'Might haves,' mistakes bury Notre Dame in loss to Michigan State

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame could have won a hundred different ways.

In an alternate reality, one where the Irish don’t suffocate under a mountain of squandered chances, C.J. Sanders’ return might have meant something. When the 5-foot-8, 185-pound sophomore busted around the edge, galloping into the end zone on the opening play of the game, momentum might have shifted. Notre Dame might have ridden an early lead and a reasonably rowdy home crowd to a decisive victory over a ranked opponent.

Instead, freshman safety Jalen Elliott was penalized for a block — more accurately, a tackle — in the back, and the Irish started from scratch.

In Notre Dame’s 36-28 defeat on Saturday night, “might have” wasn’t good enough to topple No. 12 Michigan State.

“When you get yourself in that kind of hole,” head coach Brian Kelly said, “it’s hard to dig out against a really good team in Michigan State.”

If Michigan State’s punt hadn’t caromed off of sophomore wide receiver Miles Boykin’s foot in the second quarter, with the Spartans recovering the fumble in enemy territory, the Irish might have been able to extend their lead. They held a 7-0 advantage at that point, and Michigan State’s offense had managed just two punts and an interception to start the game.

Instead, Michigan State got the ball back, and Spartan quarterback Tyler O’Connor immediately heaved a 38-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Donnie Corley, who ripped it out of the hands of Irish cornerback Cole Luke.

If Luke had intercepted it, Notre Dame might have…

If Sanders hadn’t lost a fumble on the ensuing Irish drive, Notre Dame might have…

If the oft-celebrated Irish offensive line had opened up running lanes for sophomore Josh Adams, Notre Dame might have…

Might have. Might have. Might have.

But the Irish didn’t.

The Irish certainly didn’t tackle, as Spartan running back L.J. Scott slalomed through arm tackles to the tune of 98 rushing yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, 4.5 yards per carry. As a team, Michigan State chugged for 260 rushing yards, three touchdowns and five yards per rush, filleting Notre Dame’s delicate defense until there was virtually nothing left.

“Give Michigan State credit. They broke through some tackles,” Kelly said. “They deserved to win today. We missed the tackles, and those are the guys that are going to have to be out there next week against Duke. They’re going to have to be able to make the tackles the following week against the next opposition.”

In just his third career start, O’Connor — a fifth-year senior — rebounded from the early interception to throw for 241 yards and two touchdowns, adding another 43 yards on the ground.

If Notre Dame had recorded even a single sack, the Irish defense might have stiffened.

Might have, but didn’t — time and time again.

On Saturday night, the “might have’s” were too much, even for DeShone Kizer. Notre Dame’s prolific junior quarterback passed for 344 yards and two touchdowns with an interception and rushed for two more scores, nearly singlehandedly lifting the Irish out of the might-have muck. That included three consecutive fourth quarter touchdown drives, as the Irish trailed 36-7 late in the third quarter and began desperately chipping away.

But when the Notre Dame offense needed a final drive, it couldn’t find one. And when the Irish defense needed a final stop, that was elusive, too.

“We can cry all we want about what we didn’t do,” Kelly said, “but we have to start doing it.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Michigan State’s Donnie Corley (9) makes a touchdown catch over Notre Dame’s Cole Luke (36) during the Notre Dame-Michigan State NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN