No doubt which team had a better defensive front seven. No doubt which team could run when it had to with the game on the line. And no doubt which team enters Week Four with a chance to strive for something of national relevance as September comes to a close.
Notre Dame dominated Michigan State on their home turf Saturday night. The Spartans had won 15 straight at home and hadn't allowed an offensive touchdown over the first two games of 2012. Both streaks ended as did three doozies for the Irish, a program that hadn't won in prime time on the road vs. a top 10 team since 1983 (0-10), hadn't beaten a top 10 team anywhere since 2005 (0-9) and hadn't started 3-0 since 2002 (when they raced to an 8-0 start).
And for the first time since 2002, there's a defense and dominance are in ample supply in South Bend.
"I think the most important thing is, our defense continues to be the group we committed to building when we started this process, and they're starting to get to that level that can play against anybody," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly post-game. "Starting the process of building this defense, our vision was toward what it could do for our entire program. When you play really good defense, offensively you don't have to rush a freshman quarterback. We can be patient with him and that patience will pay off because you saw what (Everett Golson's) capable of. He's a very exciting player."
Golson accounted for both of the game's touchdowns; one with his arm after eyes remained focused downfield, the other with quick feet around the corner. Golson used all of the above on the game's first score, a scramble right followed by 36-yard strike to 5th-year senior John Goodman for a 7-0 lead. The score was Goodman's first since 2009; the pass was Golson's most important to date, providing the Irish with confidence and, unbeknownst to those in attendance, plenty of fusion.
"I'm really trying to clean up my mechanics and know that I don't need to win the football game on every play," said Golson. "With repetition I'm getting more comfortable, but also with the guys around me. They keep me going."
Golson managed the game but took his shots, part of the plan for the Irish who knew "big chunk plays" were the key to a happy bus ride home.
"When you talk about big chunk plays for us, runs or passes, we felt like if we didn't get enough of those it would be tough sledding for us, because they're so good up front and bring so many pressures," said Kelly. "We got some one-on-ones early that we overthrew then we came back to a couple that worked out for us. It really was about trying to manufacture a few of those."
The Irish offense hit for runs of 32 and 26 yards as well as pass plays of 36, 21, and 20 on the evening. The 36-yard catch resulted in a score while both runs led to points (a touchdown and field goal, respectively).
But for the third straight week it was Notre Dame's front seven that proved the difference.
"Obviously when you have a front seven like they have, then they can get a lot of pressure without sending a lot blitzes; that's going to cause some problems for an offense," said Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell (23-45, 187 yards). "We didn't have enough explosive plays…against a team like that, to go 85-90 yards, you have to be almost perfect on drives of that length."
The host Spartans longest run was a 15-yard gain, one earned against a prevent Irish defense to end the first half. Their longest completion just 23 yards.
"We had a game plan going in and the whole thing was everyone just getting to the ball," said senior linebacker Manti Te'o. "Everyone having tenacity and working together, having that edge about them. Our guys came to play. We lined up against a good team today and I'm happy we came out with a win."
The Irish didn't muster much offensively in the second half, that is until they needed it most.
"The ability to run the football late in the game proved to be the deciding factor," said Kelly of his team's decisive 12-play, 84-yard drive that began at their own 4-yard line and ended in a Kyle Brindza field goal, taking nearly seven minutes off the clock in the process.
"I would say going against a Michigan State defense, if you can find a way to come up with a late drive running the football, I think you have to give them high marks for their play," said Kelly of his recently maligned offensive line's effort.
The Irish finished with 122 yards rushing, 68 of which were accrued on the aforementioned march.
"We're not even close to where we could be, especially on the offensive side of the ball," said Kelly. "We're going through some of the growing pains that I talked about…But we settled in, and I think the maturity on the offensive side of the ball is where I think we'll be able to continue to grow."
There's less room for growth on the other side of scrimmage. It's already taken place.