Five things we learned: Notre Dame 20, Michigan State 3

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Statistics don’t always tell the story of a football game. A quick glance at the box score of the Irish’s 20-3 dismantling of No. 10 Michigan State doesn’t do Brian Kelly and his football team justice.

The Irish were just 1 of 14 on third downs. Everett Golson completed less than half his throws, going 14 of 32 for only 178 yards. The Notre Dame running game struggled again, with the Spartans holding the Irish to a modest 3.6 yards a carry and 122 yards. All-American tight end Tyler Eifert was held without a catch. And in a game where the Irish needed to keep their wits, the offense didn’t make it one play without taking a penalty and burning a timeout, all in the first seven seconds of the game.

Paragraphs like that usually explain why Notre Dame finds itself on the wrong side of another primetime match-up with a top ten team, extending a run of futility that dates back to the Reagan administration. But on Saturday evening with the college football world watching, Brian Kelly’s defense took matters into their own hands, making a resounding statement and dominating Mark Dantonio‘s team for all four quarters.

The Spartans’ vaunted running attack? Held to 50 yards. The vulnerable Irish secondary? Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell threw 45 times for just 187 yards — a meager 4.2 yards an attempt. With a chance to show itself as the class of the Big Ten, Michigan State managed only 237 yards of total offense, dominated at the line of scrimmage and putting up its only points thanks to a 50-yard field goal.

With Manti Te’o willing his teammates to victory and Prince Shembo practically unblockable off the edge, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco put together an aggressive attack that the Spartans could never overcome. Neutralizing running back Le’Veon Bell, dominating the line of scrimmage, and swarming to the football with a relentless drive, the Irish defense put together their most dominant performance of the Kelly era and likely propelled the Irish into the country’s top 15 teams as Notre Dame heads home for a showdown against Michigan next Saturday.

“Our defense continues to be the group that we had committed to building when we started this process,” Kelly said. “They’re starting to get to that level that can play against anybody.”

On Saturday night, that might have been an understatement. Let’s find out what else we learned in the Irish’s dominating 20-3 victory over Michigan State.

***

The stats may not show it, but Everett Golson is coming into his own.

The numbers may not be that impressive, but Everett Golson continues to reward Kelly for making him the team’s starting quarterback. Walking into hostile territory, Golson kept his wits about him as he managed the game, took care of the football, and also showed some of the dazzling skills that make him such an exciting player.

Golson was hardly perfect. He missed two deep balls that likely would’ve gone for big plays and showed a need to improve his touch on some short throws. But the sophomore refused to get flustered when the Spartans front seven pressured him, and made the play of the game when he launched a beautiful deep ball to senior John Goodman for a 36-yard touchdown.

With the bright lights on, Golson continues to look like the Irish’s quarterback of the present and future.

“He needed to be in this kind of atmosphere,” Kelly said. “He needed to be on the road, in this kind of great collegiate atmosphere and a very difficult football team you’re playing. He needed these kind of experiences.”

That the Irish can get victories while also getting valuable experience is a luxury not many teams can afford.

“We’re not even close where we could be, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” Kelly said. “We’re going through some of the growing pains.”

Those pains are getting easier and easier to take as Golson continues to get better, making a ton of big plays with his arm while also absorbing as much as he can. A week after getting pulled with the game on the line in favor of Tommy Rees, Golson watched comfortably from the sideline as Rees handled some garbage time snaps as the Irish bled the clock late in the fourth quarter.

“He gets it,” Kelly said of Golson’s role. “He’s going to continue to get better.”

***

Manti Te’o is what’s good about college football.

With his work done for the evening and the Notre Dame sidelines basking in victory, the Irish’s senior linebacker went down to a knee, closed his eyes, and said a prayer. It’s been a life-changing week for Te’o, who lost his girlfriend to a long battle with leukemia and his grandmother in a 48-hour span. That two of Te’o’s teammates put a hand on each of his shoulders was fitting, as he carried the memory of two loved ones on his own shoulders as he willed the Irish defense to victory.

“He’s so strong for everybody, so when he was in this time, everybody wanted to help him out,” Kelly said. “I’ve never seen that type of dynamic.”

Te’o was super on Saturday evening, recording his 20th career double-digit tackle game as he racked up a game-high twelve stops, including one behind the line of scrimmage. Tasked with covering 6-foot-5, 285-pound Dion Sims in the middle of the field, Te’o showed his improved play in pass coverage, breaking up two passes and tackling receivers for modest gains after Maxwell was continually forced to check down and make short throws.

The Irish’s undeniable leader on the field did everything asked of him, using his teammates as his support system as he battled through heartbreak.

“During this tough time all he wanted to do was be at practice with his teammates,” Kelly said. “All those kids in their were pulling for Manti. Given all the distractions and tragedy he’s had to deal with, he went and played really good football.”

For as well as Te’o acquitted himself on the field, he was perhaps more impressive in a short postgame interview with ABC and with the media after the game. Deferring to the help of his teammates, and thanking both Notre Dame and Michigan State fans for their support this week, Te’o was humble in victory as he honored two of the most important people in his life.

Still, it’s clear that Te’o is suffering. When asked if this weekend could have ended any better, Te’o was brutally honest.

“Yeah. I could call my girlfriend right now and talk about the game,” Te’o said. “But I’ve just got to get on my knees, say a prayer, and then I can talk to her that way.”

***

Through three games, the Irish defense is on a pretty historic pace.

It’s hard to pick a stat that properly qualifies how dominant the Irish defense has been these first three games, but the 30 points the Irish have surrendered in the first quarter of the season is the least since 1988, when the eventual national champions gave up 27 points over the season’s first three games.

Tonight the Irish not only ended an ugly streak against top ten teams, but they did it with style, racking up four sacks, six tackles for loss, and holding Michigan State to the fewest points they’ve scored in Spartan Stadium since 1991. Running back Le’Veon Bell only managed 77 yards, with his longest carry going for 15 yards when the Spartans were content running the clock out to end the half.

Outside linebacker Prince Shembo almost single-handedly supplied the Irish’s pass rush, with the junior linebacker wreaking havoc all night off the edge as he made nine tackles, two tackles-for-loss, and a sack, while continually pressing Maxwell and drawing a well deserved holding call. Stephon Tuitt added another sack, planting Maxwell for a huge 12 yard loss as almost an exclamation point for the defense.

The 237 yards the Irish allowed was the least amount the Irish have given up on the road since 2008 against Ty Willingham’s Washington Huskies. With the Irish’s young secondary not missing a beat after Jamoris Slaughter went down with a significant ankle injury, it was a near perfect performance for Bob Diaco’s unit.

“We got pressure when we needed to,” Kelly said. “We got them behind the chains. We got them throwing the football. I think that was the key defensively.”

***

With Tyler Eifert taken away by the Spartans’ defense, the Irish’s wide receivers made plenty of big plays.

The Spartans defense managed to find a way to shut down tight end Tyler Eifert. But the Irish wide receivers — a position many perceive to be the weakest group on the roster — did serious damage, making big plays down the field against a tough Michigan State secondary. TJ Jones, Robby Toma and Goodman all had catches of 20 yards or longer, and Kelly’s ability to stretch the field vertically in the passing game caught the Spartans on their heels.

Goodman’s touchdown catch in the first quarter — an amazing one-handed grab he completed while being interfered with — was a beauty, and the type of play many have been waiting four years to see out of the talented Fort Wayne native. In the first half, the Irish got the “big chunk” plays Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin so desperately wanted, with Golson averaging 18 yards a completion in the first half.

With Davaris Daniels limited because of an ankle injury and Golson missing two long shots down the field with freshman speedster Chris Brown pushing defenses vertically, the chance to do even more damage was there for the taking. And while the Irish couldn’t take advantage of it Saturday evening, they proved that Notre Dame’s wide receivers can make plays down the football field, something that’ll need to continue throughout the season.

“Our challenge was going to be to find a couple big chunk plays,” Kelly said. “We were able to get a couple, but we missed a few that we’re going to regret when we watch the film.”

***

Notre Dame imposed their will on Michigan State, wearing out the Spartans on their home turf.

Brian Kelly has repeatedly talked about his football players finally being able to get the rewards for the work they put in. On Saturday night, the fruits of their labor were on display, as the Irish dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage as the Irish were the football team that pushed their opponent into submission.

“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.”

Signature wins have been a talking point around Notre Dame football for much of the past decade, and interestingly Kelly not only used the words, but also assigned the victory to the players in the locker room, not the guys in the headsets. With the Irish clinching the game with a crucial 12 play, 84-yard scoring drive that ate up almost seven minutes of the fourth quarter, Kelly’s players are winning games not only because of the work they’re doing preparing for opponents but because of the commitment they made in the offseason.

“I just felt like this group since January has totally committed themselves to wanting to win each and every week,” Kelly said. I don’t think it was all of a sudden just this week I saw it. It’s been coming. We’re so committed to the process. We’re right in the thick of the process of developing our football team.”

One-third of the way through the season, the Irish are unblemished for the first time in a decade. After having watching his team fizzle last season when expectations were high, a victory like this could be the key to building momentum as the Irish turn their attention to Michigan.

“You need one of those wins to break it open,” Kelly said.