It wasn't pretty, but the Irish found a way to win, and that's enough considering the opponent is Michigan State. The Irish were hardly hitting on all cylinders, but they made the plays when they needed to, and walked away with a hard-fought win.
Capitalizing on six Spartan turnovers, and the opportunistic play on strong safety Tom Zbikowski and wide receiver Matt Shelton, the Irish outlasted the Spartans to move to 2-1 on the season.
The Spartans got on the board early when they forced an Irish three-and-out series on Notre Dame's first offensive series. Punter D.J. Fitzpatrick then had his punt blocked by Spartan, Marshall Campbell, and sophomore Jerramy Scott recovered it in the back of the end zone for the score and the early 7-0 lead.
The Irish miscue was reminiscent of many Irish blunders against Michigan State in their six recent losses to the Spartans, and one had to wonder at that point if it was going to be another one of those types of games for the Irish.
But the stout Irish defense once against made the big play to give the Irish offense the spark they needed and the short field. Sophomore Tom Zbikowski intercepted a Stephen Reaves pass and returned it to the Spartan 13-yard line.
The Irish pounded the ball on the ground before Irish quarterback Brady Quinn bootlegged on fourth-and-one for the first Irish touchdown, tying the game, 7-7.
The Spartans responded with their own drive, but it was Zbikowski again who made a play for the Irish. Zbikowski stripped Michigan State running back Jason Teague of the football and returned the football 75 yards for the second Irish touchdown on the night.
The Irish defense stopped a Spartans drive and the Irish offense took off on their own drive, fueled by a 48-yard Quinn to Matt Shelton bomb setting the Irish up on the MSU 25-yard line.
The Irish advanced the ball to the MSU 11-yard line on a Quinn scramble, but the Spartan defense came up with the play they needed, as safety Tyrell Dortch picked off a Quinn pass in the end zone, ending the Irish threat.
The Irish defense stiffened once again for another 3-and-out series, setting up the Notre Dame offense at their own 41-yard line.
Two impressive Ryan Grant runs put the Irish on the MSU 30-yard line. It was Quinn finding Shelton again, this time for a 35-yard strike to put the Irish up 21-7.
The Irish had two golden opportunities to put the game out of reach at the end of the first half, but a Ryan Grant fumbled on the MSU 30-yard line stopping one drive, and the Irish failed to covert on a Derek Curry interception of a Reaves pass setting up the Irish at the MSU 25-yard line. Irish kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick missed from 37 yards ending another Irish threat.
Notre Dame got on the board first in the second half with an impressive drive, mostly on the legs of freshman Darius Walker.
Walker and senior Ryan Grant took seven plays, 75 yards before Grant finished off the drive with a 6-yard plunged up the middle, extending the Irish lead, 28-7.
But the Spartans answered the Irish score on the ensuing kickoff when DeAndre Cobb raced 89 yards down the sideline to narrow the Irish lead, 28-14, and giving Michigan State new life in the game.
The kickoff return energized a tired Spartan defense as they held the Irish on three straight downs and forced another Irish punt.
The Spartans started another scoring drive at their own 42-yard line. A Stanton 12-yard completion, and a couple of nice runs set up the Spartans at the Irish 27-yard line. But the Irish defense held, forcing a 46-yard David Rayner field goal, narrowing the score to 28-17, Irish.
The Spartans then stopped another Irish drive and took off on another impressive 11-play drive, marching 85 yards, only to have running back Jehuu Caulcrick fumble while trying to jump over the pile for an apparent Spartan touchdown.
Free safety Quentin Burrell recovered the ball in the end zone, stopping the Spartan threat, and their last real shot to win the game.
D.J. Fitzpatricked added a 23-yard field goal late in the game to put the Irish up 31-17 and for good.
The Spartans picked up a late touchdown when quarterback Drew Stanton scampered for four yards, but it was too little too late for the Spartans.
Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham was pleased with the Irish victory, but one could tell he wasn't happy his team missed on some golden opportunities.
"I do want to give them credit for the way they fought back into the ball game," said Willingham of the Spartans. "I also thought there were some things that we did from a disappointing standpoint that let them back in."
Willingham credited Zbikowski with some key plays that got his Irish team rolling on Saturday night.
"If you know anything about Michigan State's team, if you let them get going, they really get confident," Willingham said of Zbikowski's interception being the spark his team needed after the blocked punt.
"It was important for us to get ourselves back in the ball game as quick as possible. When we have those kind of turnovers created by our defense, now you have a chance to throttle their momentum and give us a chance to start taking over the ball game."
Zbikowski's night wasn't done with the interception, his second big play was equally spectacular, and Willingham said stripping the ball is something his team practices all the time.
"I would say that was a truly great play on Zibby's part," Willingham said of the Zbikowski strip of a Jason Teague run. "It is something we talk about and we work on every week."
The Irish also won the first quarter in this game—something they haven't done in their first two games—and certainly a step in the right direction. Willingham said that was something his team had really focused on all week.
"I think we had a three to 22 deficit coming into this ball game in the first half," Willingham said. "It was important for us to get off to a great start in this ball game, both offensively and defensively."
But it was the defense and the six forced turnovers that made the difference in this game and Willingham is a big fan of his defense.
"I have always tipped my hat to my defense," he said. "Good defense will keep you in ball games and we have found that out this year in the ball games that we've played.
"We do have a good defense that keeps us close until something good happens, and our defense has done a great job in all three games of keeping us in the position to win football games."
The Irish got the monkey off their back with this victory. Now 2-1 on the season and three straight home games on the horizon, the Irish have a chance to put together another special season. One thing is certain; this Irish defense is pretty special.