There was a lot of helmet slapping, and excited running down field to pick up Aldridge or Hughes following another great play.
Unfortunately that fun only lasted for a half, as the Irish saw a close 17-14 game, turn quickly into a 31-14 defeat. But with a unit that had to replace seven starters on offense including three offensive linemen, and a unit that failed to establish any kind of identity through the first three games, baby steps were taken, and maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Notre Dame (0-4) scored its first two offensive touchdowns of the season, had a 100-yard rusher, and with that, the nation's worst statistical offense can move onto Purdue (4-0) this week in a positive light.
"We had fun playing," sophomore left tackle Sam Young said. "I think maybe the team had lost that a little bit. When you kind of get down in the dumps and one thing goes the wrong way you kind of get discouraged, but I think the team came out and we had a lot of fire and had a lot of fun. Coming over to the sidelines, I know everyone was having a great time fired up. And we were worried about each individual play. We weren't saying oh you screwed up on that page, shame on you."
The whole Irish offense did their fair share of screwing up the first three games, and the team found itself ranked last or near the bottom nationally in every single offensive category. But the offense capitalized early in the first quarter on a Spartans' turnover. Hughes impressively carried defenders eight yards to the one-yard line, and Travis Thomas ran around the left side of the line and found the end zone on the next play for the first offensive touchdown of the season. Notre Dame led 7-0, and the home crowd was having some fun too.
In the second quarter, it was Aldridge bouncing outside for 43 of his 104 yards. Hughes followed that up with a 17-yard carry and later scored his first career touchdown from three yards out, bringing the Irish to within three points, 17-14. Hughes finished with 33 yards on his first six career carries.
"When you see several runs in the game where guys were running with extreme power, getting yards in which we call yards after touches, you can see how not only the offensive unit get excited, but also the sideline became excited," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Michael Haywood explained. "And you could feel the energy through those explosive and powerful runs."
Mostly because of quarterback sacks, the Irish came into the game at minus-14 yards rushing for the season. Head coach Charlie Weis took his team back to the much publicized training camp, back to basics, and his guys showed improvement. Notre Dame ran for 117 yards and the two scores. Surrendering 23 sacks in the first three losses, Michigan State, the nation's leader in quarterback sacks, had four. The Irish were able to move the chains, and go into halftime with a chance to still win the game.
"We're taking steps," Aldridge said. "Things are heading in the right directions. We're just going to take it step by step and keep plugging away at it."
"I think we're getting there," Young said. "Watching the film, there is a lot of positives. There is still a lot of improvement, but we're seeing steps forward and I think that's great. Coach Weis says we've developed a niche and something that we're good at. And as an offensive linemen, you love to be able to run the football and lineup against the guy and you know what you're going to do, you're going to come off the ball and smack him in the mouth."Now Notre Dame just has to do that consistently.
Weis has tabbed getting physical and developing a power running game as a must to get this offense going. With the running back position stockpiled with five talented players, nobody thought it'd take until the Michigan State game to be able to do that. In the first half they were able to move the football and develop some sort of identity. In the second half, it was another story. The Irish fell behind quickly, had to start throwing the ball, and had just 79 of their 204 total yards after halftime.
"I think we may have lost focus," Young stated. "More than anything we just have to be able to keep pushing. I think maybe we got a little complacent, I'm not sure. But I know one thing, we're working on that. The coaches have really been pushing that so far this week to play the full 60 minutes and not just a half."
"It was just something, we'd be physical here, not physical here, but just being physical every single play is something we've been working on and it's kind of coming now," Aldridge explained.
When it does come, Irish players will be smacking helmets and having fun for a full four quarters.