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Week Three: Michigan State

Andrew Gastelum | Saturday, September 17, 2011

Last year, No. 15 Michigan State rode a fake field goal play called “Little Giants” to a thrilling overtime victory over Notre Dame. It turns out the sequel is no success, as Notre Dame rolled to a 31-13 win Saturday to avoid an 0-3 start.

Down 21-10 with 48 seconds left in the first half, the Spartans (2-1) attempted a fake field goal on fourth-and-goal from the Irish 2-yard line. Notre Dame senior defensive end Ethan Johnson broke through the Spartan front and disrupted the shovel pass intended for sophomore running back Le’Veon Bell, swinging momentum to the Irish heading into halftime.

“They got some push right there on the wing side and they got penetration right there,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “It knocked the tight end back, the guard back, and because of that it didn’t go. He could not get around. Had he gotten around, it looked like [Bell] would have walked in.

“We had some time to talk about it and just reminded our guys to be gap-conscious and do their jobs,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We just did our job on that and obviously were able to come up with a big play.”

Sophomore running back Cierre Wood led the Irish attack with two first-half rushing touchdowns. The Irish (1-2) set the tone early with an eight-play, 76-yard drive to start the game and never gave up the lead after Wood capped the drive with a 22-yard touchdown run.

Wood also scored on a 6-yard run with three minutes left in the first half to put the finishing touches on a 92-yard drive. Wood and senior running back Jonas Gray combined for 112 rushing yards in the first half.

“[Getting the running game going early] helps a lot,” sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees said. “It keeps the defense on their toes, not having to go out there and throw it a lot. It all starts with the offensive line. They did an awesome job, not only protecting me but providing running lanes. It’s fun having the whole offense click like that.”

Rees balanced the attack, throwing for 161 yards, including an interception and a touchdown — a perfectly-thrown 26-yard strike to sophomore wide receiver T.J. Jones with nine minutes remaining in the third quarter to make the score 28-10.

“T.J. and I came in together [in the spring of 2010],” Rees said. “We have a great chemistry out there. [We’re] just building the confidence with each other. [The receivers] are getting a little more used to how I’m playing, and me the same way, and I think we have done a really good job staying on the same page.”

Rees spread the ball out to four different receivers, as senior wide receiver Michael Floyd led the effort with 84 yards on six receptions.

“I thought [Rees] managed the game well,” Kelly said. “He went in there knowing that we had to find a way to control the line of scrimmage to the point where we could run the football and set up some passes later that gave us big-play touchdowns.”

Rees struggled in the first quarter, turning the ball over twice on consecutive drives. But with a minute remaining in the first quarter, freshman running back George Atkinson bailed out the struggling Irish offense and electrified the crowd with an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, giving the Irish a 14-3 lead.

“[Atkinson] certainly is someone we looked at all year,” Kelly said. “We felt like, based upon some of the things that happened on kickoff return against Michigan, this would be the right opportunity for him.”

With the return, Atkinson became the first freshman to return a kickoff for a touchdown since Raghib Ismail in 1988.

“It feels great,” Atkinson said. “[Ismail] is a great returner. I’d like to see some film and see how he does things and pick up some pointers and stuff. I was on the sideline [after scoring] and I was like ‘what just happened.’ It was like a dream come true. I thought I was dreaming. It was a great feeling to get the points on the board and to know the special teams unit put some points on the board.”

The Irish defense pressured the Spartan backfield throughout the game, which was highlighted by a colossal blind-side hit by freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch that caused Spartans senior quarterback Kirk Cousins to fumble the ball in the first quarter.

“There were a number of times where they were forced to throw the football,” Kelly said. “We were able to pin our ears back, and Aaron is an outstanding pass rusher. I think he showed that today.”

Notre Dame limited the Spartans rushing attack to just 29 yards, a year after Bell and junior Edwin Baker combined for 204 yards in Michigan State’s 34-31 victory.

“Credit Notre Dame in what they were able to do,” Dantonio said. “I thought they played hard and they made plays. They made plays on the ball down the field as a secondary and got a push out of their defensive front. Cousins was on his back a lot after throwing the ball.”

Up 28-13 with four minutes left in the fourth quarter, Irish senior cornerback Robert Blanton intercepted a pass from Cousins at the Irish 3-yard line and returned it 82 yards to the Michigan State 12-yard line. Blanton’s interception set up senior kicker David Ruffer’s 33-yard field goal to put the game out of reach.

“We woke up Monday and we went to work, and we did the same thing Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday,” Blanton said. “We just keep taking [the] coaching and knowing that we can keep getting better as a unit. We need to play great to win. The coaching staff makes sure we practice that which makes us prepared on game day.”

The Irish gained only 275 yards of offense compared to their 500-plus yard outputs in losses to South Florida and Michigan. Despite the lowest offensive showing of the season, Notre Dame came away with its first victory, something Kelly felt his team had coming.

“[It was a] much-needed victory for our kids today,” Kelly said. “We obviously felt, coming into the ballgame, we hadn’t lacked any confidence in our ability to win football games … Sooner or later you got to get paid. You got to be validated in what you do, and so it was a big win for us.”