SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The comment was simple enough. “Here you go, kid. The game is in your hands.”
That’s pretty much what Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio told quarterback Tyler O’Connor Saturday night. The Spartans, once leading Notre Dame by 29 points in the third quarter, were now holding on for dear life, leading only 36-28. The clock couldn’t run fast enough but it wasn’t running at all with 2:39 left in the fourth quarter. Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly had called his second of three timeouts after his defense stuffed Spartans running back L.J. Scott for a 1-yard gain on second down.
On third down, seven yards were needed for a first down. On Michigan State’s previous possession, O’Connor had thrown an incompletion on third-and-5, stopping the clock before a punt. That couldn’t be afforded this time. Hand the ball off to Scott, or to Gerald Holmes. Both were over 90 yards rushing for the game. Trust them and the offensive line. Run the ball. Run the clock a little. Make Kelly use his final timeout.
Except that wasn’t the plan Dantonio had in mind.
Instead, O’Connor connected on a 28-yard pass to freshman Donnie Corley, who had somehow slipped past two Notre Dame defenders and was there just waiting on the ball when it arrived. He actually had to come back for it a little bit, which forced him to fall to the ground after the catch. If he doesn’t fall, the margin of victory would have been more than eight points.
No matter. That completion was the play Michigan State needed to end a three-game losing streak to the Irish. It was also a play a team needs its quarterback to make if it’s going to contend for a second straight Big Ten championship.
Forget that the quarterback was making just his third career start.
“I think that play is all Coach D,” said O’Connor, who finished the game 19-for-26 passing with two touchdowns and one interception. “He always tells me, ‘Go out there and let it fly and have fun.’ He goes ‘I have confidence in you. You should have all of the confidence in the world.’ To have that from coaches – even the third down before when we threw it – I don’t think they’re going to change the offense to make it easier for me, necessarily. To have that faith in me is awesome.”
O’Connor had attempted just 30 passes in his two previous starts. He hadn’t been asked to do too much as a passer. More was asked of him Saturday. He delivered.
“Tyler O’Connor plays well, shows some moxie, made some huge plays,” said Dantonio. “We’ve got good players, they dream of these opportunities. They’re not afraid to step out into the light a little bit, that’s where they’re playing early. We got good seniors, our seniors have always carried us, Tyler O’Connor, big game from him. He’s a senior.”
The offense gained 501 yards, 260 of those on the ground. Holmes ended the game with an even 100 yards with two touchdowns. Scott had 98 yards and one score. O’Connor himself ran for 43 yards. This is a run-first offense, but it can’t be a run-only offense.
“It gives us that dual threat. You have to give credit to Tyler, all of the wide receivers and the running backs,” said guard Benny McGowan. “They were doing a great job on the perimeter. They were doing a great job blocking. It’s nice to see guys on the outside caring that much. They were working hard. They were getting open. It just comes down to us giving Tyler time.”
O’Connor had said during the week leading up to the game that Michigan State would have opportunities to hit some big plays downfield. They got three of them in the first half, including Corley coming back for a pass in the end zone and stealing it away from cornerback Cole Luke for a 38-yard touchdown that put Michigan State on the board after Notre Dame had led 7-0. In the second half, most of the big plays – like Holmes’ 73-yard touchdown run that put Michigan State up 36-7 with 6:28 left in the third quarter – had come in the running game.
With that big of a lead, there was little need to take unnecessary chances in the air. But as DeShone Kizer and the Notre Dame offense mounted their comeback, it became time to take a chance. It became time to put the game in O’Connor’s hands.
“He just threw the pass to me and we got the first down,” said Corley. “The coach has confidence in us that we can make plays.”
Dantonio showed aggressiveness and confidence in his decisions from the start. He went for a fourth-and-1 at his own 44-yard line in the first quarter. Following Corley’s touchdown catch in the second quarter, he went for a 2-point conversion that was good and gave the Spartans an 8-7 lead.
So, maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising that he trusted O’Connor when it mattered most.
“I thought our guys played very confidently, even – at the end I’m not sure if their coach was confident, totally, okay. That big wave was rolling. We found a way and our guys kept playing, and we said ‘We gotta play the game. Play the game.’ Can’t just go into our pockets. We’ve got to continue to play the game, and I thought we made plays at the end of the game which allowed us to win.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo