Pat Leonard | Monday, September 22, 2003
The United States flag at the north end of Notre Dame Stadium flew at half-mast Saturday in memory of late Indiana governor Frank O’Bannon. But after the Michigan State game, Irish fans might have thought it was for Notre Dame’s season.
Two Carlyle Holiday interceptions – one of which was returned 40 yards for a touchdown – and a 71-yard touchdown run by Spartans running back Jaren Hayes buried Notre Dame. And as much as freshman quarterback Brady Quinn and sophomore wide receiver Rhema McKnight tried, a fourth quarter comeback was too late as Notre Dame fell to Michigan State, 22-16.
“I think we played determined the entire game,” coach Tyrone Willingham said. “[We] fought all the way to the end. Losses hurt. They hurt players. They hurt the coaches. We’ll bounce back.”
Quinn entered the game twice, the second time following a 40-yard interception return of a Holiday pass by Michigan State linebacker Greg Taplin to make the score 22-6. Quinn completed five passes on the team’s final drive which was capped by a 29-yard touchdown pass to McKnight.
The defense, however, could not hold Michigan State on a crucial third-and-8 play with 1:25 remaining. The Spartans gained seven yards, converted on fourth down (even after the Irish were penalized for having 12 men on the field after a timeout) and time ran out.
Determined players, the Irish have found, isn’t enough this season.
“Football is a game about individual battles,” said middle linebacker Courtney Watson. “If every individual on your side of the ball wins that battle, then you have a very good chance of winning that game, and we haven’t been able to do that the past couple of weeks.”
Michigan State began the scoring on its first drive – the first time this season that has happened for the Spartans. A 16-yard Jeff Smoker bootleg and an 11-yard pass to wide receiver Agim Shabaj set up a Dave Rayner 51-yard field goal that gave Michigan State a 3-0 lead.
The Irish got the ball back, only to have Holiday throw a screen pass directly into the hands of Spartan linebacker Mike Labinjo.
Quinn would play the next two Irish series at quarterback, with Holiday starting the second half.
Irish defensive lineman Cedric Hilliard forced a fumble on the ensuing Michigan State drive and defensive end Kyle Budinscak recovered at the Spartan 15. The offense settled for a 35-yard Nick Setta field goal.
Setta kicked three field goals on the day and two in the first half as Notre Dame went into the locker room tied 6-6, still without an offensive touchdown since the Washington State victory two weeks ago.
“Usually when you’re kicking a field goal something bad happened on offense, because you didn’t get the first down or you didn’t get in the end zone,” Setta said. “So you just try to help the team as much as you can.”
Notre Dame received the ball to start the second half, only to lose momentum on a Marcus Wilson fumble following an 11-play, 45-yard drive. The defense held Michigan State to three-and-out the next drive, but after poor decision-making by Holiday and an Irish punt, Spartan running back Jaren Hayes broke a 71-yard touchdown run off the left side of the line.
The run made the score 13-6 Michigan State.
“We had one big letdown,” Budinscak said, “and that’s all it takes.”
Despite another Setta field goal, Greg Taplin’s 40-yard interception return for a touchdown off a Holiday miscue made the score 22-9 and put the game out of reach.
On the one hand, the Spartan defense deserves a large amount of credit for containing the Irish.
“Our defense came to play today and while we made mistakes, we are making fewer and fewer each week,” Spartan coach John Smith said. “They certainly contributed to our win.”
On the other hand, the ineptitude of the Notre Dame offense may have contributed more.
Wide receiver Maurice Stovall dropped a potential first-down pass over the middle in the second quarter that halted a Notre Dame drive, one of three he would drop on the day. Tight end Jared Clark also dropped a key pass, as did running back Julius Jones.
After the game, reporters suggested the offense just was not clicking and that some chemistry was missing between quarterbacks, linemen and receivers. But McKnight saw things a bit differently.
“We just got beat today,” McKnight said. “I don’t think it’s so much we’re not clicking, we just tend to make mistakes in crucial situations. And we can’t have that in order to be a good team.”
A solemn Hilliard, who finished the game with five tackles and a forced fumble, simplified the matter.
“Right now we’re not getting it done,” he said. “It’s nothing in particular. As a team we’re not getting it done. I’m kind of out of it right now.”
“[We’re] one-and-two, man,” Hilliard said. “Nobody wants to be 1-2.”