that’s the best team we’ve ever faced.” That’s some high praise coming from a great running back. I went to that game in the Meadowlands last year, and Lattimore’s right. Navy doesn’t make mistakes. They always play assignment-correct, disciplined football. They don’t turn the ball over; the only way opposing teams get the ball from them is from punts. But those punts usually come after they have racked up a couple of first downs and drained minutes of time from the clock. All that I’m saying is that I really hope the Irish clean up the mental mistakes. That last fumbled punt nearly made me sick to my stomach. If they don’t start playing a cleaner game on the offensive side of the ball (and in special teams), the Navy game could be another disaster. Again, I don’t want to bring any negativity to the conversation. I’m thrilled over the victory yesterday, and I think that this Irish team has the talent to beat anyone in the country (a bold statement, I know, but I think we match up with anyone). The Irish certainly have the talent and speed to make life for Navy and their triple option awful. But, if we don’t come into that game prepared to play fast, assignment-correct football, we will have a third loss before the Stanford game. Loved the game yesterday, and go Irish.

      • gtizzo - Sep 18, 2011 at 12:57 PM

        Hey ndgoldandblue,

        There are a few things to keep in mind when you look at that South Carolina VS Navy score. S. Carolina doesn’t play Navy every year, and preparing for that triple option attack is never easy for any defense no matter how talented. The Irish I think have solved the triple option and can handle it because they play it every single year. The other thing to keep in mind the Irish defense is on the on the way up, the defense in the SEC outside of LSU and Alabama hasn’t been up to billing this season. The Irish won’t roll over Navy, but you know the Irish will be far more prepared then S. Carolina was.

  7. tradertrik - Sep 18, 2011 at 9:47 AM

    You know what I love about Notre Dame. RKGs like Robert Blanton. Best game you ever played? “No ma’am.” Priceless.

    When I saw a brief glimpse of “Rocket” on the sideline, I was relieved as I thought I was having flashbacks; on the other hand, I was kinda hoping I was.

    The turnovers? The only one that I considered a mental error was the muffed punt “return.” Reese getting blindsided would make anybody drop the rock. When your tackle misses a block in pass protection, if you’re the quarterback your gonna get drilled. Screw that “internal clock” crap Maycock was talking about. The only clock your gonna get is the one you got, as in “Reese got clocked.” The interception was just a day at the office. Hard to get upset about either one of those.

    After the Michigan game, I didn’t post, or even read much about it, as if I can’t say something nice about something I try not to say anything at all and I sure didn’t want to wallow in that crappy loss. However, with all the talent back in the secondary I didn’t for one minute think that they were no good. We really don’t know as yesterday all we did was expose a bully so the jury is still out on how good the Irish really are but comparing the game play to the score board, the score board lies. We really beat the crap out of Michigan State. Cousins will take this one with him for a long, long time.

    Go Irish!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    By the way, what he hell is Alabama doing playing North Texas? Can’t imagine why that one wasn’t on TV. A-holes.

    • tedlinko - Sep 18, 2011 at 1:39 PM

      I do disagree with you on the INT. Tommy threw it late and didn’t see the 2nd defender. Kelly acknowledged as much after the game when he talked about how he recognized the mistake as soon as he made it.

      I agree with you though that the internal clock comment by Mayock was a stretch. Rees didn’t hold it too long. That sack/fumble was squarely on the left tackle who missed his block. Tommy never saw it coming.

  8. njgoldenboy3 - Sep 18, 2011 at 10:06 AM

    What I learned from this magnificent game was that Notre Dame showed how good they really are when you play your cards right. The defense bounced back from the Michigan game last week and only gave up a TD and 2 field goals. On the offensive side, Tommy Rees kept himself calm after a fumble and an interception in the first quarter and threw for 199 yds and a TD. Before the game, I watched a little bit of the latest “Rocky” movie and there was a scene that Rocky was talking to his son about the world. He said, “It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you get hit and keep moving foward.” And Notre Dame did exactly that, they got hit really hard against South Florida and Michigan, but they kept moving foward and knocked off top ranked Michigan State 31-13. This was a great game to forget about what happend in the past, and KEEP MOVING FOWARD!!!

    GO IRISH

  9. fightinmad35 - Sep 18, 2011 at 3:56 PM

    just good to get a win to help keep building confidence and to keep recruiting class intiact.. ND manhandled MSU.. Nix at the nose is a major problem for running teams. He is a future millionaire. It’s almost as if Tommy has to throw into triple coverage every week for no apparent reason. Cierre is coming on nicely. Just a good well earned win for the team.

  10. johnjohn82 - Sep 18, 2011 at 3:56 PM

    Some things we need do as team , find a punt returner , stay aggressive on defense , lo woods needs see some reps at corner , other freshman olb nerds see more reps also , d line needs rotate more , punter has to improve ! We need get short yardage package for freshman qb !

  11. brendanunderscoreg - Sep 18, 2011 at 7:38 PM

    sundays are so much better after a win.

    • txbeej - Sep 18, 2011 at 9:29 PM

      Winning is like bacon ; it makes everything better.

  12. smurphdoggy29 - Sep 18, 2011 at 9:05 PM

    …and so it begins.

    Now in earnest with the springboard beneath their feet this team can now take aim at a remarkable turnaround.

    How they react to this momentum will be seen early in the PITT game.

    IF they continue to put in their time and effort then the rails will be greased, and look out.

    Slip up and disaster awaits.

    I am confident they have put in the reps and bountiful success lies dead ahead !

  13. irishinmichigan - Sep 18, 2011 at 10:09 PM

    I believe everyone played well except the dropped punt and 1 interception. D was stellar. I see a four game streak coming. ND needs to be careful against Navy. They have had ND’s number for several years. Triple option is difficult to defend. I’d rather have to play OK or Bama than Navy. Plus, after winning 5 games, ND could get cocky and not be ready for that triple option. I’m hoping for a 10-2 season and if they get passed Navy, I see it very possible. Go Irish!!! Get those recruits as well!!!

  14. bgnd91 - Sep 18, 2011 at 10:47 PM

    That Atkinson kid has some wheels. Hell of an extra weapon if he can hold onto the ball. Hope eventually this season we get to see him on offense some.

  15. joeschu - Sep 19, 2011 at 10:06 AM

    Keith – can you clarify the “lofty expectations” you mentioned?

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