Essentially, Notre Dame went in to the Michigan game with two different game plans. The plan of attack was to get up early with some deep passes and then to win the game on the ground as the weather turned bad. That worked out well for the Irish last week, but not on Saturday.
Michigan State forced the Irish into using two separate game plans. The Irish's initial plan of attack was obvious as they came out with seven straight runs to open the game, including a pair on 3rd-and-long.
The Irish never got anything going on the ground, gaining just 16 net rushing yards on 22 carries. That number includes three sacks of Jimmy Clausen for minus-34 yards, but also includes a 24-yard gainer by receiver Golden Tate on an end around. The longest run of the day for the Irish aside from Tate's run was nine yards by James Aldridge on a 3rd-and-21 in the first quarter.
In fact, the longest run by a Notre Dame running back that did not come on a 3rd-and-long play was five yards. The only first down that the Irish gained rushing all day other than Tate's was a four-yard quarterback sneak by Clausen.
As the Notre Dame staff realized that the running game was going to be non-existent, it began to turn things over to Clausen.
"It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that we came out trying to win the line of scrimmage and that wasn't taking place," Charlie Weis said "As we went through the first half and we started to make adjustments from the mentality we had established in the game. We came in at halftime and said, ‘Hey fellas, if we're going to sit there and keep going like this, we're going to put us in a position where we won't have a chance to win."
Of the Irish's final 26 plays of the first half, 18 were designed passes. When Notre Dame came out for the second half, it was even clearer that the game plan had been scrapped. The Irish lined up in six straight empty-shotgun sets on their first drive of the second half.
"I'm not afraid to let Jimmy throw the football. I have a lot of confidence in Jimmy Clausen," Weis said. "He was one of the reasons why we're in position to still have a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter."
The passing game did prove to be effective, but the Irish hurt themselves by making mistakes as they moved the ball.
Clausen was 12 of his first 14 in the second half for 106 yards on the drive, but the first drive ended on a fumble inside the Spartans' 20-yard line. Notre Dame scored its only touchdown two possessions later, but when Michigan State responded with a field goal, the clock became a factor.
Even though the Irish waited just two possessions to change their game plan, it might have been a couple of possessions too late.
The big question now is whether Notre Dame will change its identity and becomes a pass-first football team. The answer seems to be that Irish will will take it week-by-week.
"I think that you have to (evaluate your strengths) on a weekly basis, but you also have to give your players a chance," Weis said. "Each week is its own separate entity and I think that Purdue provides a different set of challenges than Michigan State and you have to adjust accordingly."
RUNNING BACK BY COMMITTEE: Unlike the first two games, Aldridge, Robert Hughes and Armando Allen all saw significant playing time against the Spartans, unfortunately none did much. Aldridge had four carries for 13 yards, Hughes had five for nine yards and Allen had six attempts for eight yards. As a unit, the backs averaged 1.3 yards per carry.
PROBLEMS IN THE BOX: Michigan State officials had a laptop computer removed from the Notre Dame coaches' box in the first half.
"Our coaching staff noticed there was a computer laptop being utilized in the Notre Dame box, which is against the rules," Michigan State Associate Athletic Director for Communications John Lewandowski said. "We contacted our liaison to the officials, Dave Russell, who made contact with the officials on the field. They went to Coach Weis, told him they were going to physically remove it. So the liaison, Dave, came up and physically got the laptop from the coaching box.
"I'm not going to speculate what they were using it for, but obviously our concern was are they tracking tendencies? Are they using it for season historical data? You know, what are they using it for? But it's clearly against the rules. We just asked that they had it removed and they did before the end of the first half."
Weis denied that the Irish were trying to get any unfair advantage.
"There was a laptop or something that was in a box. They came over and asked me about it, so I asked upstairs if there was one, I was talking to Michael (Haywood) and he said, ‘No.'" Weis said. "I guess one of the interns had one over there. Then I immediately told those guys that there was an intern that had just took it off the ledge and put it on the floor. It wasn't like somebody was trying to do something illegal. And I made sure I let them know at halftime walking in that that was the case because the last thing I want to ever do is lie."
FRESHMEN CONTINUE TO CONTRIBUTE: Steve Filer saw his first collegiate action on Saturday, making appearances on both kickoff return and punt return. Robert Blanton saw action for the second time this season at cornerback.
Meanwhile, Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph had the best days of their young careers with seven and two catches respectively. Floyd had 86 yards receiving along with a touchdown, but he did also have that costly fumble on the first Irish drive after halftime.
Weis showed confidence in Floyd by going back to him after his fumble in the third quarter.
"It's just like a quarterback throwing a pass after he throws an interception. It's just like getting the ball to a running back after they fumbled it," Weis said. "I think it's important for him to know that we still have confidence. Now obviously, we can't tolerate that volume of turnovers. The difference in this game is that we had three turnovers and they had one."
CLAUSEN SACKED FOR FIRST TIME: After not being sacked once in his first two games, Jimmy Clausen was brought down twice in the backfield in the first half against the Spartans.
Michigan State's Brandon Long came through to get Clausen for a nine-yard loss late in the first quarter. Clausen was sacked for another nine-yard loss by Long on Notre Dame's final drive of the first half. Michigan State was credited with its third sack after Clausen was called for intentional grounding in the third quarter.
Clausen was pressured much more than he was in the first two games and took a few shots after he released the ball.
SOME PLUSES: Even with the loss, Weis will take away some positives for his team.
"The defense held them to 10 in the first half and I think that really kept us in the game," Weis said. "At the end of the day, they put us in a position where we had a chance to compete to win the game."
Also, a point of emphasis for the Notre Dame offense this week was third down conversions. The Irish converted just 25% of their third down chances in the first two games and bumped that up to 46% (6 of 13) against Michigan State.
Golden Tate had another great day with five catches for 83 yards.
"There were a couple of plays in the game that he made plays that shouldn't be made. Like that one play in the fourth quarter where he makes a couple of guys miss and gets the first down. You can't coach that. I'd like to take the credit for those moves," Weis said. "The kid is a playmaker and it's nice to know three games into the year, there's one guy that you can identify as a playmaker."
And despite playing lousy, the Irish still had a chance to win in the fourth quarter and to Weis the reaction of the players was different than it was at times in 2007.
"There weren't guys that were in the tank, there were guys that were really disappointed," Weis said. "There's a big difference between being in the tank and being disappointed."
REPLAY REVIEW: The officials reviewed the deep pass to Duval Kamara in the end zone in the first quarter. The call on the field was that Otis Wiley did not have possession of the ball in bounds, but the call was reversed. Kamara seemed to have the ball, but Otis Wiley took it away from him and got both feet down before going out of bounds.
Weis challenged the call that Ringer had reached the end zone on his second-quarter score, but the officials upheld the call after review. Weis had no visual evidence that Ringer did not make it in, but wanted to give it a shot before the Spartans kicked the extra point.
"I had a crummy angle, it wasn't like you're sitting there watching replays," Weis said. "I figured I'd give our defense a chance in case he didn't get in."
OTHER TIDBITS: Weis said that he thought there were some problems with the operation on both missed field goals… The home team won for the first time in the series since 2000. With the win the Spartans have won nine of the last 12 overall… For the first time this season Notre Dame lost the toss and the Spartans deferred and for the first time this season the Irish received the ball to start the game… Ringer became the first-ever Michigan State back to rush for over 200 yards in back-to-back games and moved to fifth all-time in school history with 3,640 career rushing yards.