Game Story: Notre Dame defense bashed in ground game in loss to Michigan State

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The avalanche of special teams snafus was a distant memory by the time the boos sniped down from the Notre Dame Stadium stands midway through the third quarter Saturday night.

It wasn’t that the disenchanted sell-out crowd of 80,795 suddenly figured out the hook for next Saturday’s home matchup with Duke might be Belk Bowl implications. More likely, it’s that they’d seen this show before, an opponent mashing the Irish with its running game.

Again.

No. 12 Michigan State’s version of it Saturday night probably produced the largest dose of scoreboard shock of the past two-plus seasons of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s reign, 36-7, before the 18th-ranked Irish found some offensive mojo late to make the final epitaph a less repugnant, 36-28.

The 7 ½-point underdog Spartans (2-0) showed their versatility too — going to the air and converting two long passes on third-down conversions late in the game to keep ND quarterback DeShone Kizer from getting a chance to pad his new career-high 344 passing yards and possibly affix a miracle to his burgeoning résumé.

“We're either not capable of running that coverage or we're not coaching it well enough,” an agitated ND head coach Brian Kelly said afterward. “One or the other. So I gotta do a better job.

“We can cry all we want about what we didn’t do. We need to start doing it.”

Where it mattered most, the Spartans not only did it, they dominated: 260-57 yards in the rushing game, 37:57-22:03 on the clock. Since 2010, MSU coach Mark Dantonio is 56-4 when his teams win the rushing battle. Kelly came in 41-6 in such games during his time with the Irish.

Inspired backup Gerald Holmes led the way with 100 yards on 13 carries and two TDs, a day after his grandmother passed away. Starter LJ Scott just missed the 100-yard mark, with 98 yards on 22 carries and a score.

Where it cuts the deepest for the Irish (1-2) is that those numbers, and what they imply from a toughness standpoint, fly in the face of the identity Kelly wants his team to have. And it’s one, at least on the defensive side of the run equation, that has been elusive since the Irish made a title run with the nation’s No. 11-ranked rush defense.

Since then it’s been a No. 70 ranking in 2013, and No. 72 each of the past two seasons under VanGorder. The Irish should wake up Sunday well below those modest standards.

The ugly companion stat as far as pass defense is concerned is that Notre Dame still has yet to record a sack in three games. No Irish team in the post-Lou Holtz Era (1997-present) had ever gone the first two games of the season without at least one.

And yet, when faced with a fourth-and-7 from his own 32-yard line with 3:37 left in regulation and the Irish fresh off three straight touchdown drives, Kelly rolled the dice with his defense instead of his offense.

And got burned.

The Irish offense never got the ball back, and Dantonio ended the only three-game losing streak he’s had to any team during his nine seasons at MSU.

“We still had two timeouts,” Kelly said of the decision to punt. “We had gotten a couple of stops defensively. It felt like they certainly were going to run the football.

“We got them into a good third-down situation and we don't do a very good job on two vertical and give them an easy completion.

"We had a great situation there late to make a couple of tackles and we simply didn't make it. Those are the guys we have. We can't trade them. They're not getting cut. We recruited them.

“I told our staff, 'Those are our guys.' So we gotta get them better. We gotta put them in a better position to make plays.’ "

Until late in the third quarter an 0-3 FCS Furman team had made the Spartans sweat more two weekends ago in MSU’s opener than the Irish did Saturday night.

But Kizer heated up and hit Equanimeous St. Brown with a 15-yard scoring pass, ran the ball in from three yards out for his 14th career rushing TD, and then found Durham Smythe on a 12-yard scoring pass with 6:02 left in the fourth quarter to make it a one-possession game.

The Irish got the ball back with 4:18 left, but a sack by Raequan Williams on third-and-2 from the ND 37 pushed Notre Dame back five yards and eventually coaxed Kelly to punt.

Early in the game, special teams play was Notre Dame’s undoing. C.J Sanders’ return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff was brought all the way back to the 10-yard line because of a holding call on freshman safety Jalen Elliott.

Michigan State’s first touchdown was set up when a Spartan punt caromed off the back of sophomore wide receiver Miles Boykins’ leg, technically a fumble. MSU recovered on the Irish 38, and O’Conner hit freshman receiver Donnie Corley, a one-time Irish recruiting target, for a TD the very next play.

Wide receiver Matt Macksood threw a two-point conversion pass to tight end Josiah Price for an 8-7 Spartan lead.

Then Notre Dame started its first possession of the second half 15 yards closer to its own end zone, thanks to an unsportsmanlike conduct infraction charged to sophomore safety Nicco Fertitta.

“DeShone Kizer is not going to be asked to carry us,” Kelly snapped. “The entire football team and my coaching staff, in particular, is in a position where they have to coach better. I've gotta coach better. We've got kids that fight and have resolve.

“We've been down twice big against two really good football teams and we put ourselves back in a position to win both games and we couldn't because we made too many mistakes. We're sloppy as a football team.

“This is not a referendum on who's gotta carry who or the defense can't do that. We're too sloppy overall as a football team."

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3) leaps over Notre Dame’s Nyles Morgan (5) during the Notre Dame-Michigan State NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA