Notre Dame football: ND defense rises to turn back MSU

Bob Wieneke
BWieneke@SBTinfo.com

SOUTH BEND

High energy. Big plays. Celebrations.

Yes, the above would describe Notre Dame's 17-13 endurance of Michigan State on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. In fact, though, what ND senior cornerback Bennett Jackson was describing — the energy, the big plays and the celebrations — came in the days prior to the game.

"We just had a great week of practice overall," Jackson said, "and we showed it on the field."

If there's been a unit that had been maligned and over-compared to last year, when ND went 12-0 through the regular season, it would be the defense, and fairly so. This year's group had not performed at the level of last year's.

Until Saturday.

The 22nd-ranked Irish (3-1) on Saturday allowed 254 total yards, which would have been the fourth-lowest total allowed last season. The secondary, which returned three starters from 2012, was touched for just 135 yards by MSU quarterback Connor Cook. For comparison's sake, the 135 figure would have been the second-lowest figure last year (Stanford threw for 125).

In short, Saturday was a step, one in the right direction. Particularly for the secondary.

"I couldn't talk about one particular guy," said Irish coach Brian Kelly, whose team entered the game ranked 88th nationally with 259.3 passing yards allowed per game, "as much as I could talk about overall we were much better."

None better than on perhaps the game's biggest play, which came late in the third quarter and momentum on Sparty's side.

Michigan State (3-1) had executed a 15-play drive that ate the first 8:39 of the second half to tie the game, and it again had the ball. On a first down from its 47, MSU true freshman wide receiver RJ Shelton attempted an option pass.

It didn't work.

Notre Dame's Matthias Farley intercepted the underthrown ball and returned it 29 yards. A Michigan State personal foul tacked on 15 more yards, allowing ND to set up shop at the Spartan 37. Five plays, 52 yards and 2:22 later, ND had what amounted to the winning touchdown.

"I wasn't surprised," Farley said of the trick play call. "We were doing a great job of stopping the deep pass, keeping the guys in front of us. They needed to get some points on the board, they went for a trick play and we just happened to overplay it, play it smart and execute our fundamentals."

While Jackson and his secondary mates were enjoying a banner day, it wasn't so much the case on the MSU side. The Spartans were called for a number of penalties in the secondary.

"I noticed there was a ton of pass interference plays but I also noticed why they were pass interference plays," Jackson said. "It didn't really change up my game too much but it was definitely something I got fired up about."

Fired up as in ...

"As in we were getting first downs," Jackson said, "so I was excited."

Jackson too was excited about the turn the Irish defense took.

"We just needed to put the pieces in the right place. With each week it's just another piece put back in the puzzle," he said. "I feel like we're growing as a defense and it's a work in progress."

Notre Dame defensive lineman Louis Nix III (1) tries to block a throw from Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook (18) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER