Despite a spirited comeback that came up short, it was disastrous play during the second and third quarters that doomed the Irish against Michigan State on Saturday night. There was enough guilt to be spread around on both sides of the ball, but it was the struggles by the Notre Dame defense that put Brian Kelly’s squad in a virtually insurmountable hole.
Déjà vu All Over Again
The defensive unit reverted to its level of effort against Texas during that dismal stretch, allowing the Spartans to collect a good portion of its total yardage in the midst of jumping out to a 36-7 third quarter lead. The cushion was just enough to hold off an Irish offensive squad that got virtually no help from the ground game. That was evident even before the massive deficit forced an almost exclusive reliance on the passing attack.
Not Getting the Big Stops
Allowing 501 yards on the night is a jarring enough number for the Notre Dame defense, but the inability to come up with the big stop when needed also served as a killer. On nine different occasions, Michigan State was able to convert on third down and even picked up a first on a fourth down call.
Deadly Ball Control
Those struggles helped the Spartans dominate in time of possession, holding the ball for just under 38 minutes. That yardage was split almost right down the middle, with the 260 rushing yards boosted by the 73-yard backbreaker by Gerald Holmes that made it a 29-point deficit.
However, Michigan State signal caller Tyler O’Connor threw for 241 yards and two touchdowns, finishing an effective 19-of-26 night that saw him pick up first downs on 12 of those completions. His lone error was a first quarter red zone interception.
The tenor of the game changed early in the second quarter following a fumbled punt return by the Irish, with Michigan State needing just one play to score. That scoring play offered a window into the continuing woes of the Notre Dame secondary. True freshman Donnie Corley was able to wrest the ball from Cole Luke to start the Spartans on their string of 36 unanswered points.
The Irish defenders were even more befuddled by R.J. Shelton, who snagged eight passes on the night. One of those came on a touchdown right near the end of the first half and gave MSU the lead for good.
The 1-2 Irish now host the Duke Blue Devils next Saturday, an opponent that may help improve the numbers of defense. The problem is that any quality opponent still has no problem exploiting the weaknesses of the Notre Dame defense. The ability to fix that in the weeks ahead may now end up determining if the Irish are still a viable candidate for a New Year’s Day bowl game.