The Spartans used a dominating third quarter performance and two of quarterback Brian Hoyer's four touchdown passes on the day to put Notre Dame away 31-14. On Saturday afternoon in front of another sellout crowd in South Bend, the Irish gave the fans hope for the first 30 minutes of the contest.
But a second half that saw the offense once again stuck in reverse was coupled with more deficiencies in stopping the run and preventing Hoyer from having a career-day. The result: Notre Dame's first 0-4 start in school history. The loss on Saturday was the sixth straight by 17 points or more. Next up: Purdue, UCLA, Boston College and USC. Unless there are quick changes, the Irish might be staring dead in the eye of 0-8 in mid-October. Weis said the team will go back to "training camp" tomorrow.
"Records to me are not the critical factor," Weis said about the 0-4 start. "I live in one-week entities. You guys all know me. That hasn't changed and it will never change. So I'll critically evaluate this game and get ready for Purdue. I'm not worrying about the record. Do I want to (to win)? That might be a tad rhetorical. I obviously want to win."
Notre Dame was in the game as the two teams took the field to start the third quarter. In the three previous losses, the Irish were down 16-0, 14-7 and 31-0. On Saturday, Notre Dame had a shot in the second half. But Michigan State(4-0) quickly took it to the Irish and made it a two-score ballgame.
The defining drive of the contest came on the Spartans first. Devin Thomas returned the opening kickoff to Notre Dame's 45-yard line. On the first critical third down of the series, Hoyer hit Javon Ringer for a first down. The Spartans quarterback then found Mark Dell on a 3rd-and-17 for a first down at the Irish's 21-yard line. Two plays later, Hoyer hit Mark Dell for a 16-yard touchdown pass to give Michigan State a 24-14 advantage.
A couple of series later, the Spartans put the nail in the coffin. A 10 play, 67-yard drive was capped when Hoyer connected with Davis for a 30-yard scoring strike. The touchdown came on 4th-and-1 and Hoyer actually fumbled the snap. But the Michigan State signal caller lofted a perfect pass to a streaking Davis for the score to make it 31-14.
"I talked about three things," Weis said of his halftime speech. "First of all, we had to start off on kickoff coverage pinning them back. How did I do? The ball ends up in plus territory. Then I said we have to get off the field on third down. How did I do? Convert a 3rd-and-9 and 3rd-and-17 and the next thing you know they're in the end zone. And then I said we have to get a sustained drive so that the defense isn't on the field the whole day. And how did I do again?
"I know I'm not playing but still, all of my points of emphasis at halftime, I hit the trifecta. I was 0-for-3."
Hoyer's four touchdown passes were a career-high and were a catalyst for the Spartans sixth straight win at Notre Dame Stadium. No opponent has ever achieved that feat. Ringer ran for 144 yards on 26 carries for an average of 6.1 yards per rush. Jehuu Caulcrick added 83 more yards on the ground for a grand total of 219 yards on the day for Michigan State. The Spartans, still stinging from last season's 40-37 defeat in East Lansing, made good on their part to get even.
"We talked about it all week long about how this really started for us last year at this time when Notre Dame came to our stadium and had a great comeback and won," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. "I think our guys have been suffering ever since then. We talked about it a lot. We've spent a year dealing with this, and our guys have been mocked, and our guys have been made fun of, and we lost. So we internalized this and turned it to our favor today, and we came in here prepared to play and we were very, very emotional."
The offense did not bail out the offense in the second half. Notre Dame gained 79 total yards in the final 30 minutes of play. Only three first downs were earned by the Irish in the second half. When Notre Dame went down by two scores, it sent the team into a passing mode. But freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen could not create the comeback. Clausen ended the day 7-of-13 for 53 yards and was sacked three times. Junior Evan Sharpley entered in the fourth quarter and finished 4-of-7 for 33 yards and a sack.
While the running game showed signs of improvement, the passing game was severely lacking in big plays. The four sacks brought the season total to 27 on the year. David Grimes led the receivers with three catches for 24 yards. The longest reception of the afternoon was by George West for 14 yards. Special teams also took a step back. Geoff Price shanked several punts on the day and the kickoff return unit never gave the team good field position.
In the first half, the Irish appeared to benefit from the hard week of physical practices. A fumbled snap by Hoyer in the first quarter was recovered by the Irish and Notre Dame stood just nine yards away from earning their first touchdown of the season and first in 14 quarters dating back to last season. Fifth-year senior Travis Thomas hit paydirt with a one-yard touchdown score to give the Irish an early 7-0 and finally give the fans something to cheer for.
Michigan State responded on the next series. Hoyer led the Spartans down the field 67 yards, capped with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Thomas to nod the contest up at 7-all. On the drive, Hoyer hit two passes on third down, including the scoring toss. A few series later, Michigan State made it 14-7 on a Hoyer to Kellen Davis touchdown pass. A Brett Swenson field goal increased the lead to 17-7 early in the second quarter.
Notre Dame showed some fight and put together its best drive of the season and only significant one of Saturday afternoon. Surprisingly, it took the Irish only five plays to march 80 yards. The big play was James Aldridge's 43 yard-run. The touchdown was scored on a punishing three-yard rush by freshman Robert Hughes to cut the lead to 17-14. Aldridge ended the day with 104 yards and Hughes with 33 yards on six carries. For a team ranked dead last coming into the contest in rushing offense, the Irish were good on the ground for a half.
"The one thing I was encouraged with was the play of our running back," Weis said. "We went into this game saying regardless of what was going to happen in the game, we were going to try to run the football and run with some power."
However, the second half was yet to be played and the Spartans showed who was the superior team. There were positives in Saturday's contest. Aldridge's 100-yard day and freshman Kerry Neal's first sack of his career were bright signs for the future. By the end, the offense was still lagging and the defense took a step back by not only succumbing to the opponent's ground attack but scoring plays through the air. Next weekend, Notre Dame will try to earn the first win of the season at Purdue. It'll be tough for Weis to keep the spirits high and a mindset of losing settling in among the player.
"They have to believe there's going to be a payoff," Weis said about the players. "You keep working until there is a payoff. And at this point, there's been no payoff. You keep on working for the next one until there's a payoff, and there's going to be one. Hopefully it's against Purdue."