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Football: Back from the dead

Chris Khorey | Monday, September 25, 2006

EAST LANSING, Mich. – It looked hopeless for No. 12 Notre Dame on a stormy Saturday night in East Lansing.

Trailing Michigan State 37-21 halfway through the fourth quarter, the Irish (3-1) mounted a furious comeback to beat the Spartans 40-37, culminating in a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown by junior cornerback Terrail Lambert with just under three minutes to play.

“Right now it’s a pretty high high,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “This one’s a tough one to beat because this game meant a lot to us, and I’m proud of the players and the coaches.”

It was the largest fourth-quarter comeback for Notre Dame since Joe Montana brought the Irish back from a 34-12 deficit with seven minutes left in the 1979 Cotton Bowl against Houston.

Michigan State tailbacks Jehuu Caulcrick and Javon Ringer combined for 187 yards on the ground, 114 of them in the second half as the Spartans wore down a tired Irish defense. But it was a pass on third-and-three deep in Spartan territory that lost the game for Michigan State (3-1).

After Demond Williams took a knee at the 12-yard line on a kickoff, Spartan quarterback Drew Stanton found his team facing third-and-short from its own 19. He dropped back to pass, but Lambert leaped and intercepted the throw and brought it back into the end zone to give the Irish their first lead of the game.

“I was playing outside man,” Lambert said of the play. “I had watched film and I knew that the receiver, nine times out of ten, would have been going inside, and that’s what he did. I was happy to be in the right spot.”

The comeback began with 8:18 left in the fourth period with a five-play, 80-yard drive that included a tipped pass that Irish tight end John Carlson caught for a 32-yard gain and a short pass from quarterback Brady Quinn that wide receiver Jeff Samardzija turned into a 43-yard touchdown. Notre Dame went for a two-point conversion and failed, but the Spartans’ lead was down to just 10 points at 37-27.

Weis had told the team at halftime that any possible turnaround was dependent upon “how much it meant to you.”

“You couldn’t find me any calmer,” Weis said of his demeanor with the team down. “For us to have any chance, it wasn’t just going to be the defense playing good. It had to be everybody making enough plays for us.”

The Irish momentum continued on Michigan State’s next possession as Spartan quarterback Drew Stanton fumbled on his own 26-yard line. Notre Dame safety Chinedum Ndukwe fell on the loose ball and the Irish, aided by a pass interference penalty, scored in three plays – the last of which was a 14-yard pass from Quinn to wide receiver Rhema McKnight. Irish kicker Carl Gioia missed the extra point, but Notre Dame was suddenly within a single score at 37-33.

“I fumbled the ball on that option play and that really put us in a bad position,” Stanton said.

The Spartans had one last chance after Lambert’s interception to get into field goal range and moved the ball to the Notre Dame 45.

But with 24 seconds left, Stanton’s pass was tipped by Irish cornerback Mike Richardson and landed on the back of a fallen Michigan State receiver.

Lambert grabbed the ball before it hit the ground, and the clock ran out on the Spartans.

“I’m so proud of our kids,” Michigan State coach John L. Smith said. “I thought they played with heart and played with emotion. We have to make better calls and better plays.”

Quinn completed 20-of-36 passes for 319 yards, his highest yardage output of the season, with five touchdowns – two each to Samardzija and McKnight and one to Carlson.

Stanton was 10-of-22 passing for 114 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He also contributed 53 yards to a Spartan rushing attack that tore up the Irish front seven for 243 yards.

Notre Dame’s rushing attack struggled for the third consecutive game, netting only 47 yards, all of them coming from tailback Darius Walker’s 11 carries.

Michigan State opened a 17-0 lead by the end of the first quarter on a touchdown pass from Stanton to Kerry Reed, a wide receiver pass from Matt Trannon to halfback Javon Ringer and a 32-yard field goal by Brett Swenson.

Notre Dame got on the scoreboard on its first possession of the second quarter. Irish coach Charlie Weis switched to a no-huddle offense that worked to the tune of a five-play, 60-yard drive capped off by a 32-yard touchdown pass from Quinn to McKnight.

The Spartans didn’t allow the Irish to keep the momentum, however. After pinning Notre Dame at its own 15, linebacker Ervin Baldwin intercepted a pass from Quinn and dashed into the end zone for a 24-7 lead.

Notre Dame bounced right back on the next drive, going 72 yards in seven plays and scoring on a quick pass that Samardzija took down the sideline for the score. The key play on the drive was a 27-yard pass from Quinn to tight end John Carlson on a fourth and one from the Notre Dame 37.

On the ensuing kickoff, Irish sophomore defensive back Ray Herring was offsides and Notre Dame had to kick from its own 30. Spartan return man Demond Williams returned the kick to the 40 and Michigan State marched down the field for a score on another pass from Stanton to Reed for a 31-14 lead at halftime.

The Irish got a spark to start the third quarter. After forcing the Spartans into a 3-and-out on the first possession of the second half, Quinn hit Carlson for a 62-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 10.

Notre Dame got the ball back after a short punt by senior Brandon Fields, but only gained two yards and failed on a fourth down pass.

The Spartans took the ball and went 61 yards the other way solely on running plays to go up 37-21 with 5:50 left in the third quarter. The snap flew out of Fields’ hands on the extra point to keep the lead at 16.

Four possessions later, Quinn led the Irish on the 80-yard drive to begin the comeback.