Sept. 18, 2016
By John Heisler
Somewhere Saturday night the makers of those old Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots by Mattel would have been proud.
Because that's the sort of game that transpired on a perfect weather evening at Notre Dame Stadium when Notre Dame and Michigan State, two of the oldest rivals on the Irish agenda, went after each other.
Most of these recent Irish-Spartan clashes have turned into score-fests:
--Remember Michigan State’s 44-41 overtime win in 2005?
--How about the amazing Irish prime-time comeback in the East Lansing rain a year later (it ended 40-37 for Notre Dame)?
--Recall 33-30 for Notre Dame in 2009 in Notre Dame Stadium where Jimmy Clausen and Kirk Cousins both threw for 300-plus yards?
--State's 34-31 overtime triumph in 2010 in East Lansing?
Saturday under the new LED lights of Notre Dame Stadium fit perfectly.
Just when it appeared three Spartan haymakers in the third period put Brian Kelly's squad on the ropes, the Irish bounced back with three potent punishing punches of their own.
In the end, the visitors won on points, thanks to a few more jabs.
The final scoreboard read 36-28 for Michigan State.
Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Sparty.
Was this a heavyweight prize-fight environment? Absolutely. It wasn't by accident that two postseason bowls and seven National Football League scouts came to watch. Then there was the star-studded 1966 Notre Dame championship squad that was feted just before kickoff—not to mention Irish stars Ross Browner, Mike Townsend, Luther Bradley, Jerome Bettis and Tim Brown on the sidelines. U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan attended the game. Even the Ryder Cup trophy made an appearance, lending to the championship feel of the evening.
Irish coach Brian Kelly figured the visitors might show an early advantage, in great part because the Spartans had an extra week to prepare after their Sept. 2 opener. And his Michigan State counterpart, Mark Dantonio, admitted after the game that maybe his players had a little something to prove since the Spartans’ 28-13 home win over Furman two weeks back hadn’t exactly overwhelmed State fans with unbridled enthusiasm.
"Michigan State has been able to practice and practice and practice," Kelly told his players a few minutes before the game. "They are going to execute very well early on. You're going to have to be on top of your game. Do your job, execute flawlessly and keep after them for four quarters."
"All this is a series of fistfights," Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand told his charges before the kickoff. "And you gotta start the fight."
"Bad intentions all night," offered senior captain Mike McGlinchey.
Early on Notre Dame hung in impressively. The Spartans began the game seemingly content to run the football mostly between the tackles. Michigan State quarterback Tyler O'Connor's first three completions all went for three yards.
Notre Dame connected with the first meaningful blow after quarterback DeShone Kizer rolled left, faking the quarterback keeper, and flipped the ball to a wide-open Equanimeous St. Brown for 48 yards. Kizer finished the drive himself, scrambling left for 14 yards to pay dirt. For the fifth straight game he ran for at least one score (and for the eighth time in nine outings).
Irish sophomore back Josh Adams became the fastest Notre Dame player to 1,000 rushing yards since Darius Walker—and the fact he had been awarded the prestigious number-one jersey for the evening seemed to portend good things.
A Devin Studstill interception deep in Spartan territory put the Irish in position to add to their lead, then Notre Dame’s defense forced a three-and-out scenario.
But when the football inadvertently bounced off Miles Boykin’s calf on an Irish punt return, Michigan State capitalized to land a scoring blow in one play.
Later, punter Tyler Newsome unleashed the longest Notre Dame punt (71 yards) in 16 seasons, only to see the visitors drive 92 yards, mostly on O’Connor pass completions of 23, 11 and 10 yards.
The Spartans maintained a 15-7 edge at the break—but it was anyone’s game for the taking as the second half commenced.
Dantonio’s squad took the fight to the Irish from there.
First a 75-yard scoring drive made it 22-7. After a Michigan State interception in which Jon Reschke barely pulled the ball from the grasp of C.J. Sanders (and that was after the Spartans’ first score came on a reception that somehow ended in the hands of rookie Donnie Corley when it looked like Cole Luke would intercept), State needed three rushing plays to go 39 yards and make it 29-7. The second play of the Spartans’ next possession nearly qualified as a knockout effort—a 73-yard TD run by Gerald Holmes. That made it 36-7.
But, if the Irish were on the canvas, they did not stay there for long.
Kizer’s very next play went 47 yards to Torii Hunter Jr.—and three plays later a tipped ball ended up in St. Brown’s grasp for a 15-yard touchdown. The margin dropped back to 22.
The Irish defense did its part three possessions in a row.
Kizer zapped passes to freshman Chase Claypool (33 yards) and Sanders (34)—and his three-yard scoring run made it a 15-point game.
Throwing on nine straight downs, Kizer found Kevin Stepherson for 19 yards, St. Brown for a dozen, Hunter for 11 and finally tight end Durham Smythe for another dozen yards and six points. With 6:02 on the clock, the Irish had life—and seemingly even more.
But after the Irish forced a Michigan State punt, the Spartan defense returned the favor—and after Dantonio’s club took over on its own 14 with 3:30 to go it converted twice on critical third-down throws (first 28 and then 23 yards) to ice it.
Offered Kelly to his team after the game, “There are no moral victories. No one gets patted on the back for playing hard. We sacrifice and we do what we do to win games.
“We know the resolve in this room. But we didn’t win the football game today because Michigan State made more plays than we did. A few more plays. One thing we know—this group in here has heart and has character. This group will keep fighting. As long as we have that, you can beat anybody no matter what the circumstances. You keep fighting.
“If we maintain that desire to win the way we showed in the second half, if we do that for four quarters, we’ll find ourselves where we want to be. But it’s one week at a time. It’s prepare--and prepare better--one week at a time.”
The Irish know there’s work to be done.
“We gotta go back to work, it’s that simple,” offered McGlinchey after the game. “Go back to practice and focus on beating Duke next week. “We want to do the best we can at all times, and there were some parts of the game today where we were inconsistent in doing our job and it came back to bite us in the butt.
“We just have to keep going back to work and growing and get that consistency both offensively and defensively. There’s not much else to say.”
The Irish will live to fight another day.
Notre Dame’s goal a week from now? It’s simple.
Rock and sock Duke well enough over 15 rounds to claim the bout.
It’s that simple.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler surveys the Irish football scene for Fighting Irish Media.