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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 17, Michigan State 13

Sep 21, 2013, 10:02 PM EDT

Michigan State v Notre Dame Getty Images

Brian Kelly told us all week that he was expecting an ugly, hard-nosed football game. But even the biggest fan of a defensive battle had a tough time watching Notre Dame and Michigan State’s defenses beat up on the opposition, with neither team able to gain 300 yards of total offense.

Even with eight penalties, a blocked punt deep in their own territory, and just 224 yards of total offense, the Irish pulled off a hard fought 17-13 victory that looked a lot like some of the unglamorous wins that propelled Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season last year.

“If you’d have asked me last week about what this kind of game would be, it wasn’t going to be a beauty contest,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game.  “I felt like it was going to be this kind of game.”

Against a Spartan defense that came into Saturday ranked the best in the nation, Pat Narduzzi’s group certainly played up to their reputation. With Tommy Rees completing just over 40 percent of his throws and relying on the 15-yard pass interference call to be the offense’s most effective weapon, the group missed some open looks downfield in the first half before putting this game on the defense’s shoulders. And after struggling at times early this season, Bob Diaco’s group was up to the occassion, with strong play in the red zone, solid improvement in the secondary, and a pass rush that made things tough on Michigan State at the end of the game.

Thanks to a big rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter and a game-icing 14-yard carry by Cam McDaniel, Notre Dame survived and extended their home winning streak to ten games.

“Somebody was going to have to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter,” Kelly said. “We were able to get the touchdown and hold them from scoring one.”

Let’s find out what else we learned in the Irish’s 17-13 win.

***

While it wasn’t necessarily successful, the Irish offense is going to challenge defenses downfield when presented with man to man coverage.

It wasn’t a secret that Michigan State was going to challenge Tommy Rees to beat them down the field. And while he didn’t do it on Saturday, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Rees threw early and often down the field, taking dead aim at one-on-one match-ups that had the senior quarterback looking down field for most of the first half.

In blustery conditions, Rees wasn’t able to take advantage of the aggressive downfield coverage the Spartans played, completing just 12 of 27 first half throws. Heading into halftime, Brian Kelly crystalized the boom or bust mentality the Irish played when he spoke with NBC’s Alex Flanagan.

“We’re swinging and missing,” Kelly said. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities, we just haven’t connected. Were going to keep pushing the ball. We’ve got virtually all man-to-man coverage, and we’re going to have to hook up to score more points.”

From there, the passing game was all but shut down by Kelly, with Rees officially attempting just seven second half throws. Kelly talked about the urge to continue taking shots at a Michigan State defense that was daring the Irish to beat them, but understood that he needed to play strategically and close out the game.

“I wanted to throw the ball so bad on those last few drives,” Kelly said after the game. “But we felt like we wanted to put our defense back on the field and not give Michigan State, because they’ve been so opportunistic defensively, an opportunity to win the football game on defense.”

After doing a nice job throwing the ball down the field in the first three games, Rees wasn’t able to make Michigan State pay, just missing TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels multiple times, and only reliably connecting with freshman Corey Robinson. While the Spartans bailed out the Irish offense with some critical (and criticized) pass interference calls, more important than any stat, Rees played a turnover free football game.

“Their corners did a good job of playing man. We missed some opportunities, but we had guys open,” Rees said after the game. “We found a way at the end of the day to put enough points to help our defense win the game.”

Still, in a game plan that needed Rees to complete passes down the field, he struggled to do so. And there’s work to be done for both quarterback and receivers to continue making this offense more efficient, especially against an aggressive defense.

“This was not a hitch, spot, screen, bubble, high‑percentage game,” Kelly said of the game plan. “This is grip‑it‑and‑rip‑it.  That’s the kind of game it was. You’re going to hit big plays.  You’re going to score some touchdowns.  So throw the completion percentage out. You’re either going to make some plays or you’re not.”

Notre Dame didn’t make the big plays, but they also didn’t make the bad ones. That was enough on Saturday afternoon.

***

***

After struggling with the fundamentals, the Irish defense made some changes and made some critical stops. 

Brian Kelly promised some changes after a sloppy defensive game against Purdue. And it didn’t take long to notice them, with senior Dan Fox and junior Matthias Farley out of the starting lineup. While both veterans played, it was likely a shot in the arm for a unit that might have been resting on its laurels after an impressive ’12 season. Without Sheldon Day able to go with a sprained ankle, the Irish defense buckled down and got key contributions from Kona Schwenke up front and an infusion of youth in the secondary.

“We’re just trying to get the right mix and the right lineup and the right guys in the right place,” Kelly said about the changes. “Definitely you could sense that that defense is starting to come together. But I wouldn’t say that we’re at that point where we’re definitely sold we have the 11 guys in the right place. We think we’re closer. We still have to do a little bit more work.”

Where the improvement was most visible was in the red zone. While the Spartans were able to get a bit of momentum running the football, they weren’t able to cash it in when it counted. Michigan State was only able to score one touchdown in its four red zone appearances, also missing a key field goal early in the game after Kyle Brindza’s punt was blocked and the Spartans started with the ball at Notre Dame’s 30-yard line.

“As far as Michigan State is concerned, get down in the red zone, you got to score touchdowns,” Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said. “Had our opportunities in the red zone.  Kicked a couple field goals, missed one. You got to score touchdowns in those situations.”

With the Irish offense unwilling to risk giving the game away to the Spartan defense, Kelly depended on the defense to get key fourth quarter stops. They did that, with Stephon Tuitt getting a much needed sack and Prince Shembo providing quite a bit of pressure in three and four man pass rush situations.

“I thought we played very well today up front, getting three‑man pressure and four‑man pressure up front,” Kelly said. “When you can do that, you can drop a lot of guys in coverage.  I think the defenses had a lot to do with today’s ballgame.”

With Oklahoma coming to town next weekend after a week off, the Irish defense will need to build on this performance. But when the chips were down, Kelly bet on his defense. And they rewarded him by icing the football game.

***

While the offensive line held up to Michigan State’s pass rush, there’s still plenty of work to do for Harry Hiestand’s troops. 

When the Irish needed it, Cam McDaniel ran the ball up the gut and sealed the game with a critical 14-yard carry. But other than that the Irish struggled to do anything against Michigan State’s defense, struggling miserably on 3rd and short conversions all afternoon. On 3rd and three or less, Notre Dame converted just five of 13 attempts, with one coming courtesy of a personal foul on an incomplete Tommy Rees pass. Four of those five conversions game through the air.

“We’re too hot and cold right now,” senior captain Zack Martin said after the game. “We have a long way to go. Once this offense figures out how to be consistent, we can be pretty good.”

Kelly talked about the challenge of trying to run the ball against a defense like Michigan State’s, and acknowledged that you need to pass the ball to beat the Spartans.

“You have to win throwing the football against Michigan State. You’re not going to win running the football against them,” Kelly said after the game. “You’re just trying to carve out an existence in the run game against a defense like this. You’ve got to run it well enough to win the game.”

Notre Dame may have done that, but the work is far from done up front.

***

***

After winning a big gamble with Little Giants, Mark Dantonio has come up empty against Notre Dame since. 

There’s no forgetting Little Giants, Mark Dantonio’s heroic fake field goal call in overtime that beat Brian Kelly and the Irish in ’10. But since then, the risks Dantonio has taken have come back to bite the Spartans.

In ’11, Dantonio attempted to follow up Little Giants with another fake field goal as the Spartans were trying to score going into half. The play was snuffed out easily and the Spartans never pulled closer. Saturday afternoon, Dantonio rolled the dice twice with two risky decisions and both went Notre Dame’s way.

The first was an ill-fated halfback pass that completely flipped the second half momentum. After a dominant 15-play, 75-yard drive that took over eight minutes off the clock and resulted in a field goal, Dantonio called a halfback pass with R.J. Shelton, who heaved an ill-advised pass into a flock of Notre Dame defenders that Matthias Farley came down with. A nice return (and late hit personal foul) later, The Irish had the ball at the Spartans 37-yard line, marching the ball down for a touchdown that broke open a tie game.

Dantonio took the blame for the decision, suggesting the play to his offensive coordinator in hopes of catching the Irish napping.

“I made the suggestion on that one because I felt like we needed a big play,” Dantonio said after the game.

The next big decision came late in the game when Dantonio and the offensive staff chose to put the game in Andrew Maxwell’s hands. With Connor Cook only completing 16 of his 32 throws for 135 yards and a touchdown, it wasn’t as if he was dominating the game, but the decision to put the game on Maxwell’s shoulders, especially in a situation where quarterback mobility could really come in handy, was a head-scratcher.

“I think we put him in there just to try to change the pace. Felt like he needed an opportunity, should give him an opportunity,” Dantonio said of Maxwell. “Tough situation to put him in at. I felt like he was a little behind on some throws, needed to mix it up and see what he could do.  Obviously didn’t work out.”

***

There were plenty of special teams blunders to work out, but in the end Kyle Brindza iced the game with two clutch fourth quarter punts. 

The Irish gave up their first punt block of the Kelly era. Senior captain TJ Jones had a very shaky day returning punts, nearly coughing up two to the Spartans. And while Kyle Brindza missed a field goal he should have had, he bailed out the Irish with two clutch punts late in the game to flip the field position.

“He got the game ball for us,” Kelly said of Brindza. “He flipped field position for us in the fourth quarter, which to me was as important as anything that happened today, pinning Michigan State back twice in field position that tilted the field in our favor and allowed them on a longer field.”

It won’t be a good Sunday in the film room for Scott Booker and his troops. Brindza’s punt was blocked because of a high snap by redshirt freshman Scott Daly and a mediocre effort by Jarron Jones. And TJ Jones’s decision to return punts in part to boost his NFL Draft stock won’t be much good if he continues to take careless risks with the football.

But with the game on the line, Brindza nailed two beautiful punts, back-to-back 51-yarders that netted zero in the return game.

***

  1. don74 - Sep 22, 2013 at 11:37 AM

    I used to enjoy the post game pressers in NY when Parcells coached. He would remind the writers the team was what you saw, not what it “should” be. Yep, it was a tough game to watch and yep, I think we should be better. After 4 games there is no running game to speak of. But it should be better. Right now it is what it is.

    Kelly views the game as a chess match and all he wants to do is win. According to his yardsticks yesterday was a success. Would he like to have more weapons, I am sure he would. Would I like to watch games that show stout defense, high flying offense and anything other than average special teams? Absolutely. Unfortunately what we are seeing is what we are. A team that struggles in all phases but it 3-1. So, we are a 3-1 team. I hope next Sunday we are 4-1 but as we know it won’t be easy.

  2. don74 - Sep 22, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    By the way, TR did what he needed to do. Could of been better but could have been way worse. Let’s hold off the talk of retiring his number and sending him to the HOF for the time being. All we need from him is no turnovers and a couple of big plays a game.

  3. ndfightingirishfan - Sep 22, 2013 at 11:54 AM

    Another W and another frustrating day to be a ND fan watching your favorite team. The play-calling by ND in this game was equal to Pee Wee football. The team colors are blue and gold but play-calling v-a-n-i-l-l-a. I will give GAIII some credit for running harder than usual and making a good grab of a pass, but Cam still needs more touches and where was Amir Carlisle this week??? Does Brian Kelly or Chuck Martin know they have a 6’7″ TE??? Defensively, very little pass rush again and the underneath routes are ALWAYS left uncovered. ND 3rd down defense is poor and why do lb’s drop 9yds when it is 3&7? So frustrating to watch ND this year AND there has been zero improvement from week to week. Get an offensive identity and get aggressive on defense. There is sooo much talent on this team and it is not being utilized by BK and crew. Oh well, on to Oklahoma….

    Go Irish!!!

  4. getsome99 - Sep 22, 2013 at 12:21 PM

    Not sure if the vanilla play calling yesterday is such a bad thing after all. They needed 14 points to secure the victory and have (2) big games against ranked opponents coming up before the bye. I expect to see some new wrinkles in the offense next week. We need to get the special teams issues fixed and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the freshman tailbacks emerge going in to the bye.

    • nudeman - Sep 22, 2013 at 12:24 PM

      “Vanilla” is not the issue.
      It’s the deep balls on 3rd and short with a QB who doesn’t throw the deep ball well.
      On a windy day.

      I still can’t believe what I saw.

      • ihatemistate - Sep 22, 2013 at 2:22 PM

        Well I can believe it, Rees just isn’t that good. Could be worse and we have a lot of games left so it probably will get worse, but a lot of the reason we won 12 games last year was EG ran the ball and scored touchdowns. Last week Rees could throw long but not short, this week he couldn’t throw long. Coupled with BK calling assanine plays and not using Niklas and Amir like he should have I’m shocked that we even won this game. Michigan could not stop our running game but did we keep running the ball, nooooo, we passed. Good news is I’m watching Theo Riddick play today for a pleasant change!

      • pigfanincolorado - Sep 22, 2013 at 10:49 PM

        The poor decision to throw jump balls on third and short happened three times–with Nicklas in the game. Those aren’t calls from the sideline. That is bad judgement. The bottom line is that TR is a good and reliable backup. Taking Golson’s athleticism out of this offense, as well as his underrated strong arm, and we’ve lost a critical dimension of the offense from 2012. It’s a slow boring pace that has the occasional vertical drama —and WTF with the delays?? Just make the adjustments and manage the game.

  5. getsome99 - Sep 22, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    Daniels didn’t play well in my opinion. Finish a couple of those plays and the perception may be different. Mich State’s defense played much better than you’re giving them credit for and didn’t leave a lot of guys wide open. You don’t commit that many PI and holding calls by giving your man room to run around. I did expect to see more screen plays to the RB’s but for some reason, we’re just not getting them involved right now. Let’s see how they respond next week. The season hinges on the next two games so we’ll find out who we are soon enough. We were in this exact same position last year this time. Lots of questions going in to OU and realistic thoughts of 12-0 coming out.

    • papadec - Sep 22, 2013 at 2:38 PM

      We weren’t in the exact same position last year -we were 4-0.

  6. mtflsmitty - Sep 22, 2013 at 12:47 PM

    “Maybe winning ugly is how BK does it”. Ya think?

    A couple things I know…
    1. Comparative scoring for ND against opponents, vs how they have faired to other competition has me concerned.

    2. BK proved over the last few seasons that he knows how to win with the talent on the field. Things looked ugly last year. But we went 12-0 in regular season. That doesn’t happen by accident. ND almost never covers, unless we are the dog. I don’t think that’s by accident. I think BK has a win the war, not the battle mentality.

    3. No one gets to BKs level with such consistent winning without knowing a hell of a lot more than any fan/non-fan posting here.

    4. We have assembled a collection of truly mediocre MLB. Not a one of them should be starting on a top-25 team.

    5. 15-2 over the last 17 games just isn’t enough for many folks. There will consistently be a large bunch of people here who will complain until we win each battle more convincingly.

    Points #2 and 3, above, are going to be proven correct, or we are going to get hurt big time by OK.

    • ndgoldandblue - Sep 22, 2013 at 5:38 PM

      I agree about BK. You don’t have the kind of sustained success that he’s had over his career without knowing how to win games, ugly or otherwise. However, it’s the way his teams win many of these games that baffles me. It’s so damn ugly, sometimes, I don’t how the team comes out on top. How can you win so many games without being able to convert 3rd and short? How can you win so much with such awful special teams play? How can a team with such speed and talent at the running back position get next to nothing out of their running backs, yet still win? Again, I’m not complaining. I’m just astonished. The problems this team has are too many to name, but they’ve managed to win. Whatever…I’ll take it.

    • irish4006 - Sep 23, 2013 at 12:46 PM

      I will take an ugly win over a pretty loss. This, however, is not my concern. The fact that we don’t look like a good team is my concern. There are some big question marks despite the level of talent we have on the team and there are some tough games (much tougher than PU or MSU, or even UM) coming up.

      I had some CW flashback where we worked hard to fix one area of the team all week and something else fell apart on Saturday. The only difference is that, BK can still squeeze out a win where CW could not. For how long, that remains to be seen. This kind of performance will probably get us slaughtered against OU, ASU, USC, possibly Navy and definitely Stanford; I haven’t even mentioned Pitts or BYU, two teams that traditionally played us tough.

  7. getsome99 - Sep 22, 2013 at 1:20 PM

    Rees was inaccurate on 3 or 4 long throws but I really do think he was making a conscious effort to not force the ball in to INT’s. With the types of picks Rees has a history of throwing, I’ll take the incompletions all day long. They’re frustrating to watch as fans but they don’t impact the game like turnovers do and we should keep that in perspective.

  8. cpfirish - Sep 22, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    GAIII is not a running back!! He is junk!! Why in the hell is Bryant and folston not playing???… Everyone knows they are ready right now!

    I find it really strange that Brian Kelly is losing players.

    I think if we would still have gunner our offense would probably be un stoppable, but he decided to leave.. Weird. I don’t see Bryant folston staying either cause they both know they are better than any running back on the team and not getting any playing time.

    And the play calling on offense is probably the worst I have ever seen.. I mean c’mon rolling tommy to his left?? Jesus.. We have some if the best receivers in the country and we can’t seem to get them the ball?? Chuck Martin may need to go!

    I am really worried about when we play ASU. I think they could blow us out.. And things after that game could really start to fall apart in south bend.

    Golson we need u bad man!!!

    Go Irish.

  9. nd42fn - Sep 22, 2013 at 3:30 PM

    Call me stupid but why in the world are we acting like this team is the worst Irish team ever to put on a gold helmet? Holy cow folks we lost a lot of talent from last season and we got put in a bind because of a poor decision by Golsten. We’re a 3-1 team who could very easily be a 4-0 team. Heck even last year we had a few games where we should of been a 10-2 9-3 team instead of 12-1. Just chill out and let the kids find their identity and get coached up some more and you might just be surprised where we end up, even the players know this so why can’t most of us get this thru our gotta be perfect every game every play heads?

    • irish4me - Sep 22, 2013 at 4:32 PM

      ND42FN, I agree all this talk like we’re 0-4 or something. Sure the play calling is a serious concern but the “D” may be coming around and Rees although inaccurate today did not throw any picks and no turnovers. Some of his throws were simply thrown away due to very tight coverage. Yes I agree Rees had a bad day, but this negative crap continues. We won and last year we won a lot just like this one. All this pissing and moaning is really sad,

    • irish4006 - Sep 23, 2013 at 12:38 PM

      It’s Ghoulstein. How hard is it to get the spelling right?

      • nd42fn - Sep 23, 2013 at 6:38 PM

        Cause I had 2yr helping me right that and I didn’t double check. Geez

  10. c4evr - Sep 22, 2013 at 4:59 PM

    Well, I might as well do a 180 as well and put a positive spin on the situation most other posters have been hitting my usual talking points. Sure these wins are ugly, but this time next year, they will mean something totally different in a playoff scenario. Until then, however, style points count. Kudos to the Robinson kid. Is it my imagination, or am I hearing the words ‘true’ and ‘freshman’ being mentioned during these games? If so, that would be new for Kelly.

  11. ndirish10 - Sep 22, 2013 at 6:09 PM

    Tough game. Robinson, hoping to see some great things from him in the next few years. GAIII had a better game, it actually took some effort for the MSU defense to bring him down (some…not great). I just don’t understand why CBK keeps him in there…and starting. Maybe it’s just me but after hearing some chatter of rumors of a possible transfer for Bryant. I swear I saw him (camera view) pissed/pouting as the Irish were making there way through the tunnel after the victory. I’m hoping that this doesn’t happen.

    • irish4006 - Sep 23, 2013 at 12:36 PM

      He should then leave. It’s turning into self fulfilling prophecy. You can’t expect to show up and be the feature back as a freshman, no matter how great you think you are. There are more to the position than just running the ball. I am sure he is learning as fast as he can and we will see a lot more of him in the coming weeks. It’s only been 4 weeks, Geez!

  12. sharkrun - Sep 22, 2013 at 7:56 PM

    Speaking of special team blunders, how did 3 or 4 guys let Wulfeck’s punt slowly roll from the 5 yard line into the end zone?

    • bb90grad - Sep 23, 2013 at 10:44 AM

      Amen, I said “keystone cops” out loud. Farley had the best bead on it,the ball was already bouncing to the left, but he aimed to the right and flailed a left hand at it as he flew by.

      I know all the negative talk gets old, but dammit the little things are not getting done (like special teams). I think the ugly wins just remind folks we are one really good team away from being horsepounded. It’s human nature to want to avoid said horsepounding.

      Seems like when BK monkeys with specific areas (like playcalling and special teams) performance suffers and the purple faced rants return. Let your assistants do their job.

      I know BK does what he can with what he has, he can’t recruit better talent due to academic standards, etc. BK makes a helluva lot more money than me (and knows a helluva a lot more about CFB than me). I think that gives fans the right to expect big things commensurate with his paycheck. Just not seeing it right now. Won’t stop supporting, will just go back to tempering expectations as I have the last 20 something years.

  13. rpbags - Sep 22, 2013 at 11:37 PM

    Here are the five things I have learned this week.
    1. This offense is boring and has no imagination in it what so ever, I know the play before its ran!
    2. Defense is middle of the road at best and will struggle the next few week with better players!
    3. Can we put somebody back during kick offs that actually has a chance to return it more than 11 yards….I mean wtf. we have nobody better than GA0…..
    4. We will see the loss of EG this week more than ever.
    5. Start playing all your young players dumbo, were not going to the natty or the bcs so do something before we lose another kid!

    Brian Belly is starting to look like just another coach who we have made fat and happy with the all mighty $. Why is it after one good year we give coaches all this money and the year after the results are not the same. Super frustrated with this same ol crap!

    • mayo1010 - Sep 24, 2013 at 3:53 PM

      i didn’t realize 3-1 was considered crappy? IDIOT!

  14. 4horsemenrideagain - Sep 23, 2013 at 11:03 AM

    while i wouldn’t quite say “the fix was in” on 1-2 of the PI calls, those calls were close and they went our way. i hate it when close calls by officials have a big effect on the outcome of any game, but that’s how it went.

    the only thing that saves me from feeling sort of sick about those 1 or 2 close calls are the 5-6 calls that the zebras didn’t make. it almost seemed like the officials couldn’t believe how often and how blatantly the MSU secondary was holding, pushing and otherwise giving the ND receivers the business outside of the first five yards. i think the officials started to feel bad about throwing flag-after-flag-after flag, and so they unconsciously decided to hold onto the PI flags 1/4 or 1/5 times out of plain christian charity. and dantonio has the chutzpah to feign indignation over the number of PI calls! that’s rich. just for some context, dantonio also whined about the pick that was called back because the corner pulled DD’s jersey so hard it made him fall down.

    as for the schizophrenic O-line and multiple personality disorder play-calling that both at times look great and other times look like dogsh!t , CMC’s last run (where he got a first down and also got flagged for taunting) was perfect hat-on-hat blocking for a down where the MSU was clearly expecting a run. why are those plays so few and far between?

  15. irish4006 - Sep 23, 2013 at 12:30 PM

    1 thing I learned today (had a suspicion for a long time) : Chucky is not a genius. We will not beat anyone with our offense even if we put Andrew Luck, Reggie Bush, Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert in the formation.

    I have seen slow, undersized, thin on talent teams – many of them in the last 12 years under Davie, Willingham and Weis. This team is not like any of those. We used to have 4 or 5 good players and 17-18 merely serviceable ones. Now the situation is the opposite. Given the level of talent on this team, if we just get by teams like Purdue, MSU and lose to UM; it’s only a matter of time before things fall apart and we are calling for Chucky’s head. If this is the best we can get out of our offense, I will predict a loss against OU, possibly against ASU and USC too.

    I look at the remaining schedule, while every game is winnable, everyone is just as easily losable (except maybe Air Force). The show we put up today was pretty pathetic. There are wins, then there are wins that look like losses. We better get our $h*t together, if not by OU game; maybe after the loss for the rest of the season. I am seeing signs of a very ugly 7-5 season and blaming it all on TR will probably not cut it.

    Sincerely,
    Scared Irish Fan

  16. 1notredamefan - Sep 23, 2013 at 5:43 PM

    Man… can’t even read through these depressing comments… We WON! Just a reminder… But did you see that try by Robinson on the PI call?? A little bit better thrown ball and he has that!! Love that kid already!! He’s gonna be special, better than Floyd Imo… Reminds me of a Moss type kid

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