Not Saturday night. Not when a much-maligned Irish defense was bludgeoned to the tune of 36 consecutive points in the game’s middle portion en route to a 36-28 Michigan State victory.
After more than 20 scoreless minutes at the outset, the Spartans first benefitted from a miscue by the Irish punt return team when redshirt-freshman blocker Miles Boykin blindly allowed a ball to glance off his foot. The visitors recovered and Michigan State scored one snap later on 38-yard touchdown pass from Tyler O’Connor to Donnie Corley.
Trailing 8-7 after Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio called for a two-point conversion, Notre Dame’s offense stalled for the final 9:30 of the first half, managing just 39 yards and two first downs, one of which was fumbled away by sophomore receiver C.J. Sanders.
Michigan State countered with a methodical 11-play, 92-yard drive culminating in a shovel pass touchdown from O’Connor to R.J. Shelton from 10 yards out just before the break.
And then it got ugly.
Michigan State scored the first three touchdowns of the second stanza, gashing Notre Dame’s rush defense throughout the decisive period including a 164-yard rushing effort in the third quarter alone.
“We came down here and felt we needed to win on toughness, I thought we did that,” said Dantonio. “I felt we needed to run the football and we did that.” Notre Dame’s offense went more than two quarters without a point while the Spartans rolled up 36 unanswered.
Then suddenly, momentum swung.
Trailing 36-7 with 3:45 remaining in the third, the Irish defense stiffened, allowing Brian Kelly’s offense to mount a valiant comeback in desperation passing mode, cutting into the final margin over the contest’s duration.
As part of a 21-0 rally, quarterback DeShone Kizer connected on a touchdown pass to Equanimeous St. Brown, ran another score in himself, and later hit senior Durham Smythe for a 12-yard score at the game’s 6:02 mark.
Michigan State failed to move the chains on three snaps thereafter, taking just 1:56 off the clock in the process. But the Spartans defense responded, sacking Kizer on third down at his own 32-yard line after which Kelly decided to punt with 3:37 remaining.
Notre Dame’s defense nearly responded again, forcing Michigan State into a third-and-7 at its own 17-yard line. Fittingly, a mental error proved to be the decisive mistake among many, affording an easy pitch-and-catch from O’Connor to Corley that gained 28 yards down the vacated right sideline.
“We got them into a third-down situation and we don’t do a very good job on two vertical (routes) and gave them an easy completion,” said Kelly. “We have to coach better. That means communicating what we want to our players, then our players have to execute.”
The 29-point third quarter deficit was the largest margin faced in the Kelly era since Alabama raced to a 35-0 lead in the 2013 BCS Championship Game. It was the biggest deficit a Kelly-coached team faced inside the House that Rockne Built since Stanford led the Irish 37-6 in September 2010.
It was an evening that left Kelly searching for answers, beginning at the top.
“My coaching staff in particular is in a position where they have to coach better. I have to coach better,” he said. “We have kids that fight and have resolve. We’ve been down twice against two really good football teams. “But we’re sloppy as a football team. We have to clean up the whole deal. This is everywhere. This is on me. We are a sloppy football team.”
The defeat dropped Notre Dame to 1-2 on the season. It’s the third season in Kelly’s seven at the helm in which the Irish began with at least two losses in a campaign’s opening three contests.
No. 12 Michigan State moved to 2-0, winners in 38 of its last 44 contests.