Notre Dame’s comeback attempt falls short, Irish lose to Spartans
Daniel O'Boyle | Monday, September 19, 2016
Another star performance from junior quarterback Deshone Kizer. Timely stops from a defense that couldn’t find any a quarter earlier. A narrow fourth-down conversion. A tipped catch barely an inch in bounds to start it all off. The ball back in Kizer’s hands with Notre Dame needing only one score and having plenty of time.
Notre Dame’s performance late against Michigan State on Saturday night had all the makings of a legendary comeback.
Except, of course, for the final eight points. The Spartans (2-0) held on to the lead they built up late in the third quarter for a 36-28 victory.
11 seconds into the game, the Irish (1-2) believed they had the early lead. Sophomore receiver CJ Sanders took the opening kickoff all the way for a touchdown. A holding call, though, brought the play back all the way to the Notre Dame 10.
After an exchange of punts, junior quarterback Deshone Kizer took over at his own 9-yard line and led the first touchdown drive of the game, finishing it himself with a 14-yard run into the corner of the endzone.
After freshman defensive lineman Daelin Hayes tipped the ball into the hands of freshman safety Devin Studstill for an interception at the start of the second quarter, things seemed to be going Notre Dame’s way. Although the offense couldn’t score on the ensuing possession, a punt from sophomore Tyler Newsome pinned the Spartans at their own 12-yard-line. A Michigan State three-and-out seemed certain to set the Irish up with strong field position.
But then the game turned.
As sophomore receiver Miles Boykin attempted to block a Michigan State gunner downfield, Spartan sophomore Jake Hartbarger’s punt bounced off Boykin’s leg — officially a fumble — and was recovered by the Spartans. They took advantage immediately, as freshman receiver Donnie Corley grabbed a pass that seemed destined for the hands of Irish senior cornerback Cole Luke in the endzone. A fake field goal play for the two-point conversion gave Michigan State a lead that they would not relinquish for the rest of the game.
Senior defensive end Isaac Rochell said the special teams turnover was difficult to deal with.
“It’s tough,” Rochell said. “Any time you get a big stop, and then you have to come back and defend them 40 yards closer to scoring, it’s frustrating [and] it’s tough, but it is what it is.”
Just before halftime, Spartan senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor engineered a 92-yard touchdown drive, putting the Irish eight points behind at the half, 15-7.
In the third quarter, the Spartans began to pull away. First with a 10-play touchdown drive finished by junior running back Gerald Holmes. Then a 9-yard scoring run from sophomore running back LJ Scott three plays after a Kizer interception. Finally, a 73-yard run from Holmes through the middle of the Irish defense gave the Spartans their third touchdown of the quarter.
Suddenly, Michigan State had stretched the lead from 15-7 to 36-7 in just over four minutes of play.
It was on the very next play that Notre Dame began the chase. Kizer found senior receiver Torii Hunter Jr. deep for a 47-yard catch, and three plays later, sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown tipped the ball to himself and kept his foot in bounds for what would be ruled a touchdown after review.
Kizer said he didn’t find it difficult to get back into a groove and lead his team down the field.
“When you know you are executing what you’re supposed to do, and you simply do your job, you’re going to score points,” Kizer said. “It’s not tough at all. You just go out and do your job. Only reason we hit the low is because I wasn’t doing mine, that simple.”
Getting the ball back early in the final quarter, the Irish wasted no time in bringing it deep into Spartans territory, reaching the Michigan State 5-yard line in less than a minute. On the ninth play of the drive, Kizer ran it in for his second rushing score of the game.
Then, after Rochell blew up a Michigan State third-down running play for a nine-yard loss, Kizer took over again, and in a drive consisting of eight consecutive passing plays, he took the ball 69 yards downfield and connected with senior tight end Durham Smythe to make it a one-score game.
A quick three-and-out gave Notre Dame the ball with 4:18 remaining, but with Kizer sacked on third-and-two, Irish head coach Brian Kelly elected to punt the ball away and hope for another defensive stop. Kelly said he stood by the decision to punt rather than go for the first down
“We still had two timeouts,” Kelly said. “We had gotten a couple of stops defensively and felt like they certainly were going to run the football. We got them into a good third down situation, and we don’t do a very good job on two vertical and give them an easy completion. We put ourselves back in a position even after that situation with another timeout. We make a stop there, and looks like a pretty good decision.”
The Irish had a chance to get that stop after two rushes left the Spartans with third-and-7. O’Connor’s pass on that play to Corley was underthrown, but with no defender anywhere near Corley, it was an easy completion, and Corley took a knee knowing the game was all but over. One more first down three plays later guaranteed the win for the Spartans. Kelly said the blame for the completion to Corley rested with him.
“We’re in a position — we gotta make that play, obviously,” Kelly said. “They got two verticals, pretty standard deal, corner’s trying to midpoint two vertical, we buzz it with the underneath coverage guy, and we’re not in good position. That’s poor coaching. We’re not coaching it well enough. Obviously, if our players can’t execute a simple two vertical corner sitting over the top and the safety coming underneath, that’s on me. That falls on my shoulders, and we’re not getting that done. So we’re either not capable of running that coverage or we’re not coaching it well enough — one or the other — so I gotta do a better job.”
With no two-loss team having ever placed higher than No. 6 in the playoff committee rankings, the loss effectively ends any hopes the Irish may have had of contending for the national title. Rochell said he hopes the team will not focus on how the game has affected their playoff chances.
“We can’t look at it that way,” Rochell said. “We have to keep it small, game by game. We have a relatively young team, so it’s just a matter of getting better, keeping attitudes right, not looking at the big picture, but just thinking, ‘Let’s grind, let’s do it.’”
The Irish will next be in action against Duke on Saturday. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. at Notre Dame Stadium.