Spartans Struggle Big in the “Little Giants” Sequel, Handled by Notre Dame 31-13 in South Bend

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Stuck in a corner to fight for the life of their entire season, the 0-2 Irish took advantage of a platter of Spartan mistakes and Irish big plays to close out their rival 31-13. In an odd game that featured erratic plays, penalties, and calls, too much went the way of the Irish for MSU to sniff out a decent shot at its first road victory of the year.

The Irish out played MSU today, overcame their own early turnovers, and took advantage of way too many Spartan mishaps that continued from start to finish. Though Notre Dame won today, they owe MSU a lot, if not a majority of the credit for losing the game. Of the 22 players on the field during any given play today, the Spartans had the edge in overall talent and depth. Yet, the Irish had the edge in execution all day, and sharpened it as the game went on.

On the game’s first possession, ND started opening holes at the line of scrimmage and notched 59 yards on the ground for the drive. The drive was highlighted or blatantly blemished (depending on your allegiance) by an incredibly blown holding call on the 22 yard TD run from Cierre Wood (Jr. RB). Irish Guard Trevor Robinson (Sr.) held Jerel Worthy (Rs.-Jr. DT) so tight that he nearly ripped off the #95 that Worthy was wearing in honor of the late Bubba Smith.

In any event, the Irish came out juiced and desperate, as should’ve been expected. MSU failed to match the ND intensity or focus out of the gate. And the game started to get wild with turnovers early as the Spartans and Irish traded respective blind-side fumble causing sacks. ND QB Tommy Rees (So.) started swinging momentum back towards MSU when he threw right into the hands of Kurtis Drummond (Rs.-Fr. S) at the 3:06 mark of the quarter. Drummond took the INT back 34 yards and set MSU up in good position for a game trying drive from the ND 27.

The Spartans only moved the ball 4 yards, however, but Dan Conroy (Jr. PK) capitalized on the INT with a 40-yard Field Goal inside of the right upright. That clutch kick appeared to keep some Spartan momentum, but the ensuing kick would take the wildness of the day up another notch and completely erase the slight Spartan progress.

As a short Kevin Muma (So. K) kickoff flew only to the Irish 11, the Domers ran right through their opening to gain back an edge, and snatched the game’s momentum for good. As two outside members of the Spartans’ kick coverage collided, the sideline opened up on for ND’s George Atkinson (Fr. KR). Atkinson has top gear speed, and took it 89 yards for the score. All the sudden, MSU was down 11 after the Special Teams gaffe. Instead of tying the game up at 7, the Irish lead had suddenly grown to 11, in just two plays.

As the next MSU possession carried over from the end of the 1st into the early 2nd, MSU looked to calm down a game that was getting wilder by the minute. Thanks to the MSU Red-Shirt connection of Kirk Cousins (Rs.-SR QB) and B.J. Cunningham (Rs.-Sr. WR), the Spartans took the ball 80 yards on 11 plays, finally found some Tight Ends (Brian Linthicum (Rs.-Sr.) and Dion Sims Rs.-So.)), and cut the lead to 14-10 at the 11:57 mark of the 2nd.

The subsequent Muma kick was taken back only to the 19, the Irish couldn’t move the ball more than 6 yards, and their punt by Ben Turk (Jr. P) went a weak 30 yards. The momentum was again right there for MSU to take back, starting from their own 45. Yet, after only moving the ball 8 yards on 4 plays, the Spartans again had to punt it back. Thankfully, Mike Sadler (Rs.-Fr. P) dropped a beauty to the ND 7, kept field position in favor of MSU, and kept some momentum temporarily on the Spartans’ side.

ND initially faltered a little bit on what would become the game’s longest and pivotal drive. For a few snaps, there was confusion between the Irish QB and his receivers, his sideline, and possibly even within himself. But as the Irish regained their composure, they climbed out of their own end and then snapped the building Spartan momentum with a big ball to their biggest Offensive star.

Rees’ 32-yard pass to Michael Floyd (Sr. WR) put the Spartan D back deep on their heels, and tiring by the snap. The Spartans needed a Time Out. After Jonas Gray (Sr. RB) took the following hand-off for 12-yard gain, past a winded Chris Norman (So. LB), ND had moved it down to the Spartan 22, and clearly posed a serious threat once again.

The Defense was clearly tired, the Spartans held all three TOs on the scoreboard, yet a decision was not made to take a breather and give the unit some time to regroup. Two plays later, Wood ran it in again from the 6 and put ND up 20-10. The 10-play back breaking drive had gone 92 yards in 4:49, and again reestablished all of the momentum in favor of the Irish.

Nick Hill (Rs.-Fr.) tried his best to grab some of it back on the following kick as he brought it out to Spartan 47. MSU had to get points from there to keep pace with ND going into the half. After losing Skyler Burkland (Rs.-Fr. RT) for the game with a left leg injury on 1st down, a couple of Le’Veon Bell (So. RB) carries moved the chains and set up an Offensive highlight on the day in the form of a “wheel route” from Cousins to Todd Anderson (Sr. FB). The Spartans were again in business deep into Irish territory, looking to put up some critical points in the half’s final seconds.

From 3rd and Goal on the ND 8, a pass to Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR) came up 2 yards short. After finally taking a Time Out, the Spartans looked to be settling in for the Field Goal try to cut the lead to 21-13. Rather than taking the 3-points to cut the lead to one score (8 points), MSU went for a fake in the form of an inside-shovel pass to a pulling Le’Veon Bell (So. RB). The snap looked to come off alright, but the shovel was behind Bell and the play was quickly blown up. MSU was left behind by 11 (> 1 score) going into the Half.

The fake Field Goal seemed poorly timed, poorly executed, and honestly a poor idea even before the snap. The Spartans’ Time Out to set up the fake gave only everyone in Notre Dame Stadium, and all over the country, even more time to remember “Little Giants” and prepare for a possible fake. Regardless of whether or not this fake worked, the Spartans had played a sloppy half, been beaten soundly up front, and should’ve done what they could have to cut the lead to one score, especially since the Spartans were getting the ball to start the 3rd Quarter. The difference between being down 8 and 11 is the difference between being only one snap away from tying the game. That's not a point that should be understated.

There wasn’t enough to gain out of going for a fake, and far too much to lose. There was an argument to be made for straight going for it on 4th and 2, but the fake did not seem at all a logical call at that point. When you couple the blown fake with the TD given up on the kick return earlier in the half, the Spartan Special Teams had dug their own 10-point deficit for the first 30-minutes of play. For the half, Notre Dame dominated the ground game (112 to 13), shut down the Spartans on 3rd downs (2-7), and thus carried a well earned 11-point lead into Half Time. The game would get no closer from there.

Coming out of Half Time, MSU needed points out of their first drive and couldn’t afford any more mistakes if they had hopes of another late victory in South Bend. 3 plays later, Sadler was back out for another punt. 8 plays and 71 yards from there, Note Dame took safe hold in the driver’s seat of the victory bus as Rees threw a beauty to T.J. Jones (So. WR) for a 26-yard TD to put ND up 28-10 at 9:30 of the 3rd.

MSU cut the ND lead to 28-13 at 10:56 of the 4th with a 35-yard Field Goal from Conroy, but again stalled out again Offensively inside the Red Zone when they had to have 7 points. For the day, MSU actually had the ball inside the ND 3-yard line twice, and came away with nothing. A Field Goal at that stage of the game was hardly enough to build towards any realistic comeback attempt.

After the subsequent kickoff was bobbled out by the Irish, the Spartans didn’t get the bounce needed to grab it back. When the drive’s 2nd and 5 pass from Rees to Floyd was intercepted by the Spartans, it was voided out by another Pass Interference penalty. And though MSU forced the Irish to punt, a fortunate bounce left Cousins and company starting from their own 1-yard line. That series of plays served as a convenient mini-summary of the Spartans day in South Bend.

From there it was once again one step forward-one penalty back as MSU stalled out before punting from their 48. That punt turned out to be some of MSU’s best Offense of the day, ironically, as ND’s John Goodman (Sr. PR) fumbled into the hands of Spartan Steve Gardiner (Rs.-Jr. LB) on the Irish 21.

With just over 4:00 left, MSU had to hurry up, and got to the ND 3 quickly before the game was to be completely wrapped up for good. On the 1st and Goal, Keshawn Martin stopped running his route well short of the spot Cousins threw to, which appeared to be Martin’s mistake, and the ball went right into the hands of the Irish’s Robert Blanton (Sr. CB). Blanton not only picked of Cousins inside the Red Zone, he took the ball back 82 yards to seal the ND win, and very clear loss for MSU.

The Outlook Moving Forward

Offense

The season’s first real test was not passed with flying colors. 13 points on the day was far from the effort and production the Spartan Nation was expecting. MSU came out tight, ineffective, and was pushed around early up front. To add the untimely Burkland injury, the Offensive Line looked over matched and over powered. In fact, they looked rather defensive for much of the day, and far from asserting their will on the Irish. To make matters worse, ND might not the fifth best Defensive front the Spartans will face this year. If the Offensive Line can’t get better from here, MSU will struggle against the Big Ten’s better teams. This unit's (if not the entire team’s) Achilles' Heel has now been revealed.

It was not the return trip to South Bend that Kirk Cousins was hoping for. It’s not that Cousins played horribly, but he didn’t come out sharp (let alone very steady) when the Spartans needed him most. Cousins calmed himself after the rocky early start once he found Cunningham and a few Tight Ends, and ended the day with some career numbers (34/53 329 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT). But the fact that he had to throw it 53 times is an alarming stat, and it’s not alarming in a good way.

The BBC (Bell, Baker, & Caper) was stone cold shut down on the day. Picking up merely a baker’s dozen in the 1st half, the entire Spartan team had only 53 positive yards on the ground for their 17 carries on day. Reverses were shut down, blocks were shed, and the running game was squashed by a hungrier Irish D. Though the Domers’ Manti Te’o (Sr. LB) and Harrison Smith (Sr. S) may be playing on Sundays for many years to come, it was still a real surprise that MSU had such a hard time moving the ball early, and such a poor production closing out drives on the day.

Defense

Giving up only 6 points in the first two games, this unit took to the national stage looking to make a statement. Early on, they were asked to keep the Spartans in a game that was twisting and turning at a quick pace. Other than the Kevin Pickelman (Sr. NT) blind-side sack for a fumble, the Spartans didn’t seem to get a very effective pass rush up front. Yet, the Defense did what they could to keep the Spartans within striking distance. They held ND to only 275 yards on the day (114 rush, 161 pass), which might actually end up one of the better stat lines for a Defense playing the Irish all year.

Special Teams

This unit probably made the ultimate difference today, in the wrong way. The 1st half left a 10-point swing in the red after the Kick Return-TD and bungled fake Field Goal try. Dan Conroy was clutch early, however, sneaking in the 40-yard Field Goal when MSU needed to steady their ship. Conroy and Sadler had solid days, and Nick Hill’s kick return also served as a highlight on the day, but none of that could undo the greater damage the Special Teams had done.

Overall

MSU knew before this season began that the Notre Dame game sat in an important slot of the schedule. Get past ND and the Spartans would look to be on their way to another special season. Get tripped up in South Bend, and suddenly the rest of the schedule would become a lot more uncertain.

The Notre Dame game is personal. Since the rivalry really arose again in the 90s, MSU-ND has become a game that many in the nation do not miss. Coming off the series’ most watched and most dramatic affair (“Little Giants”), the 2011 edition reversed the luck at the end of the 2010 game into the direction of the Irish. As well as Notre Dame played today, MSU did more than its part in racking up 12 penalties for 86 yards, turning the ball over 3 times if you count the fake Field Goal fail, and giving away 10 points on Special Teams. Though MSU is probably a better team than Notre Dame overall, they clearly beat themselves and were out played today. That's a losing combination about 100% of the time.

It’s true that they all count one, but some games that mean more than others. Notre Dame is one of them. The Spartans didn’t measure up well enough today to knock down a hungry and desperate Irish bunch. They looked surprisingly over matched at times, disorganized, and not very confident throughout most of the game. Though it’s the Spartans’ 3rd bad loss in the past 16 games, it’s still only their 3rd loss in the last 16 games. Keep that in mind moving forward.

This team probably got its wake up call today, loud and clear, and should now completely appreciate the danger of shooting itself in the foot too many times in one game. They also now must realize the amount of work that needs to be done if this team is to have the kind of season they all want 2011 to become.

Dantonio : 1, Kelly: 1

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. HGH (Human Growth Hormone) testing in the NFL might be the most important change to the game of football in the 21st century. We don’t know if HGH is being used rampantly in the NFL or if it has contributed at all to the violent concussions and head injuries of the past, but once testing occurs, we should safely be able to identify the truth. Everyone involved in the game from the top level down (College and High School, etc.) stands only to benefit by HGH testing in the NFL. And if you don't think performance enhancing drugs can make a difference to a sport, check out Major League Baseball players today, and tell me how much they look or perform like the players in that game from 10 or 15 years ago.

*Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan, and find him inside the Phalanx Forum