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Irish Insider: Squeaking by Sparty

Alex Barker | Monday, September 21, 2009

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Just one week after giving up the go-ahead score in the final minute against Michigan, the Irish defense once again found themselves with their backs against the wall, needing a late fourth-quarter stop to protect a three-point lead. This time, they got it.

Senior safety Kyle McCarthy’s interception at the four-yard line with 1:10 remaining preserved a 33-30 Notre Dame victory over Michigan State on Saturday, breaking the Irish’s six-game home losing streak against the Spartans.

“I think this is a huge step for our guys. Not necessarily for the program, but for the guys in the locker room,” said McCarthy. “We deserve this win.”

Just a play before the interception, Notre Dame (2-1) dodged a bullet after Michigan State running back Larry Caper, who had beaten the entire Irish secondary, found himself wide-open in the corner of the end zone, but was unable to come down with a reception from Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins.

“After last week, how bad everybody felt in a very similar situation in the ending of the game, to make a play to change the outcome in favor of us, I’m really, really happy for those kids in there,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “It’s nice to see how genuinely excited they are. They feel great.”

While the Notre Dame defense came up with the big play at the end, it was the Irish offense that stole the spotlight for much of the game.

Junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen was again superb, completing 22 of 31 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns. For the second straight game, Clausen led the Irish down the field late in the fourth quarter for a go-ahead touchdown. He found Golden Tate on a 33-yard pass with 5:18 remaining to give Notre Dame the three-point lead. Clausen has thrown for at least 300 yards and two scores in each of the first three games.

“[Clausen was] good enough to where I let him sing the fight song today,” Weis said. “He has really evolved, not just as a good football player, but as a leader of the team. You just watch him and he has that confidence in his own ability and he’s bringing other people along with him.”

Clausen went down early in the second quarter with a toe injury, but came back in on the next series after missing just one play.

Sophomore wide receiver Michael Floyd was dominant in the first half before suffering an injury of his own. Floyd has two receptions for 38 yards and an early score before leaving the game with a shoulder injury in the second quarter on what seemed to be a Notre Dame touchdown. Clausen threw a short fade to Floyd in the end zone that was ruled incomplete on the field and upheld by a review despite appearing to have possession in bounds. Floyd did not return to the game following the injury.

In the first quarter, the game looked to be completely controlled by the Irish. After a defensive stop on the first Spartan series, Clausen engineered a magnificent drive that featured sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph’s 52-yard grab. Junior running back Armando Allen capped off the drive from the Wildcat formation with a 13-yard run for the score. Allen led all rushers with 120 yards on the ground, his second straight game with over 100 yards.

After a Michigan State field goal, Clausen drove the Irish right down the field again for another touchdown, this time hitting Floyd from 22 yards out in the corner of the end zone. Clausen was nine of nine in the first quarter for 128 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, and completed his first ten passes before a drop by tight end Mike Ragone.

The second quarter was a completely different story. The Spartans (1-2) got their offense rolling thanks to a number of drive-saving penalties committed by the Irish.

Two personal fouls led to Michigan State’s first touchdown, a 30-yard pass from wide receiver Keshawn Brown on a reverse to another wide receiver, Blair White.

After a Notre Dame field goal, the Spartans grabbed their first lead of the game, 17-16, just a minute before halftime when freshman running back Larry Caper punched it in from the one.

The Irish came out with a 10-0 run early in the third quarter when Clausen led two scoring drives on the first two possessions. Allen took the snap from the Wildcat formation and threw a five-yard pass to senior Robby Parris for the first points of the second half. A 46-yard field goal from freshman Nick Tausch increased the Irish’s lead to 26-17.

“Really the message [at halftime] was very clearly that we needed to come out and score on our first possession, which we did,” Weis said. “By scoring in the first possession we really flipped the momentum back in our favor.”

On Michigan State’s next drive, the Irish special teams unit stepped up to provide what would prove to be one of the biggest plays of the game. Sophomore defensive tackle Ethan Johnson rose up and got just enough of the extra-point attempt to send it wide.

“Great play by Notre Dame blocking the extra point,” Spartan coach Mark Dantonio said of the play. “It’s probably the play of the game when you really look at it. If everything else unfolds as is, we’re kicking a field goal to win it.”

After last week’s crushing defeat and the close losses that have plagued the Irish over the past two seasons, Weis was encouraged by the change in mentality he’s seeing from his team.

“In the past, what might have happened is when we went down in the second half, it might have been deflating,” he said. “But not this team. This team just expects they’re going to come back and make a play and win.”