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The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

Sep 22, 2013, 7:15 PM EDT

Matthias Farley, Bennie Fowler AP

Upon second inspection, Notre Dame’s win over Michigan State doesn’t look much prettier. But the result is all that counts for Brian Kelly’s team, who need to quickly turn the page and prepare for the Oklahoma Sooners, coming to town with revenge on their mind.

At 3-1, the Irish sit at No. 22 in both major polls, well within range of their big picture goals. Yet any thoughts about the big picture should be tucked away for December, as this football team is in the middle of improving week to week, focusing only on doing enough to win on Saturday.

The Irish barely did that yesterday, failing to beat the Spartans in man-to-man coverage with a wide receiving corps that many expected would be good enough to do so. But after escaping a blocked punt on the game’s first offensive series, the Irish might played sloppy but made no major mistakes, doing enough on defense to hold the Spartans offense to just 13 points.

Let’s take a look at the good (a few things), the bad (a few more) and the whole lot of ugly that took place during Notre Dame’s 17-13 victory.

THE GOOD

Corey Robinson: It was a game-changing performance by the freshman wide receiver, who was the only receiver that could get on track against Michigan State’s physical coverage. At 6-foot-5, you’d expect Robinson’s ability to be predicated on going up and picking the ball, but he’s been a much better tactician than you’d expect for a young player learning the game.

“He’s a big target.  He tracks the ball so very well,” Kelly said of Robinson. “Look, if you can keep the ball in a position where he can play six‑six, he’s very difficult to defend.”

With the young receiver likely still swimming in the deep end, the Spartan’s man-to-man approach in some ways made it easier for Robinson to just take advantage of his physical traits and go get the football.

“It’s not conceptually a lot of different route adjustments,” Kelly said of the game plan against the Spartans. “You’re going to get press man, go up and get the football. In a large degree, that allows a guy like Corey to get some more playing time.”

After that kind of game, you’d like to think Robinson has earned some more playing time against the Sooners.

Stephon Tuitt: Playing the Spartans was just what the doctor ordered for Tuitt. Along with a sack, Tuitt had six total tackles, a highly productive day for the junior preseason All-American who has had a slow start to the season.

Sunday, Kelly talked a little bit about the offseason surgery, and slow-moving recovery that has maybe hampered Tuitt through the first quarter of the season.

“He couldn’t cut loose at times. In camp he dealt with a strain in the same area where he struggled at times really being able to cut loose,” Kelly disclosed. “He’s feeling great. He had a great week of practice.  His volume is up.  His reps are up.  You could see he’s really starting to come on.”

He’s coming on just in time for the Irish, who’ll need Tuitt at his best during this difficult stretch of the season and with Sheldon Day still working his way back from an ankle injury.

Carlo Calabrese & Jarrett Grace: Starting next to each other for the first time this season, both Calabrese and Grace had eight tackles, a nice contribution as the Irish played a nice game in the front seven.

Kelly talked about the solid contributions Calabrese has been making both on Saturday and throughout the season’s first month.

“He’s been playing solid football for us. He’s contributing on special teams. He’s having a good senior season for us,” Kelly said of Calabrese. “Really liked his attitude, his commitment. All the things you want from your senior. He played real physical football for us Saturday. Feel really good about the season he’s having up to this point.”

Grace started next to Calabrese and while he’s not Manti Te’o, he did show some athleticism that points to a bright future in the middle of the defense, taking over for Dan Fox after Kelly vowed to change things up.

Quick Hits: Heckuva first catch, Will Fuller. A really athletic play and great catch on the sidelines by the young freshman from Philly.

No Turnovers, No Loss. Notre Dame is now 12-0 under Brian Kelly when they don’t commit a turnover. That’s a stat that tells quite a story for a head coach now entering his fourth season in South Bend.

Getting back to the basics on Defense: Celebrating a performance against a Michigan State offense that might just be historically bad shouldn’t be anything to get too excited about. But this group did a nice job making forward progress, and Kelly said so today after looking at the tape.

“You’re talking about consistency up front. So on the defensive line we’re looking for that consistency,” Kelly said. “We’re looking at the linebacker position. You know, we’re replacing a guy like Te’o where you’re looking for a play‑maker at that position.  Then the physicality that we want.

“It wasn’t just at one position.  It was really at three levels:  the defensive line, linebacker, and defensive backs.  We saw on Saturday all three of those things show themselves.  We’ll now need to see that on a consistent basis.”

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THE BAD

Missed opportunities: Tommy Rees had some shots down field that he’s going to need to complete. In the first half, the Irish put the game on his shoulders and while it wasn’t just the quarterback that was a fraction off, that was more than enough for a defense like Michigan State’s.

Let’s just add Deep Passes to this here, because it’s hard to call Tommy Rees’ game a bad one when he didn’t throw a pick and did lead the Irish to a win. But it sure wasn’t one of his best.

The running game: After four games, it’s pretty clear that the Irish front five has some work to do. While Zack Martin and Chris Watt are playing solid football, two new starters in Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley, and Christian Lombard playing at guard still look like a work in progress.

“I think in the run game, we need to continue to evolve,” Kelly said. “We’re getting so many different looks where at times we have to be able to identify different backers, who to work to. But by and large, we’re continuing to evolve offensively up front.  But with Ronnie Stanley, obviously Nick Martin as first‑time starters, those guys are making progress for us.  We’re getting strong play from the left side with Watt and Martin each and every day.  And Lombard continues to play consistent for us.”

Kelly is right to talk about some of the challenges this team has faced. But Purdue looked mighty ordinary giving up 41 points and 388 rush yards against Wisconsin. The revolving door at running back isn’t helping anything, but the Irish absolutely need to show more balance when Oklahoma comes to town.

Third Down and short: We hit on this pretty hard yesterday, but it’s worth repeating again. Notre Dame needs to do better on these conversions. The Irish tried rolling the pocket. Thanks to a missed block by Ben Koyack that didn’t work. They tried going long, that didn’t work. They tried running inside, that didn’t work.

It’ll be up to this staff to put together a few solutions in the coming days. But playing mistake free in critical situations would be a start.

Quick Hits: 

Come on, Jarron Jones. If you want to play on special teams, whiffing on a block like that just can’t happen.

While Irish fans are all for punt returns, they’re not for suicide missions. If TJ Jones wants to stay on the field in the return game, he’s going to need to make better decisions.

Bad swing and miss by Ben Councell. That’s a missed tackle that all 85,000 fans in the stands saw.

THE UGLY

The Victory: Brian Kelly said it’d be ugly. Just because you didn’t want to believe it is your problem. But for a turnover free performance, that was one of the uglier games I’ve had to watch multiple times that I can remember.

Too many flags: After rewatching the pass interference calls, I can see it both ways. The Spartans cornerbacks played some of the most physical football that you’ll ever see. But there was hand-fighting and tugging on just about every play, and Brian Kelly wasn’t just trolling when he said they could’ve had a few more.

What I can’t necessarily understand is some of the other judgment calls the refs made, including two personal foul calls on Notre Dame. It’s especially tough to miss a punch to the head and then call a 15-yarder on Notre Dame’s bench. Ditto on the personal foul on Cam McDaniel, who had his helmet ripped off and then only signaled a first down.

Still, it’s clear that the Spartans didn’t see the P.I. calls that way. Playing a physical brand of defense it made for a lot of judgment calls. Forgive Notre Dame fans if they aren’t exactly apologizing for a Big Ten officiating crew that finally saw things their way.

Creativity: Both Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin are smart guys that know more about football than everybody reading (or writing) this blog. But there’s got to be room in the playbook for some crossing routes, especially after they’ve killed the Irish defense in man coverage this year.

The vertical strikes down the field have long been part of Kelly’s offense. But picks and rubs work for both teams, and there’s got to be a few more ways to attack Cover Zero than just going long.

***

  1. fnc111 - Sep 23, 2013 at 12:06 PM

    The MSU game was the most boring game I’ve ever been to. This weekend will define the ND season. This year has been ugly, but still at 3-1 and one play away from being 4-0.

    Although I’m not a fan of Kelly, I did say when he was hired he will always find a way to grind his team to an 8 or 9 win season. That’s something that was never said of the three previous coaches.

    Can’t wait for the ASU weekend. Hopefully they beat OU thus making it a huge game!

    • bb90grad - Sep 23, 2013 at 5:20 PM

      How was the crowd? Seemed quiet as usual on TV. If we can hear the piped in music the fans aren’t loud enough.

      From ’85 to ’90 the student section stood on plank seating the whole game. If you stepped down, good luck shoehorning yourself back into the mob.

      An FSU buddy and I were at the ’93 game. He said it was the loudest crowd he’d ever heard.

      I know good play contributed back then, but the stands are subdued. The good old days…

      • ndfenian - Sep 23, 2013 at 6:10 PM

        I was at the game. Regarding the crowd, most of the 3rd quarter the place was like a morgue, even on defense. We are used to Arrowhead stadium, which is crazy for 4 quarters. The crowd did come alive when they needed to in the 4th quarter to help the defense, and *voula*, MSU had back to back penalities: a delay of game and a false start. The “Take a StaND” on the screen with the piped-in music REALLY makes a difference. When they’re doing that, it makes it impossible for any lamers to bleep, “down in front” nonsense.

        I have a question for Keith (and co.). It seems to me that we run the ball better in two-tight end sets. That McDaniels TD was an example. Do the numbers show that to be true?

      • nudeman - Sep 23, 2013 at 6:46 PM

        “voula”??
        I’m guessing you didn’t take French

      • bernhtp - Sep 23, 2013 at 9:45 PM

        Maybe the i is next to the u on his keyboard.

    • nudeman - Sep 24, 2013 at 9:44 AM

      fnc
      STFU
      No one cares about your observations. You’ve forever branded yourself as the ass clown of this site

  2. ndgoldandblue - Sep 23, 2013 at 12:42 PM

    Lots of good comments on this entry. Lots of good comments. A lot of folks are ready to dismiss some really talented players as being average, though, and I think that’s premature. There is a boatload of talent on this team. There are two possible reasons why that talent isn’t flourishing:

    1) Execution. Coach Kelly talks about execution a lot. He believes that he and Coach Martin have a great offensive strategy heading into games, but the players need to execute that strategy. Maybe that’s what’s happening here. I think BK puts a lot of trust in Rees to execute the offense, and Tommy has shown the intelligence to get players into proper positions, make the right checks, etc., etc. Once the ball is snapped, however, there isn’t a lot of consistent execution. Linemen and tight ends miss blocks, running backs miss holes and go down too easily, the quarterback over/underthrows his receivers, etc.

    The execution argument extends to the defense as well. How does a defense that performed so well a season ago look weak this season. Sure, they lost a couple of very important players, but there are a lot of returning starters on this D. The players need to execute.

    2) The coaching staff isn’t doing a good enough job of utilizing the talent that they have. It surprises me that so many folks are writing off the returning running backs. All five running backs are very talented, and they all (even McDaniel) could be major contributors on a weekly basis. But the coaching staff is doing a poor job of getting the most out of the talent at the running back position. Many posters have pointed out that the Irish ran virtually no crossing patterns on Saturday, and Troy Niklas was only targeted once. The playcalling continues to be very unimaginative, etc., etc.

    Plus, the offensive line may have a lot of talent. Maybe the problem is Hiestand’s zone-blocking scheme. I’ve never truly bought into Hiestand as a great O-line coach. Again…the point is, maybe it’s the scheme that is hindering the team, not the talent.

    If you ask me, the responsibility falls and both the coaching and the execution. The coaches have to identify the talent they have and maximize its potential, but the players have to live up to their potential as well.

  3. jrct2450yahoo - Sep 23, 2013 at 12:52 PM

    Nude, I think I look forward more to your comments than I do Keith’s summaries. You are right again; this team was overrated to begi the season and things are only going to get worse… Much worse.

  4. joeblk10 - Sep 23, 2013 at 12:54 PM

    Some of you all need to chill. ND is 15-2 in the last 17 games starting last year. Haven’t all been pretty but I’m willing to bet almost any team outside of a select few would take that. And the Ree’s haters really need to calm down. Would Golson be better this year?… absolutely. But ND doesn’t allow people to take basket weaving thank god so Ree’s we have. But if last years offense with Golson playing was playing this year we would be sitting at 1-3 and maybe 2-2 this year. Our defense is the problem currently, not Ree’s. And then there is the “Kelly is insane” crowd by not playing Bryant, Folston, Redfield, etc, etc. Again, I’m thinking a man with 20 something plus years head coaching experience with his track record who did get us to a NC game last year knows better than all the armchair coaches on here. He’s made some mistakes but heck even Weis’s useless butt knows more than you all think you do. Used to like coming here to read thoughts and opinions. Now all is it is a bitch fest. Get over yourselves.

  5. joeblk10 - Sep 23, 2013 at 1:04 PM

    On another note…. anyone else catch that Kelly said “we have a 4 guy rotation” at running back. Either he missed a number or something is amiss. Makes me wonder if the transfer rumors have some teeth.

  6. cfballfan1 - Sep 23, 2013 at 1:33 PM

    Wonder how many “questionable” PI calls will it take to beat Oklahoma?

    Over / under stands at 2.5

    • irishdog80 - Sep 23, 2013 at 9:18 PM

      Just because Michigan State plays a “physical man to man defense” does not mean that their DBs are allowed to have their hands all over ND wide receivers when the ball is in the air. It is illegal contact and more of the calls should have been made not less.

      Did you think Bennet Jackson commited pass interference when he made the interception against Michigan? If your answer is Yes, then Michigan State should have had a lot more pass interference calls against them.

  7. getsome99 - Sep 23, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    Waste of time talking about players who aren’t even on the team. How do we get to 10-1 heading in to Stanford? One game at a time. How do we beat OU? What are there strengths and weaknesses? Do we have enough to beat them? If the defense continues to step up and we eliminate sloppy mistakes, then yes we do.

  8. irishwilliamsport - Sep 23, 2013 at 1:47 PM

    I’ve said this before but Tommy Rees is the QB this year, period, unless he gets hurt or something. We don’t have Golson this year. Tommy is not an elite talent but he’s giving it all he’s got. The play calling and predictability are what problem is on offense. There is a lot of skill position talent on this team, more than I can remember on a Notre Dame team in a long time.

    I’ll take the ugly win rather than an ugly loss to Tulsa or Navy or the South Florida disaster as in years past. South Florida is 0 – 3 by the way this year ;)

    The defense is what has me worried, way too many 3rd down conversions and so reminicent of the Willimgham/Weiss years, you can’t trust the LB’s or secondary. MSU’s offense is terrible and they still put up points. It should have been worse but they failed to convert after the blocked punt. Lots of talent but just not playing well.

  9. tedlinko - Sep 23, 2013 at 2:37 PM

    Here’s what I’ll say about the PI calls.

    PI is, by definition, a judgement call. Not every official is going to see it exactly the same. That’s just the way it is.

    But good players – and more importantly, good coaches – recognize that and adjust to the way that the game is being called. Not just in football but in any sport. In baseball, hitters and pitchers have to adjust to the ump’s strike zone. In basketball, post players need to figure out how much contact the ref’s will allow, and in football, DBs have to figure out what the refs will allow and adjust.

    It’s all well and good for the MSU coaches to say “that’s how we play,” but if you get called for PI couple of times, and you stubbornly refuse to adjust, well that’s on you.

    http://isportsweb.com/2013/09/22/msu-football-pass-interference-holding-calls-dont-rattle-spartan-dbs/

    Looking at some of the calls on replay, some of them were a bit questionable (especially the last one where the ND receiver – I think it was Robinson – came through the defender’s back), but when the DB’s have been flagged as many times as they had been at that point, and they keep doing things the same way, they aren’t going to get the benefit of the doubt.

    Bottom line — MSU didn’t adjust and it ended up costing them. That’s on the coaches.

  10. fnc111 - Sep 23, 2013 at 8:01 PM

    Where will G Bryant transfer to? I say USF . Too many negative nancy’s on this board. I told everyone this season would be ugly and I was trashed for it.

    Now I see people attacking student-athletes on here. It’s not right. I only attack the millionaire politician coach. Which is allowed. 20 yo’s should be off limits.

  11. irishdog80 - Sep 23, 2013 at 9:55 PM

    I have to say that OU has looked awesome against a Tulsa team that Bowling Green beat 34-7, a Louisiana-Monroe team that Baylor beat 70-7 and West Virginia team that got beat by Maryland 37-0.

    Go Irish! Beat Sooners!

  12. hyde - Sep 27, 2013 at 10:28 AM

    @JoshHyde: Why does the o-line look worse than last year?

    Are you sure it does? This group has only given up one sack in 112 passing attempts. While the rushing average is a meager 4.1 yards per carry, I think it’s a product of the running backs trying to find some rhythm while looking to establish “the guy” and work through five ball carriers.

    Let’s turn back the clock so you can remember where this offensive line was at the same time last year. After beating Navy like a drum and running all over them, the run game ran for 1.4 yards a carry against Purdue and 3.6 yards a carry against Michigan State. And through three games, the Irish gave up a whopping eight sacks last season while breaking in Everett Golson.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that I disagree with your assertion.

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