In the second half, there were four key plays that the Irish defense failed to stop that ultimately cost Notre Dame the game. The first key play was the second play of the second half, that saw Edwin Baker scamper 56 yards for a touchdown. Baker took the hand-off cut back into a huge hole created when Carlo Calabrese over pursued the play. Once into the secondary, Baker made Harrison Smith miss, and then Darrin Walls slid off his back as he sprinted to the end zone. Missed tackles, missed tackles, missed tackles…
The second key play came on Michigan State's next possession with the score tied at 14. With the Spartans at the Notre Dame 28-yard line, MSU ran a screen play screen play on 3rd and 11. Manti Te'o read the screen, came up and hit the running back behind the line of scrimmage, but misses the tackle. If the tackle is made Michigan State would have been facing 4th and 16 from the 33-yard line. Instead, the play goes for a first down. On the next play Michigan State scores on a 16-yard run. Missed tackles, missed tackles, missed tackles…
The third key play came in the fourth quarter with the Irish up 28-21. Michigan State had the ball on the Notre Dame 24-yard line and facing 2nd-12, Ethan Johnson flushes the Kirk Cousins from the pocket. Cousins rolls to the sideline. Brian Smith rolls up for support. Darrin Walls looks into the backfield and hesitates. His receiver breaks behind him and Cousins hits him for an easy touchdown.
The fourth play was the overtime touchdown pass to win the game on a 4th and 14. Zeke Motta was over his man, but didn't rush at the snap. Motta is knocked down by the lineman as the Michigan State receiver breaks free.
Ian Williams had another outstanding game, and it was hard to find a play where he didn't do his job. Williams finished the game with eight tackles and a half a sack. Outside of the 56-yrd touchdown run, Michigan State had a very difficult time rushing up the middle. Williams made a big stop downfield in overtime. On MSU's second play, Cousins was flushed from the pocket and had a lot of running room. Williams peeled off the line and chased Cousins down from behind and holding him short of the first down. Williams was also able to create pressure throughout the game on passing plays.
Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore didn't have a lot of tackles, but they routinely neutralized their blockers and allowed the linebackers to come up and fill the holes. Very infrequently did the defensive line give ground. Sean Cwynar played both end and nose throughout the game and played more snaps against Michigan State than he had in any other game to date. Cwynar also had his best game, routinely clogging up the middle and taking on blockers. He finished the game with five tackles. Hafis Williams also saw additional snaps against Michigan State and did a solid job.
Manti Te'o was tied for the team lead in tackles with 11. He also added two and a half tackles for loss. Manti had a very solid game, but as mentioned above, he left one of the biggest plays of the game on the field. Manti did have several big plays and a key play he made came late in the game after the offense failed to convert a fourth down. The Michigan State offense took over at the Irish 44-yard line. Michigan State ran a sweep. The defensive front did a great job of stretching the play out, but it was Te'o who shot through a small gap to nail the Spartan running back for a 6-yard loss, and setting up a second and long on a critical possession. The defense went on to hold MSU and give the ball back to the Irish offense with a chance to march down the field with 3:49 on the clock. Overall Te'o had a very good game, and seems to be playing better game-by-game.
Carlo Calabrese had a solid game with 4 tackles and one and a half sacks. One of his sacks came on a key 3rd and 6 play in the fourth quarter. Cousins was pressured from the backside, stepped up to run and Carlo who appeared to be the "spy" on the play came up to drop Cousins for a 3-yard loss. Anthony McDonald played the most snaps of his ND career and made a stop on a quarterback sneak that Notre Dame fans haven't seen in some time. Overall, very solid play from the inside linebackers.
The outside linebackers continue to struggle to set the edge on plays run to the outside. Darius Fleming was the lone bright spot on the outside. He had his best game of the season. He finished the game with six tackles and two sacks. He created two holding penalties after beating offensive linemen and we probably should have seen two more. Both of Fleming's sacks were big, but he was created with the sack on Michigan State third play in overtime that set up the 4th and 14. He blew past his blocker as did Brian Smith from the backside. Fleming also showed the ability to turn the outside runs inside and still get a piece of the ball carrier.
Brian Smith failed to hold set the edge on several plays including the first play of Michigan State's 94-yard drive in the first half. On 1st and 10, MSU's running back bounces to his side. Smith comes up to engage the blocker and takes the blockers inside shoulder, which allows the running back to take the outside. Had he taken the outside, the pursuit was there to make the tackle. Instead Zeke Motta has to come up and make the tackle. For what it's worth, Motta did not have the collar of the MSU running back. He had the outside of the jersey where the player's name is positioned. Smith did play better than he had in the first two games, and did get a piece of Cousin's one the third play of overtime. Smith finished the game with six tackles.
Gary Gray again played a very solid game, and it's starting to become fairly evident that teams aren't going to throw to his side as often as they test the other corners. Gray knocked down two passes in the first quarter to stop Spartan drives. He also made a couple of big open field tackles. His big play didn't make the stat sheet. On MSU's second play of overtime, Cousin's looked for the out and up, but Gray had it covered one-on-one. Cousin's eventually scrambled and was brought down by Ian Williams.
Darrin Walls was injured at some point in the game, so it may not be fair to judge his play too harshly, but he needs to play stronger and make better decisions. The big play was mentioned above. There is no reason he should have allowed his man to run free…. None. He had a number of critical third down balls caught on him where he had good coverage, but just didn't play strong enough. He also needs to get off blocks better. There are times he's being blocked 15 yards downfield. He needs to defeat those blocks and get in the play. Robert Blanton played a limited number of snaps. He played well, but the play that stands out was the 19-yard completion on MSU's first possession of the second quarter. Blanton was playing soft and Cousins hit the receiver on an easy pitch and catch. He redeemed himself a couple plays later by tipping the ball that Zeke Motta intercepted.
Both Zeke Motta and Harrison Smith were dinged up during the game, but both had to stay in and play because of a lack of depth. Smith played a pretty solid game except for the missed tackle on the 56-yard touchdown run. He came up and supported the run very well, and he broke up a key third down play that forced Michigan State to punt deep from their own territory. Motta had a couple of big plays, but he also missed a number of tackles that allowed Michigan State ball carriers to ramble for big gains. He was late in getting out two swing passes and missed tackles. On the pass interference… He had good coverage, but the ball was underthrown and a tough play for the safety to make. The big play obviously was in coverage on the fake field goal. Overall Motta had a solid game and finished tied for the team lead with 11 tackles. Give Zeke some credit, there were several times that he was very slow to get up, but he shock things off and stayed in the game.