No one was happier than head coach Charlie Weis. Staring straight ahead at another week of hard questions on just how good this Notre Dame team was, his players bailed him out in big fashion with a titanic fourth quarter performance that saw a 16-point deficit turn into a three-point lead in the matter of 5:25 late in the game. The team's confidence was debatable after the Wolverine blowout. Now, after the riveting comeback victory, the Irish can smile wide.
"I thought it was very significant for this reason: last week at Michigan, you know, I felt when I talked to the players at halftime we were going to get a very positive response, and it didn't work out that way," Weis said about his team's confidence on Sunday. "Either I didn't do a good job or they didn't do a good job or we both didn't do a good job.
"This week at halftime when I talked to them, I kind of put it in their lap. The fact they battled back, ended up winning the game, they deserve the credit. It's easy for the head coach when people sit there and say, ‘What a great comeback, you're the head coach.' I didn't intercept those two balls. I didn't throw those touchdown passes. I didn't get after the quarterback and sack him. I didn't do any of those things. All's I did was call plays. You have to give the players a lot of credit."
Notre Dame went through their toughest part of the schedule 3-1. The Irish are at this current point because of some late-game toughness. They easily could be 1-3. Down 10-0 at Georgia Tech, Notre Dame rallied to win 14-10. Down 37-21 at Michigan State, the Irish managed their biggest win of the Weis era with two Terrail Lambert interceptions, including one for a touchdown with under three minutes left that was the difference in the ballgame. Now, Notre Dame has a favorable schedule all the until USC in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day weekend. First, they'll have to beat a pesky Purdue team, who'll come into South Bend next weekend 4-0 and looking for revenge from last year's blowout loss. For one day though, they'll enjoy the Spartan win.
"I enjoyed watching our players sing the alma mater, fight song with our students, the band over there," Weis said about his team after the game. "I enjoyed going into the locker room after the game, after the team prayer, I say a few words, singing the fight song, watching the players be like that.
"Now, on the way home, I can tell you there was a lot of sleeping going on. It wasn't like there was a raucous bus. I think there was a lot of tired puppies. I think everyone left it on the field yesterday."
It was a big night for Lambert. Last week, Michigan's Mario Manningham torched the junior cornerback twice for touchdowns. From goat to hero, Lambert rebounded in a big fashion, interceptioning two passes in the fourth quarter. Now, people are toasting his name after his 19-yard return for a touchdown off an errant Drew Stanton pass won the game for Notre Dame.
"Even last week against Michigan, where on surface everyone was blaming him for two touchdowns, which was really only one that was credited to him from a coaching staff standpoint, you could see he's got a lot of athleticism," Weis said. "But when you know what to do, it gives you a chance to use that athleticism. He certainly made a couple really big plays for us last night."
The magical end wasn't without some negatives. Notre Dame surrendered 248 yards on the ground, most of these coming in the first three quarters. The Irish stiffened in the fourth quarter when Michigan State become predictable in their play calling. As for Notre Dame's rush attack, it was almost non-existent. The Irish totaled just 47 yards on the ground vs. the Spartans, mostly because they were in comeback mode all night long. It's the second straight contest where Notre Dame has struggled to find their running game early. The Irish will get some help this week with freshman James Aldridge expected to get some reps after getting healthy from a knee injury.
"He's going to start practicing for real this week," Weis said of Aldridge. "He's been practicing now. We just have not repped him with the first group up there. When I say "the first group," I'm talking 1s and 1As, guys that could conceivably be in the game when a game is in question. He'll be in the mix."
Even with Aldridge becoming part of the game plan, Weis does not blame starter Darius Walker for the rushing woes.
"I definitely do not find Darius as being a problem," Weis said. "I think Darius is running hard. I think this problem is more of an offensive problem. It's a problem that we're going to have to work to rectify. One of the ways you could rectify it is by converting on some third downs and don't put yourself in those situations where you're down three scores so early in the game and all of a sudden you have to change the mentality of the game before it's four scores or five scores. Even down three scores in the game, you can stick to the running game if the other team doesn't have a lot of offensive firepower, but they do, okay, which chased me away from it a lot quicker than I would have liked to."
Some quick personnel notes: fullback Asaph Schwapp did not make the trip to East Lansing. The sophomore injured his knee in the Penn State contest and has not seen the field in the past two games. Weis said he left him behind in order to get treatment to be ready for Purdue on Saturday. Also, cornerback Ambrose Wooden did make the trip but did not see any action. The senior had a head injury last week vs. Michigan and was only going to be used in an emergency role in the Spartans game. Freshman Darrin Walls filled in admirably for Wooden and got some valuable playing experience.
"I think from a DB standpoint, I think when you don't notice him, that's usually a good thing," Weis said of Walls. "Because usually when you notice him ? usually ? it's when something bad is happening, not when something good's happening."
***The story was helped greatly by the Notre Dame Sports Information Department.