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The road to 12-0: Michigan State

Dec 29, 2012, 11:47 AM EDT

Notre Dame v Michigan State Getty Images

The third in a series that looks back at Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular season. For more, read entries on Navy and Purdue.

Sure, Notre Dame bumped up the rankings to No. 20 after squeezing by Purdue. But there would be little room for the Irish to play anything but their best game in East Lansing. While the depth chart would be replenished with Cierre Wood returning from suspension and Danny Spond healthy after his scary preseason injury, the Irish were happy to have all hands on deck for their first edition of the biggest game of the year.

Traveling to No. 10 Michigan State was the first of many big tests for Notre Dame. While the Spartans didn’t turn out to be the elite team many pegged them to be, they had a defense that was top flight, and a lofty ranking that usually spelled certain doom for Notre Dame. The Irish hadn’t won a night game against a top ten team in twenty years, when Lou Holtz’s Irish beat Steve Spurrier’s Gators in the Sugar Bowl.

It was time for the first of many moments for this football team. And Brian Kelly felt good about it.

“Our guys are confident and they prepared well and they should be,” Kelly said. “They’re looking forward to the challenge of playing at Michigan State in what will be a great atmosphere.”

STATUS CHECK

The week heading into the Michigan State game was a life changing one for Manti Te’o. In a 48 hour span, he lost his girlfriend to her battle with leukemia and his grandmother. Still, Te’o found strength with his teammates, and in retrospect the game he played against Michigan State — where he filled the stat sheet up with 12 tackles, one TFL, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups — was just tremendous.

The game against the Spartans was also a huge data point for the development of Everett Golson. The young quarterback had just sat out for the Irish’s game-winning drive against Purdue and was in desperate need of a fast start and a smart football game. Facing one of the country’s toughest defenses, and playing in one of the season’s premiere early-season match-ups, Golson delivering in the clutch was a great sign of things to come.

PRESSING QUESTIONS

Could the Irish ace their first big test?

It turns out the answer was a resounding yes. The Irish defense held the Spartans to just 237 total yards, neutralizing Le’Veon Bell while sacking Andrew Maxwell four times. The offense didn’t do much, but was aided by the return of Cierre Wood, who averaged 5.6 yards a carry while Theo Riddick struggled to a rough stat line of 30 yards on 12 carries.

Yet Notre Dame did everything that was needed to win. Control the line of scrimmage, hold onto the football. Break a big play with George Atkinson on a nifty counter draw that went for 43 yards while John Goodman caught a game-changing 36-yard touchdown catch beating one-on-one coverage.

Could the Notre Dame receivers beat Michigan State’s coverage?

We asked this exact question before the game and the Irish receiving corps answered the bell. Even without Tyler Eifert having a catch, the Irish receivers made big plays. In addition to Goodman’s long touchdown catch, Robby Toma and TJ Jones each chipped in a 20-plus yard catch. While Davaris Daniels was slowed still by a tweaked ankle, Daniel Smith chipped in a catch and also established himself as one of the team’s best blockers.

Can Everett Golson manage a football game?

That was the first question I asked on game day, especially a week after Golson made to critical mistakes down the stretch against Purdue. Yet Golson played decisively and with poise, throwing the football away when the moment called for it and keeping the offense out of difficult situations.

Still, it wasn’t all positives for the offense. The Irish were an anemic 1 of 14 on third downs.

“We had too many opportunities to put points on the board and to get the kind of production we need,” Kelly said. “A lot of it is in the quarterback’s development. Again, he did some really good things. But we’ve got a long way to go. He needs to continue to stay on task, Everett, and continue to develop each and every week.”

How would the Irish secondary play without Jamoris Slaughter?

Notre Dame suffered a heart-breaking loss when fifth-year Jamoris Slaughter suffered an Achilles tear against the Spartans and was lost for the season. Already without Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth, the Irish were going to have to find a second safety to pair with Zeke Motta.

While the decision to bring back Dan McCarthy for a fifth year seemed like a fortuitous decision, Kelly called on redshirt freshman Matthias Farley to step into the starting lineup. Still, there was no discounting the loss, with Slaughter one of the most versatile players on the Irish roster.

“You lose a Jamoris Slaughter, you’re losing an ‘A’ player,” Kelly said Sunday. “Matthias is certainly not at the level yet of a Jamoris Slaughter. He has to continue to develop, but we have a lot of confidence and trust in him. He’ll be getting a lot of work back there.”

Kelly was confident that a secondary featuring Farley and freshman KeiVarae Russell wouldn’t hold back the defense.

“You’re worried if you feel you have to hide them out there,” Kelly said of his young players. “We don’t have to hide those guys, they just need to continue to develop.”

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

Notre Dame 20, Michigan State 6.

Entering the toughest stretch of the season, Notre Dame walked out of Spartan Stadium looking like a team that could physically battle with anyone. The defense was playing at near historic levels, giving up just 30 points in the season’s first three games, the stingiest any Irish team had been since 1988. Against Michigan State, Prince Shembo terrorized the Spartan offensive line, with two tackles-for-loss, a sack, and a well-earned holding call. The 237 yards Michigan State’s offense put up was the lowest output for an opposition since the Irish beat the 2008 Washington Huskies, a team that didn’t win a football game.

Offensively, the run game continued to evolve, with the Irish offensive line winning the battles down the stretch. With the game still up for grabs, Notre Dame took the ball from their own four-yard line and marched down the field for a game clinching field goal. The line play against the best defensive front in the Big Ten controlled the ball for 18:32 of the second half, winning the game with a respectable 4.5 yards per carry and allowing only one sack.

Needing to find some big plays for the offense, Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly had a terrific game plan, utilizing a diverse personnel group, with Chris Brown running a deep pattern that nearly went for a big gain and George Atkinson getting limited touches, but on plays that helped the young runner break a big play. While Golson was still developing chemistry with Eifert, the quarterback took shots down the field attacking the Michigan State secondary even before he was utilized as a key in the run game.

For Kelly, the victory was a big one. After falling victim to Mark Dantonio courtesy of a trick play called Little Giants, the Irish head coach dispatched Dantonio’s Spartans 53-16 over the past two seasons, beating two teams that were ranked 15th and 10th in the country.

“It’s a signature win,” Kelly said. “There’s no question when you go on the road against the No. 10 team in the country and you beat them, it’s definitely going to build the confidence in that locker room.”

That confidence would come in handy the next week, when Notre Dame would need to take on Denard Robinson and Michigan.

  1. mikemcmack - Dec 29, 2012 at 1:17 PM

    “[A] signature win.” It did feel like that, at the time. Kelly’s first at ND. Watching it, I felt(even though Denard was still in my head) that maybe the Irish really could go 9-and-3, or maybe maybe maybe even 10-and-2, with an outside shot at a BCS bowl. And then next year, the echoes would finally get that wake-up call.
    But as it turns out, THIS is next year!
    And if the football gods continue to smile and wink(wide right!!!) at the lads in Miami like they’ve been doing all season, there may never be a sweeter NDFB ride in many of our lifetimes…all things considered.
    So GO IRISH!!!

  2. ajw21 - Dec 29, 2012 at 1:30 PM

    I thought the wins against Mich & Mich St were good wins that helped the growth of the team but the first signature win for this team in over 10 years and Kelly’s first was Oklahoma. If a team loses 3 or more games in the reg season, it isnt a signature win regardless of when you beat them but a win against a top 10 team every year at night in their stadium. Thats a signature win.

    • mikemcmack - Dec 29, 2012 at 2:09 PM

      As I said, it felt(to me) like a signature win “at the time.” Now, in hindsight…not so much. When you haven’t had a good meal in 10 years or so, even a decent hamburger might taste like filet mignon, at the time. But yeah, winning in that Norman snakepit was the real U.S. prime.

      • 9irish - Dec 29, 2012 at 4:23 PM

        I see what everyone is saying…MSU was definitely a big one, at night, away…coming off of Purdue. And not a fun place to play.
        But Oklahoma was when you said, “Hmmmm….these guys are for real”

        Just the snowball effect…last year it was that fumble against USF, and it just kept coming. This year it was the same, but in the opposite way….just kept rolling. And then you had getting the Michigan monkey off our back (beat them for 4 years…just not on the scoreboard). And then the goal line stand…yada yada yada!

        One hell of a season

        Go Irish

      • nudeman - Dec 29, 2012 at 11:38 PM

        It was a HUGE win, signature or not.
        At the beginning of the year, predictions for this team were hardly lofty. I saw 6-6, 7-5, 8-4 from a LOT of people.

        Personally I said here that I thought 10-2 was more likely than 8-4, HOWEVER the 2 losses I had in my mind were OK and MSU.

        To go into East Lansing, ABC, Brent and Herbie, national audience, always a hostile atmosphere for ND, and then just HAMMER them … that was very impressive. There was a point late in the game when ND got the ball deep in its own territory, leading but the game was still in doubt. They went on something like a 15 play, 85 yard, 7 minute drive that was just suffocating, and was the hallmark of a tough, very good football team.

        Maybe this was not as impressive as the beating they would give OK, but impressive nonetheless. Very high up on my list of games that made me say “hey … wait a minute; we might have something here”.

        I LOVED the MSU win.

    • 1historian - Dec 31, 2012 at 7:55 AM

      damn right

      thumbs up

  3. kiopta1 - Dec 29, 2012 at 4:16 PM

    20-6? Thought it was 20-3. Anyway this game felt like the moment the team started to believe they could win big games…and on the road.

    • 9irish - Dec 29, 2012 at 4:37 PM

      As Ed McMahon would say to Johnny, “You are correct, sir!”

  4. harvupdyke - Dec 29, 2012 at 5:30 PM

    Way to go Rudy. I like how a “signature” win comes against yet another 6-6 team.

    Roll dam tide.

    • nudeman - Dec 30, 2012 at 11:57 AM

      Bud, I gave you a thumbs up because your posts say it all about Bama fans. Single minded, myopic, inane and … well you know the rest.

      Point is: You’re like the dumb kid in class. Everyone likes it when the teacher calls on him because you’re 100% certain to say something paralyzingly stupid and cement your reputation as a world class dumbbell. and not even a shred of “Clever”.

      Keep ‘em coming. Then back to work on that secession petition. If you circulated it here I’m sure you’d get overwhelming support. Almost makes me want to move to AL to claim residency and vote “Yes”.

      Almost. Hate grits.

      • 1historian - Dec 31, 2012 at 8:00 AM

        I’m not wild about grits either but if you put some (real) New England Maple Syrup on them it makes them palatable. If you put milk gravy on them they’re even better.

        Nudie – good one

    • runners00 - Dec 30, 2012 at 2:32 PM

      I gave you a thumbs up for “dam.” there is something oddly ironic about the grammatical error.

    • goirishgo - Dec 30, 2012 at 6:09 PM

      Harvey-

      Retailers usually relax their return policies this time of year. You might want to head back to Lowe’s to try that lawn mower scam again.

      • nudeman - Dec 31, 2012 at 12:50 AM

        LOFL on that one
        We don’t get a lot of references to lawnmower scams here.
        But this seems to be the right time and place

        Hey wait … do those actually work?

      • goirishgo - Dec 31, 2012 at 5:24 PM

        Nude,

        Subsequent to the Auburn tree poisoning Harvey Updyke got into a little jam with the law for “terrorizing a Lowe’s store employee” who refused his attempt to refund a lawn mower. You can’t make this stuff up.

    • tomnd71 - Dec 30, 2012 at 9:43 PM

      Are you the Updyke who killed the Auburn trees by poisoning them? If not, by taking Updykes name do you approve what he did?

    • papadec - Dec 31, 2012 at 4:05 AM

      harv – it was, what it was – at the time. What would us ND fans consider a win over the Tide on the 7th? What will you consider it?

  5. arlingtonirish - Dec 29, 2012 at 6:42 PM

    Yea Harv…remind me again who Alabama played this year? IRISH. Looking forward to January 8th, when you will be back trolling an SEC message board and pumping gas somewhere in Alabama.

    • runners00 - Dec 30, 2012 at 2:39 PM

      Western Carolina is one of the weakest teams in the FCS. Florida Atlantic. Western Kentucky. Missouri. Arkansas were all quite weak this year.

  6. jerseyshorendfan1 - Dec 30, 2012 at 2:41 AM

    These ND-MSU games are usually tension filled nightmares. Hell, even Dantonio had a heart attack after that Little Giants debacle. This year felt more like a good, old fashioned beat down. That one long drive to put the game away was a thing of beauty and gave me some confidence in our offense (we had already seen what the D was capable of). As we get ready for the big game, I’m feeling good about our chances here. Let’s not forget that we played some decent competition all season long with no cupcakes. We beat a perennial power, OU, in their house which is not an easy feat. We beat the pre-season #1 ranked team in USC and made it look relatively easy. Yeager had our close calls and lucky bounces, but that’s all part of the game. We are the #1 team in the nation and Bama better look out. Bet the dog and GO IRISH!

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Dec 30, 2012 at 2:45 AM

      Should read We had our close calls…….damn auto f’ing correct. Why does it correct We to Yeager? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

  7. irishdodger - Dec 30, 2012 at 5:24 PM

    “War Damn Irish!”

  8. dutch31 - Dec 30, 2012 at 6:10 PM

    Not a matter of how they finish up. (By the way solid win over TCU). It’s where they are at that time. MSU was undefeated. Had beaten Boise St. Ranked 10th in polls night game at Mich St, coming off a Bowl win over Georgia. (SEC I think??).

    What was the result?? Held to 3 points at home and beaten 20-3. That kind of beat down ruins your season.

    Well. I can’t wait to get over to Miami on Friday. Plan to observe as many Alabama fans as possible that day. I have heard them on F Bombs radio show, need to actually see the faces and actions behind the callers!!

    NUDE. Can I get a recruiting update. Love the way you give %s. Are we still the favorite with A Muhammad ??

    • nudeman - Dec 31, 2012 at 1:19 AM

      I will tell you what I’ve read, but I have zero inside info.

      AQM – Two months ago he was an alleged “silent commit”, whatever the f that means. One month ago there was some “uh oh” around him. Now he’s saying he has four finalists including Rutgers. Effing Rutgers. WTF??
      But here’s the thing: He’s not the hot commodity, “must get” guy he was a month ago. That’s primarily because of Vanderdoes’ increasing chances.
      So I’d say he’s still better than 50%; maybe I’ll go 60%. But if he chooses Rutgers or Miami, no BFD, IMO. Just STFU.
      Some rumors out there of an academic challenge, btw. But he hasn’t shared his transcripts with me, so … no idea.

      Redfield – This would be HUGE. Flipping a legit 5 star stud from SoCal who was committed to USC. I’m normally skeptical of that type of coup, but for a variety of reasons too lengthy to go into here, this one sounds real.
      75%

      Folston – I’ve read less about this guy than other recruits, but a LOT of people in the know think he’s SB bound. Wow. Bryant AND Folston? Maybe too soon for saying that equals Sayers and Brown, but …
      Chip Kelly possibly departing is the X factor here. If he leaves Oregon after the Bowl game, I’ll say 80% ND; if he stays I’ll say 51% ND.

      Vanderdoes – Right up there with Redfield in terms of being the bluest of blue chips. Just decommitted from USC and is looking at Washington and UCLA and ND now (and supposedly still USC). Two months ago there was zero communication between ND and Vanderdoes; now they apparently are in constant communication. Good trajectory. I’ll go 60%. His film is off the charts.

      This time last year there was all sorts of garbage on their want list. Tee Shepard, Greenberry, Armstead. Those three guys in particular NEVER felt good to me and they proved to be clowns.
      U of Houston? Jesus …

      THIS YEAR … there is a legit possibility – maybe even a PROBABILITY – they could get ALL 4 of these guys. Each seems legitimately interested in ND, and no one appears to be dicking them around.

      Winning is a great deodorant.

      • papadec - Dec 31, 2012 at 4:44 AM

        Any, or all, of these guys would be a great addition – on top of the current commits. What a difference a year makes – especially an undefeated season! At least one of these guys is supposed to announce their commitment (Redfield) @ the Under Armour game (Friday – the 4th) before the NC game. From what I have read – Redfield & Vanderdoes are very good friends & could end up committing to the same school. That would be a fantastic package deal for ND, or whatever school they choose. It would be a huge hit to the usc recruiting class. IMO – the ND commits, that will be @ the Under Armour game, will have the biggest impact on the recruitment of these two guys (and other players who will be there). I look at who has committed for the 2014 class, and who else has a strong interest in ND, down the road, and I am very encouraged by the long term prospects for ND football. BTW – I had several people wishing ND “GOOD LUCK” & “BEAT BAMA” & yelling “GO IRISH!” Sunday (at the Seahawks game – I was wearing a ND jacket). GO IRISH!!!!

      • 1historian - Dec 31, 2012 at 7:54 AM

        Reading all this recruiting news brings me back to last February just after national signing day when the big news was Texas’ already having signed a number of recruits for 2013 and we had none.

        Remember that?

  9. 1historian - Dec 31, 2012 at 7:29 AM

    “Notre Dame did everything that was needed to win. Control the line of scrimmage, hold on to the football.”

    They have been getting better every week, they know it. IMO we have not seen their overall best game. Alabama is favored and should be but one the kickoff is in the air that means nothing.

    So – why have I watched ‘Miracle on Ice’ 3 times this week, even though I know how it ends?

    Irish – THIS IS YOUR TIME – GO OUT THERE AND TAKE IT

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