SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The preponderance of impactful stuff happening when Michigan State and Notre Dame meet—looking at you, “Little Giants,” to begin with, and don’t get us started on 1966 again—suggested that even the most asphyxiating grip on momentum and control was best considered a second-to-second proposition on Saturday night.
So even when the Spartans were stampeding their way to the sort of punishing, mostly error-free, humdrum beat down they have become known for, it was important to wait and see what total ridiculousness Notre Dame had in store. The answer: Plenty, but just not quite enough, as Michigan State rumbled to a 29-point lead and held off a thundering fourth-quarter comeback by the Fighting Irish. The end result was an important 36–28 win just before Big Ten Conference play commences.
Here are three thoughts on what unfolded in South Bend:
1. Michigan State has the chops to pursue another league title
Fans of the Spartans can be duly apprehensive given how the defense bent and the offense didn’t seize the moment in the fourth quarter, giving Notre Dame an opening to make it interesting. We’ll be generous and say that’s how it goes in college football, when even the most well-coached, well-intentioned teams are going to lose a little interest up by more than four touchdowns in the second half. And when you’re the road team letting off the gas, things can get a little weird.
All that said: The Spartans’ odd early schedule—opener against Furman, then a Week 2 bye before the trip to face the Fighting Irish—left everyone with room to wonder just how they would replace their quarterback, their two best offensive linemen, a star defensive end, etc., etc. Everyone can now safely assume Mark Dantonio has another year’s worth of answers.
Quarterback Tyler O’Connor was more than enough in yet another big road start—recall he helped author the upset at Ohio State last season when Connor Cook was injured—with a 19-of-26, 241-yard, two-touchdown passing night. The Spartans piled up 260 rushing yards and came close to two 100-yard rushers (Gerald Holmes hit 100 and L.J. Scott had 98). The defense smothered Notre Dame for three quarters, dominating the line of scrimmage and flummoxing DeShone Kizer, the previously ascendant Heisman Trophy candidate for the Irish. One third-quarter sequence was quintessential Michigan State: Linebacker Jon Reschke blew up a run with a perfect blitz and then dropped into a passing lane for an interception on the next play. Three plays later Scott hit the end zone for a touchdown.
It won’t guarantee a Big Ten title with Michigan and Ohio State in the neighborhood, but it confirms the Spartans can maintain the correct trajectory en route to showdowns with those rivals.
"We certainly took a step from our first game," Dantonio said. "We came down and we played a good football team away from home in a great environment, on national TV, on a national stage. You have to be able to measure up. You have to be able to make the plays when the lights come on. Big time. These are life moments for our players. They'll remember this, when we came to Notre Dame and did this. That's just the way these big games are. We can build on those things."
2. Notre Dame is out of the playoff hunt, and it’s pretty clear why
Yes, Notre Dame special teams were bad. A penalty wiped out a touchdown return on the opening kickoff and a muff on a Michigan State punt in the second quarter—the ball bounced off Irish receiver Miles,who had no idea he was near it—seemingly opened the floodgates for the Spartans to build their big lead.
But Notre Dame won’t make the playoff this year because of its defense, and while head coach Brian Kelly can deny or evade or deflect all he wants, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s system simply hasn’t been good enough consistently enough against top-flight teams.
As the astute Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated noted Saturday, 12 of the last 19 power conference teams Notre Dame has played have scored 30 points or more against the Irish.
Michigan State amassed 501 total yards and rushed for 260 on Saturday night. It had scoring drives of 92, 78, and 75 yards. While the Notre Dame defense made some critical fourth-quarter stops, we have to assume it had some help from play-calling designed to chew clock and avoid mistakes; no way was Dantonio permitting the deep shots, or even mid-range passes, that wore down the Irish secondary for three quarters. Before that it was bad fits and bad tackling by the secondary and a barely discernible pass rush against a first-year starting quarterback.
Think about it: Notre Dame has zero sacks on the year! Zero! Through three games
And sure enough, with two and a half minutes left, Michigan State’s Donnie Corleywas wide open for a 28-yard completion that effectively siphoned off any real chance Notre Dame had to come back.
"They got two verticals, pretty standard deal, corner's trying to midpoint two vertical, we buzz it with the underneath coverage guy, and we're not in good position," Kelly said.
"That's poor coaching. We're not coaching it well enough. Obviously if our players can't execute a simple two vertical corner sitting over the top and the safety coming underneath, that's on me. That falls on my shoulders, and we're not getting that done. So we're either not capable of running that coverage or we're not coaching it well enough, one or the other, so I gotta do a better job."
Kelly doesn't sound like a guy with his head in the sand about that defense anymore. He needs a new vision there, one that won’t cost his program a playoff berth before September is out. But if he wasn't ready to make a change immediately, his message was clear after Saturday: He's not getting enough out of his coaches, and his coaches aren't getting enough out of the players.
"The entire football team, and my coaching staff in particular, is in a position where they have to coach better," Kelly said. "I've got to coach better. We've got kids that fight and have resolve.
"We've been down twice big against two really good football teams, and we put ourselves back in a position to win both games, and we couldn't because we made too many mistakes. We're sloppy as a football team.
"There is not a referendum on who's got to carry who, the defense can't do that, we're too sloppy overall as a football team. If you were listening I just told you about two huge mistakes on special teams and the difference in the game was 8 points. So we gotta clean up the whole deal."
3. Enjoy DeShone Kizer while you can, Notre Dame fans
The junior quarterback shook off three inconsistent quarters to pass for a career-best 344 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another two scores. He nearly directed one of the more improbable comebacks in program history. He’s proving to be one of the best signal-callers in the country, for certain, and the problem was mostly everything else Saturday night. And he may well be destined for the first round of the NFL draft after a season that ends in a nondescript bowl. Kind of a shame.