The Spartans had built a 37-21 lead and appeared to have the game salted away, but three fourth quarter turnovers by quarterback Drew Stanton led to 19 unanswered Irish points.
Irish safety Chinedum Ndukwe stripped the football away from Stanton after Notre Dame had cut the Spartans lead to 37-21. The turnover set the Irish up inside the Michigan State 25-yard line and Quinn hit receiver Rhema McKnight in the end zone for 14-yards out, but the two-point conversion attempt failed leaving MSU with a four-point lead.
Notre Dame then brought nine-men into the box and shut down the running attack, the strategy forced MSU into a key 3rd-and-8 and Stanton attempted to force the ball into coverage, but Notre Dame corner Terrail Lambert intercepted and returned it 23-yards for a touchdown to give the Irish their first lead of the ball game at 40-37.
Still, with 1:57 left, MSU had time to get into field goal position and give freshman Brett Swenson a chance. AFter scrambling for a key first down, Stanton pass intended for receiver Jerramy Scott was bobbled and snatched away by Lambert, killing the Spartans threat and the game.
After the devastating ending MSU was left with several questions to ponder:
Will the defeat lead to another season collapse like the overtime loss to Michigan and the special team debacle against Ohio State last season?
The schedule maker did the Spartans a favor. They couldn't ask for a better team to face than the hapless Fighting Illini squad that is 0-4. The Spartans should be able to right the ship and gather some confidence heading to Ann Arbor.
How to restore confidence in Drew Stanton's leadership?
Once the Spartans were down 40-37, the body language of the players on offense indicated that they felt the game was over. No one would say that, but they had a hang dog look about them. Senior quarterback Drew Stanton made several great plays in this game, but if he wants to be successful on Sunday's he needs to observe rule #1 of quarterbacking - take care of the football. If Stanton had not turned over the football and simply allowed MSU to punt, who knows what the outcome would have been? Sure, Notre Dame had the momentum, but would they have been able to score enough points to get ahead of MSU, that's unlikely. Without the turnovers, Notre Dame would not have won this game. Message to Drew: take care of the football, there's nothing wrong with a punt.
Where are Coordinator Dave Baldwin's go-to plays?
MSU moved the ball effectively all game long but when Notre Dame ratcheded up the pressure a notch with nine men in the box and then added the blitz on top of that, MSU had no answer. They could not run, they could not throw. Baldwin must discover one or two "pressure plays" that work under durress. Notre Dame played straight man and wouldn't let MSU's receivers off the line of scrimmage. Baldwin must counter that with perhaps a flat pass to a back with the receivers blocking downfield or a blitz beater to physical tight end Kellen Davis. Whatever, Baldwin needs to work on these now as in a copycat league, Ohio State and Michigan were surely watching?
How to get the team back up?
Everyone, especially senior defensive tackle Cliff Ryan were saying the right things in the postgame press conference, but senior linebacker David Herron, Jr. admitted at times MSU feels "snakebit." Smith, who didn't have any answers for the late game collapse, must get MSU to become mentally tougher and it starts with schooling the players on taking care of the football and executing down the stretch.
Why does MSU allow visiting teams to take over their stadium?
Why would MSU allow the Notre Dame (and other visiting teams) band to come on the sidelines and disrupt the Spartans offense? State should control their sidelines and keep visiting bands -and fans and hangers on - off the sidelines. When MSU tried to run their two minute offense, they were constantly disrupted by the obnoxious Irish pep band loudly rousing up the visiting team. It felt like a road game. Kick all of 'em back up to their seats.
Where's the veteran leadership?
When veteran center Kyle Cook went down to injury, backup John Masters entered the game and promptly got flagged for holdling. During the series the Spartans committed four more penalties of the offside, false start and holding variety which killed the drive. Where were the Spartans leaders to settle the team down and focus on execution. Junior Mike Gyetvai has to be that player when Cook is out. No other Spartans have the playing experience on the line that Gyetvai has. Daniel Zynn was making his first career start while Jesse Miller and Roland Martin are first year starters. Matt Trannon displayed firey leadership, defending his quarterback and getting into a scrape with Notre Dame coaches and players. Some say Trannon got that fire from his stints with basketball coach Tom Izzo, not John L. Smith. If that's true, Smith could learn a thing or two from Izzo about building leadership in his players.
As bad as the loss was, it's still just one loss and MSU has a very winnable game next week. Can they right the ship by going into Illinois and putting in a workmanlike effort or will they allow their emotions and the outcome of this game to have a carry-over effect?
As coach Smith said in his postgame press conference, this ones tests their "mettle" and their "character". We'll wait to see if a tougher, stronger MSU team shows up on Saturday