2011 Predictions & Game Story
Week 3 - MSU at Notre Dame
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Sept. 17 at Notre Dame 31 ... Michigan State 13
CFN Analysis: COMING
(AP) SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- No surprises this time for Notre Dame. Just a victory that kept them out of an 0-3 hole and showed they can finish a game when they have a lead.
The Irish used two touchdown runs from Cierre Wood, an electrifying 89-yard kickoff return from freshman George Atkinson III and a key late interception from Robert Blanton to beat No. 15 Michigan State 31-13 Saturday for their first win.
"We wake up every morning and prepare to win," said Blanton, part of an Irish defense that limited the Spartans to 29 rushing yards and only a field goal in the second half. "We just had to show we could go out and get the job done."
The Irish also showed they can stop a play off a fake field goal.
The Spartans (2-1) stunned Notre Dame in overtime a year ago with a game-winning TD pass off a fake field goal and tried to surprise the Irish again after lining up for a field goal near the end of the first half.
Notre Dame (1-2) was ready this time. On fourth-and-goal from the 2, Ethan Johnson broke up a shovel pass attempt and the Irish led 21-10 at the half.
"It just looked like a shovel play up inside," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "We had some time to talk about it and just remind our guys to be gap conscious and do their jobs. We just did our job on that and obviously came up with a big play."
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio took the blame for the play failing.
"Field goal at the end of the half, my call, didn't work. Three points. But I don't think that's why we lost the game," Dantonio said. "But I'll take the blame for that."
Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, who had 11 straight completions at one juncture of the second half, was 34 of 53 for 329 yards but he was intercepted at the Notre Dame 6 with just under four minutes left by Blanton, who returned it 82 yards to the 12.
The Spartans had just recovered a fumbled punt by Notre Dame's John Goodman at the Irish 21 and were ready to set the stage for another frantic finish between the rivals. But with the Spartans trailing 28-13 and having a first and goal at the 3, Blanton came up with a juggling interception and then took off on his long return that sealed the win.
"There was a crowd in there and in hindsight, I probably should not have thrown it," Cousins said.
Notre Dame was coming off a crushing loss at Michigan, giving up 28 fourth-quarter points and a game-winning TD pass with two seconds to go.
Only two previous Notre Dame teams had started a season 0-3 and Kelly didn't want to be part of that history.
"We stressed all week that you have to make your own luck. And we did," Kelly said. "Our guys haven't lacked confidence, they just needed to finish. At halftime, I think I said, 'Finish, finish, finish,' more times than I've said anything else. Finish the game and find a way to win."
Michigan State was hurt by its own sloppiness -- 12 penalties for 86 yards. Cousins completed 12 of his passes to B.J. Cunningham as the Spartans were forced to go to the air and play catch up.
"I think Notre Dame's coverage did a nice job of taking the longer stuff away and we didn't always have time to throw deep. If you are giving us 8-10 yards, we are going to take it," Cousins said.
"Getting behind early made it harder to execute the running game for us. We will get back on track. We will run the ball better next week. We just came up short. We got to the 5-yard line or closer twice and came away with no points and you can't expect to win doing that."
Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees overcame a first-half fumble and interception and finished 18 of 26 for 161 yards.
Notre Dame pushed the lead to 28-10 in the third quarter when Rees hit Michael Floyd on a 22-yard pass and then lofted a perfect 26-yarder to TJ Jones for a touchdown. The Irish were penalized on the ensuing kickoff for unsportsmanlike conduct after Jones made a hand signal following his catch.
Cousins came right back after a 42-yard kickoff return by Nick Hill gave the Spartans good field position. His 21-yard pass to Todd Anderson and an 11-yarder to Cunningham gave the Spartans a first down at the Irish 8.
But after the drive stalled, MSU lined up for a field goal, only to have their attempt at trickery turned away.
After Notre Dame took an early 7-0 lead on a Wood TD run, the teams traded turnovers twice.
Rees took a hard blindside hit from Kevin Pickelman and fumbled with MSU's Jerel Worthy recovering. But just moments later, Notre Dame freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch drove into Cousins from behind, forcing a fumble and Johnson recovered for the Irish. But three plays later Rees' pass was picked off by Kurtis Drummond and returned 34 yards to the Irish 27, setting up Conroy's 40-yard field goal that made it 7-3. It was Notre Dame's 12th turnover of the season.
But 12 seconds later, Atkinson -- the son of the former NFL star defensive back -- took the ensuing kickoff, broke to the sideline and sprinted in for the touchdown. It was Notre Dame's first kickoff return for a TD by a freshman since Raghib Ismail returned two against Rice in 1988.
"That kickoff return was a huge play for them and I think it kind of deflated us momentarily on the sideline," MSU linebacker Max Bullough said. "When a team can make plays like that in their own stadium, it is tough to beat them."
Whether Notre Dame can build on the victory remains to be seen. On this one, the Irish got some validation for their effort.
"We're 1-2 right now and we're not happy with it, but it's great to get a win," said Johnson, who also recovered a fumble in addition to snuffing the fake field goal. "You have to enjoy the wins and get over the losses."
Michigan State (2-0) at Notre Dame (0-2) Sept. 17, 3:30, NBC
Here's The Deal … There's no way this can live up to the precedent. It just can't. It's asking for too much.
Notre Dame has been the story of 2011 so far, with an offensive explosion counterbalanced by fatal, disastrous moments turning a team good enough to be 2-0 and in the hunt for a BCS game into a hot mess thanks to ten turnovers, 17 penalties, and inexplicable defensive lapses. Head coach Brian Kelly got in trouble for a red-faced tantrum in the loss to South Florida, he made a major quarterback change, and the pressure is tightening on a team that's within an eyelash of being unbeaten.
So far, though, all that matters is that the Irish are 0-2. From South Florida's defensive stops with its back against the wall, to Denard Robinson's magic in an all-timer of a night game last Saturday night, it's been a wild ride so far, and if recent history against Michigan State is any indication, it's about to get a whole lot bumpier.
The Spartans have had Notre Dame's number winning ten of the last 14 matchups, but four of the last six game were decided by three points and 11 of the last 13 have been decided by a touchdown or less. As good as the rivalry has been, and as classic as some of the games were, nothing topped last season's 34-31 Michigan State win, complete with a fake field goal for the win and followed up by Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio's heart scare.
After the 2010 game, and with the way Notre Dame played in Ann Arbor, can this be anything less than another must-see all-timer? Again, it's asking for too much. What it will be, though, is a possible season-definer.
Notre Dame can't lose. A case could be made that it's the best 0-2 team in the country, and with a not-that-bad schedule until the regular season finale at Stanford, a win for the Irish this week might start a run that could change everything around in a hurry. No matter what happens against the Spartans, the Irish should be favored in every game up until the battle against the Cardinal.
Michigan State hasn't generated any noise yet, partly because the last time it was on a national stage it was obliterated by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl, and partly because the first two games were against Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic. However, the Spartans have been dominant with a defense that hasn't allowed a thing and a dangerous offense that's doing whatever it wants. How strong has the defense been? FAU came up with one first down last week – one – failing to convert on any of its ten chances and finishing with 26 yards passing and 22 rushing.
Michigan State is loaded and ready to show that it deserves to be in the discussion of top Big Ten teams, and Notre Dame is ready to come up with a win to let everyone around the program exhale.
Go ahead. Demand yet another thrilling classic. These two know how to do it.
Why Michigan State Might Win: One. That's how many turnovers Michigan State has committed so far, giving up just one fumble against Youngstown State. The Notre Dame turnover problems will stop at some point, and MSU doesn't have the make-up to start screwing up enough to make a difference. This is a smart, veteran team that did a great job of hanging on to the ball throughout last year and will be ultra-stingy again when it comes to giving the ball away. It's possible the Spartans can simply hold serve and keep it close throughout, and then wait for Notre Dame to implode.
The bigger issue for the Irish could be a shaky secondary that broke down way too often against Michigan. Denard Robinson only completed 11 of 24 passes, but he made the plays through the air when he had to thanks to poor positioning and lousy technique from the Irish defensive backs. It'll be a whole different ball game this week against MSU's Kirk Cousins, who unlike Robinson, doesn't have to rely on lobbing the ball up in the air to make the passing game go. Michigan might have tremendous talent, but Michigan State has a better overall offense with the balance to hit the Irish defense in a variety of ways.
Why Notre Dame Might Win: The Michigan State offensive line is just okay, it's not great. The pass protection has been fine so far and the running game has worked, but that's because of the competition. Lost in the last two games was an Irish defense that did a great job against the run, holding Michigan to 114 yards with Robinson ripping off 108 of them. South Florida only gained 126 yards and struggled to break off any big dashes, averaging just three yards per carry. The Irish defensive front has been more than fine, but it hasn't been noticed because of the brilliance of Robinson and all the problems on the Notre Dame offense. But the offense is fine.
Several of the mistakes have come from a lack of timing and a lack of polish, and many of the turnovers won't be made in a few weeks; it might have taken the first two games to get rid of all the yips. South Florida's defense is athletic and talented, and Notre Dame had no problems going up and down the field against it. Michigan's defense might be questionable, but it's full of experience and is ultra-aggressive, and the Irish came up with 315 yards through the air and 198 on the ground. Michigan State hasn't seen this type of offense yet and needs to be prepared to get into a firefight.
What To Watch Out For: Lost in the brilliance of the Michigan game was a phenomenal performance by Cierre Wood, the Irish back who tore off 134 yards and a touchdown after rumbling for 104 yards and a score against USF. The junior was a superstar recruit who could've gone anywhere after rushing for over 4,000 yards and 54 touchdowns in his final two years of high school, and now he's starting to play up to his potential. With a great blend of speed and power, he became a key part of the attack over the second half of last year, and now he's thriving.
Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd has been unstoppable over the first two games with 25 catches for 313 yards and two scores, but Michigan State has a playmaking receiver of its own who's ready for the national stage. Senior B.J. Cunningham was terrific in last year's win over the Irish, catching seven passes for 101 yards and a touchdown, after catching seven passes for 74 yards in the 2009 loss. The 6-2, 223-pounder is big, isn't afraid to get physical, and has the wheels to get deep when needed. He's also a rock-steady No. 1 target with 14 catches for 203 yards and a score to start the season.
What Will Happen: The slide will stop. Michigan State will come up with the takeaways needed to make the Irish sweat, and it has the defensive line to wreak havoc, but finally, the turnovers will slow down. Notre Dame will give up a couple of mistakes, but it won't turn it over five times like it has over each of the last two games and that'll make all the difference. Irish quarterback Tommy Rees and Cousins will each throw for over 300 yards, and it'll be a shootout and a typical tight game between the two teams. The one with the ball last will win.
CFN Prediction: Notre Dame 38 … Michigan State 34
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