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Football: Getting their bell rung

Greg Arbogast | Monday, September 22, 2008

There was a double-digit deficit. There was the offense throwing the ball all over the field. At times, it even seemed like Brady Quinn was finding Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija.

But there was no magic comeback this time in East Lansing as an inept running game, turnovers and a whole lot of Javon Ringer sealed Notre Dame’s first loss of the season Saturday, a 23-7 defeat to Michigan State.

Ringer, Michigan State’s senior running back who entered Saturday’s contest third in the nation averaging 166 yards per game, ran for 201 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries. For most of the day, the Irish defense kept the Spartans’ workhorse in check. When Brandon Walker missed a 41-yard field goal with 5:50 remaining in the game that would have brought Notre Dame to within six points, Ringer had rushed for 124 yards on 33 carries – an average of only 3.75 yards per carry.

Yet two plays after Walker’s missed field goal, Ringer burst through the Irish line for a 63-yard scamper. Five runs later, Ringer punched his way into the end-zone from one yard out to give Michigan State a 16-point lead and ending any chance of a Notre Dame comeback.

“What happens is that they can give [Ringer] the ball 39 times a game, and you can hit him and hit him and hit him and he just keeps on coming,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “I think I learned a long time ago that one attribute that great players have is stamina and he obviously has great stamina.”

While the Spartans pounded the ball effectively all day, the Notre Dame ground game was stuck in neutral from the start. After the opening kickoff, Robert Hughes and James Aldridge combined to run the ball three times for four yards. On its next drive, Notre Dame continued to pound the ball with Armando Allen, who rushed three times for a total of three yards.

It didn’t get much better the rest of the first half. Not counting a 24-yard end-around by Irish wide receiver Golden Tate, Notre Dame ran for 23 yards on 13 carries in the opening 30 minutes.

“Our offense came out in the first half trying to win the line of scrimmage and that wasn’t taking place,” Weis said. “It wasn’t some exotic defense they were playing. It still comes down to winning the line of scrimmage, and I think their defensive line got the best of our offense. It wasn’t just our offensive line. It was our offense.”

When the Irish were able to move the ball effectively, turnovers and poor special teams prevented Notre Dame from capitalizing. Midway through the first quarter, an interception in the end zone ended Notre Dame’s first trip into Spartan territory. Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen threw a jump ball intended for wide receiver Duval Kamara. The sophomore wideout got his hands on the ball, but Spartans safety Otis Wiley ripped the ball out of Kamara’s hands for the first of his two interceptions on the day.

Later in the first half, Walker missed his first of two field goals, a 51 yarder, wide right. Notre Dame had four drives inside the Spartan 30-yard line that resulted in zero points – two Clausen interceptions and two missed Walker field goals.

“That was the exact thing I said in the locker room,” Weis said in reference to the turnovers and missed field goals. “I said we didn’t deserve to win this game, but we had a chance to win this game. I think that’s the message all our players will say.”

A big reason Notre Dame had a chance to win Saturday’s game was the play of Clausen in the second half. After an ineffective running game and lukewarm passing game produced only 111 yards of offense in the first half, the Irish abandoned the running game and handed the reins of the offense completely over to Clausen.

Running the offense out of mostly five wide receiver sets, Clausen marched the offense up and down the field.

On Notre Dame’s opening drive of the second half, Clausen completed six consecutive passes before a Michael Floyd fumble ended the drive at the Michigan State 14 yard-line. Two series later, Clausen completed five of seven passes down to the Spartan 26 yard-line before finding Floyd along the sideline for Notre Dame’s only touchdown of the afternoon.

After completing only seven of fourteen passes for 79 yards and two interceptions in the first half, Clausen completed seventeen of 27 passes in the second half for 163 yards and a touchdown.

“He’s just the leader of the team,” Irish receiver Golden Tate said. “We even went to change it up, two-minute drill, quick game. The whole year so far it’s been working for us. We know we can move the ball. We just need to capitalize in the red zone