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Blanton’s key plays lead Irish ‘D’

Jack Hefferon | Monday, September 19, 2011

After a week of criticism, questions and scrutiny following last week’s loss at Michigan, Notre Dame’s secondary raised questions that needed answering, and senior cornerback Robert Blanton did just that in a 31-13 Irish victory Saturday.

“We needed to show that we can go out and get the job done,” Blanton said. “It was very important because we’ve got great coaches we work with every day, and great players in the secondary. We played great as a defense, and everybody stepped up and made a lot of plays.”

The entire defense did step up against the Spartans, holding a team that had averaged 173 rushing yards a game to just 29 yards Saturday. And while the front seven smothered much of the Michigan State running game, Blanton and the defensive backs chipped in with some crucial contributions as well. Blanton alone had six tackles, three for a loss, including a disciplined read and a sack on a third-quarter reverse.

“When the opportunity presents itself, [Blanton] is always a guy who makes the play, whether it’s a ball in the air, making a tackle or making that big tackle on that reverse wildcat play they were doing,” senior safety and team captain Harrison Smith said. “So he’s just a gamer and he has a true feel for the game.”

Between the Irish defense stopping the running game and the offense opening up an 18-point lead, senior quarterback Kirk Cousins and the Spartan offense had no choice but to launch an aerial attack for much of the game. That they did, attempting a season-high 53 passes in all. For Blanton and the secondary, it was just another day’s work.

“We were pretty busy because they threw the ball a lot, but that’s fun. You love that as a [defensive back],” Blanton said. “You don’t want to give up the big play, especially when you’ve got a great lead. We just wanted to make sure we didn’t do anything as [defensive backs] back there to cost us the game.”

Blanton swung the momentum of the game with a big play of his own. As the first half drew to a close, Cousins drove the Spartans into the red zone. On first-and-goal from the 12, Blanton knocked down a pass in the end zone intended for senior wide receiver B.J. Cunningham, one of his three break-ups on the day.

On the next play, Blanton batted away a pass intended for senior wide receiver Keith Nichol, and suddenly it was third-and-long. Michigan State was unable to score on the next play, and its drive ended with a failed fake field-goal attempt that gave Notre Dame all the momentum for the second half.

“The coaches make sure we work on playing the ball every day at the highest point and squeezing the receiver,” Blanton said. “So it was just doing what I was coached that allowed me to make those plays.”

Blanton was not finished when it came to big plays, as he sealed the victory with a fourth-quarter turnover when Michigan State was attempting to cut it to a one-score deficit. The Spartans had decreased the Notre Dame advantage from 18 to 15, and after a muffed punt, two offensive plays and a penalty, they faced a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. Cousins looked right and threw towards running back Le’Veon Bell, but the ball never arrived. Blanton had deflected the pass and picked it out of the air before running it back 82 yards to the Spartan 12-yard line.

“Coach [Bob] Diaco and the coaching staff made a great call and put me in a great position,” Blanton said. “[Cousins] threw the ball and I was able to make a play on it. I had my teammates out there blocking for me, and [senior safety] Jamoris Slaughter kept yelling for me to pitch it to him. It was a great play.”

The play was similar to Blanton’s interception with 4:23 remaining in the fourth quarter at Michigan that appeared to put the game out of the Wolverines’ reach. On this occasion, Blanton’s pick put the game on ice. According to Irish coach Brian Kelly, it was just another instance of Blanton leading the defense.

“[Blanton] is extremely active,” Kelly said. “He’s got great instincts. The ball is in the air, he’s going to get it. I feel confident no matter who goes against him that when the ball is in the air he’s going to make a great play on the ball.

“And he’s a spirited guy. You talk about guys that lead by example … He’s probably one of our more emotional leaders back there.”

Moving forward, Blanton said he knows the secondary needs to stay focused in every game.

“We’ve just got to make sure we go out there and be the same guys every day,” he said. “We all motivate each other, we all lift each other up. We’re all the energy. We’re the battery for the team. We wake up every morning and prepare to win as a team and as a unit. And we need every win.”