Early Enrollees: Malik Zaire

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With a back-log of talent at quarterback, it was almost expected that Notre Dame would skip this recruiting cycle at the position if it didn’t land one of its earliest targets. But in signing Malik Zaire, the Irish found themselves another quarterback that’s tailor-made for what Brian Kelly wants to do with his offense. Zaire, who burst onto the scene with his impressive performance at the Elite 11 camp, looks like a left-handed Everett Golson, a silky smooth athlete with a great throwing stroke and nimble feet. After playing in a Wing-T system in high school, the transition to college football might be steep. But there’s no rush for this early enrollee.

MALIK ZAIRE
Kettering, Ohio

Measureables: 6-foot-1, 196-pounds
Accolades: Four-star ranking, Rivals, ESPN, Scout, 247Sports. No. 3 Dual-threat QB in country, per Rivals. AP All Ohio Division-III Southwest District Offensive Player of the Year. First-team QB All-Region. Finalist, Mr. Football Ohio.
Impressive offers: Alabama, Arizona, Nebraska, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Projected position: Quarterback

Quick Take: There’s a ton to like about Zaire, another undersized athlete-first quarterback. A left-handed thrower, Zaire looks smooth in the pass game, the product of a silky delivery and natural ability. He’s also proficient running the ball, racking up over 1,100 yards on the ground last year.

With a depth chart stacked with blue-chip talent, there’s no reason to think that Zaire won’t work his way to the top of it. At the Elite 11 camp, Zaire wowed coaches with his savvy and ability, thriving in an offensive system light years different than his high school’s. Yogi Roth, an Elite 11 coach, was higher on Zaire than Notre Dame’s last two QB signees, Gunner Kiel and Everett Golson.

What it means for the Irish roster: Stability at a position that might not stay that way. With a log-jam behind Golson entering spring ball, it wouldn’t be surprising if someone transfers out of South Bend for the opportunity to play. If that’s Andrew Hendrix, it doesn’t likely factor into Zaire’s trajectory. But if it’s Kiel, Zaire could be thrust into action sooner than later.

Obligatory YouTube highlight tape: Not much on the net by way of Zaire’s senior season, but here’s a link to Zaire’s junior reel, and a quick video of the QB in shorts at the Elite 11 prelim camp.

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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

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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.

Turnovers tip toward Notre Dame in a 38-18 victory at Michigan State

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Statistically, Notre Dame did not outplay Michigan State in the 38-18 Irish victory Saturday night. After all, the Spartans outgained Notre Dame by 142 yards. Even if ignoring the fourth quarter when the Irish had the game in hand, Michigan State matched Notre Dame.

One thing made the difference.

Rather, three things, as in two fumble recoveries and an interception.

“The story here is defensively we were taking the football away,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “… Rushing yards don’t really matter much, passing yards don’t matter much when you can take the football away and capitalize on it in the red zone.”

Indeed.

Notre Dame averaged 4.79 yards per carry on 39 rushes (sacks adjusted). The Irish converted eight of 14 third downs, a season-high rate of 57.1 percent. They reached the red zone four times and scored four touchdowns on those drives.

But the game hinged entirely on those three turnovers.

“Obviously, with those turnovers, being minus three [in turnover margin] in the first half createda b ig 14-point swing, number one,” Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said. “… Ultimately, the turnovers are what crushes you.”

Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford recovers a fumble in the end zone for a touchback after stripping the ball from Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3), preventing a Spartans touchdown in Saturday’s second quarter. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame led only 21-7 with Michigan State driving. This was still a genuine contest as Spartans junior running back L.J. Scott headed toward the end zone with 6:23 remaining in the second quarter.

Instead, Irish junior cornerback Shaun Crawford caught Scott at the end of his 15-yard rumble for the goal line. Inches before he crossed it, Crawford punched the ball loose, a move he later directly attributed to studying film of former Chicago Bears defensive back Charles “Peanut” Tillman. Crawford tracked down the ball in the end zone, turning a touchdown into a touchback.

He quite literally prevented a touchdown. Notre Dame got the ball back. Five plays later Irish junior running back Dexter Williams scored from 14 yards out, opening up the margin to 28-7. Michigan State would not get within two possessions the rest of the night.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Obviously, the play of the game is Crawford’s forced and recovered fumble. Rarely is one single play worth six points. Other moments lead up to it or a subsequent success could have replicated the effect. In this instance, however, Crawford’s savvy was worth exactly six points all on its own. Not to mention, it then led to an Irish scoring drive.

Honorable mention should certainly go to sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s 59-yard interception return for a touchdown. Love jumped Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke’s throw so cleanly there was never any doubt about his arrival in the end zone once he secured the ball. Thanks to the defensive highlight, Notre Dame led 14-0 before even five minutes of the game had passed.

To be sure to mention the third turnover of the evening, pictured above, senior linebacker Greer Martini chased Lewerke to the sideline, popping the ball loose as he tackled the quarterback. Irish sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes landed on the fumble at Michigan State’s 24-yard line. It took all of six plays for Notre Dame to gain the 24 yards, culminating with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush finding Williams in the end zone from eight yards out, bringing the score to the aforementioned 21-7.

Crawford’s stellar defensive play came on the ensuing Spartans drive.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Michigan State received the kickoff to start the second half. Trailing 28-7, a definitive touchdown drive would have returned some intrigue to the evening. The Spartans alternated three Scott rushes for a methodical 17 yards with Lewerke darts downfield, completing an 18-yarder to junior tight end Matt Sokol and a 20-yard pass to sophomore receiver Trishton Jackson, Michigan State did not need much time to reach the red zone.

On a third-and-six from the 20-yard line, Lewerke had some time to find a receiver. Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara made sure it was not too much time, notching a two-yard sack.

The yardage of the loss was not important. Ending the drive shy of the end zone was. The Spartans opted for a 40-yard field goal, but cutting the Notre Dame lead to 18 did not have much of an effect on anyone’s urgency.

Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s sole passing touchdown Saturday night came when he found junior running back Dexter Williams along the sideline after Wimbush evaded pressure. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

PLAYER OF THE GAME
A week ago, this space would not give this nod to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush despite his rushing for 207 yards and four touchdowns. To be fair, that was primarily a credit to junior running back Josh Adams’ work against Boston College.

Today, Wimbush gets it. He rushed for only 57 yards and one touchdown on seven carries, but out of the gates he attacked the Spartans with his arm. Finishing 14-of-20 for 173 yards and one touchdown through the air may not sound like much, but it was enough of a threat to keep Michigan State’s defense on its heels.

“We can probably move on about he can’t throw it,” Kelly said. “He’s just got the ability to do a lot at that position.”

The first play from scrimmage was a 10-yard completion to sophomore receiver Chase Claypool. Every play of the 78-yard drive was a pass attempt until the final two plays, both Wimbush carries, the latter a 16-yard touchdown run on a designed draw.

A week ago Wimbush managed only 96 passing yards. On the opening drive at Michigan State, he threw for 62. Any plans the Spartans had of forcing him to beat them with his arm went out the window. Wimbush clearly was up to the task.

STAT OF THE GAME
More accurately, it is a stat of the season.

Through four games, Notre Dame is allowing 18.25 points per game. No matter who the opponents have been, that is a promising number for 2017 through four games.

Last season that mark was 27.83. To provide more context, consider some of last year’s “better” performances. For outlying purposes and weather acknowledgements, discard the six points the Irish allowed Army and the 10 scored by North Carolina State in a literal hurricane. Notre Dame’s next best four defensive performances by points allowed were against Nevada (10 points), Stanford (10), Miami (27) and Navy (28). Those average to 20.5 points per game.

UNEXPECTED FACT OF THE NIGHT
Sophomore running back Deon McIntosh led Notre Dame in carries with 12, gaining 35 yards and scoring a touchdown. His increase in workload was a result of the Irish enjoying a comfortable lead and sophomore running back Tony Jones spending the evening in street clothes due to a sprained ankle.

Adams took nine rushes for 56 yards. Williams needed eight carries to gain 40 yards and a score. By no means did either struggle, but neither will complain at a night light on bumps and bruises yet complete with a victory.

“[Adams] is our bell cow, if you will, and we’re going to continue to utilize his physicality at the position,” Kelly said. “We think Dexter Williams is a great complementary back in terms of what he can do, and you saw what Deon was capable of. He runs hard. He’s a tough kid with a burst. [Jones] wasn’t able to go but we’ll get him back most likely next week.

“We think we’re very fortunate that we’ve got some depth at that position.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“Statistics can lie to you.” — Dantonio.

He is not wrong.

SCORING SUMMARY

First Quarter
13:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush 16-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Michigan State 0. (7 plays, 78 yards, 1:55)
10:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Julian Love 59-yard interception return. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Michigan State 0.
6:33 — Michigan State touchdown. Darrell Stewart four-yard reception from Brian Lewerke. Matt Coghlin PAT good.  Notre Dame 14, Michigan State 7. (7 plays, 75 yards, 4:00)

Second Quarter
9:32 —Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams eight-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Michigan State 7. (6 plays, 24 yards, 2:23)
4:47 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 14-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 7. (5 plays, 80 yards, 1:34)

Third Quarter
11:13 — Michigan State field goal. Coghlin from 40 yards. Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 10. (9 plays, 53 yards, 3:38)
7:46 — Notre Dame touchdown. Deon McIntosh nine-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Michigan State 10. (8 plays, 62 yards, 3:19)

Fourth Quarter
4:51 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon from 46 yards. Notre Dame 38, Michigan State 10. (10 plays, 66 yards, 5:01)
3:09 — Michigan State touchdown. Gerald Holmes 25-yard reception from Lewerke. Two-point conversion good, Cody White reception from Lewerke. Notre Dame 38, Michigan State 18. (7 plays, 71 yards, 1:35)