Sept. 24, 2017
By John Heisler
Call the Irish opportunistic.
Call them sudden-change agents.
Call them takeaway artists.
Call them clinical when the opposition makes a mistake.
Call them statistically best in the nation in the red zone.
Call them physical, gritty and capable of being as crafty as required with the football.
University of Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly this morning is happy to consider the list of options.
The number of adjectives that legitimately might apply to his 2017 Irish edition one-third of the way through the season grew again late into a warm early fall Saturday evening in East Lansing.
Notre Dame landed a quick haymaker with a first drive that couldn't have been any more impressive, put home-standing Michigan State on the ropes in the first five minutes -- and then withstood and answered everything the Spartans could muster in the final two periods.
The end result was a dominating 38-18 Irish victory that featured a few more bricks for the foundation Kelly and his current unit are building.
In this old-school rivalry Notre Dame added a new-fangled asterisk by winning at Spartan Stadium by its largest margin in a quarter century.
"No joke, men, no joke," Kelly told his team before the contest began.
"This game requires all your attention to detail, it requires the focus. No joke -- it's a hard game. That's why we love playing it.
"The challenges that this game presents to you are like nothing else. It hardens you, it strengthens you from within so you can conquer anything in front of you. And you have to put all those things together -- we work on them every day. We work on them together.
"There's nothing like it when a group of guys comes together committed to one cause. And that is winning for Notre Dame. That's why we're here today. To win for Notre Dame. We bring all those things together tonight. It's hard but it's worthwhile.
"It's gonna be the same thing -- every single play is going to require four seconds of mental and physical endurance. Do that for 80 plays and you'll beat your opponent tonight.
"Go out and prove you are the better football team.
"The bright lights are on.
"Let's go prove it."
The Irish came with a noteworthy game plan. Expecting Michigan State to gang up against tailback Josh Adams and a Notre Dame ground game that had run roughshod over Temple and Boston College, the Irish pitched a curve ball.
Brandon Wimbush threw five straight passes to open the football game, completing two to Chase Claypool on the first three attempts and two more to Equanimeous St. Brown (one of those for 40 yards, the longest gain of the night for the visitors). Wimbush converted on a nifty quarterback draw and in less than two minutes the Irish had the Spartans on their heels and had exquisitely quieted the crowd.
Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke threw five consecutive passes on the first Spartan possession -- but Notre Dame corner Julian Love jumped the last of those and turned it into a 59-yard scoring play. Less than five minutes into the contest, the Irish had a two-score lead.
Maybe never has a team paid such a cruel and heavy price for turning the football over.
Lewerke scrambled to his left trying to extend a play and Greer Martini batted the ball out of his hands and into those of Notre Dame's Daelin Hayes only 24 yards from the end zone. Dexter Williams managed to get one foot down on a Wimbush pass at the edge of the end zone, and the Irish led 21-7.
Just when it appeared the Spartans might make some noise the bottom fell out. LJ Scott ran free toward the goal line but literally inches from pay dirt Shaun Crawford knocked the ball loose and recovered for an Irish touchback.
Consider Notre Dame's defense primarily responsible for the fact that Michigan State as of today ranks 124th nationally among 129 FBS teams in turnover margin.
Those Irish sudden-change agents? They did it again. Adams ran for 30 yards on the first play, a Spartan personal foul tacked on another 15 yards, Wimbush found Durham Smythe for 21 yards and then Williams made it 28-7 by scoring from the 14.
"They are gonna throw everything they've got at you right away," Kelly told his team at intermission.
"So let's grow. Let's have a growth episode, whatever you want to call it, right here. We push them back and we knock them out. Let's see what we're about right now.
"There is no way this football team is built any other way than to stop them when they're down. We do not let up. Every man has got to lock in.
"If you've got energy and enthusiasm and love for this game and this university, we take it over in this quarter and we end this football game. It's not going to be easy.
"They are going to come after you.
"Let's see something."
Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long added his own exhortations:
"Keep flying around. Keep making plays. Keep attacking their (butts).
"Be greedy. Don't take your foot off their throats."
Notre Dame set the tone for the final 30 minutes on the first two possessions of the third period. Michigan State drove 53 yards for a field goal, but there was an impending sense that field goals weren't going to get the job done for the home team on this particular evening.
Notre Dame came right back with a 62-yard march of its own -- the big play coming on a huge sideline grab by Claypool for 27 yards.
Freshman Deon McIntosh scored from the nine, and that play emptied the Spartan student section.
Lewerke added a bunch of passing yards to the stat sheet, but the only Michigan State TD in the second half came with just more than three minutes remaining. By then Notre Dame fans may have outnumbered Spartan faithful as midnight beckoned.
"Great job, men," Kelly noted once it was over in a loud, giddy Irish locker room that thoroughly enjoyed the return of the Megaphone Trophy.
"First time with back-to-back wins on the road by at least three scores since the early '80s (actually 1983 at Colorado by 27-3 and South Carolina by 30-7).
"That's grit, that's toughness. You know you're going to get bounced a little but you just keep playing.
"Here's who we are becoming -- opportunistic offensively. Turning opportunities into touchdowns -- not field goals but touchdowns. Great job, offense. Brandon Wimbush throwing the football.
"But what's apparent is who we are becoming defensively. We're taking the football away from them.
"The guy that's in the middle of that is Shaun Crawford."
Michigan State outgained the Irish by 141 yards. The Spartans ran 25 more plays then Kelly's group. Time of possession favored Michigan State by more than eight minutes.
But the one number that mattered listed on the 52nd and final line of the team statistics page.
It said the Irish had accounted for 21 points off turnovers.
Added Spartan coach Mark Dantonio, "You look at the football game and you talk about turnovers. You talk about it, you talk about it, you talk about it. They happen.
"Bad things come about it or good things, depending on which side of the fence you're on.
"When you look at it statistically, statistics can lie to you."
The Irish are 3-1.
They are trending up.
Kelly will only look to add to that list of adjectives on Saturdays to come.