And in that corner…The Michigan State Spartans

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After two straight games where the Irish were expected to win, No. 20 Notre Dame faces the first significant test of the 2012 season when they head to East Lansing as underdogs to take on No. 10 Michigan State. The Spartans are the early favorite in the Big Ten, winning an opening week showdown against Boise State before dominating Central Michigan.

A year after a disappointing loss to the Irish in South Bend, the Spartans seek to enact some revenge. With a defense that’s one of the nation’s best, but some question marks on the offensive side of the ball, we tracked down Ben Wilensky of  The Only Colors and got his take on this year’s Spartan squad.

1. On paper, the Spartans look every bit the Rose Bowl contenders they were expected to be. They gutted out a tough victory against Boise State and breezed to a win against Central Michigan. Take a snapshot after two games. Have there been any surprises or disappointments?

In short, MSU is 2-0, the defense has been terrific, and the majority of the other Big Ten contenders’ play so far can be best described as somewhere between disappointing and dismal. So, yeah, things are a-okay in East Lansing.

To add a bit more detail: the game against Boise State was close – although not nearly as close as the final score indicates, as MSU kneeled on the ball twice inside the BSU 5 yard line to end the game – but MSU was clearly the better team, dominating yardage, time of possession, and nearly every important statistic aside from turnovers. (More about those turnovers in a bit.) Yes, Boise is in rebuilding mode, but they’ve built their entire program on winning early-season games against powerhouse teams … and MSU escaped unscathed. The only real negative from the Boise game was the passing game – which turned around in a big way against Central Michigan, when Andrew Maxwell went 20-31 for 275 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, opponents have scored 20 points in two games against the Spartans. 14 have come by way of pick sixes (one thrown by Andrew Maxwell in the Boise game, and one by his backup, Connor Cook, against CMU), and 3 of the points happened when Boise took over at the MSU 22 yard line. That leaves one solitary field goal that can be fully charged against the defense.

The surprise is that everything has gone so well so far; there really isn’t much to complain about. There have been isolated disappointments – Maxwell’s performance against Boise, the relative lack of pass rush at times, some struggles with pass protection against Boise – but even those have been either improved (Maxwell) or totally nitpicky. The bottom line is that the team has looked every bit as good as Spartan fans hoped it would.

2. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell rebounded after a disastrous start to the season. How confident are you in the Spartans’ passing game, with the first-time starting quarterback tasked with building chemistry with an almost entirely new receiving corps? How often do you see Michigan State throwing the football on Saturday?

“Disastrous” is probably a bit strong. Maxwell definitely had struggles against against Boise, but of the three interceptions he threw, the first was not at all his fault, the second was, at most, partially his fault, while the third was his fault. The interceptions all occurred in the first half. In the second half, Maxwell was 10-15, including 5-5 in the critical last two drives of the game, where, in turn, MSU took the lead and then closed the game out. Against CMU, Maxwell was really quite good. He struggled a bit in the first two series of the game, when the wind was blowing very hard, but after that he was very good.

Many of Maxwell’s errors have occurred when he has thrown fastballs where changeups would do; the coaching staff apparently has been working with him on putting a bit more touch on his passes. He has struggled a bit when under heavy rush, so I’d expect ND to blitz often. Overall, however, he’s exactly what he appeared to be at the beginning of the season: immensely talented, but inexperienced. That inexperience has resulted in mistakes, but taken as a whole, the good has outweighed the bad.

The wide receivers are quite inexperienced, as you described. What they lack in experience, however, they make up for in sheer numbers, as 10 different players caught passes against Central Michigan. Bennie Fowler is probably the best of the bunch; he’s fast and physical and had a big day against CMU last week. Tony Lippett had a nightmare game against Boise State, and (probably as a result) received less playing time against CMU. But, he’s big and fast and will probably still play a role on Saturday. Keith Mumphery took much of Lippett’s playing time against CMU and acquitted himself fairly well. The remaining receivers are young but talented. DeAnthony Arnett is the most well-known, as he was impressive for Tennessee last year and then transferred to MSU. He has only one reception on the year, but it was for 48 yards. Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings are both freshmen who show quite a bit of promise.

The best receiver on the team – and at the very least, Maxwell’s favorite receiver – may be Dion Sims, the tight end, whose 10 catches this season have all resulted in first downs. Sims made some terrific plays in the second half against Boise, and at 6’5”, 285 he presents all kinds of matchup problems.

For obvious reasons, the offense is built around Le’Veon Bell, and I expect that won’t change against ND. However, I think there will be a concerted effort to establish the passing game, particularly given that the secondary seems to be the weakest part on the Irish defense. Bell nearly won the Boise game on his own; I doubt that he can do that against Notre Dame, and I doubt even more strongly that the coaching staff will ask him to do so. I’d expect to see quite a bit of passing on Saturday.

3. That’s two games without giving up an offensive touchdown. Eight starters return on a defense that was already pretty good. How good is this unit? Elite? On paper, it seems rock solid at all three levels — where should the Irish offense attack?

I’d take the MSU defense over any in the country save Alabama and maybe LSU. I suspect that Irish fans are a bit skeptical as ND had quite a bit of success on offense last year. Make no mistake, that was by far the worst game the defense played all season, and they’ve been absolutely terrific since then.

There are very few weaknesses. The linebackers are smart and very, very strong against the run. The secondary is shutdown-quality, and I think Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard may be the best pair of cornerbacks in the country. William Gholston is a terrorbeast at one defensive end – and if anything, Marcus Rush’s statistics at the other end are even better. They were incredible against Boise, repeatedly bailing out the offense. Notre Dame will present a bigger test, and I expect that they’ll give up their first touchdown of the year, but it will not come easy for the Irish.

If there’s one weak point on the defense, it’s probably on the interior of the line. The Spartans really miss Jerel Worthy’s pass rushing skills and big-play ability – though it’s probably unreasonable to expect to replace a player like that. MSU’s defensive tackles haven’t been able to generate much pass rush. So, the two-headed Golson/Rees monster may have more time to throw than you might expect. (They’ll still have to deal with the secondary.)

That said, CMU had some success running the ball to the outside. (CMU’s success was limited, however: all CMU running backs combined for a total of 88 rushing yards). As my co-author KJ wrote, “Given the insanely small rush defense numbers MSU posted against Boise, we’ll chalk that up to the “nobody’s perfect” category.” Furthermore, neither Boise nor CMU were able to run the ball on the inside at all. Still, if you’re looking for something to exploit, that may be it – and given Cierre Wood’s speed, I bet ND will try to run him to the outside.

4. Last year, the Spartans offensive line was learning on the fly. This year, some expected it to be the strongest of Dantonio’s offensive fronts. After putting the game on Le’Veon Bell’s back against Boise State, the Spartans didn’t run the ball as effectively as you’d have expected in their easy win over Central Michigan. A fluke? How will this OL match up with an Irish front seven that’s just outside the top ten in sacks?

I don’t think the sample size is big enough yet to call anything a fluke. But, I’m not particularly concerned. No doubt based on what they saw against Boise, CMU really stacked the box against MSU and dared Maxwell to beat them. Which he did. (And bear in mind, Bell still had two touchdowns before he was effectively shut down during the second half.) Bell was fine, and his carries were limited enough for him to be fresh for the ND game, which was the more important result anyway.

Overall, MSU’s offensive line has been good if not great. More than 80 of Bell’s yards against Boise came after contact, and those yards are all his – but the offensive line put him in a position to get those yards by repeatedly opening up holes for him.

The pass protection is a bit more of a concern – though, again, it’s a limited concern, because Maxwell hasn’t been sacked yet this year. Still, Boise had 7 hurries, and Maxwell made some poor decisions as a result of those hurries. I bet that ND will be able to get some pressure, and it’ll lead to at least one interception.

5. The Spartans are a four-to-five point favorite in Las Vegas. Is that how you see it? What does Michigan State have to do to hold off the Irish?

Given the home field advantage, that seems about right. I know that some Spartan fans are very, very confident about this game. I think MSU has a better team than Notre Dame, but ND is better than Boise State, and MSU didn’t exactly blow out the Broncos.

To win the game, MSU’s offensive line needs to fight ND’s defensive line to at least a draw. I think that’s the strongest unit for the Irish, and if ND wins that battle decisively, I think you’ll see a young quarterback (Maxwell) make some mistakes that MSU may not be able to recover from. Even if things go really poorly, I can’t see the Irish scoring more than 21 – 24 points. So, MSU’s offense doesn’t have to put up huge numbers, but I don’t think Bell can do it on his own – and for Maxwell to be successful, he’s going to need pass protection.

6. Any advice for Notre Dame on beating the Wolverines? Mark Dantonio seems to have the maize and blue figured out.

The best way to beat them is to totally overlook the MSU game and focus entirely on beating Michigan. I wholeheartedly endorse that plan.

More seriously, blitz Denard Robinson like there’s no tomorrow. He’ll probably slip out of the pressure once or twice for big gains, but he also makes terrible decisions under pressure. On offense, my usual answer would be to pound them with the running game, because their defensive line really isn’t good and their linebackers aren’t terrific either. But with the loss of Blake Countess, they’re really thin at cornerback. (The safeties, especially Kovacs, are pretty good.) The Michigan defense is much, much sounder than they were under Rodriguez, but it’s still filled with average players who played way above their pay grade last year, and are now coming back down to earth. (Man oh man do they miss Martin and Van Bergen.) I bet you’ll beat them this year.

Monday Morning Leftovers: The long-term effects of Crawford’s punch, limited roster turnover & Yoon’s record approach

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Notre Dame is 3-1. Let’s rephrase that.

Notre Dame is only 3-1. This season could still go multiple directions. But if — IF — it continues to trend upward, one moment from this weekend may stand the test of time as the demarcation point between a successful 2017 and a new Irish head coach in 2018. When junior cornerback Shaun Crawford peanut-punched the ball away from Spartans junior running back LJ Scott at the goal line in Saturday night’s second quarter, Crawford certainly altered the game.

That is the very smallest effect of that heads-up play.

It may have altered the trajectory of the entire program. Until coming weeks play out, that claim needs to remain in the conditional verb tense. If the time comes where removing that particular phrasing is appropriate, the statement will not be one of exaggeration. It was that big of a play.

If granting that premise, and acknowledging the usage of “program” implies its reach could extend past this season, a look at Notre Dame’s travel roster from this weekend raises an eyebrow.

The listing included 72 names, complete with a number of walk-ons. If looking at the scholarship players, the strictest of readings finds only 11 names whom the Irish should not plan on having around in 2018.

The obvious, players currently in their last year of eligibility: linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan, defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, tight end Durham Smythe, left tackle Mike McGlinchey, offensive lineman Hunter Bivin and receiver Cam Smith.

The almost-assuredly headed to the NFL: left guard Quenton Nelson.

The very-unlikely to be asked back for a fifth year: offensive lineman Jimmy Byrne, receiver Austin Webster and quarterback Montgomery VanGorder.

Of those 11, only seven contributed to the 38-18 victory over Michigan State.

Obviously there will be other departures, either due to transfer or early entry into the NFL Draft or perhaps injury, but the point is: Much of this team will be back in a year. Even more pertinently, the rout of the Spartans was done with youth, as contrary to the norm as that may be. It seems safe to assume that youth has yet to reach the ceiling on its potential.

Among those contributors, it is time to start a Justin Yoon record watch. It is preemptive, but the junior kicker has reached a point where any week he could essentially set the Notre Dame career field goal percentage record, though he remains a bit further from the mark being recognized.

Entering the season, Yoon had made 28-of-34 field goal attempts. Thus far this year, he has added 5-of-7 to the ledger, making for an 80.49 percent career rate. John Carney (1984-1986) holds the Irish record at 73.9 percent. If Yoon makes four of his next nine attempts, he will break that mark. Technically speaking, he will not set the record until he has indeed taken nine more attempts, notching the minimum requirement of 50.

Notre Dame has turned 19 trips into the red zone into 17 touchdowns to date. By no means has the Irish offense needed to rely on Yoon. By no means is this mention a subtle expectation of that changing. It is simply comprehensibly feasible to think Yoon might make four field goals in one weekend. After all, he has twice made three in one game.

It seems distinctly possible Notre Dame will not face the most-talented opposing running back on its schedule until the season’s finale week at Stanford. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

One of those occasions came against Stanford in 2015. Taking a look at this year’s Cardinal, it held on for a win against UCLA late Saturday night. The 58-34 shootout sparked two thoughts. First of all, junior running back Bryce Love is really good. Let’s skip finding creative adjective and memorable phrasing and instead get straight to that point. He is really, really good.

In four games this year, Love has taken 73 carries for 787 yards, averaging 196.75 yards per game and 10.8 yards per rush.

Those numbers are absurd.

Secondly, Stanford is already almost certain to fall short of preseason projections. The over/under win total number for the Cardinal was nine. At 2-2 currently, the over is still within reach if Stanford wins out, but that would require beating winning all of, in chronological order, vs. Oregon, at Washington State, vs. Washington and vs. Notre Dame.

On the other side of that spectrum, Wake Forest is poised to surpass expectations. The Demon Deacons are 4-0 after blocking a potentially game-winning field goal by Appalachian State on Saturday. Wake Forest has gotten off to the strong start in large part thanks to its defense, allowing only 11.5 points per game.

Notre Dame fans can take that to mean Irish first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko, formerly in that same role with the Demon Deacons, did not have much of a determining effect on that defense’s success, or they can see that stifling unit’s continued growth as a sign of Elko’s developmental contributions to the individual players.

Anyway, the over/under win total of Wake Forest was 5.5. The Deacons could still fall short of that, but they would need to manage only one win from trips to Georgia Tech and Syracuse as well as a visit from Duke, while also not pulling off any surprises.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Kelly on Wimbush’s accuracy, receivers’ hands & needed secondary improvements

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Notre Dame’s greatest successes this season have come when relying on its running game. It would stand to reason the Irish would turn to their ground attack to set the tone from the outset of a pivotal matchup against a physical opponent. Instead, Notre Dame opened with the pass in its 38-18 victory over Michigan State on Saturday. The first five plays from scrimmage were passing attempts from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, completing four of them for 62 yards.

This was all very intentional, especially a week after Wimbush struggled with accuracy.

“Getting the quarterback off with some quick throws, some easy throws to get into a rhythm was important,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “I wanted to make sure [offensive coordinator Chip Long] got some openers for [Wimbush] in his first nine plays that were high percentage completions for him to get into a rhythm, which he did.

“… It was orchestrated or planned or constructed that way, whatever word you want to use.”

Wimbush finished 14-of-20 for 173 yards and one touchdown, a marked improvement from his 11-of-24 for 96 yards at Boston College.

“It’s not uncommon when you go through the volume you do in preseason camp and all the throwing that sometimes the ball drops a little bit,” Kelly said. “… [Wimbush] is throwing the ball perfectly.

“We wanted to get him some completions, no question, and we set him up that way.”

A few of Wimbush’s completions were aided by excellent catches by his targets. Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, junior running back Dexter Williams and sophomore receiver Chase Claypool all made difficult catches. Following the 49-20 victory over the Eagles last week, Kelly had been critical of both Wimbush’s accuracy and the lack of playmaking from the receiver corps.

“I knew that we needed to step up our play in supporting [Wimbush],” Kelly said. “He had to throw it better. We had to catch it better.”

With that in mind, Kelly and the coaching staff made it a point in this week’s practices to remind the receivers a pass needs two participants. The onus was not on only Wimbush to improve.

“There wasn’t a time where if a ball was not caught there was not a comment about how important it is for us to focus on the football and catch that football,” Kelly said.

“… We’ve got some guys that are gaining some confidence out there. I think you’ll see a better rapport as the season goes on here between Brandon and the receivers and confidence grow in that regard.”

Josh Adams & ankle ‘stiffness’
Notre Dame was already without sophomore running back Tony Jones due to a sprained ankle suffered a week ago. In the second half Saturday, junior running back Josh Adams took some time off, as well. Kelly said Adams felt “some stiffness” in his ankle at halftime, which led to a precautionary x-ray. The x-ray did not reveal any issues, but the Irish were content to rely on Williams unless it was “absolutely necessary” to reinsert Adams. With a three-possession Notre Dame lead, that situation never arose.

Adams handled a total of two rushes in the second half, one for a loss of a yard and the second for a three-yard gain. He finished with nine carries for 56 yards.

Room to improve
Michigan State attempted 53 passes, 12 more than the most the Irish had seen yet this year. This was in part due to Notre Dame’s quick and sizable lead, and it was in part the Spartans’ game plan, expecting the Irish to be ready for a known running focus.

Despite limiting the Spartans to only 6.51 yards per pass attempt, the influx of opportunities to defend the pass showed Kelly and his staff improvements waiting to be made in the secondary.

“We have to play with a little bit more of a sense of urgency in terms of down-and-distance, recognizing game situations,” Kelly said. “There is some improvement there for us.

“We have to do a better job with understanding passing off routes, underneath coverage, inside-out on slant routes in terms of down-and-distance.”

In other words, the Notre Dame secondary has yet to genuinely need to know where the first-down line is on a given down. On a second-and-seven, the concern is as much about a 15-yard route as it is a six-yard route. On a third-and-seven, the defensive back needs to be prepared for the seven-yard route more than anything else, expecting the pass to come in that area, while still protecting against the big play.

Exposure to those situations helps build that awareness. Saturday night provided some of that exposure, and now the Irish will set to developing those instincts.

“[It] gave us a real good snapshot of the things we have to focus in on and work to improve this week.”

On Miami of Ohio
If Notre Dame does not make those improvements, Redhawks senior quarterback Gus Ragland is the type of passer who can reap the rewards. Before the season, Kelly often described the first four Irish opponents as physical foes, ground-oriented. Now through those four, the focus will shift somewhat toward defending the pass. Ragland will be the first test.

To date, he has completed 52.1 percent of his passes this season for 881 yards and eight touchdowns compared to two interceptions. Ragland has averaged 7.53 yards per passing attempt.

In a 31-14 win over Central Michigan this weekend, Ragland threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns on only 11-of-19 passing.

The Redhawks are led by former Notre Dame assistant and longtime Kelly confidante Chuck Martin.

“We have a lot of respect for Chuck,” Kelly said. “Obviously I know him quite well. He’ll have his team ready.”

What We Learned: Notre Dame found a No. 2 WR & an accurate passer

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We learned the closing 20-plus minutes of last week’s Notre Dame victory over Boston College were not an anomaly. Rather, the Irish carried over nearly everything from that period in their 38-18 victory over Michigan State on Saturday.

They also introduced some new facts to life.

Moving Chase Claypool to the boundary may have unlocked a whole new offensive dynamic.
Throughout spring and preseason practice, the sophomore receiver worked at the slot, theoretically positioning a skilled player with a blocker’s physique near the point of attack. In the first two games, that approach yielded one catch for 16 yards.

Against Boston College, Claypool moved to the boundary position, typically the sole receiver on the narrow side of the field. He made only two catches for eight yards, but both of those figures led the Irish receivers during a day of absolute aerial ineffectiveness.

Notre Dame kept him lined up near the sideline against the Spartans, and, finally, he broke loose. Claypool’s four catches for 56 yards likely underscore the relief the Irish coaching staff inevitably feels thanks to his performance.

Notre Dame’s opening play went to Claypool, a 10-yard gain. Two plays later, he notched another 10-yard reception. All four times junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeted Claypool, a positive result ensued, including a leaping 27-yard catch along the sideline to set up a nine-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Deon McIntosh.

That catch, in particular, showed Claypool’s ability to utilize his 6-foot-4, 228-pound frame in jump-ball situations. The concept of putting Claypool near the tackle box had merit. A large target in short-yardage situations could have become a desirable safety net for Wimbush. That did not come to fruition. Adjusting such had become imperative.

To their credit, the Irish coaches made that adjustment. In doing so, they appear to have found the needed complement to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who finished with four catches for 61 yards Saturday, including a 40-yard reception.

“We’re going to take our shots down the field,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We had a big throw to [St. Brown] earlier in the game. Claypool makes a great catch on the sidelines, so we’ll still be able to push the ball down the field.”

Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush rebounded nicely from a disappointing passing performance a week ago. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Brandon Wimbush can indeed hit the broad side of a barn. He, in fact, might even be able to throw through a swinging tire.
The third-quarter sideline pass to Claypool showed a side of Wimbush the Irish long believed existed. They had seen it in practice. He had just not brought it yet to a Saturday. The pass was where Claypool could make a play on it, but the defender would not be able to. On a deeper route like that, such a delivery is ideal, even if it makes the actual catch more difficult. It lowers the risk:reward ratio.

In the second quarter, Wimbush tossed a 21-yard touch pass to a leaping fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe. The completion certainly reflected Smythe’s natural ability, but it was, again, put where he could reasonably catch it, yet out of reach of any Spartans.

These are the plays that lead to a stat line of 14-of-20 for 173 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. That may not set the world on fire, but Notre Dame did not need it to.

“He’s just growing,” Kelly said of Wimbush following his fourth career start. “He hasn’t arrived, but he did some really good things at the position tonight that helped us become efficient on offense.”

The season’s opening three games were a small sample size of inaccuracy. Saturday night was an even smaller sample size of accuracy, but it proved that skill is within Wimbush’s realm of Saturday possibility. The next step, obviously, will be reaching consistency.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame can, should and inevitably will continue to lean on the running game first.
It is still unknown just how good (or bad) Michigan State is — the next two weeks, vs. Iowa and at Michigan, should provide much more clarity on that — but the Irish offensive line still made quite a statement when it routinely sprung theoretical fourth-stringer McIntosh loose for chunks of yardage at a time.

Irish junior running back Dexter Williams finished with 40 yards on eight carries, including this 14-yard touchdown run, in Notre Dame’s 38-18 victory over Michigan State on Saturday. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Notre Dame gained 187 yards on 39 rushes (sacks adjusted). Those numbers may not come anywhere near the records set against Boston College, but those were records for a reason. Saturday’s average of 4.8 yards per carry is the type of consistency needed to sustain an offense. Even in light of Claypool’s and St. Brown’s success, Kelly acknowledged where this offense starts.

“It should be more about through our play-action and quick game.”

Whatever level of quality resistance the Spartans provided, they are still a Mark Dantonio-coached unit. A crucial part of last season’s 3-9 collapse was injury after defensive injury. Writing off a decade’s track record due to one season is foolhardy.

Notre Dame ran through a stout defensive front Saturday night. Michigan State is not at the level of Georgia, but it is on the stronger half of defenses the Irish will face this season. Success against it is an indicator of coming success.

Speaking of Georgia …
The SEC may be hard to read yet, but the No. 11 Bulldogs looked very good Saturday afternoon as they mopped the floor with No. 17 Mississippi State, 31-3. If Wimbush had a calmly-efficient evening for Notre Dame, it will be difficult to find the adjectives needed to describe Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm’s day, finishing 9-of-12 for 201 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

A week after Mississippi State delivered a statement victory over LSU, the Bulldogs outgained the Bulldogs — okay, let’s try that again — Georgia outgained Mississippi State 404 yards to 280, simply winning with a methodical approach.

Georgia could not be in much better position in the SEC’s Eastern Division. If nothing else, the red-and-black Bulldogs will clearly not be far from contention this season.

Notre Dame really wanted that megaphone.
Maybe it is the hour of typing this (early Saturday a.m.). Maybe it is this scribe’s cynicism. Maybe it is completely off base.

But, how exactly does someone get this excited about ownership of a trophy that absurd?

Points off turnover differential becoming theme to Notre Dame’s season

Associated Press
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To truly grasp how much Notre Dame relied on forced turnovers to rout Michigan State 38-18 on Saturday, consider the halftime stat sheet.

The most important number, naturally, was the score: 28-7. Every statistic down the rest of the box score was either an even comparison or tilted toward the Spartans.

Total yards: Notre Dame 209, Michigan State 221.
Rushing yards: Notre Dame 99, Michigan State 121.
Passing yards: Notre Dame 110, Michigan State 100.
Third down conversions: Notre Dame 5-of-8, Michigan State 6-of-10.
Total plays: Notre Dame 34, Michigan State 39.
Yards per play: Notre Dame 6.1, Michigan State 5.7.

A three-possession deficit belies all those metrics.

Interceptions: Notre Dame 0, Michigan State 1.
Fumbles Lost: Notre Dame 0, Michigan State 2.

Ahhhhhh.

“We hadn’t been able to take the football away the last few years,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said afterward. “We’re taking it away, and then we’re opportunistic.”

Not only did junior cornerback Shaun Crawford’s forced and recovered fumble prevent a Michigan State touchdown Saturday, it also led to a Notre Dame score on the ensuing drive. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Opportunistic may be putting it lightly. Notre Dame has scored 56 points off nine turnovers this season. The only occasion which did not result in a touchdown came as the first half ended against Georgia. Senior rover Drue Tranquill intercepted Bulldogs freshman quarterback Jake Fromm with only 26 seconds remaining in the second quarter. A three-and-out, in part limited by a false start penalty against senior left guard Quenton Nelson, led to a punt as the clock reached four zeroes.

To put those nine turnovers in a larger context, last year the Irish defense forced a total of 14 turnovers. At the current pace, there may be as many as 27 this season.

“Those are the real numbers when you get down to it,” Kelly said. “They equal points and point differentials, and they equal winning football games.”

Part of those numbers are certainly the lack of turnovers offered up by Notre Dame’s offense, only five at this point. More impressively, however, is how the defense has responded to those situations, allowing a total of three points.

Think about that: The Irish have outscored opponents 56-3 on stolen possessions.

“Each team takes on a different kind of look each year, and this team is the way it’s coached, the way [defensive coordinator] Mike Elko was brought here because we knew that’s the kind of defense that he has coached in his tenure,” Kelly said. “He coaches it every day, he talks about it, but more importantly, it’s taught every single day. Those aren’t coincidences.”

An increase also in sacks
Fourteen was a common theme in criticizing Notre Dame’s defense from a year ago. The Irish forced only 14 turnovers, for example. They also tallied only 14 sacks.

Nearly keeping pace with the influx of takeaways, Notre Dame has recorded eight quarterback takedowns through four games. Most notably Saturday, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara sacked Michigan State junior Brian Lewerke on the second half’s opening drive, forcing the Spartans to attempt a field goal.

Officially, Okwara shared credit for that sack with junior tackle Jerry Tillery, but whoever deserves the credit, the event itself is what is vital to Elko’s approach. Tranquill also managed a sack against the Spartans.

Quick multiplication puts the Irish on pace for 24 sacks this season. That may not be an especially startling figure, but the simple threat of that pass rush forces quarterbacks to keep it in mind, furthering its effect.

Both Okwara and Tillery entered the weekend with one sack this season. The half for each will put them atop the Notre Dame listing.

Two firsts
Junior running back Dexter Williams caught his first career touchdown pass Saturday night, an eight-yard reception from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush in the second quarter.

Sophomore running back Deon McIntosh notched his first career touchdown with a nine-yard carry in the third quarter, finishing the day with a career-high 12 carries for another career-high of 35 yards.