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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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