Notre Dame shows glimpses of what it can become in 38-18 rout of Spartans

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

EAST LANSING, Mich. — It wasn’t so much the vision of a near-empty stadium in the final irrelevant seconds and the scoreboard shock that chased most of the 74,023 from sweltering Spartan Stadium long before that.

It was how Notre Dame went about it all.

Reshaping its national perception in a 38-18 throttling of Michigan State on Saturday night, the Irish delivered the third-most lopsided Power 5 road victory of the coach Brian Kelly Era on the heels of the first such win.

ND hung just the fourth non-conference home loss on MSU coach Mark Dantonio in 32 tries, joining the Irish 2012 national title contenders as one of the other three to do so.

And, most pertinently, the Irish flashed what might be possible on the road ahead.

Starting with quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

The junior had struggled with what was supposed to be his strong suit — the passing game — in his first three college starts, but set records with his legs in the running game. On Saturday night, he found balance, and so did the Irish offense.

In fact, the first five offensive plays for the previously run-reliant Irish (3-1) were pass plays. Four of them were completions. Three of those went for first downs. And that included the longest completion of the season, 40 yards to Equanimeous St. Brown, which set up Wimbush's seventh rushing TD of the season and a quick 7-0 Irish lead.

He’s now three rushing TDs away from tying predecessor DeShone Kizer’s single-season record for rushing TDs for a QB. He totaled 52 yards on a season-low eight carries.

In the air, Wimbush finished 14-of-20 for 173 yards and one TD with no interceptions, good for a 159.2 passer rating. That’s more than 60 points higher than his cumulative three-game rating coming in, and he did it against admittedly an under-vetted but nevertheless nation’s No. 2 pass-efficiency defense.

“It’s no surprise to us,” Irish offensive tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said of Wimbush. “We know exactly who the kind of player and kind of man that Brandon Wimbush is.

“Everybody was harping on him all week. I don’t know how you can harp on a guy when he goes in and takes over a game and rushes for four touchdowns and 200-plus yards (against Boston College). That’s kind of crazy to me that somebody could even flaw him for that.

“We know the quarterback that Brandon is. We know who we have in him as a leader, and we are lucky as hell to have him behind us. We know when the ball’s in No. 7’s hands, something good’s going to happen.”

Coupled with a defense that made the kind of big plays that jumped off first-year coordinator Mike Elko’s résumé during the search process last December, the Irish looked shockingly complete, even if some of the statistics didn’t back that up.

Michigan State (2-1) actually outgained the Irish, 496-355, ran 85 offensive plays to ND’s season-low 60 and hogged the ball more in the possession game, 34:03 to 25:57.

But the Irish cashed in all four of their red zone opportunities, keeping them perfect on the season (19-of-19), scored 21 points off the three Spartan turnovers and continued to distance themselves from a team that forced just 14 turnovers last season (104th nationally).

The Irish had three Saturday night, to give them nine for the season already (13th nationally). That doesn’t count turning over the Spartans on downs early in the fourth quarter on a first-and-goal opportunity from the 5.

Cornerback Shaun Crawford has almost half of the takeaways (4). On Saturday, he stripped MSU running back L.J. Scott just before he crossed the goal line in a 21-7 game at the time, then pounced on the loose ball in the end zone for a touchback.

Linebacker Greer Martini forced another fumble, this one by Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke, with Michigander Daelin Hayes recovering. Julian Love started the turnover parade with a 59-yard interception return for a TD in the first quarter.

“I think that’s the narrative of who we’re becoming,” Kelly said of the penchant for takeaways. “(Elko) talks about it, but more importantly, it’s taught every single day. So those aren’t coincidences.”

Nor, Kelly is convinced, was the sudden production from the Irish wide receiver corps, a week after laboring for three catches for 11 yards.

St. Brown and Chase Claypool led the way with four receptions apiece, St. Brown’s going for 61 yards, Claypool’s for 56.

“Fifty-two of the 62 players (on the travel roster) are going to be back next year,” Kelly said. “This is for the long haul. We’re trying to build success, not just for tonight, but for sustainable success.”

Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown (6) and Brandon Wimbush (7) celebrate during as the Irish passing game ramped up in a 38-18 Irish victory over Michigan State, Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)