In the first two games of the season Notre Dame took advantage of the opportunities that it needed to to win. On Saturday at Michigan State, the Irish did not cash in on their chances and it resulted in a 23-7 loss.
Notre Dame turned the ball over three times, twice in the red zone and once to give the Spartans the ball just outside the red zone. Kicker Brandon Walker missed two field goals and while the defense played solid for most of the game, right when the Notre Dame offense got back in the game, the defense buckled.
Michigan State's Javon Ringer carried the ball 39 times for 201 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Spartans.
"They can give him the ball 39 times in a game and you can hit him and hit him and hit him and hit him and he just keeps on coming," Charlie Weis said after the game. "I learned a long time ago that one attribute that great players have is stamina and he obviously has great stamina."
Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer was just 12 of 26 for 143 yards, but he did not turn the ball over and made the throws that he had to to win the game.
Notre Dame had just 16 net rushing yards on 22 attempts, including three sacks of quarterback Jimmy Clausen, but the running game was non-existant. Together, Notre Dame's running backs carried the ball 15 times for 21 yards.
"They were winning the line of scrimmage," Weis said. "It wasn't like some exotic defense they were playing. It still comes down to winning the line of scrimmage and our defense held up well at the line of scrimmage. But I think that their defensive line got the best of our offense. It wasn't just our offensive line, it was our offense. I think they got the best of us."
Notre Dame put the ball in Clausen's hands in the second half and he responded by completing 17 of his 27 passes after halftime for 163 yards and a score.
"Jimmy, with how things had gone in the first half, could have come out and gone flat in the second half, but he certainly didn't," Weis said. "He really stepped up and picked up his game."
Clausen finished the day 24 of 41 for 242 yards, but had two costly interceptions in the first half.
"Those interceptions were my fault," Clausen said. "I shouldn't have thrown the ball there."
Notre Dame's offense came out and tried to establish the run early, but had no success. Notre Dame handed the ball to running backs on its first six offensive plays of the game and gained just seven yards and had a pair of three-and-outs. Weis said that it wasn't that the Irish got out-schemed, just outplayed.
"(When you play a team that) says, ‘We're going to try to beat you with seven guys,' and you have seven to block seven," Weis said. "You're not getting mismatched, you're in a position to go ahead. Then it becomes a lot of one-on-one battles."
But the Irish lost those one-on-one battles, so Notre Dame tried to win the game through the air.
"We came in at halftime and said, ‘Hey fellas, if we're going to sit there and keep going like this, we won't have a chance to win,'" Weis said.
Trailing 10-0 at halftime, the Irish came out with an empty-shotgun formation to start the second half. Clausen went 6 of 7 for 46 yards to move inside the Michigan State 20-yard line, but a fumble by Michael Floyd was recovered by Eric Gordon at the Michigan State 14 to end the threat.
Ringer then gained 41 yards on six carries and took the Spartans inside the Irish 10-yard line. But the Notre Dame defense forced Michigan State to settle for a 26-yard Brett Swenson field goal that gave the Spartans a 13-0 lead with 5:32 to play in the third quarter.
Both teams went three-and out on their next possessions before the Irish began their only scoring drive of the game.
Notre Dame started on its own 25-yard line and went back to the aerial attack with Clausen again connecting on six of seven throws. Clausen passed for 60 yards, including a 26-yard scoring pass to Floyd on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut the score to 13-7."I think that the team felt after that touchdown, they felt that they were going to win the game," Weis said. "Maybe not before that point, but after that touchdown right there they felt that we'd stop them and we'd get the ball back and get another opportunity. They were looking at a 14-13 final."
But the Irish did not stop them. Michigan State responded with an 11-play, 54-yard drive, capped with a 23-yard Swenson field goal that pushed the lead back to two scores, 16-7. The drive was keyed by passes of 28 and 14 yards from Hoyer to Mark Dell.
Clausen threw for 57 yards on Notre Dame's ensuing drive and moved the ball to Michigan State's 23-yard line. Golden Tate made an amazing play on 3rd-and-17 to keep the drive alive, catching a slant and escaping a number of Spartan defenders before picking up the first down. Walker trotted out for a 41-yard field goal that would have made it a one-score game again, but he pushed it wide right.
The Spartans went right back to Ringer, who broke off a 63-yard run on second down before hammering it in from one yard out five plays later and giving Michigan State a 23-7 lead and basically clinching the game.
Armando Allen returned the ensuing kick 53 yards to give the Irish some hope with just over two minutes left, but Notre Dame failed to pick up a first down and Michigan State took over.
Despite his success throwing the ball in the second half, Clausen said that Notre Dame cannot survive with only a passing game.
"You've got to be able to run the ball," he said. "It's football, you've got to be able to throw it and run the ball."
Left tackle Sam Young said that the lack of running game was due to a number of factors.
"It was a lot of things. It was scheme it was up front," he said. "They played a great game and we didn't get accomplished what we wanted to get accomplished."
After the Irish went three-and-out on their opening possession, the Spartans took advantage of good field position and drove 24 yards for a 45-yard Brett Swenson field goal to give Michigan State an early 3-0 lead. Notre Dame freshman Ethan Johnson made a nice play to knocked down a Hoyer pass at the line of scrimmage on third down to force the field goal try.
A 24-yard gain by Tate on an end around on the Irish's third possession and a 30-yard reception by Tate moved the ball to Michigan State's 24-yard line. But Clausen's pass to Duval Kamara was intercepted in the end zone by Otis Wiley.
The Spartans lost the ball on their next drive as Brian Smith stripped Javon Ringer and Pat Kuntz recovered to give the Irish the ball near midfield. Notre Dame squandered the opportunity as Clausen was sacked for the first time this year and the Irish were forced to punt. Eric Maust's punt pinned the Spartans inside their own 5-yard line on the last play of the first quarter.
Ringer ripped off a couple of nice runs to start the second and move the Spartans out of a danger, but the Irish forced a punt after just one first down. Allen returned the 41-yard punt five yards to give Notre Dame the ball at its own 33.
The Irish moved the ball out to the Spartans' 33-yard line after Tate drew a pass interference penalty and then caught an 11-yard slant, but the drive stalled. Weis sent Brandon Walker out to attempt a 51-yard field goal that he missed wide right.
Clausen was picked off for the second time as he tried to hit Duval Kamara on an out route. The Spartans sent a corner from the right side and Clausen made the correct read, but safety Otis Wiley rotated over from safety too fast and made the pick. Michigan State took over at Notre Dame's 22-yard line with just over seven minutes to go in the half.
"He saw the corner blitz and he's throwing the ball to the out right there. And as he's throwing the ball over the corner to the sight adjust/out, he threw the ball a little bit behind him," Weis said. "(Wiley) came up and made a nice play. There was not a mental error on the play."
Michigan State converted a 4th-and-1 inside the 15 and had the drive extended when Terrail Lambert was flagged for pass interference in the end zone on third down, placing the ball at the 2-yard line. Ringer was stopped short on his first two attempts, but reached pay dirt on third down to give the Spartans a 10-0 lead with 3:28 to play in the half.
The Irish scrapped the running game and came out in a no-huddle on their final drive of the half. Clausen completed passes to Tate and Michael Floyd to move the ball to the Spartans' 41-yard line. But the drive ended with Clausen being sacked for the second time.
Michigan State was content with a 10-0 halftime lead and let the clock run down.