Game MVPsRanked each week and based solely on the individual's performance vs. the previous opponent:
- Theo Riddick – More than doubled his career receptions and receiving yardage total, snaring 10 passes for 128 yards while scoring his first career touchdown (51 career touches from scrimmage). Riddick performed the routine and expected (inside routes as Dayne Crist's first option), the eye-opening (a leaping one-handed grab) and the special (a can't-be-taught spin move followed by a cutback to pile up yards after the catch). The sky's the limit for the Irish offense if Riddick remains a reliable, sometimes spectacular third option.
- Dayne Crist – Inconsistent, but career bests of 32 completions, 369 passing yards and 4 touchdowns – with two turnovers (interception and a key 4th down fumble) – keyed the Irish effort.
- Manti Te'o – One glaring missed tackle that led to a Spartans touchdown on the following play, but Te'o is the difference between a Notre Dame defense that still struggles at times and what would be a train wreck through three games. He's only scratched the surface. In the interim…please wrap up.
Also Considered: Nose guard Ian Williams – Recorded 8 tackles and a half-sack despite consistent double-team opposition. The Spartans rushing yards weren't gained at the expense of the senior nose guard, who's playing – by far – the best football of his career. There's an unwritten rule, however, of post-game wrap-up columns: no defensive lineman can be the player of the game when his team yields 200+ rushing yards in a loss.
Kyle Rudolph: 8 receptions, 80 yards, 1 TD and he's a walking, talking mismatch. Rudolph did err, however, when he ran his out-route just short of the first down marker in overtime (he was dropped short, forcing an Irish field goal).
Top Units on SaturdayThe 11 main position groups (QB, WR, RB, TE, OL, DL, LB, DB, Field Goal, Kick and Punt Coverage, Kick and Punt Return) will be reviewed for the best…and worst, each week.
- Offensive Line: A mental error by Chris Stewart; a missed assignment by Braxston Cave (that led to a 6-yard sack) and poor footwork that led to a holding call on Zack Martin…other than that, the Irish offensive line gave Notre Dame a chance to win on nearly every play and certainly over the course of the contest. The group performed well enough to win as part of the afterthought that was the Notre Dame running game vs. the nation's No. 9 ranked rush defense.
- Quarterback: The team's quarterback fiasco last week contributed greatly to the loss; its one-man show Saturday kept the Irish afloat…and Dayne Crist will be light years better when I write this column in 4-5 weeks.
- Inside Linebackers: Te'o was the difference between five touchdowns (still far too many) and another under-the-lights embarrassment. Calabrese and Anthony McDonald combined for 7 tackles and 1.5 sacks on the evening. Either Te'o or McDonald was at fault on MSU's first touchdown, the back of the end zone post to Keshawn Martin vs. zone coverage.
No Irish unit played exceptionally well as a group Saturday evening.
Unit Looking to ImproveNotre Dame's outside linebackers have played poorly this season. Kerry Neal was the exception in Week One and Darius Fleming produced big plays Saturday, but the touted group has struggled in the new scheme and opposing running games have repeatedly gashed the Irish outside the tackle box. The Irish remain vulnerable on the edge and miss far too many tackles as a result.
Safeties Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta struggled vs. the Spartans: both are banged up; both must play 100 percent of the snaps and Motta is a bit out of position at free safety due to the absence of junior Jamoris Slaughter.
The safeties were the scapegoats, but Irish fans should expect much more of their OLB group. Speaking of which: Where's Steve Filer?
Awards SectionSingular moments or decisions that affected the outcome of the contest or simply caught my eye:
Coaching Move of the Week: Mark Dantonio's game-winning call was in-game coaching at its finest.
In Space Block of the Week: Taylor Dever: With the Irish leading 7-0 early in the 2nd Quarter, Dever pancaked All-American middle linebacker Greg Jones in space to allow Allen a gain of 12 yards on an inside counter over the left side. Not a bad effort for the unit's question mark entering the season. Dever has been better than expected.
Tackle of the Week: This week's top tackle occurred immediately after the contest's most curious coaching decision. After the Irish failed to convert on 4th and 2 in their own territory, and the score knotted at 28, the Spartans took possession at the Notre Dame 44-yard line late in the final quarter. A sweep to the left was sniffed out by a heat-seeking missile dubbed "Manti" as the sophomore ‘backer knifed through a gap in the stretch blocking schemed to drill tailback Edwin Baker for a 6-yard loss. The Irish defense held and earned the pigskin back for the Irish offense with just under four minutes remaining.
It's All Relative (O'Malley's Unsung Game Ball): Armando Allen fights, scratches, earns extra yards, gets something out of nothing consistently, picks up opposing blitzers, and before Saturday, was reliable with the football (if Allen's hand continues to bother him, the Irish will be in trouble in terms of the position's ball security…do you trust anyone else?) Allen plays winning football. He's not great; he's not explosive in the open-field, and he won't be the team's top statistical player over the next three games vs. peer competition…but he'll help the Irish in each. In the pre-season of 2009, I felt Allen ranked among the most overhyped football players I'd seen at ND in three decades. Now I wish he had a 5th-year of eligibility remaining, because Allen gets the most out of every play.
It's All Relative (I need more): The numbers were there, and Riddick played the best game of his career, but Notre Dame's wide receivers (as a whole) failed to play up to their highest level, or at least the level necessary to earn a win in Saturday's environment. Michael Floyd left two plays – and a football – on the field, Duval Kamara is non-existent to date, the group as a whole contributed to the excessive pre-snap timeouts during the contest and T.J. Jones worked through the first non-impact game of his career after a great two-game home start (though we might be singing a different tune regarding Jones had Crist hit him as he broke open – rather than making Jones come back across the first down line for a key 3rd down reception – and also on a mid-range crossing route earlier in the final quarter).
The quartet of Floyd, Rudolph, Riddick and Jones should be lethal going forward. Expecting all four to produce numbers in the same week is statistically nonsensical, but keeping each of them involved is not. Perhaps backup TE Tyler Eifert could join the group as a pass-catching option as Duval Kamara hasn't had a pass thrown in his direction since the 1st Quarter vs. Purdue.
Words and NumbersA few stats and comments that caught my eye:
Quote of the Week: "It came down to one play. Michigan State executed the play, and we did not." – Brian Kelly
Accurate, familiar, commonplace... Last week was a key 3rd and 5 completion that set up the Wolverines' game-winning score; Saturday a fake field goal touchdown in overtime. Last season…we don't have the room. The lack of finishing power from the Irish over the last several seasons is perhaps the fan base's most pointed criticism of the program.
Always around the action: In 2.5 career games vs. Michigan State, Michael Floyd has fumbled twice in the red zone, broken his collarbone, had a touchdown reception overturned by the replay booth, secured four touchdown passes, suffered two dropped passes and accumulated 15 receptions for 205 yards.
New Scheme, New Season, New Attitude, Similar Results: The 2010 Irish defense includes nine of the same major contributors through three games as did the '09 group that faced Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue through last year's first four contests. The numbers remain similar as well:
- The '09 group (including special teams) allowed 12 touchdowns vs. the threesome; this year's unit yielded 10
- The '09 group surrendered 1,252 yards vs. the Big 10 trio; this year's squad 1,331
- The '09 Irish enjoyed a point differential of 91-89 with a 2-1 record; vs. the rivals this year's group 78-74 while falling to 1-2.
The Root of the Problem: Notre Dame's defense has allowed 200 or more rushing yards in five of its last six outings dating back to last November 7. The Irish lost each of the five (and the sixth) contests and have dropped 14 consecutive such contests dating back to November 11, 2006, a 39-17 win at Air Force (the Falcons rushed for 200 yards on 60 carries in the contest).
Michigan State has exceeded 200 rushing yards vs. the Irish in four of the last five matchups (2009 the exception).
Saturday's upcoming opponent, Stanford, ranks 14th nationally in rushing offense, averaging better than 240 yards per contest.