Notre Dame football: Pin this outcome on head coaches
With the football game on the line, Dantonio flinched. Big time.
Four pass interference penalties and a defensive holding flag assessed against Michigan State were anywhere from debatable to downright dumb.
But when Michigan State turned its back on its identity, Notre Dame was poised to cash in.
Saturday's 17-13 Irish victory was hardly a sign from above that all is well. Notre Dame still can't run the ball when it wants; quarterback Tommy Rees was high and outside way too often; too many whiffs on tackles; and the defense got bullied in the critical third quarter.
But when push comes to shove, as it often does on a fall afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium (especially between cornerbacks and receivers), it was Irish coach Brian Kelly who stood tall.
Trailing 10-7 to start the second half, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio had the Irish on their heels. The Spartan offensive line was effective. Notre Dame's vaunted defensive front was getting moved back at least three yards a crack.
Maybe that power running game really could work. The Spartans had just 46 rushing yards at halftime while timid about asserting their will.
Michigan State had 40 rushing yards on the first eight tries of the third quarter. The Spartans were first down on the Irish 12 when, for some reason, they abandoned the power game and went to the wildcat.
One yard gain for running back Jeremy Langford.
Quarterback Connor Cook tried a fancy-dancy run for three yards.
Third down, incomplete pass.
Field goal, 10-10.
A defensive stop later, Michigan State had first down at midfield. Now this was the weird one. This play will forever define this game.
MSU's R.J. Shelton, a true freshman, took the pitch on a reverse and fired the ball deep. With three Irish in the vicinity, Matthias Farley came up with the relatively easy interception.
Four plays and two pass interference penalties later, Cam McDaniel scored the deciding touchdown from seven yards.
Dantonio fell on the grenade afterward. According to the head coach, normal play-caller Dave Warner, co-offensive coordinator, didn't make the decision.
"R.J.'s deal was my call," said Dantonio. "I made the suggestion on that one because I felt we needed a big play."
Why? It's late in the third quarter and the Spartans were moving the ball with regularity.
Credit Kelly with patience. Leading 17-13 midway through the fourth quarter, the Irish had the ball a couple of times. Kelly wanted to fling the ball around. Rees threw 34 times, but "Air Kelly" had to be restrained.
"I wanted to throw the ball so bad on those last few drives," Kelly said. "We wanted to put our defense back on the field and not give Michigan State an opportunity to win the football game on defense."
How often does that happen?
When neither team can generate more than 254 yards total offense, and each team is in double digits in terms of failed third-down conversions (MSU 10, ND 11), textbooks go out the window and the game is managed by feel.
The only intangible that couldn't be factored into the equation was Michigan State's 115 penalty yards.
Four pass-interference flags? That's a lot. Had Dantonio ever seen that many in one game, especially from a Big Ten officiating crew?
"I've been in coaching 30 plus years," Dantonio said. "No. Never."
The media tried to goad Dantonio into venting with a rant worthy of an ESPN sound bite and a reprimand from the Big Ten office. He refused to go there.
But Dantonio did explain how he understood the rule.
"Cut off the receiver, have position for the ball and make a play on the ball," Dantonio said. "(The defender) has every right to make a play on the ball. There's bumping and pushing on both sides a lot of times."
Dantonio even suggested a Jumbotron would have helped him evaluate the calls. At least he and Kelly agree on one thing.
"When you know the quarterback is going to throw it (to the receiver's) back shoulder, the defensive back does not know where it is," said Kelly. "You have an advantage. You're going to get some pass interference calls when you put the ball in a good position."
Those flags had an impact, but they didn't decide the game.
Pin this outcome on the head coaches. Spend years developing an identity for the program, then, with a tight game on the line, amnesia strikes?
Dantonio forgot who he was. Kelly didn't.