From Despair to Joy

EAST LANSING, MI- The game appeared over. Michigan State held a 16-point lead heading into the fourth quarter and the Spartans were asserting their will on the ground. Notre Dame was headed for their second straight humbling defeat. Somehow, someway, the Irish managed to find the heart to stage a comeback for the ages.

Terrail Lambert's 19-yard interception return for a touchdown with just under three minutes remaining capped a furious fourth quarter comeback as Notre Dame improbably won 40-37 over a stunned Michigan State squad. In front of the third largest crowd ever to watch a game at Spartan Stadium, the Irish rallied from a 37-21 deficit to score three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and got a last second interception from Lambert, his second in the last three minutes, to move their record to 3-1. It also avoids the first two-game losing streak in Charlie Weis's head coaching career.

"As low as they were last week, that's how high they are now," Weis said about his players. "Trust me, there's plenty of stuff on the tape. For those of you that know me, it's a lot easier to coach on the winning end when you make those mistakes. You have to make sure you're not on an emotional roller coaster. You can't be too low or too high. Right now, it's high high. This one is tough to beat. This game meant a lot to us."

The fourth quarter of this contest will be remembered for years to come. Down 16 points in a driving rain storm, Notre Dame first chipped away with a 43-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Jeff Samardzija to make it 37-27. The Irish missed the two-point conversion but got a huge break when Spartan quarterback Drew Stanton fumbled inside his own territory. Notre Dame recovered and five plays later, Brady Quinn hit Rhema McKnight for a 14-yard touchdown pass to trim the deficit to 37-33. Quinn shook off a rough first half and finished 20-of-36 for 319 yards and five touchdowns, his second highest total ever.

A missed Carl Gioia extra point made the plan simple for Notre Dame: they would need a touchdown to win. But it wasn't the offense this time that got the winning score. Lambert intercepted an errant Drew Stanton pass and rumbled 27 yards for the decisive touchdown. The turnaround was stunning: in a matter of 5:25 seconds in the fourth quarter, the Irish went from 16 points down to a three point advantage. Lambert sealed the game with a final minute interception. The thrilling comeback was complete.

"When we threw the touchdown pass to cut it to 10, I thought, ‘OK, we got a shot,'" Weis said. "But there were seven or eight minutes left in the game. We were still going to kick it deep. I thought a big play was when their kickoff guy declared himself down on the 10 or 11 yard line. That gave us a chance to pin them back there and we got a turnover to take the lead there."

As much as the Notre Dame comeback was special, Michigan State did itself no favors in the fourth quarter. Last year, the Spartans also held a fourth quarter lead only to see the Irish storm back to force overtime. Michigan State did win that contest but on Saturday night they weren't so lucky. A credit to the Notre Dame defense: the Spartans gained 62 yards in the fourth quarter and committed three turnovers. An example of their tentative play was when Demond Williams took a knee at his own 12-yard line off of a kickoff after the Irish cut the lead to 37-33.

"I thought we got conservative but then again I don't know how comfortable Drew felt at that time," Spartan head coach John L. Smith said. "Yeah, we got conservative and probably should have come out and come back and started throwing it because it (the rain) had let up a little bit."

"I think we made the right play calls," Stanton said, who finished the game just 10-of-22 for 114 yards with two touchdowns and two costly interceptions. "We knew we had to run the ball to win the game. We said that from the get go. At halftime, with a lead like that, you have to run the ball to chew up some clock and we weren't able to do that."

For the second consecutive week, Notre Dame found themselves in an early hole. The Spartans jumped out to a 17-0 lead, moving the ball through the air and on the ground. After the first quarter, Michigan State had 185 yards of total offense. The Irish had 20. Quinn was woeful in the first quarter, going just 2-of-8 for six yards and misfiring on a number of passes. The Spartans scored two touchdowns, one on a perfect Stanton pass to Kerry Reed from 34 yards out and the other on a trick play where Matt Trannon caught a quick hitter and threw it back across the field to a wide open Javon Ringer for a 26-yard score. Brett Swinger's 32-yard field goal made it 17-0 after the first 15 minutes of play.

The Irish finally managed to get on the board when McKnight came down with a jump ball in the corner of the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 17-7. Notre Dame got the ball back deep in their own end with a chance to trim the deficit even more when Ervin Baldwin intercepted an errant Quinn pass and rumbled 19-yards for a touchdown to make it 24-7 Spartans. A 17-yard Quinn to Samardzija scoring strike made it 24-14 Michigan State, a two-score game. But the Spartans answered once again, this time on Reed's second score of the night, this one on a quick hitter from 15 yards out to give Michigan State a 31-14 halftime lead. Weis, true to his fashion, stayed clam despite the 17-point deficit.

"At halftime, the players realized the season was starting to slip away from us," Weis said. "Everyone can feel the same thing. After the game we played last week and we're down big at halftime, it was basically, ‘Hey fellas, what's it going to be?' Is it going to be a bunch of also-rans or give it a chance to win the game?

"You couldn't find me any calmer today (at halftime). I said to them, ‘Look fellas, I've done all I can do.' I said I'll call plays but the issue is how important it is to you. For us to have any chance, it wasn't going to be just the defense playing good but it had to be everyone making plays for us to have a chance at winning."

A magical fourth quarter saved the hopes for a special season. For the contest, three receivers had huge days. Samardzija caught seven balls for 113 yards and two touchdowns. McKnight has two spectacular touchdown grabs while tight end John Carlson was a monster on Saturday night, catching four balls for 121 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter where he outran Spartan defenders to the end zone.


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