This time the empty stats, meaningless yardage between the field's 20-yard lines, and 300-yard passing efforts belonged to someone else – still the losing squad, of course, just not the desperate Irish.
Kelly's proven – if not preferred – formula for success was executed to perfection:
- Run more than you pass – the Irish did, logging 32 carries vs. 26 pass attempts. They're now 6-0 as a run-first team; 7-0 when throwing fewer than 35 passes in a contest.
- Establish a fortress on the defensive line of scrimmage – Notre Dame held Michigan State to 29 net rushing yards on 23 carries; the Irish are 8-2 (though both losses occurred this season) when holding foes beneath the 150-yard rushing plane.
Of course the 2011 squad's maddening, thus-far season-defining bent toward generosity has not yet been eradicated. The Irish turned it over three times, two of the errors unforced including a late-game muffed punt by the team's sure-handed return option, John Goodman. The punt return unit now has nearly as many fumbles lost (2) as return yards gained (5) through three games.
Off-setting Goodman's gaffe was the program's first regular season kick return touchdown since the outset of the Tyrone Willingham era; the score provided by true freshman running back George Atkinson, who took his second career kickoff back 89 yards to stake the Irish to a 14-3 lead.
But Saturday's story was defense – and like last week – a Notre Dame cornerback took center stage. Unlike last week this defender's effort will draw a week of praise from Irish fans as senior Robert Blanton emerged as the game's obvious standout. Blanton recorded three tackles for loss, broke up three passes, and snared the contest's decisive turnover, an 82-yard interception return that killed the Spartans best chance for a miracle comeback, taking the pigskin from his own 6-yard line to the Michigan State 12.
The pick set up the game's final points, a 33-yard field goal by David Ruffer that extended the Irish lead 18, 31-13 with just over three minutes remaining.
"Extremely active; he has great instincts," said Kelly of Blanton post-game. "When the ball's in the air he's going to go get it. I feel very confident no matter who he goes against that he's going to make a great play on the ball. You try to teach it, but some guys are just good at it.
"He's really good at it and he's a spirited guy. He's probably one of our more emotional leaders back there," he continued. "When you need a big play, he seems to be around the ball a little bit."
Notre Dame broke up nine of Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins passes, also forcing a fumble from the Spartans senior, that courtesy of freshman Aaron Lynch's first career sack. Rotating at left defensive end and starting in the team's nickel package, Lynch was credited with six quarterback hurries and recorded several hits as Cousins let go. More important, he produced a consistent pass-rushing punch heretofore missing from the Bob Diaco era.
"Aaron is an outstanding pass rusher. I think he showed that today. When he didn't get to the quarterback, he got held." (Lynch drew at least two holding penalties in the second half alone.)
Lynch's mentor on the left side, senior Ethan Johnson, added three pressures of his own; the tandem totaling 9 of the team's 10 on the afternoon.
The win – Kelly's second over a ranked team in three opportunities – was reminiscent of a pair of victories during the team's oft-referenced four-game November winning streak:
- (November 2010) Notre Dame 28 Utah 3: Rushing yards allowed (71); yards-per-carry against (2.1). QB Hurries (8). Passing yards by the Irish (127): Rushing yards by the Irish (127).
- November 2010) Notre Dame 20 USC 16: Rushing yards allowed (74); yards-per-carry against (2.5). Passing yards by the Irish (147). Rushing yards by the Irish (147).
- Notre Dame 31 Michigan State 13: Rushing yards allowed (29); yards-per-carry against (1.3). QB Hurries (10). Passing yards by the Irish (161). Rushing yards by the Irish (114).
Every yard earned. Defensive toughness the calling card. A vicious pass-rush made possible by first stuffing the run.
Notre Dame's proven, winning style under Brian Kelly might not be pretty, but it has teeth.