Lesar: Late gamble on Notre Dame's defense goes wrong

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Not long after #firevangorder started trending on Twitter, Brian Kelly rolled the dice on his defense and its much-maligned (for pretty good reasons) coordinator Brian VanGorder.

The Notre Dame head football coach came up snake eyes.

Down by eight Saturday night to Michigan State with 3:37 to play in the game, the Irish offense was faced with fourth-and-seven on its own 32-yard line. Instead of a desperation heave – after three straight scoring drives – Kelly chose to punt and turn the game over to the defense.

So much for that.

Notre Dame’s defense, which allowed more than 500 yards for the second time in this young season, was torched for two big pass plays and Michigan State sewed up a 36-28 victory.

"We make a stop there, it looks like a pretty good decision," said Kelly.

Well ... duh.

In the comeback, while the offense was putting points on the board, the defense was giving Kelly a semblance of hope by having three consecutive drives that ended in punts.

Why not a fourth? Faux confidence.

Tyler O’Connor, who showed more of a penchant for running than any Michigan State quarterback under coach Mark Dantonio, went to the air hitting Donnie Corley for 28 yards and R.J. Shelton for 25 to ice the game.

Even with a new press box that’s pretty much sound-proof when it comes to crowd noise, Spartan Nation seemed to make its presence felt.

Condensed to mostly the southeast corner of Notre Dame Stadium, the green-and-white faithful erupted in the third quarter when Gerald Holmes scored from a few yards out; and went crazy when Jon Reschke picked off a Kizer pass in the third quarter; don’t forget the nine-yard scoring run by LJ Scott that ignited echoes heard all the way back to East Lansing.

Those Terrible Towels or Holy Hankies, or whatever sort of cloth was being twirled by the Irish student section, didn’t do much for the intimidation factor.

Face it, Notre Dame Stadium isn’t a difficult place for a visiting team to play – even when it’s after 10 p.m. and the fans have been lubed up since late morning.

“Crazy Train” in the second quarter? Desperate means for desperate teams.

And then there was Josh Adams’ second straight unsuccessful plunge into the line with Notre Dame down by 22 late in the third quarter. Nope, kicker Justin Yoon was nowhere to be found – those were boos, man.

When Holmes exposed the Irish defense tackling woes with a 73-yard touchdown burst right up the gut of the defense with 3:45 left in the third quarter, a steady stream of give-ups were heading out of the stadium and back to the tailgate.

That’s just about the time it got interesting. The Irish offense turned on its two-minute drill for about 18 minutes.

Three touchdowns into the Irish revival, a breath of life returned to the fans. Then Kelly came up empty.

Two fumbles, an obvious holding penalty, and a case of falling asleep at the switch conspired to give Notre Dame problems in the first half.

The holding infraction committed by Jalen Elliott on the opening kickoff probably sprung C.J. Sanders for what appeared to be a 100-yard return. But, at least the play got the buzz around the stadium going.

The buzz got louder on Notre Dame’s second possession – 10 plays, 91 yards. That’s big time against a defense as stout as Michigan State’s. DeShone Kizer hit Equanimeous St. Brown for 48 yards, then rushed the final 14 on his own for the score.

In the space of 19 seconds, two Irish fumbles caused some distress. The first, on a punt near midfield, bounced off the leg of Miles Boykin, who was blocking. On the very next play, O’Connor found Donnie Corley with a 38-yard touchdown pass over Cole Luke.

The Irish got punked on the PAT. Caught totally off guard by the Spartan alignment, holder Matt Macksood was standing up when he took the snap. He hit a wide open Josiah Price for two points.

On the first play of Notre Dame’s next possession, Kizer found Sanders for a 19-yard gain near midfield, but the momentum faded when Sanders fumbled the ball away.

Michigan State’s second TD of the first half, just before intermission, was a short forward flip from O’Connor to Shelton. He went 10 yards without being touched for a 15-7 lead.

That’s about when the hashtag started flying around Twitterverse.

And the confidence was unfounded.

Notre Dame’s Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder looks at the turf as Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly looks on 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