It’s hard to envision two endings more painful than the last two Saturdays for Notre Dame. Against two familiar rivals, the Irish came out on the wrong end of two last-minute finishes, and in the process ripped open old wounds and forced plenty of repressed memories to the forefront.
For players and fans alike, there’s suddenly a feeling of “we’ve been here before,” and head coach Brian Kelly is learning that the Notre Dame job is unlike anything he’s experienced before. The Irish loss on Saturday night dropped Notre Dame to 1-2 on the season, and now stare at three of the hardest games on the schedule, and a
Saturday date with one of the country’s hottest teams this Saturday afternoon.
There will be plenty of time to talk about Jim Harbaugh and his Stanford Cardinal. For now, let’s close the book on Michigan State and take a look at the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame’s 34-31 defeat at the hands of the Spartans.
Any talk of good needs to start with the play of Theo Riddick. Playing in his third game as a wide receiver, Riddick put up monster numbers from the slot, making 10 catches for 128 yards and adding a touchdown. He broke tackles on short throws, showed nuance in his route-running, and gave the Irish a slot presence to balance pressure against Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph.
While I don’t expect him to win the Biletnikoff Award next season, it’s interesting to compare Riddick’s progress at this point in his career to what Golden Tate did through three games of his sophomore season.
Golden Tate: 6 catches, 131 yards, 1 TD
Highlight: Purdue — 3 catches, 104 yards, 1 TD
Theo Riddick: 29 carries, 160 yards. 6 catches, 43 yards.
Highlight: Washington State — 9 carries, 51 yards, 3 catches, 24 yards.
SOPHOMORE SEASON (Through three games)
Golden Tate: 15 catches, 303 yards, 2 TDs
Highlight: Michigan — 4 catches, 127 yards, 1 TD
Theo Riddick: 14 catches, 180 yards, 1 TD
Highlight: 10 catches, 128 yards, 1 TD.
Consider that Riddick is playing with a first-year quarterback in a completely new system while transitioning to a new position, and Saturday’s breakthrough performance looks even more impressive.
The Irish defense struggled stopping Michigan State’s running attack. If you subtract Kirk Cousins from the running game, Spartan backs ran for 208 yards on 35 carries, a robust 5.9 yards per attempt. Even if you take out Edwin Baker’s 56 yard touchdown run early in the third quarter, the defense gave up 4.5 yards a carry — just too many yards to be successful.
The Irish also struggled in the short passing game, giving up big plays on high-percentage throws like quick screens to wide receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. While the Irish made half-time adjustments, there were too many times where Zeke Motta had to come up and make a tackle on a short throw at full-speed and he failed to do so. It’s an incredibly daunting task to play any football game with only two healthy scholarship safeties, and both Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta played good football games, considering the circumstances.
The defense gave up 477 yards a week after giving up over 500 to Michigan and quarterback Denard Robinson. While they forced one turnover on a terrible decision by Cousins, the defense needs to do a better job for the Irish to win.
The aftermath of the game’s final play seems to extend to both teams. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio suffered a heart attack after the victory, and his timetable to return to the Spartans is unknown.
For the Irish, the fake field goal unleashed ugly torrents of fan backlash — it only took three games for people to call for the resignation of Brian Kelly on popular website NDNation.com — and once again Notre Dame fans are the ones leading the charge against the team they support.
(Just a reminder: It’s far too early to anoint or discredit Brian Kelly, and making any decision after two heartbreaking losses makes you sound foolish.)
Looking closer at the fake field goal and the circumstances under which it was called make you applaud the guts of Dantonio and also understand why it was the perfect call. Michigan State kicker Dan Conroy had attempted five career field goals, none close to having the amount of pressure as an overtime 46-yarder. Dantonio also knew the Irish were short their special teams coach, with Mike Elston relegated to the role of spectator after being hospitalized with a viral infection. More so, even if the Spartan’s converted the field goal, Notre Dame would be on offense last during the second overtime, and Dantonio wouldn’t get another chance to play for the win.
Linebacker Manti Te’o admitted that the thought of fake went through his head after the game, and the Irish seemed to be ready for it with two of the Spartan’s passing options covered. But Harrison Smith fell after being run over by tight end Charlie Gantt, and the bruising tight end rumbled into the end zone. The rest is history.