Robert Blanton's interception nailed down the first Irish Victory of 2011.
After fumbling and bumbling to an unthinkable 0-2 start, Notre Dame finally appeared to right the ship and likely save their season on Saturday in South Bend. Starting quickly, Notre Dame unleashed two weeks of frustration on Michigan State as the Irish rolled to a 31-13 victory.
What was the difference for Notre Dame?
Notre Dame defense stood tall vs. Michigan State
The much ballyhooed and perhaps over-hyped defense of the preseason finally arrived in South Bend on Saturday. Yes, some people will argue the Irish played well at times vs. South Florida and maybe for three quarters vs. Michigan; however, they failed to turn in big plays in both games at the most critical times.
Saturday was different as the Irish defense turned in big plays all over the field. The Notre Dame run defense limited the Spartans to just 29 yards rushing. The Irish also limited the Michigan State to just 5-of-17 on third down and came up with two sacks.
Finally, the play of the day was the red-zone interception and return by Robert Blanton that closed the book on Sparty and gave the Irish a much-needed first win.
A calmer, gentler Brian Kelly.
For two weeks I've listened to message boards and websites like this one kill Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame coaching staff for everything from turnovers to personnel decisions to lack of preparation. Kelly had his team well prepared on Saturday and it showed.
The Irish played with an enthusiasm and passion that had been missing since the end of last season. In addition, the Irish defense for the most part throttled arguably the best set of skill position athletes they will face during the regular season.
Notre Dame even turned the tables on Sparty by stuffing a fake field goal attempt and in the process exacting a measure of revenge for "Little Giants" of last year.
"Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame"
Football fans and coaches look past fate when they win and lament the ball that didn't bounce their way when they come up short. Although the Irish still committed three turnovers, they got some breaks, too, for perhaps the first time all season.
Just last weekend, the Irish defense forced a fumble on third-and-goal, only to watch helplessly as the ball bounced right to Denard Robinson, who promptly scampered into the end zone.
This week, after Michigan State cut the Irish lead to 7-3, the kicker nearly jarred the ball loose on George Atkinson III, however, Atkinson was able to gather the ball and race the remaining distance for a touchdown and a 14-3 Notre Dame lead.
On a later return, Atkinson did fumble; however, he quickly recovered his own miscue. I can't help but think that last week or in Week 1, neither play would have ended positively for Notre Dame. Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco remarked that bad breaks tend to even out during the season; this appeared to be the case on Saturday.
Jonas Gray looks for running room on Saturday.
The Irish appear to be developing a nice two-headed monster in Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood. On Saturday, the two combined for 126 yards and two touchdowns. Tommy Rees also managed the game well as he hit 69 percent of his passes and spread the ball to five different receivers.
Saturday's edition of the Notre Dame offense looked a great deal like the unit we saw in the last four games of last season. With the number of weapons on this offense, if they can minimize mistakes, they should be very productive going forward.
The Irish finally give their fans a reason to celebrate!
Ten turnovers and 17 penalties through two games equals an 0-2 start. On Saturday, for the first time, the Irish showed signs of improvement. The Irish still turned it over three times but they were able to cut their penalties to six for just 53 yards.
Special teams have been a nightmare thus far, and Saturday they were slightly better. George Atkinson III's kickoff return for a touchdown was offset by two fumbles in the return game that fortunately did not hurt Notre Dame.
Ben Turk had his best game of the season as he averaged 41.5 yards per punt. He was particularly effective in the 4th quarter as he unleashed a 44-yarder and followed with a 50-yarder that Notre Dame downed at the 1.
In order for the Irish to remain on the winning side of the ledger, they will have to become more consistent in all phases of the special teams and further minimize penalties and turnovers.