Notre Dame tops Michigan State behind balanced team effort
Benjamin Padanilam | Sunday, September 24, 2017
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Football is a game of inches.
Michigan State and LJ Scott learned that lesson the hard way Saturday night.
With just over six minutes left in the first half, Notre Dame held a 21-7 lead over the Spartans (2-1).
But the Spartans were driving, putting the Irish (3-1) on their heels. An eight-play, 59-yard march positioned Michigan State at the Notre Dame 15-yard line, with an opportunity to narrow the gap back to a one-score game.
The Spartans put that opportunity in the hands of their junior running back on the drive’s ninth play. Scott took a handoff from sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke and cut through the middle of the Irish defense, breaking two tackles on his way to the goal line.
And it was just inches before crossing that goal line that he was stripped by Irish junior cornerback Shaun Crawford.
Scott attempted to dive on the ball for the recovery in the end zone, but he came up empty. Crawford would smother the ball for the touchback, rewarding Notre Dame with possession.
And not even one of the night’s many replay reviews would change that.
“I just knew that I wanted the ref to get out there and call it a fumble so that our offense could get back on the field, because I know that whenever the defense can get the ball in the offense’s hands, we’re going to do special things with it,” Crawford said.
The stop would prove to be momentum-shifting for that very reason, as the Irish would march 80 yards in just five plays and 94 seconds, swinging what could have been a tight 21-14 gap to a 28-7 lead.
A lead the Irish would maintain comfortably for the rest of the night.
Granted, the Irish took the lead from the beginning of the game, as junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush led Notre Dame’s offense on a 78-yard touchdown drive in just 1:55. The junior quarterback was 4-of-5 on the drive, finding junior wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown on 40-yard play-action pass to get the Irish in the red zone before scrambling for a 16-yard rushing touchdown.
“It’s definitely important for the offense and the entire team’s mentality early in the game,” Wimbush said of getting in a rhythm early. “The guys did a great job of making plays early on and up front, giving me a great amount of time to produce and execute these plays. And I think getting off to that start really kind of led to the rest of the game and the mentality we had throughout the rest of the game.”
The Irish would pad that lead on the Spartans’ ensuing possession, as Lewerke attempted to throw out to his left on third down, but Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love picked off the pass and took it back all 59 yards for the score. After junior kicker Justin Yoon’s extra point, Notre Dame held a 14-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.
“It was onion concept, so the two was going to the flat, and [defensive coordinator Mike] Elko calls a great defense for that,” Love said of his read on the interception. “We’ve been preparing for their route concepts. That quarterback was really good on timing we learned early, and so it was a quick throw and I just broke on it. I don’t really remember the rest.”
But Michigan State would respond on its next drive. Lewerke bounced back from the interception, turning a quarterback sneak into a 52-yard pickup by taking advantage of confusion amongst the Irish front seven. Four plays later, Lewerke found sophomore wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. on a fade route to cut the Spartans’ deficit in half and making it a 14-7 game.
After trading punts to end the first quarter, the Irish were able to open up the scoring in the second period on the heels of another turnover. With Lewerke running towards the left sideline, Irish senior linebacker Greer Martini was able to force a fumble that sophomore defensive lineman Daelin Hayes would recover to give Notre Dame possession at Michigan State’s 24-yard line.
And six plays — including a near touchdown from Wimbush to St. Brown that St. Brown was unable to corral inbounds — later, the Irish were able to push the ball in when Wimbush rolled out right and found junior running back Dexter Williams for an eight-yard score to extend the Irish lead to 21-7.
“I don’t think we think about it,” Wimbush said about the offense scoring after the defense gets a takeaway. “We think about each drive as a separate drive, and the defense has been doing a great job of taking the ball away and giving us field position, and we’ve been able to capitalize.”
And then just when it looked as though the Spartans would respond in turn with a touchdown of their own, Crawford took on Scott at the goal line, taking a puncher’s chance and turning it into yet another forced turnover.
“With the play going out to the goal line, I just saw the ball loose and knew I was going to get a punch at it,” Crawford said of the moment. “Actually, I was watching some videos of Charles Tillman throughout the week, so I wanted to get my hands on the ball.”
The resulting 80-yard drive capped off by a Williams rushing touchdown would give the Irish a 28-7 lead that they carried into the half.
And although the Irish would technically get outscored in the second half, it was a mere 11-10 difference, as the Irish were able to get stops defensively, despite not forcing another turnover in the second half. The offense also sustained its success as far as managing the clock, as its three longest possessions of the game all came in the second half. Irish head coach Brian Kelly was particularly complimentary of the offense’s balance, as the team ran for 182 yards — despite not a single rusher amassing over 60 individual yards — and another 173 yards through the air.
“You know, [we’re] really starting to establish who we really are in that we got much more balance today,” Kelly said. “Brandon threw the ball well today, 14-for-20, so we can probably move on about he can’t throw it. He’s just got the ability to do a lot at that position — he’s just growing. He hasn’t arrived, but he did some really good things at the position tonight that helped us become efficient on offense.”
That balance even included 12 carries for sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, who scored his first career collegiate touchdown for the only Irish score of the second half. Although the Irish conceded a late score and two-point conversion to bring the game to its final tally of 38-18, Kelly said he was very happy with the team’s performance throughout all four quarters.
“[It’s a] good win for our kids,” Kelly said. “Anytime we go on the road … it’s hard to win on the road anyway, so to come in here against a team that was nationally ranked defensively and take the football away like we did and be opportunistic — really, really pleased with the results.”
And having locked up two wins on the road the last two weeks, the Irish can now turn their attention to hosting Miami (OH) to Notre Dame Stadium next weekend.
“I think we’re just going to keep it rolling,” Wimbush said. “We head back to South Bend and back to our home and our home fans. I think these two road wins and then going back home will prove to be huge for the rest of the season.”