Notre Dame football: Kelly sees progress in escape of MSU

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

They amassed more yardage in penalties than in a ground game that’s stuck in the fermentation phase and awarded the game ball to their punter on Saturday.

But there was something about the retro feel of 22nd-ranked Notre Dame’s 17-13 statistically flawed subduing of rival Michigan State at Notre Dame Stadium that had Irish coach Brian Kelly smelling the progress over the lingering wafts of growing pains.

“It wasn’t going to be a beauty contest,” he said.

What it has to be is a building block, with another elite defense (Oklahoma’s) following the Spartans (3-1) into South Bend next Saturday and bringing with it more semblance of an offense than MSU was able to deliver.

The Spartans did live up to their billing as both the nation’s No. 1 overall defense in yards allowed and in pass-efficiency defense too, as the Irish cobbled together their 17 points with the fewest offensive yards (224) in a game since USC stonewalled the Irish to a total of 91 late in the 2008 season. That 38-3 bludgeoning happened to be the game that sent then-head coach Charlie Weis into limbo for about a week before athletic director Jack Swarbrick agreed to give that regime one more year.

No such stakes were on the line Saturday, but the Irish (3-1) kept alive the notion internally that they can evolve into a BCS team, even if the rest of the college football world largely looks at the team and shrugs.

“I think we took steps,” Irish fifth-year senior offensive tackle and captain Zack Martin offered. “I’ve said all year, we’re trying to get better each week, and I think we were better in week four than we were in week one. And we’ll be better in week five than we were today.

“Just keep making strides and hopefully by the end of the year, we’ll be all oiled up.”

Saturday it was the defense’s turn to cast the impression of being more polished, and expectedly so. But the way Kelly accomplished that end had some unexpected wrinkles.

Kelly plugged backup nose guard Kona Schwenke into injured starting defensive end Sheldon Day’s (sprained ankle) vacated spot for the majority of the snaps, fiddled with his rotation at the inside linebacker and safety spots, broadened his depth at cornerback by playing freshmen Cole Luke and Devin Butler together during some key stretches, and lit a fire under slumbering preseason All-America defensive end Stephon Tuitt (a season-high six tackles, one sack and constant pressure off the edge).

“We're just trying to get the right mix and the right lineup and the right guys in the right place,” Kelly said. “But I wouldn't say that we're at that point where we're definitely sold we have the 11 guys in the right place. We think we're closer. We still have to do a little bit more work.

“Everybody now knows what's expected of them. I want to be careful what I say here. What we wanted to do more than anything else is let these kids know what our expectations of them are and how they play that position. So they're all playing at a higher level because we set some clear expectations. We saw that today.”

Michigan State managed just 254 total yards itself, had a long pass of 19 yards and a long run of 11, the only rush of more than eight yards. The last three Spartan offensive possessions, with the Irish hanging on to the 17-13 lead, went punt, third-and-out/punt, and turning the ball over on downs.

MSU coach Mark Dantonio brought in demoted starter Andrew Maxwell for what turned out to be MSU’s final offensive series. And the fifth-year senior, apparently made obsolete by the Spartans’ desire to be two-dimensional at QB, misfired on all three of his passes, presided over two MSU penalties and got chased out of bounds by Irish freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith 12 yards short of the first-down marker on fourth down.

Sophomore Connor Cook started and labored to 135 passing yards on 16-of-32 accuracy, and his running dimension was never really a factor as he netted four yards on four carries.

“I think we put him in there just to try to change the pace,” Dantonio said of using Maxwell late. “Felt like he needed an opportunity, should give him an opportunity. Tough situation to put him in at. I felt like he was a little behind on some throws, needed to mix it up and see what he could do. Obviously didn't work out. Hindsight is 50-50 — or whatever you say — 20/20.”

It all added up to the seventh successive victory decided by a touchdown or less for a Kelly-coached win. Punter/kicker Kyle Brindza did his part by flipping field position with two 51-yard punts when late Irish drives stalled — that after starting the day with the first block of an Irish punt since the 2008 Boston College game.

MSU took possession on the Irish 31, but the ND defense held the Spartans to a field goal try of 30 yards, which fifth-year senior Kevin Muma promptly missed then was demoted in favor of freshman Michael Geiger.

The Irish seemingly got some offensive momentum just before the half, when the Irish drove 50 yards in nine plays in just under three minutes for a 10-7 lead. Rees, who ended up 14-of-34 for 142 yards and turnover-free, threaded a pass in traffic to TJ Jones in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal from the 2 for the score.

That was Rees' 42nd career TD pass and Jones’ 12th career TD catch, tying him with Bobby Brown and 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown for 10th place on the ND career list.

But it was Michigan State that pushed the Irish around offensively at the start of the third quarter, pounding the ball at the ND defense, then inexplicably trying to get cute with the play-calling on two drives that swung the momentum back to ND.

On the first, MSU settled for a 25-yard field goal to tie the game at 10-10. On the second, freshman wide receiver R.J. Shelton threw into double coverage with Matthias Farley recording his second career interception.

Two pass interference penalties helped lead to the go-ahead score by ND, a seven-yard TD run by last week’s cult hero, junior Cam McDaniel, with 14:44 left in the game.

Freshman Corey Robinson was the intended target on the second of those pass-interference penalties that gave the Irish a first-and-goal inside the Spartan 10. He was the offensive standout for the Irish with three catches for 54 yards. All three came on third downs and resulted in first downs.

What the Irish couldn’t do was impose their will late in the running game. And that put the Irish defense in a familiar spot, just like last year, to close out the win.

“That's the way I envisioned the game,” said Kelly, whose team’s 86 penalty yards were the most ever at ND under his watch. “That's the way we called the game. I was telling my athletic director, I wanted to throw the ball so bad on those last few drives.

“But we felt like we wanted to put our defense back on the field and not give Michigan State, because they've been so opportunistic defensively, an opportunity to win the football game on defense.”

Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees (11) reacts after his helmet was ripped off during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER