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.”
Mar 28, 2015, 2:07 PM EDT
With Brian Kelly hosting his annual coaches clinic, Notre Dame’s practice field is filled with high school coaches (and some intriguing recruits) taking a look under the hood of the Irish program.
Mar 27, 2015, 1:57 PM EDT
Let’s get to part one of the mailbag. Some very good questions here, so check back over the weekend as there’ll be more to come.
Mar 26, 2015, 1:37 PM EDT
Matt Hegarty’s unexpected departure opened up a job along the offensive line. With fifth-year center Nick Martin back in the middle, Hegarty choosing to go somewhere else to play center opened up the competition at left guard.
Mar 25, 2015, 1:17 PM EDT
Jerry Tillery’s recruitment was anything but ordinary. Long committed to the Irish, Notre Dame held off LSU, with Les Miles and the Tigers’ coaching staff doing everything they could to talk the local product into staying home.
Mar 25, 2015, 10:50 AM EDT
Drop your questions below. Or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Mar 24, 2015, 7:04 PM EDT
While our inside looks at Notre Dame’s spring practice have been few and far between (blink and you could miss the footage from the YouTube practice reports), the little news that’s been coming out of the Gug has been good.
Mar 23, 2015, 3:26 PM EDT
Notre Dame landed three recruiting commitments coming out of the weekend’s Junior Day. And if it’s up to Mike Elston, there’ll be plenty more where that came from.
Mar 22, 2015, 3:23 PM EDT
This weekend’s Junior Day netted another recruit, with Notre Dame’s coaching staff accepting the commitment of Florida running back Tony Jones Jr. The IMG Academy runner was in South Bend this weekend, and is the first running back in the fold for the Irish in the 2016 class.
Mar 21, 2015, 8:37 PM EDT
Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class took a big step forward on Saturday, gaining commitments from cornerback Julian Love and long snapper John Shannon. Both Love and Shannon pledged their commitment after receiving offers this afternoon from the Irish staff.
Mar 20, 2015, 1:41 PM EDT
Notre Dame’s coaching staff begins their 2016 recruiting efforts this weekend with its first on-campus Junior Day. While the reshuffled staff had an opportunity to hit the road in February, the Irish coaches will host their first major recruiting event of the spring this weekend.
Mar 19, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
When Notre Dame announced Brian Kelly’s reshuffled coaching staff, one name many expected to be part of the release wasn’t. Former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn—an offensive coordinator and line coach for Kelly for decades—had been long rumored for a staff position, but wasn’t part of Kelly’s reshuffled team of assistants.
Mar 19, 2015, 11:22 AM EDT
As Brian Kelly kicked off spring practice with his press conference Tuesday, he gave a long-awaited update on exiled players KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams.
Mar 18, 2015, 1:55 PM EDT
Notre Dame kicked off spring practice bright and early Wednesday morning. With our first look at the Irish as they prepare for the 2015 season, Brian Kelly’s troops were ready for action, even if they were relegated to helmets and shorts.
Mar 17, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
With Irish eyes already smiling thanks to St. Patrick’s Day, Notre Dame fans got a free double-down with Brian Kelly’s opening press conference before spring practice starts tomorrow.
Mar 16, 2015, 4:27 PM EDT
It looks as if another piece of Notre Dame’s non-ACC football scheduling has come into place. Ball State has announced an agreement to play at Notre Dame Stadium in early September of 2018, likely locking in the Irish’s second opponent of the season.
Mar 16, 2015, 2:37 PM EDT
After Notre Dame’s men won an improbable ACC basketball title, the team and their head coach did little to shy away from their difficulties in the NCAA tournament.
#NotDoneYet adorns every tweet coming from the team’s official account, and likely serves as a mantra for a team that’s shown flashes of brilliance during regular seasons past, but too often became pumpkins in mid-March.
Mar 13, 2015, 5:25 PM EDT
One question, asked a half-dozen different ways. And it’s all about the quarterbacks.
Mar 12, 2015, 11:10 AM EDT
With spring practice beginning next week, let’s open up the mailbag.
Mar 11, 2015, 2:33 PM EDT
With Notre Dame on break, the campus is quiet one week before spring practice gets started. But the work inside the Gug is still likely underway, with recruiting efforts for the 2016 cycle pushing forward and discussions about the 2015 roster taking center stage.
Mar 10, 2015, 2:53 PM EDT
The only reviews of the College Football Playoff that matter are in. And after one year and a whole lot of excitement and unpredictability, don’t expect to see any changes coming soon.
- Running back Tony Jones Jr. commits to Irish 36
- Irish open spring: Five quick updates from BK 44
- Tracking fifth-year spots and the bumpy road to 85 scholarships 41
- Great on paper, rebuilt staff needs to hit the ground running 15
- Matt Hegarty will transfer for fifth year 31
- Spring solutions: Offensive Line 64