NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Could four plays go any worse for the Irish than the ones that transpired in the second quarter?
Leading 7-0 and forcing Michigan State into a three-and-out, the Irish were on the verge of taking over near its own 40-yard line with just a few first downs from a two-score lead.
• The Jake Hartbarger punt bounced forward into the foot of an unsuspecting Miles Boykin, and the Spartans recovered at the Notre Dame 38.
• Tyler O’Connor immediately went up top to freshman wide receiver Donnie Corley. Senior cornerback Cole Luke saw it, measured it, and was in perfect position to intercept in the end zone to stem the tide. Corley wrestled it away for the touchdown.
• Another special teams snafu as Michigan State’s Matt Macksood threw to Josiah Price for the two-point conversion and an 8-7 Spartan lead.
• After a Michigan State kickoff into the end zone, DeShone Kizer scrambled to his right and threw to C.J. Sanders, who picked up 19 yards, but coughed up the football on a strip by linebacker Jon Reschke.
This set a tone that would not recede until the Spartans had racked up 334 yards in the second and third quarter combined en route to a 36-28 victory, snapping Notre Dame’s seven-game home winning streak.
Do not believe the hyperbole of Notre Dame’s 21 straight points to pull within eight points. That’s the same hype that came out of the Texas game when the Irish overcame a 17-point deficit to the Longhorns, only to miss opportunities offensively, defensively and on special teams.
The same was true in this loss. DeShone Kizer is brilliant and he’s always going to give the Irish a puncher’s chance. But he can’t do it all, and when he was sacked with just more than four minutes remaining, Notre Dame punted with two timeouts remaining and the defense couldn’t get off the field.
AND THE BEAT GOES ON
In the last 25 games, Notre Dame’s defense has allowed 60 touchdown drives of 70 yards or more, including three more against the Spartans -- an 11-play, 92-yarder at the end of the first half, a 10-play, 75-yarder midway through the third quarter, and a two-play, 78-yarder that included yet another massive big play (a 73-yard run by Gerald Holmes).
Is that worse, or does the defensive trend in the red zone “out-bad” the inability to stop long drives? Both are absurd.
After allowing 6-of-7 red zone trips by Texas to end in touchdowns, Notre Dame rebounded against Nevada, allowing just one six-pointer in three trips beyond the 20-yard line, and that came in the final five minutes of the game.
It was back to bad against Michigan State as the Spartans rushed for 260 yards and five yards per carry, which is what sparked the second- and third-quarter surge that led to 36 straight points.
It’s stunning that the Brian VanGorder defense simply cannot force turnovers or hold teams to field goals in the red zone. To be fair, Daelin Hayes’ tipped pass that was picked off by Devin Studstill came on a drive that reached the 23. But the beat goes on as it relates to red-zone penetrations and touchdowns.
The mark is now a 76.9 percent of red-zone penetrations (13) that have turned into touchdowns (10) in 2016.
One couldn’t help but point to turnovers in the days leading up to the Notre Dame-Michigan State game because, well, turnovers are always important. But in the case of Michigan State – which forced 90 turnovers from 2013-15 compared to 54 by Notre Dame – the one-turnover-per-game disparity is a lot.
Sure enough, after the Irish caused the first turnover of the game, the next three went against the Irish, including two within a four-play span that turned a 7-0 lead into a 15-7 halftime deficit.
That’s when the defense caved in, allowing scoring drives of 75, 39 and 78 yards in the third quarter alone. You almost have to negate the one Irish turnover by the fact that Cole Luke had an easy pick/turnover opportunity, only to allow a freshman wide receiver to wrestle it away.
Turnovers are not a random series of events. Turnovers are created, they’re a habit, and they tell a tale, one that leads to victory for the Spartans just about every time out.
WHAT’S THE RUSH
Yes, Josh Adams is a much better running back than Cam McDaniel, and while we made comparisons between the Irish ground game of 2011-13 and Notre Dame’s rushing attack of today, surely the Irish were going to do better than the 3.2 yards per carry of those three games against the Spartans.
After all, Adams came into the game averaging 7.1 yards per carry in two games after averaging 7.1 yards per carry as a freshman.
Harry Hiestand’s offensive line caved when the sledding was at its toughest. Adams gained 29 yards on 12 carries (2.4). All told, the Irish rushed 25 times for 57 yards. That’s 2.3 yards per carry, which is abominable for an offensive line with the talent base it boasts.
THE BLAME GAME
At least five or six times after the game, Brian Kelly took responsibility for the poor performance of his football team.
“We are a sloppy football team,” Kelly said with disgust.
He also mentioned that if the Irish couldn’t run a basic defensive coverage on a 3rd-and-7 with the game on the line – the Spartans completed it for 28 yards to seal the victory – they should not be running it.
It was veiled and he certainly pointed the finger at himself often enough. But it also was an unspoken indictment of his defensive coordinator. Stay tuned.