Notre Dame edged past Michigan State in a decidedly defensive game, which was exactly what everyone expected. What wasn't expected was the role penalties played and the way both teams looked pretty ugly on offense.
So what's different about Notre Dame now versus last week? What new things did we learn, and what suspicions were confirmed? With a tough battle with Oklahoma on the schedule for Week 5, the Irish have several things to polish before the Sooners come to South Bend.
Let's take a look at what's on the coaches' clipboards after a Week 4 victory over Michigan State. Don't worry, it's not all that bad.
Notre Dame doesn't have a shortage of Big Ten teams on its annual schedule. Even with the quasi-move to the ACC, the Irish are still going to see their fair share of big run-game teams.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame is still—somewhat surprisingly after last season's successes—having trouble with stopping the run and open-field tackling. While it didn't cost the Irish the game Saturday, there were several Michigan State first downs that were gifted to the Spartans with poor tackling technique.
What's even more surprising is the fact that some of Notre Dame's top players on defense—Prince Shembo and Louis Nix—have been guilty of poor tackling at the worst possible moments.
Michigan State's offense is bad enough where the results of bad tackling usually meant a first down. Against teams like Oklahoma, it will mean a touchdown.
Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin was not an offensive guy.
When he first came under the wing of Brian Kelly back at Division II Grand Valley State, it was as the defensive backs coach—the position he first held under Kelly at Notre Dame. Martin then moved to defensive coordinator and engineered some of the Lakers' best defensive performances resulting in national championships.
When Kelly left for Central Michigan, Martin took over the reins at GVSU, and his teams earned three trips to the national final, winning two and setting a Division II record with 40 consecutive victories in the process, all with great defense.
Clearly, the OC position is a new gig for him. Luckily, Kelly—widely seen as an offensive guru—calls most of the plays. Still, those who were familiar with Chuck Martin, while he was at Grand Valley, see shades of Martin peeking out in the Notre Dame offense.
End-zone fades, shovel passes, bubble screens, all Martin trademarks, are starting to click in the Notre Dame offense. As the Kelly machine takes 100 percent control of the on-field personnel, don't be surprised if Martin's role as an offensive play-caller expands.
Once he gets his sea legs and has the proper personnel in place, there will be very little the tandem of Kelly and Martin won't be able to accomplish with a healthy Notre Dame offense.
There was a lot of discussion about how Tommy Rees could fit back into the Notre Dame offense as starter after spending an entire season watching from the sidelines. Rees's penchant for turnovers has been a major concern in the past, but it looks as if he's growing out of his youthful mistakes.
Brian Kelly not only trusted Rees enough to become the on-field general for the Irish this season, he uncorked his arm Saturday. Play after play, it was clear that Notre Dame wanted to test the Michigan State secondary. Rees threw 34 passes against Michigan State, and although he completed just 14 for 142 yards and one touchdown, there were no interceptions thrown.
Rees's growth as a passer is evident. His decisions in the pocket have evolved from stupid mistakes to smart decisions, for the most part.
There are still a few situations where Rees gives up short passes over the middle for long bombs with a smaller chance of success, but he's beginning to throw the football to areas where there are only two possible outcomes: a completion or an incompletion. Interceptions have been taken out of the equation.
One of the reasons Rees has been able to develop his skills in the pocket has been the fact that the pocket doesn't collapse nearly as quickly as it has earlier this season. The offensive line is providing Rees with adequate time to make the smart choices, and the only thing that needs to improve now is the accuracy of the throws.
The performance against Michigan State is even more impressive when taking into consideration how dominant MSU's defense has been over the past few seasons (including this year). Notre Dame won't encounter many teams better at the pass rush than the Spartans. That has to make Kelly very happy.
OK, so this isn't something new we learned, but with a few notable exceptions Saturday, Prince Shembo proved he's an integral part of the Notre Dame defense.
His power and agility combine to give the most tackles fits around the edge, and his ability to suddenly appear in the opposition's backfield is amazing to say the least.
The only minor complaint that we saw from Shembo against Michigan State is his short fuse. Frustration took a hold of Shembo a few times against MSU, and his desire to make a big play was met with a tackle whiff, or worse, a penalty.
Granted, there was plenty of that for both teams on this day, but that won't make the coaches feel any better.
This has to be one of the most confusing aspects of the 2013 Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Last season, Notre Dame was 11th in the FBS in rush defense. Coming into the game against Michigan State, Notre Dame had dropped to 26th nationally.
With 119 yards rushing for the Spartans, Notre Dame's numbers aren't going to improve, and Michigan State has one of the weakest offenses seen from a major college program in a long, long time. That kind of performance should cause defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to lose some sleep this week preparing for Blake Bell and the Oklahoma Sooners' power-rushing attack.
Yes, it was Michigan State, a team which has had trouble finding the end zone with the offense for well over a year now. Any team that has passers combine for 16-of-36 for only 135 yards, one touchdown and one interception will make most secondaries look pretty good.
But the important thing to take away from this game is the fact that Notre Dame's secondary was always in good coverage position. Even when the MSU quarterbacks tossed up a horrible-looking pass (which was more often than not), there was little chance of a completion anyhow.
Notre Dame's defenders stuck to MSU's receivers all day, and most of the damage the Spartans were able to inflict was on the ground.
Once MSU made the decision to go back to the pass late in the game, Notre Dame was ready for it and shut the Spartans down.
Matthias Farley, in particular, showed great recognition in coverage, even managing to sniff out a trick pass for a crucial interception.
We've already mentioned Saturday's game wasn't pretty. While there certainly were some solid performances from the Irish against Michigan State, the Notre Dame player(s) of the game probably were the only ones on the field without helmets and pads.
In what can only be described as a very liberal interpretation of the pass-interference rule, the Big Ten officiating crew was often the target of Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio's sideline tirades.
While Dantonio can certainly be a firey guy when he gets worked up, he had plenty of reason to be upset. Of Notre Dame's 13 first downs, five of them were a result of an MSU penalty. Four of those penalty-induced first downs came on third or fourth downs, too.
The Irish will certainly take all the free yards a team will hand them, but it's rare to see teams on Notre Dame's schedule that will commit 10 penalties for 115 yards. That was a clear game-changer for Michigan State. It won't be for teams like Oklahoma and Stanford.
Last season, it looked as if the stars had aligned for Notre Dame. Brian Kelly was in that somehow magical third season in South Bend, a freshman phenom showed up to take over the quarterbacking duties, and at the same time, the defense took its game to new heights.
That was then.
The storyline for 2013 is apparently going to be how successful the Irish will be at avoiding the hangover from a 12-0 regular season that ended in a BCS National Championship Game appearance.
Defensive graduations took a toll, particularly with the loss of Manti Te'o at linebacker, and the loss of Everett Golson at quarterback due to academic issues is going to take a pretty large slice out of the offense.
Notre Dame fans simply need to be prepared for a step back this season. Just remember; even with falling back to earth a bit in 2013, the Fighting Irish are still leaps and bounds ahead of where they were just a few short seasons ago. Notre Dame will continue to remain nationally relevant under Brian Kelly, even if the Irish aren't perpetually undefeated.
You can take this one of two ways. First, the BCS is a long way off for this Notre Dame team—and it certainly is. But the way the Irish are probably looking at it, BCS selection is a long way off.
Right now, Notre Dame doesn't look like a BCS-caliber team. There are just too many soft spots on defense, and the offense isn't capable of competing with some of the nation's best.
That being said, the BCS Selection Show doesn't take place until December 8. It's still September. There's plenty that can be done to whip this team into shape over the next few months.
Notre Dame has several big games looming: next week versus Oklahoma, October 5 versus Arizona State, November 23 versus BYU and November 30 at Stanford. If, if Notre Dame can win three of those four games (assuming the Irish win all the others), this team may just find its way into another BCS bowl at a pretty impressive 10-2.
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