Sep 17, 2011, 9:19 PM EDT
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.”
Sep 22, 2014, 7:49 PM EDT
Notre Dame enjoyed a Saturday off, a casual observer on a crazy weekend that served as the first shakeup of the season. But as Brian Kelly prepares his team for Syracuse, he’ll start a four-week stretch that’ll likely define Notre Dame’s season.
Sep 19, 2014, 2:46 PM EDT
As summer officially ends after this weekend, Notre Dame fans get one last uninterrupted Saturday to soak it in. So while the Irish are off, let’s take a look at who Notre Dame’s future opponents are playing and then get to the mailbag.
Sep 18, 2014, 1:22 PM EDT
Over the weekend, Brian Kelly talked candidly about finding a better performance from his offensive line. With talented personnel that’s still finding its identity after Zack Martin and Chris Watt graduated, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand have an off week to find the five optimal starters — and their positions — before taking on Syracuse next weekend.
Sep 18, 2014, 11:31 AM EDT
Questions before a weekend without Notre Dame football? Drop them below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Sep 17, 2014, 1:36 PM EDT
After missing the first three games of the season, the fate of DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams is still up in the air. After announcing an official investigation into academic dishonesty in mid-August, updates on the status of the five players have been limited to head coach Brian Kelly’s weekly loop of uncertainty.
Sep 16, 2014, 11:59 AM EDT
With the Irish getting a much needed Saturday off, we won’t hear from Brian Kelly until he’s previewing Syracuse for us next weekend. But with one quarter of the season in the books, let’s take a look at some of the surprises after three games, digging deep in to the stats after victories over Rice, Michigan and Purdue.
Sep 15, 2014, 12:36 PM EDT
It’s still way too early.
I’ll type it again: It’s still way too early. But with one quarter of Notre Dame’s football season behind them, the Irish’s path to the first ever College Football Playoff looks wide open.
Sep 14, 2014, 11:08 PM EDT
Don’t tell me you wouldn’t take it. Notre Dame, entering their first off week at 3-0. The offense, averaging a hearty 36.3 points a game. The defense, giving up just 10.3 points a game.
Sep 14, 2014, 1:32 AM EDT
After two weekends of crisp, mistake-free football, Notre Dame walked into Lucas Oil Stadium expecting to roll over Purdue. And they played like it.
Sep 13, 2014, 5:13 PM EDT
With two victories behind them in impressive fashion, Notre Dame has a chance to start September with three straight victories for the second time in three seasons. Off to a clean start, the Irish are tied for the best in the nation in turnover margin, sitting pretty at +6 heading into Saturday night’s game.
Sep 13, 2014, 1:48 PM EDT
As usual, for those of you away from the TV on Saturday night, we’ve got your covered. Notre Dame’s primetime affair with Purdue will air not just on NBC at 7:30 p.m., but will be hosted as part of the NBC Live Extra app, as well as online at NBCSports.com
Sep 12, 2014, 4:20 PM EDT
With the festivities already started in Indianapolis, let’s empty the mailbag before tomorrow night’s Shamrock Series game against Purdue.
Sep 12, 2014, 3:26 AM EDT
It’s that time of year again. The annual Shamrock Series. For a program built upon tradition and history, consider the Shamrock Series something similar — only started five years ago. (So maybe not that similar at all.)
Sep 11, 2014, 5:52 PM EDT
With a betting line that’s hovering just above four touchdowns, this weekend’s Shamrock Series game looks like it could be the most lopsided matchup since the series premiere against Washington State. But if the last five years tell us anything, expect the unexpected against Purdue.
Sep 10, 2014, 5:58 PM EDT
Two weeks in and we’ve got plenty to talk about. So if you’ve got questions on Shamrock Series, Purdue, the end of Michigan, or anything else… Drop it in the comments or hit me on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Sep 10, 2014, 5:28 PM EDT
With his team 2-0 and looking well positioned to get out of September undefeated, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was a guest on Jim Rome’s radio show Wednesday afternoon. The Irish head coach shared some interesting thoughts, while also being very candid about the Irish’s 31-0 defeat of Michigan.
Sep 10, 2014, 12:03 PM EDT
For the second week in a row, we’ll be up late watching Notre Dame, only this Saturday it may be tough to decipher who the Fighting Irish are. Travis Miller of SBNation’s Hammer & Rails gets us ready for Purdue, as this year’s Shamrock Series kicks off this weekend.
Sep 9, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
As Brian Kelly pointed out on Saturday night, the decisive victory over Michigan counts as only one win. So while Saturday night’s game against Purdue looks like one of the more lopsided on the Irish schedule, consider the past two matchups.
Sep 8, 2014, 7:33 PM EDT
During the postgame interviews, it was hard for players to hide the joy they were feeling. For a team that’s struggled to beat Michigan in the past, the 31-0 victory certainly earned the Irish every minute of the 24 hours they planned to celebrate.
Sep 8, 2014, 1:37 PM EDT
Fresh off his 10 tackle performance and leading Notre Dame to a 31-0 shutout of Michigan, linebacker Jaylon Smith earned a nomination for the Lott IMPACT Player of the Week award.
- It’s still way too early, but Notre Dame’s path is open to CFB Playoff 129
- The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Purdue 61
- Five things we learned: Notre Dame 30, Purdue 14 81
- Pregame Six Pack: An all Hoosiers Shamrock Series 39
- And in that corner… The Purdue Boilermakers 41
- Even after shutout, Irish hope best is yet to come for young D 69