NOTRE DAME, Ind. – It was the words from an opposing head coach that should have been uttered six days earlier.
“What I saw from them defensively was what I would have done had I been in their shoes,” said Nevada head coach Brian Polian following Notre Dame’s 39-10 home-opening victory Saturday.
“There was no need to junk it up. Play base defense and make us beat you.”
Had Notre Dame not tried to trick its way to a victory the previous weekend against a Texas team that fell to Notre Dame by five touchdowns a year earlier, the Irish would be gearing up for the physical confrontation that is Michigan State with a 2-0 record and the earth’s axis aligned.
Instead, the 1-1 Irish face the crossroads of their playoff dreams in Week 3.
As for the physical expectations from the Spartan squad, that remains intact.
All in all, it was a quality rebound performance by the Irish in response to the bitter double-overtime loss in Austin. The running game accounted for 239 yards against a vulnerable defensive front. The passing game was a high-percentage attack with progress made in the red zone.
The defense shut down James Butler and the Nevada rushing attack. The suspect Wolf Pack passing game became even more suspect. There were positives on special teams.
Short of widening the point differential, it was a more-than-satisfactory second effort of the season, and yet not enough to squelch the frustration of a game plan gone awry a week earlier.
To what end? For what reason? Ego? A new scheme? An I’m-smarter-than-you-are attitude?
Selfish, individual gratification superseded the well being of the Notre Dame team/program in Austin, leaving the Irish with no margin for error over the final 10 games of the regular season.
Lesson learned? Yes. Lesson burned? That too.
“It comes down to our ability to stop the run effectively in our base defense,” said Brian Kelly after the Irish limited Nevada to 99 yards rushing on 30 attempts.
“If we can get into our base defense, we feel pretty confident that our front four is really good. We were better in our safety support, we were better in our linebacker play across the board. We obviously got caught in some personnel mismatches last week against the tempo of Texas.
“We made some adjustments there and we feel pretty good that we’ll continue to make the progress necessary to be a good front seven.”
Notre Dame didn’t get caught in mismatches against Texas as much as it walked right in and surrendered to the trap. With a month to prepare, Notre Dame overreacted to the Longhorns’ fast-paced attack and stubbornly stuck to its guns, even as the game unfolded and the base scheme proved more effective than the ill-conceived 3-3-5.
The Irish tried to out-scheme an opponent instead of out-playing an opponent. The message arrived via Western Union in a high-speed Internet world.
Once the Irish wiped the sleep out of their eyes with a couple of sluggish offensive series, Notre Dame manhandled a respectable Nevada team that defeated Washington State and BYU in 2014, Polian’s second year at the helm.
Playing Sunday night and arriving home Monday at five a.m., Notre Dame’s equilibrium was thrown off in preparation for the Wolf Pack. DeShone Kizer and Josh Adams helped the Irish find their bearings while the defense played better, tackled better and approached the opponent with all the ingredients necessary to win.
“We re-established it,” said nose tackle Jarron Jones of Notre Dame’s physicality. “We felt like we had established it going into Texas, and obviously that didn’t work out. So we kind of had to reassess ourselves and reestablish that culture of being physical.”
When Nevada took possession of the football with 5:33 left in the game, Notre Dame had held the Wolf Pack to 214 yards total offense.
No Irish game is complete without allowing a long touchdown drive. The five-play, 86-yard Wolf Pack touchdown march became the 57th TD drive of 70 yards or more in the last 23 games. But this time, Notre Dame’s defensive superiority was the overriding theme of the game.
“We have to match their physicality,” said James Onwualu, when asked to suspend the 24-hour rule of celebration and take a sneak peek at Michigan State.
“I know Michigan State. We’ve played them before. They’re a physical team, a hard-nosed Big Ten team. So absolutely, playing with physicality and schematically being smart.”
The most promising aspect of the offense’s day was the two passing touchdowns in the red zone, one to a sophomore (C.J. Sanders) and another to a freshman (Kevin Stepherson). Those scores helped cap a 5-of-6 touchdown effort in the red zone against Nevada after a 3-of-5 mark against Texas.
That’s 8-of-11 in two games. That’s a 72.7 percent mark. That’s a championship-level number.
“You have to understand in the red zone that if you’re first option is not there, you have to go to your second and your third,” Kizer said. “If it isn’t open, don’t force it.
“That was my biggest fault last year. I wanted to take the first, second or third read and never considered extending the play.”
Kizer appears to be taking his red-zone game to the next level by thinking through the process. He gets it now, which clearly was the next step in his evolution into becoming a complete quarterback.
“Things get moving when the defense wants to play zone coverage down there,” Kizer said. “They have to make a decision to stop me or to stop the receivers, and when they step up, I’m going to drop it off.”
You can see the recognition in Kizer’s face as he talks about taking his and Notre Dame’s red-zone game to the next level.
“We spent so much time during the off-season defining who we are in the red zone,” Kizer said. “We get into a lot of funky formations and try to run the ball as much as we can. If we get to third down, we get right to the plays that we’ve run a thousand times.
“As long our guys continue to make the adjustments on the ball and try to make catches in tight windows and I put the ball where it’s supposed to be, we’ll be able to score every time there.”
Perspective must be maintained in a four-touchdown home victory against an undermanned opponent. At least Notre Dame has some stable footing upon which to stand – on both sides of the ball -- heading into next week.
The Irish made strides in their quest to find their 2016 identity; Michigan State has even more to figure out after a shaky opening-game win over Furman and a bye week. The whole world knows how the Spartans will try to take the next step.
“We know what they’re going to do,” said a chuckling Kelly. “We know what Mark (Dantonio’s) offense is about and what they do defensively. Even though there’s only one game on film, we clearly know what their identity is.
“It’s not like we’ve got a bunch of guys that don’t know what it’s like to go up against a physical opponent like Michigan State. But there are other guys that don’t know what it is to get punched in the mouth by a big, physical team like Michigan State.”
Kelly believes he has several assets around which to build for the Spartans.
“I like its will to prepare and I like its resiliency,” said Kelly of his team. “We’ve got a very good quarterback. It’s always good to have one of those. That’s a good thing to have when you’re going into a game like Michigan State.
“As long as we continue to evolve defensively and get better there, I think we’ve got a fighting shot against anybody we play.”
A great quarterback can offset a multitude of ills, especially against a Michigan State team with its own unproven quarterback. Kizer, showing a burst of determination after the Nevada win, bristled a bit when asked about Michigan State’s physicality.
“You can sit here and say physicality all you want,” said Kizer of references to Michigan State’s style of play. “But we’re one of the most physical teams out there.
“With the offensive line we have and the three-headed monster at running back, we’re going to be physical across the board. Now it’s about putting on your hard hat, picking up your lunch pail and doing it.”
Michigan State at Notre Dame. The truth arrives Saturday night. It has no place to hide.null