Tolan, Fran | Monday, September 24, 2007
Notre Dame’s anemic offense showed some signs of life, but its defense crumbled late, Michigan State won 31-14 and the Irish fell to 0-4 for the first time in program history.
The Notre Dame running back tandem of sophomore James Aldridge and freshman Robert Hughes ran for a combined 144 yards, but Michigan State countered with a more formidable two-headed rushing monster of its own and downed the Irish 31-14 at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday.
The loss sent the woeful Irish, who scored their first two offensive touchdowns of the season, to 0-4 for the first time in program history,
Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer threw four touchdowns, but it was the Spartans’ running game that allowed them to control the contest. Spartans junior running back Javon Ringer ran for 148 yards on 26 carries, while fifth-year senior running back Jehuu Caulcrick added 83 yards.
“This is something that we are going to enjoy for the rest of the night on the bus ride, and we will probably still feel good about it in the morning,” Ringer said.
The Irish trailed 17-14 at halftime, but Michigan State came out firing in the second half. The Spartans scored on the first possession of the third quarter, manufacturing a nine-play drive that culminated with a 30-yard, fourth-down pass from Hoyer to freshman wide receiver Mark Dell for a touchdown. On the scoring play, Boyer fumbled the snap but recovered the ball to hit Dell, who had managed to get behind the Irish secondary.
The Spartans never looked back after the score, racking up 354 yards of total offense in the contest, while the defense never allowed Notre Dame to get into a rhythm. The Spartans tallied four sacks and constantly pressured Irish freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen and junior signal-caller Evan Sharpley, who replaced Clausen on Notre Dame’s first possession of the fourth quarter.
“Our scheme is built around pressure, so we pressure a lot,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “You know, our guys are active right now. They are excited about it.”
Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, meanwhile, said that his line has to work on establishing better protection for the quarterback.
“The bad news is I still think we had some problems, some fundamental problems in blitz pickup, which discouraged me because they weren’t outnumbered situations,” Weis said.
The game began auspiciously for the Irish, who scored on their second possession of the contest. After Boyer fumbled on the exchange with junior center Joel Nitchman and Irish senior defensive end Trevor Laws fell on the ball on the Michigan State nine-yard line, Hughes scampered for eight yards to the one. On the next play, senior running back Travis Thomas carried it into the left side of the end zone for Notre Dame’s first offensive touchdown of the season.
But the Irish lead was short-lived. On Michigan State’s next possession, the Spartans marched down the field and scored on a seven-yard reception by junior receiver Devin Thomas, who had caught a 25-yard pass just three plays earlier.
“Thomas keeps coming through,” Dantonio said. “He had a good catch, good protection and Brian put it on the money.”
The Spartans took the lead for good at the end of the first quarter. A 26-yard scurry by Ringer set up a three-yard play-action touchdown pass from Boyer to senior tight end Kellen Davis. For Davis, it was the first of two receiving touchdowns in the game.
“They are running the ball so effectively that play action pass ends up being almost a slam dunk,” Weis said. “You’re selling out to try to stop the run and next thing you know, there’s a guy wide open in the end zone.”
And when the Irish appeared to build some momentum on their next drive and began to move the chains, they turned the ball over.
After junior receiver David Grimes made a diving catch on third and seven to give the team a first down, senior defensive end Jonal Saint-Dic sacked Clausen. As the quarterback fell to the ground, Saint-Dic ripped the ball from Clausen to give Michigan State possession.
The Spartans took over on the Irish 14-yard line and scored on a field goal by sophomore kicker Brett Swenson to make it 17-7.
The Irish scored on the next drive, their most efficient of the season. It took the team only five plays in 1:38 to march 80 yards. Sophomore receiver George West caught a 14-yard pass before Aldridge broke out for a 43-yard run to the Michigan State 23. The next play, a carry by Hughes, put the Irish on the six-yard line and they used two more rushing plays to score and cut the Spartan lead to 17-14.
“If I want to pick one bright spot in the game, that would definitely have been the play of the running backs in the game because there was some semblance of a running game,” Weis said. “And I think that that’s, you know, that’s a start.”
The score remained the same for the rest of the first half but the Irish would not draw any closer.
“We were ahead 17-14 at the half, very close game, we came out, scored immediately, made it 24-14 and our players took over from there defensively,” Dantonio said.
Clausen was 7-of-13 passing for 53 yards but was replaced by the more experienced Sharpley, who completed 4-of-7 attempts.
“I think Jimmy was playing so-so,” Weis said. “I didn’t think he was bad. I didn’t think he was good. You know, because we [were] about ready to go into a different type of mode in a game that he has not had as much repetition … I didn’t think he would have enough familiarity in doing that at that time.”