Notre Dame was in control throughout as they won their second consecutive road contest, defeating Michigan State 38-18. Although the Irish were out gained by over 100 yards, statistics can be deceptive as the Irish bolted out to a 14-0 lead in less than 5 minutes and never looked back. Whether Michigan State is a quality opponent remains to be seen. However, to soundly beat a Big 10 opponent on the road in primetime is certainly impressive. While the loss to Georgia still stings, the Irish have dominated their three other opponents. Even though the Irish may not have a chance for a true quality win until USC, I think it’s time to close the book on the struggles of 2016. Let’s take a look at how the match ups played out on Saturday night.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Michigan State Defense
Heading into this game, all of the focus for Notre Dame revolved around whether Brandon Wimbush could pass accurately. To the surprise of almost everyone, the Irish came out and threw the ball on 6 of their first 7 plays. Wimbush passed the test. A couple of quick outs to Chase Claypool and a long pass to Equanimeous St. Brown set up Wimbush for a quarterback draw to give the Irish a 7-0 lead in less than 2 minutes.The Irish offense continued to roll from there, especially in the red zone, where they are 19-for19 on the season including 17 touchdowns. Wimbush finished 14-for-20 with 173 yards and a TD through the air to go with his rushing TD. In the running game, Notre Dame got all three backs involved. Josh Adams, Dexter Williams, and Deon McIntosh all had at least 30 yards on the ground. Williams had a receiving touchdown and rushing touchdown, while McIntosh scored his first career TD. The only concern is that Josh Adams may have a mild ankle injury, thankfully post-game tests revealed no major damage. While they didn’t light up the scoreboard, the Irish finally looked balanced on offense.
Although the Michigan State defense held Notre Dame to 355 yards of total offense, the Spartans could never stop the Irish when it mattered. Certainly, the Spartans offense put their defense in bad spots all night, but they could never come away with key stops. Linebacker Chris Frey was easily fooled when he allowed Dexter Williams to slip out of the backfield and catch Notre Dame’s 3rd touchdown of the night. By the 2nd half, Notre Dame’s offense played more to milk the clock than run up the score. Michigan State did not get pushed around the way Temple and Boston College did, but they didn’t force a single turnover and committed key penalties to aid the Irish.
Notre Dame Grade: A-
Michigan State Grade: C+
Michigan State Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The Spartans had struggled with turnovers in their first two games and those struggles continued against the Irish. On their first offensive possession, Brian Lewerke telegraphed a throw that was easily intercepted and taken to the house by Julian Love. Lewerke would later fumble deep in Spartan territory leading to another Notre Dame score. The real back-breaker, though, was the fumble just inches from the goaline by L.J. Scott. At the time, MSU trailed 21-7 and would have been right back in the game if Scott had taken just one more step with possession. Instead, he was stripped by Shaun Crawford, and once again the Irish converted a turnover into 7 points. Essentially, that 14 point swing ended the game for MSU in the 2nd quarter. Lewerke did put up 340 passing yards, but much of that came after Notre Dame had the game well in hand. The prevent defense played by the Irish allowed for easy underneath throws, but MSU never put true pressure on ND in the 2nd half.
Although giving up 496 yards of total offense doesn’t look pretty, it just didn’t matter for the Irish defense. The three forced turnovers and 7 points allowed in the first half had put Notre Dame in a very comfortable position. Julian Love made a great read on the pick six, and Shaun Crawford showed great hustle on his strip near the end zone. I can’t say enough about how excited I am for Crawford following two season ending injuries in 2015 and 2016. Through four games this season he has 2 INTs, 2 fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble; Crawford is a true playmaker on D. The pass rush and pass defense could use improvement, but this defense is opportunistic and makes stops in the red zone. If you can force turnovers and hold teams to field goals or no points in the red zone, big yardage totals mean nothing.
Michigan State Grade: C-
Notre Dame Grade: B+
Justin Yoon knocked through his fifth consecutive field goal as he continues a strong junior season. Tyler Newsome was a bit underwhelming by his standards as he averaged just 38.25 yards per punt. CJ Sanders did have a nice kick return of 38 yards, but Chris Finke got nothing going in the punt return game. Some fans have been clamoring for Sanders to get the punt return role back, but I think the issues have more to do with blocking than Finke’s ability as a return man. Yes, Sanders is more elusive and has more speed, but he wouldn’t make plays either when the coverage team is on him in less than a second.
Matt Coghlin was 1-for-1 on field goals for MSU. Punter Jake Hartbarger was impressive as he averaged 49 yards per punt. The Spartans did have one long kick return as Darrell Stewart took one 32 yards. MSU did not have a single punt return yard on the night. Overall, special teams had a minimal impact on the game.
Notre Dame Grade: B
Michigan State Grade: B
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) September 24, 2017
If you haven’t seen this video of Brian Kelly and the team celebrating in the locker room, it’s a must watch. Coach Kelly has taken a lot of heat over the past couple years, but you know what this showed me? He and his players have built a strong bond this season. You can say that liking your coach has no impact on the field, but I tend to believe players will push a little harder when they want to play for a coach. This Irish team is rallying behind Coach Kelly and it could carry them a long way this season. With that being said, the dance moves could use a bit of work. The Irish will get back to work Saturday against old friend Chuck Martin and Miami of Ohio.