Make no mistake about it, Notre Dame is an extremely talented football team. You could see superior athletes flying all around the field for the Irish on Saturday. Established names like Michael Floyd and Manti Te’o as well as heralded freshman like Aaron Lynch and George Atkinson III left us all wondering how the Golden Domers started 0-2.
While it’s easy to point to things like turnovers and spotty quarterback play to explain the losses to South Florida and Michigan, it is even easier to explain the Notre Dame victory over Michigan State: The Spartans beat themselves.
As usual Notre Dame fans will come to the immediate irrational defense of a team they believe should play in the national championship game every year. They will point to the 31-13 final score and insist their Irish thoroughly stuck it to the Spartans. I’m sure Lou Holtz thinks the Notre Dame can hang with the New England Patriots at this point. Ara Parseghian better make some room because the era of Brian Kelly is upon us.
And maybe it is; after all, Kelly’s team did take care of business at home against a top-15 team and the defending Big Ten champions in Michigan State.
However, Kelly didn’t make the Spartans attempt possibly the most ill-advised fake field goal of all time at the end of the first half. Kelly didn’t force the Spartans to commit 12 penalties. And Kelly certainly didn’t convince the Spartans’ Keshawn Martin to break off his comeback route on the goal line in the final minutes of the fourth quarter with the outcome still in doubt, leading to the game-sealing interception by the Irish’s Robert Blanton.
Mark Dantonio insisted after the game that his call for a fake field goal while trailing 21-10 with 52 seconds remaining in the first half did not ultimately decide the game for the Spartans. While that may be true (it was a combination of all the above mistakes), the field goal gaffe certainly cost the Spartans any momentum they may have carried into the break, not to mention closing the gap to a one-possession game.
Should Michigan State have won this game? Probably not. However, the Spartans had more total yards, more first downs and held the ball nearly five minutes longer than the Irish, so you’ll excuse me if I don’t believe the 31-13 result is indicative of how this game actually played out.
Michigan State never found a running game, managing a meager 29 yards on the ground. When the Spartans’ stable of backs can’t get it going, you can safely pencil Michigan State in for an “L."In their two loses against Iowa and Alabama last season, the Spartans garnered 31 and -48 rushing yards respectively (not a typo—literally -48 yards).
Not only were both of those games blowouts by the numbers, but each felt like a blowout to the naked eye as well. The Notre Dame game never did. Up until that Blanton pick of Kirk Cousins on the goal line in the closing moments, you always had the sneaking suspicion Michigan State still had a chance.
Notre Dame deserved to win this game. The Irish made the bigger plays on special teams, they established a running game, and although their turnover problems are by no means fixed (13 through three games), their giveaways came in less crucial moments than those of the Spartans.
However, I will remember this game far more for the things Michigan State did not do well than the things Notre Dame did.