EAST LANSING, Mich. – As the clock slowly wound down Saturday in Michigan State’s 36-28 win over Notre Dame, a seemingly insurmountable lead was gradually hacked at by the pesky Fighting Irish.
Fans publicly remained wary of the outcome on social media, with the mindset that only Michigan State fans have to worry about losing a 29-point gap. In truth, the Spartans have been on the right side of more incredible comebacks in recent years than the times they’ve been the victim.
Perhaps, fans still had last season’s 39-38 loss to Nebraska in mind. But the outcome was different in this topsy-turvy affair. Notre Dame scored first. Michigan State reeled off 36 consecutive points. Then the Irish tried desperately to claw back, but the deficit proved to be too much.
How did the Spartans defy the predictions of oddsmakers and experts? And how did sure victory nearly slip away from their grasp? Let’s take a look.
It’s where the Spartans typically make their mark. All game long, they wear you down, waiting for their opportunity. It’s like a distance runner surging forward for a lead when he or she realizes the competition is tiring.
The Michigan State offensive line faced a Notre Dame defense that was vulnerable. It had given up 237 rushing yards to Texas in the season opener. It had not yet sacked an opposing quarterback on the year (and after Saturday’s game, it still had not).
Quarterback Tyler O’Connor had ages to get rid of the ball, and when he couldn’t find a receiver, he found space along the flanks to pick up a few yards. Not only did blockers keep their assignments occupied, but they clogged up the middle of the field to create room to run outside.
From the start of the second half to the point that Michigan State had built a 36-7 lead, the Spartans had a total of zero plays that went for negative yardage. Even when the offensive line couldn’t create a hole, they still stuck to their assignments and pushed forward, allowing the ball carrier (largely Gerald Holmes in the second half) to follow behind.
Constantly on the defensive, getting pushed farther and farther back, the Irish line became fatigued and had to commit more defenders closer to the line. So when Gerald Holmes burst through the first line of defense, he was already off to the races.
Football is a sport that, like many, requires consistent focus. You take one play off, and something like this happens. And it’s more likely to happen when you’re tired.
Holmes, whose grandmother died the day before the game, played like a man with something to prove. He did not have a single carry against Furman. In this game, though, he reeled off 100 yards and scored
And he wasn’t just hitting the holes or riding the push of the offensive line. As much as he evaded would-be tacklers, he ran right through them as well, showing just how gassed the Notre Dame defense had become from play after play of being overpowered by the Spartans.
The same went for the defensive side of the ball. As the game went on, the Spartans began to control the line of scrimmage more convincingly. The first quarter saw eight rushes for 44 yards by Notre Dame. The second saw seven rushes for eight yards. And the second half as a whole? Ten rushes for five yards.
The Irish offensive line did well protecting quarterback DeShone Kizer. That wasn’t a huge issue, although Kizer was sacked twice on the night. But the pressure from Malik McDowell and the defensive line for Michigan State, once they got settled into the game, kept Notre Dame’s line out of sorts and prevented it from keeping the run game going. Eventually, the Irish abandoned the running game pretty much altogether.
Athleticism in Michigan State’s linebacking corps proved tough to handle as well, as Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke caused problems in the backfield. And right after Reschke stuffed a run at the line, he dropped back into coverage and picked off a pass on the very next play.
As shown in the use of the Swinging Gate play on a two-point conversion, Michigan State thrives on unpredictability. Reschke validated that with his play. But what’s never a surprise is how the Spartans will always try to win the game at the line of scrimmage. And almost all the time, they succeed.
What can you say about the senior quarterback’s play? He’s 3-0 as a starter, with road wins at Ohio State and Notre Dame. He ranks a close second behind Ohio State star J.T. Barrett in Big Ten pass efficiency rankings.
He’s done just about everything you could ask of him. Just about.
Sure, there are negatives to point to. On three occasions, he was baited into running on a third-and-long, only to be tackled shortly beyond the line of scrimmage. He threw his lone interception far behind Josiah Price, though to be fair, he took down Devin Studstill afterward like a defensive back in the open field.
That wasn’t the only inaccurate ball thrown by O’Connor on the night. He was bailed out when Donnie Corley wrestled an underthrown ball away from defensive back Cole Luke in the end zone. He erased any chance at extra yardage when he forced a wide open R.J. Shelton to dive for a catch.
And in the play below, Corley may have had a chance at a game-clinching touchdown had this ball not been under-thrown. The MSU coaches were probably fine with the throw, though, as it took away any chance at an interception.
Enough about the negatives. There was plenty of good shown by O’Connor. This was his game to shine against a depleted secondary and a defense that had not, and still has not, recorded a single sack.
He had time to throw, stepped up and slung it with confidence throughout the game, finishing 19-for-26. And he did often run, earning three first downs on his own for the Spartans.
Most of all, O’Connor did very well to manage the game. Michigan State finished with 63.25 percent of the possession and won the possession battle every quarter. MSU also got off 78 plays compared to 62 for the Irish.
O’Connor didn’t try to do too much. He played calmly and confidently, possessed the ball and led methodical drives down the field. This was especially huge because when it would appear that Kizer was getting into a rhythm, he wouldn’t get the ball back in his hands until quite a while later.
Michigan State’s best defense might have been its offense in this game, thanks in large part to O’Connor.
It’s hard to complain about a move to a prevent defense when you’re ahead by 29 points. But it is a little concerning that it was as ineffective as it was.
The Michigan State defense found success when it was sending guys after Kizer. It wasn’t enough to expect the defensive backs to simply cover Notre Dame’s threats downfield and prevent the deep ball. MSU was a bit overmatched in the secondary.
Allowing Kizer time and space to throw not only led to big-play opportunities, but it allowed him to get comfortable in the pocket and get a groove going with his offense. Michigan State started to lose its hold on this game a bit when it wasn’t getting any pressure on Kizer.
That tactic of trying to hold on might have worked well against teams with a less dangerous quarterback and without talented receivers such as Equanimeous St. Brown and Torii Hunter Jr. But Notre Dame has the offensive firepower to take advantage in such a situation.
When the Irish went down big, it was clear they were going to look for big plays downfield, which they already do anyway. Knowing that, Michigan State needed to bring more pressure on Kizer to try to harass him before he could find his receivers. Instead, the Spartans dropped back.
It’s certainly concerning that a 29-point stranglehold could get whittled down to a one-score game over the course of 13 minutes. It raises questions about how well the Spartans will be able to handle a dynamic quarterback like Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett. Of course, no one has been able to handle J.T. Barrett so far.
A win is a win is a win, no matter how it happens. But Michigan State will surely be wishing this one didn’t end up so nervy.