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Week 4: Michigan State

Isaac Lorton | Sunday, September 22, 2013

Up against Michigan State’s top-ranked defense, the No. 22 Irish were able to take advantage of untimely Spartan penalties and a turnover late in the third quarter to hold onto a 17-13 victory Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Michigan State (3-1) committed 10 penalties for 115 yards. Five of the infractions occurred on third or fourth down with the Spartans on defense, giving the Irish a new set of downs. Both Notre Dame touchdowns came on drives extended by Michigan State pass interferences.  

In total, the Spartans were flagged for defensive pass interference four times. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who was asked if one of his teams had ever had that many pass interference calls go against it, said it was unprecedented and declined to comment further on the officiating. 

“I’ve been coaching 30-plus years. No. Never,” Dantonio said. “I guess that’s why we should stop talking about it right there.”

The Irish (3-1) also capitalized on the lone turnover of the game. With just more than two minutes left in the third quarter, Michigan State attempted a wide-receiver pass. Spartans freshman receiver R.J. Shelton threw the ball into double coverage and Irish junior safety Matthias Farley came down with the interception, which he returned 29 yards to the Notre Dame 48-yard line. 

“I felt like we needed a big play,” Dantonio said. 

Irish sophomore cornerback KeiVarae Russell said the secondary recognized the trick-play situation and waited for Shelton’s throw.  

“I took a quick glance to the side because my [receiver] was coming off slow and he had never come off this slow, so I watched [Shelton] and he wasn’t running like he was trying to get up field, so I was like this is a double play,” Russell said. “So I just sat there. I guessed right … That should have been mine, but I helped Matthias get that one.” 

Following a late-hit penalty at the end of Farley’s return, Notre Dame began the drive at the Spartans 37-yard line. On third down, senior quarterback Tommy Rees floated the ball to freshman receiver Corey Robinson in the end zone and Robinson drew an interference call. Two plays later, the Irish took a 17-10 lead on a 7-yard run from junior running back Cam McDaniel with 14:44 remaining in the fourth quarter. It proved to be the game-winning score.  

Irish coach Brian Kelly said Notre Dame was not throwing the ball to get pass-interference calls, but rather because Michigan State was defending the run, which is why the Irish keyed in on the solo coverage. Notre Dame averaged 2.6 yards per carry.

“No, we want to complete [the passes], we were getting pulled and tugged,” Kelly said. “We just felt like the only way you’re going to complete passes against Michigan State is one-on-one, all man-to-man. … Safeties are downhill, the backers are playing the run. On the outside it’s a one-on-one situation and they’re fighting for the football.”

On their final drive of the first half, the Irish pushed to the Michigan State 41-yard line. A fourth-and-1 pass interference call against Michigan State gave the Irish a new set of downs. Rees completed a pair of passes to get the Irish to the 2-yard line. After Rees’ first two pass attempts to junior receiver DaVaris Daniels fell incomplete, Rees fired to senior receiver TJ Jones on third down. Jones leapt, caught the ball in the back of the end zone and was able to get his feet down to put the Irish up 10-7 with 17 seconds left in the second quarter.

Throughout the game, both quarterbacks struggled to find a rhythm. Rees went 14-for-34 for 142 yards and the one touchdown, while Spartans sophomore quarterback Connor Cook was 16-for-32 for 135 yard and one score.

“[Rees] missed open receivers, yeah,” Kelly said. “I mean, we had guys open. He just didn’t hit them. He’s not going to shy away from it, he had guys open and he didn’t connect.”   

Robinson, who led Notre Dame receivers with three catches for 54 yards, said the plan was to target him as long as there was one-on-one coverage. 

“I knew it was going to be a more vertical battle,” Robinson said. “I was trying to keep them off of me and hold my line, but I knew [Rees] was coming to me because it is a man-to-man match up and I’m 6’5″. That’s what they recruited me for. I knew I had to make plays and help my team out.”  

In the first quarter with the game scoreless, a holding call against the Spartans on third down kept the Irish drive alive. Four plays later junior kicker Kyle Brindza drilled a 41-yard field goal to put the Irish up 3-0 with 3:48 remaining in the first frame. 

Michigan State scored halfway through the second quarter to take a 7-3 lead. From the Notre Dame 12-yard line, Cook tossed a jump ball to sophomore receiver Macgarrett Kings, Jr., who held on in the end zone for the score. Freshman kicker Michael Geiger tacked on the extra point. Geiger replaced Spartans senior kicker Kevin Muma after Muma missed a 30-yard field goal in the first quarter. 

Michigan State picked up six first downs on the scoring drive, including two Notre Dame penalties and a fourth-down conversion.

Dantonio said the Spartan defense did its job and it’s up to the offense to convert.

“Got down there three times, missed one field goal, kicked two others, scored a touchdown the fourth time,” Dantonio said. “Seventeen points aren’t going to win you many games, 13 is not for sure. Credit Notre Dame’s defense some. But we’ve got to score more points.” 

Michigan State came out strong to start the second half, but had to settle for a field goal. Geiger made a 25-yard kick to knot the score at 10. 

With Michigan State knocking at the door on the 14-yard line with more than 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Irish defense stepped up to force a 42-yard field goal from Geiger to make the score 17-13.

Notre Dame held Michigan State to 254 yards of total offense (119 rushing, 135 passing), while the Spartans held the Irish to 224 yards (82 rushing, 142 passing).  

“I think both defenses really carried the day here today,” Kelly said. “I think the defenses had a lot to do with today’s ballgame.” 

Clinging to a fourth-quarter lead, the Irish were forced to punt late in the game and Michigan State received the ball on its own 33 with 2:11 left in the game. Spartans senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who came on in relief of Cook, threw two incomplete passes to start the drive. Following a Michigan State delay-of-game penalty and a false start, Maxwell threw another incomplete pass on third down. On fourth-and-20, Maxwell scrambled but was only able to pick up eight yards. 

McDaniel picked up one more first down for the Irish and allowed Notre Dame to run out the clock.

The Irish next host No. 14 Oklahoma at Notre Dame Stadium on Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

Contact Isaac Lorton at ilorton@nd.edu