The Michigan State offensive line was an unhappy collective last week prior to the Spartans’ showdown with Notre Dame. The group heard the rumblings, the talk about how the Spartans were in more trouble than they thought trying to replace three starters.
They took their unhappiness out on the Fighting Irish Saturday night.
A lackluster, unsatisfying performance against Furman in the season opener two weeks ago was replaced with dominant play against the Fighting Irish in a 36-28 win. Michigan State gained 501 yards on 78 plays and controlled the ball for 37 minutes, 57 seconds.
The Spartans rushed for 260 yards – junior Gerald Holmes had 100 yards and two touchdowns, while sophomore L.J. Scott had 22 carries for 98 yards and one touchdown – and quarterback Tyler O’Connor wasn’t sacked as he completed 19 of 26 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns.
It all started with the offensive line, who got started doing something about their sour mood during the bye week that separated the two games.
“During the bye week we looked at the Furman film and realized the mistakes we made. We were always so close. We were always one block away, one step away and we really did put everything together this week,” said Spartans guard Benny McGowan, who didn’t start the game but played a lot of snaps in a constant rotation with Brandon Clemons. ““I think we played well, especially with all of the rotations we were going around with the offensive line. I think we were able to come off the ball, be tough and establish our game.”
That game helped keep Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer in the least dangerous position you possibly can have him: on the sideline.
The Spartans scored touchdowns on five of seven possessions beginning in the second quarter and carrying into the third quarter. They had scoring drives of 11 plays for 92 yards and 10 plays for 75 yards as part of the stretch that covered nearly 21 minutes of the game clock and built a 36-7 lead.
“I think the biggest thing we did as a whole offense is we eliminated a lot of our unforced errors,” said McGowan. “We cut down on a lot of our penalties. It’s much easier, especially for coach (Dave) Warner calling the plays, if we’re not starting first-and-15, first-and-20. We were able to run the ball on first down and establish the run.”
Michigan State converted half of the 18 third downs it faced plus it converted a fourth-down attempt. It had 52 rushing attempts among its play calls.
“They were really good tonight,” said Scott about the offensive line. “We had to get in a rhythm and we surely did. I give all my credit to those guys up front.”
Gone from last season’s starting five are left tackle Jack Conklin, center Jack Allen and right guard Donavon Clark. Conklin is the starting right tackle for the Tennessee Titans. Allen is on the New Orleans Saints practice squad, while Clark is on the San Diego Chargers injured reserve list after suffering a torn ACL in preseason.
Left guard Brian Allen is the only starter who is back playing the same position. Kody Kieler has moved from right tackle to center. Sophomore David Beedle is now starting at left tackle, with senior Miguel Machado starting at right tackle.
They heard and saw the criticism. They saw the film of the Furman game. That was plenty of motivation for Notre Dame.
“We had a little extra time to work, and when you don’t play well and people sort of write you off a little bit, you have a tendency to rise up a little bit. I think that’s what we did,” said head coach Mark Dantonio. “I think we came into this football game with something to prove. We talked all along that we needed to measure up and I thought we did that.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo