Averaging 222.5 yards rushing per game and 4.8 yards per carry through two games, the Irish ground game withered against a good but not great Michigan State defense. After Josh Adams’ two carries for 12 yards in the opening series, Adams carried 10 more times for 17 yards and finished with a 2.4-yard average (12 carries, 29 yards).
All told, Notre Dame had 25 carries for 57 yards (2.28) against a Michigan State defense that allowed 87 yards on 33 carries by Furman (2.6). After the first quarter, when the Irish had nine carries for 43 yards, Notre Dame accounted for 14 more rushing yards on 16 carries over the final three quarters.
DeShone Kizer was Notre Dame’s top running threat with a pair of rushing touchdowns. Tarean Folston had a nice burst on his first carry for nine yards, but managed just five more yards on three additional carries.
Notre Dame pretty much had to abandon the run after Michigan State scored 36 straight points, including 21 in the third quarter. The Irish actually ran it just twice in the fourth quarter, and those were one-yard gains by Adams and Folston.
The Notre Dame ground game withered against a Michigan State defensive line that lost a third-round draft choice and two NFL free agents following the 2015 season.
Give DeShone Kizer and the Irish receiving corps some credit for mounting a comeback through the air when the Spartans knew it was the only way they could go. Kizer ultimately completed 20-of-37 for 344 yards and a pair of touchdowns to go with an ill-fated interception that – not surprisingly – immediately led to a three-play, 39-yard Spartan touchdown drive.
Kizer’s performance – he averaged big numbers in yards per completion (17.2) and yards per attempt (9.1) – was less than what has come to be expected. But when you have to carry the entire load on your shoulders, there are going to be some forced and errant throws. Kizer is the only offense the Irish could count upon without a ground game to keep the heat off.
Torii Hunter, Jr. returned to action after missing the Nevada game with a concussion. He had a team-leading five catches for 95 yards, including the 47-yarder that help set up the first of three second-half touchdowns. Kizer also found Chase Claypool for 33 yards and C.J. Sanders for 34 in the nine-play, 80-yard drive that pulled the Irish to within 15 with 11:45 remaining.
Equanimeous St. Brown caught a 48-yarder on a well-designed play midway through the first quarter when the Irish ultimately took a 7-0 lead. His footwork on a 15-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter was brilliant. Kevin Stepherson added a 23-yarder while tight end Durham Smythe caught a 12-yard touchdown pass with 6:02 left to pull the Irish to within eight. But it wasn’t enough without a ground game to supplement it.
Notre Dame finished just 4-of-11 on third down.
Furman held Michigan State to 171 yards rushing on 40 carries (4.3-yard average). Notre Dame was hammered by the one-two punch of Gerald Holmes and L.J. Scott, who combined for 198 yards on 35 carries (5.6-yard average). Holmes’ 73-yard rumble capped Michigan State’s 36-0 run in the second and third quarters.
Even quarterback Tyler O’Connor added 43 yards on 10 carries, several of which were scrambles. Although wide receiver R.J. Shelton was credited with just three carries for 16 yards, he caught a series of shovel passes that accounted for a significant portion of his 80 yards receiving. Scott had a 23-yard run that set up his nine-yard touchdown run. All told, the Spartans had three rushing touchdowns, raising the total against the Irish through three games to nine.
Of Michigan State’s 260 yards rushing, 238 came in the final three quarters while 199 came in the second half.
Tyler O’Connor completed 19-of-26 for 241 yards and two touchdowns in just his third career start. Veteran cornerback Cole Luke was victimized on the 38-yard touchdown pass to Donnie Corley that easily should have been picked off. Luke was the Spartan target in the first of three touchdown drives in the third quarter when he a) allowed a seven-yard completion to Monty Madaris on 3rd-and-3, b) was whistled for a blatant interference penalty, and c) missed tackle on 3rd-and-10 from the Irish 17 that netted 14 yards and set up Holmes’ first of two scores.
A missed tackle by cornerback Nick Coleman sprung Madaris for 33 yards on the second to last play of the first quarter. Devin Studstill and Nyles Morgan crossed paths on a 23-yard reception by Josiah Price. O’Connor converted a high percentage of his scrambles into first downs.
The Irish made some plays early to keep this from being a failing grade. Credit to Daelin Hayes for his amazing downfield pass defense skills that created a Studstill interception. But the Notre Dame secondary was a sieve against the Spartans during the fateful third quarter as well as the game-clinching pass to a wide-open Corley for 28 yards on 3rd-and-7.
How bad were Notre Dame’s special teams? Let us count the ways, beginning with the opening kickoff when a Jalen Elliott hold negated a 100-yard return by C.J. Sanders.
There was the continued inconsistency of punter Tyler Newsome, who later got a fortuitous bounce for a 71-yarder and finished with a deceiving 50.3 yards per punt. There was the unaware Miles Boykin when a Michigan State punt bounced off the back of his leg and was recovered by the Spartans. There was the easy Michigan State two-point conversion. There was the Michigan State punt downed at the one. There was the unsportsmanlike penalty against Nicco Fertitta on a well-covered punt…
Notre Dame’s special teams continue to be an abomination in big games.
To say that Mark Dantonio and his staff out-coached Brian Kelly and his staff is a colossal understatement. Even Kelly had to admit after the game that he and his coaching staff have to do a much better job, although it didn’t take his spoken word to paint the picture. It was clear in every facet, other than Notre Dame’s ability to make it a game through the passing attack, and even that was inconsistent throughout much of the game when the Irish were unprepared for Michigan State’s wise decision to protect its cornerbacks by using very little press coverage.
Notre Dame’s defense started strong in the first quarter, and then collapsed thereafter. The special teams were unprepared to play consistent football.
Kelly even used the first of three second-half timeouts…to decide to punt on 4th-and-7.
The Irish have lost four of the last five games they’ve played, dating back to last year’s final regular-season loss to Stanford. The coaching staff is not giving the players the best chance to win.