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Stripped and picked

Kate Gales | Monday, September 20, 2004

EAST LANSING, Mich. – On a cool Saturday night on the hostile turf of Spartan Stadium, the Irish found the spark they had been missing-balance and boldness.

Tom Zbikowski seized the vacant role of defensive playmaker, Darius Walker and Ryan Grant combined for 164 yards on the ground and Brady Quinn completed 11-of-24 passes for 215 yards, including a touchdown to Matt Shelton and a key third-down conversion to Jeff Samardzija to give the Irish a 31-24 victory in East Lansing.

“When you have good defense, you stay close until something good happens,” Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said. “Our defense has done a great job in all three ballgames in keeping us in that position.”

Notre Dame capitalized on six turnovers by Michigan State and despite allowing a rushing touchdown in the waning moments of the game and 341 yards of total offense, notched its second consecutive win against a Big Ten team.

“The fact is, we didn’t finish like we wanted to, and it was a sour feeling in the locker room,” defensive end Justin Tuck said. “Even though we got the win, we didn’t like how we finished. I guess as a defense, as a team, we’re picky right now.”

The Irish trailed 7-0 early when D.J. Fitzpatrick’s punt was blocked in the end zone and picked up by Michigan State’s Jerramy Scott for the first touchdown of the game. After the Irish were forced to punt again on the next possession, Zbikowski picked off a pass by Spartans quarterback Stephen Reaves and returned it 22 yards to put the Irish in scoring position at the Spartan 13.

A 4-yard run from Walker and three consecutive runs Grant put the Irish at the goal line on third-and-goal. After Rashon Powers-Neal was stuffed on third down, Quinn faked a handoff and strolled untouched into the end zone for his first career rushing touchdown on fourth-and-goal.

With the scored tied at seven, Michigan State was deep in Notre Dame territory and looked ready to mount a scoring chance. On second-and-10, Zbikowski stripped Spartans running back Jason Teague of the football and ran 75 yards for his first career touchdown to put the Irish up 14-7.

“I’m a team player just doing the best I can,” said Zbikowski, who finished with a team-high nine tackles, including six solos. “I’m not going to go looking for it but if that opportunity arises, I have to make that play.”

The Irish lit up the scoreboard again when Quinn found Shelton in the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown. Although the Irish would not score again in the half, Derek Curry and Mike Richardson would both register interceptions to keep the Spartans out of scoring range, ending the half with a 21-7 lead.

In the second half, the Irish came out strong as Walker and Grant traded carries in a seven play, 75-yard march to the end zone.

“We’re trying to develop a group of running backs that compliment each other as far as their style,” Willingham said.

With that drive, the Irish went ahead 28-7 on a 6-yard touchdown run from Grant.

“We just did what we came here to do,” offensive lineman Bob Morton said. “We wanted to establish the run. We didn’t do as well as we wanted to in the first half so we decided we were going to do it in the second half. We came out and that drive was the pinnacle of what we want to be.”

Morton anchored an offensive line that gave Quinn the time to complete passes to five receivers during the game, and the running backs necessary blocks to produce significant yardage on the ground.

“It’s easy on me,” Quinn said of the 75-yard drive that consisted of all runs. “It’s just dominating football with the offensive line and I give all the credit to them. They play hard, they play physical and they got the job done.”

The defense capitalized on six turnovers, recovering three of the Spartans’ five fumbles as well as picking off three passes in the first half.

But, down 28-7, Michigan State mounted a comeback behind its new quarterback, Drew Stanton starting with an 89-yard kickoff return by DeAndra Cobb after Grant’s touchdown.

With the score at 28-17, Corey Mays hit Jehuu Caulcrick on the 1-yard line, jarring the ball lose on momentum-killing play for the Spartans. Quentin Burrell recovered in the endzone for a touchback, and the Irish got the ball back, and scored a field goal two possessions later to go up 31-17.

“It was big,” Tuck said of the goal line play. “We needed that. We don’t get that one, this game is a lot more interesting than it was, so that’s a big play. We just made up our minds that we weren’t going to let them in – that was our mentality.”

The Spartans would register a touchdown with 9 seconds to go on a four-yard rush by Stanton that capped an eight-play 63-yard drive, but it was not enough.

This finish left the Irish hungry for more, as they were not pleased.

“You just can’t be satisfied,” Tuck said. “You can never be as good as you can be.”