Forget the omnipresent commentary on Notre Dame turning the ball over for a minute. With the help of a few freshmen, namely DE Aaron Lynch and RB George Atkinson III, the Irish were able to earn their first win of the season this past Saturday against Michigan State.
There were other contributors in the Irish's 31-13 victory, but much of the win can be attributed to solid contributions from the underclassmen.
Lynch did not play at all in the road contest against Michigan a week prior, and based on the performance he put on against Michigan State, it is difficult to understand his lack of playing. He was a dominant force and caused issues all afternoon for Spartans QB Kirk Cousins.
With the Spartans running game essentially obsolete (29 yards), Lynch saw most of his playing time in obvious passing situations. His pass rushing ability stood out as he amassed five tackles, one sack that caused a fumble and six quarterback hurries. To put that last stat into perspective, last season alone Notre Dame did not have a single individual record more than five hurries for the year.
That is some serious pressure!
Moving onto Atkinson III, his spark was provided on special teams. After the Spartans got on the board with a field goal, bringing the score to 7-3 in favor of the Irish, Atkinson III took the ensuing Spartans kickoff 89-yards for a touchdown. It marked the first kickoff return for the Irish since Amrando Allen Jr's 95-yard return in the 2008 Hawaii Bowl.
After the game, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly revealed how the Irish practiced creating a "wedge" throughout the week to expose the Spartans. Senior walk-on Chris Salvi perfectly executed a block on the play to take out two Spartans defenders to help pave the way for Atkinson III. The freshman did the rest of the work with his blazing speed.
Special teams play for the Irish still showed inconsistency despite the great return by Atkinson III. John Goodman muffed a punt in the fourth quarter and caused a "here we go again" feeling to settle in over Notre Dame Stadium. Punt returns cannot get much worse for the Irish, as they rank 106th in yards returned (5) and 111th in average yards per return (0.7). If improvements are not made, the Irish will wind up losing more games this year due to poor special teams play.
Irish QB Tommy Rees put himself into another set of precarious situations after two turnovers early in the first half. If the Irish are to make anything out of their abysmal start to the season, they will need Rees to limit his mistakes. His resiliency cannot be forgotten, though, as his short term memory allows him to quickly move on after throwing an interception and focus on his next opportunity.
Fifth year senior CB Gary Gray redeemed himself nicely after a dismal showing last weekend in the Big House. He had a few knock downs and made 10 tackles en route to a much needed bounce back performance. The real star of the secondary, though, was senior Robert Blanton.
After Goodman's muffed punt, the Spartans took over with the ball deep in Irish territory. Cousins helped advance the ball inside the red zone to the Irish before setting the stage for Blanton's heroics. Blanton tipped a pass from Cousins to himself and bolted 82 yards down the field to help preserve Notre Dame's first win on the year. He also made six tackles including three for a loss in the contest.
All world WR Michael Floyd faced double coverage throughout the game but still managed to reel in six catches for 84 yards. He received some help from Sophomore WR TJ Jones, who caught a TD pass from Rees in the third quarter to put the Irish up 28-10. Not only did he put the Irish further on top of the Spartans, he put his gloves together to form a Leprechaun and was flagged for an unsportsmanlike penalty. This was contrary to what Coach Kelly had been advised of and had consequently informed his players that it was "OK" to do so.
As it turns out, after further review, Jones and Kelly's interpretations, not the referees', of the rule were correct.
It has been said before and will be said again: Coach Kelly is building a new philosophy and mindset with his football team. In year two, things should be progressing, and we have already seen some major improvements along the defensive line and running game (two areas facing the most need for resurrection).
While the Irish would feel much better sitting at 2-1 as opposed to 1-2, they will take what they can get at this point. After all, as the nation's leading team in turnovers lost, it is hard to imagine they have even won one game.
Pittsburgh, who experienced Notre Dame syndrome by blowing a huge fourth quarter lead last weekend at Iowa, is up next for the Irish and will pose as an intriguing challenge. The Panthers are led by Todd Graham, who skippered the Tulsa Golden Hurricane to victory at Notre Dame Stadium last season.
A lot has changed since Graham's last contest against the Irish, and growing pains will most likely show for the Panthers in this contest. Barring any major catastrophe on special teams or in the turnover department, the Irish should emerge from Saturday's matchup 2-2 on the year.