Just Keep On Keeping On

EAST LANSING - It seemed like Notre Dame's January plans were washed away by the down pour at Spartan Stadium on Saturday night. The 12th-ranked Irish were down 17 points at the half, and anytime it seemed like they were building a little momentum, a crucial mistake would halt any thoughts of a dramatic victory.

As the tough continued to get tougher, the Irish players continued to plug along. Then in an amazing five-minute span, the Notre Dame team rallied to stomp on the hearts of the Michigan State players and fans in a 40-37 shocker, on the 40th anniversary of the "Game of the Century."

This game might not go down in college football lore, but the Irish players walked out the locker room knowing they were a part of something special.

"That's definitely the most fun victory I've ever been a part of," said tight end John Carlson, who played a big role, catching four passes for a team-high 121 yards and a touchdown. "I've been playing competitive sports for pretty much my whole life."

"This is probably the biggest comeback I've ever been a part of," senior safety Tom Zbikowski stated. "Last year was pretty big, but to finally get a win against them was pretty big."

This was not the defining game of the Charlie Weis era, one game could never do that, but it did define the character of the Notre Dame football team. When it seemed liked the Irish could never catch a break, the team never gave up.

When Rhema McKnight hauled in a beautifully thrown 14-yard touchdown pass from Brady Quinn, the quarterback's fifth of the evening, cutting the score to 37-33 with 4:57 remaining, every reporter in the press box including yours truly had to delete their story and start from scratch.

The rout that was evolving early never happened.

The three-hour bus ride back to South Bend became pleasant instead of a long-time to reflect.

While the Irish can bask in the glory of this win, it doesn't cover up the fact that the team hasn't shown any improvement offensively from the start of the season. Sure, they can make plays, and against Michigan State, they made quite a few including Terrail Lambert's interceptions, Brady Quinn's five touchdown passes, Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija's touchdown catches, Chinedum Ndukwe's forced fumble and recovery, and Trevor Laws looking like he was all over the field in making seven tackles, two-for-loss with a sack.

Every glaring issue the team has, showed up prominently. The offensive line penalties before the ball is snapped. Quinn being off target. Receivers dropping passes. Penalties killing big plays. Zbikowski dropping punts. Weis having to abandon the run. The defense surrendering big plays and horrid third-down conversion rate (1-of-11).

Weis always says it's easier for him to coach a team after a win. Well, he still has his work cut out for him if this team plans to win its first bowl game since 1994.

Speaking of coaching, what is wrong with John L. Smith. In the fourth quarter, put the game in your best player's hands and let Stanton make a couple throws in trying to run the clock out. It's a credit to the ND defense, but everyone was positive the Spartans were running on every play.

Leading by 16, Michigan State ran the football on 11-of-the-first-12 plays in the fourth quarter. Stanton was sacked on the one pass play. The 13th play, Lambert's game-winning 27-yard interception return.

If MSU would have ran play action or thrown a couple of slants, they'd probably be 4-0 and the Irish would be trying to figure things out at 2-2.

But regardless of the terrible play-calling by the Spartans in the fourth quarter, and no matter how things got during the game, the Irish never gave up.

Now the team has an opportunity to get things together over the next seven games. Though some of these stiffs won't be easily pushed over, remember they have pride also, Notre Dame should be able to work all the kinks out before traveling out to USC to complete the regular season with a BCS invitation pretty much guaranteed.

The Irish will have to hear about how they didn't beat anyone en route to a 10-1 record, but none of that will matter if the offense can finally find a rhythm before heading out to Los Angeles. If the unit resembles last year's version, the Trojans will have their hands full.

One thing is for sure, the Irish definitely aren't lacking heart.

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