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September 22, 2013
NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- Irish sophomore cornerback KeiVarae Russell knows he is not supposed to peek into the backfield while in man-to-man coverage. His coaches certainly don't want him doing so. A peek too long and a receiver could beat the defensive back upfield, exposing the Notre Dame defense to a big play.
Nonetheless, Russell took a split-second glance into the Spartans backfield in the third quarter Saturday. His primary duty, Michigan State receiver Bennie Fowler, delayed coming off the snap, and Russell sensed something adrift. With a few extra moments to spare while Fowler casually accelerated, Russell stole a look into the backfield.
"Every other play he went full-speed, tried to block me. This play he was just slower a little bit," Russell said. "That's not what he usually does so I took a glance in the backfield, which I'm not supposed to do?It so happened, I guessed right."
His forbidden stare revealed Spartans receiver R.J. Shelton coming out of the backfield with the ball, but not looking to gain yards. Russell immediately caught onto the halfback pass trick play. Russell covered Fowler up the sideline, and by the time Shelton threw the ball, Russell knew he had support from junior safety Matthias Farley as well.
"I turned my head and I saw Matthias and I looked at the receiver and was like, I'm going to just go up with the receiver and if he happens to catch it, I'm going to knock it down," Russell said, speaking a mile-a-minute. "I knew Matthias was right there, so if I go for the pick, one of us is going to drop it. So I was like, 'Go ahead, catch it.'
"That should have been mine, but I helped Matthias get that one."
Farley indeed intercepted the ill-advised trick play, ending a Michigan State drive that threatened the then 10-10 tie. After Farley's 29-yard return, Notre Dame quickly marched the remaining 52 yards to score the winning touchdown.
"Any time you pick off a pass and a drive, it's a definite momentum-builder for your football team," Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. "Taking care of the football was an absolute premium today. We did and they did not in that situation, which was big for us."
After giving up big plays in the first three games, the defensive backfield wanted to eliminate their mistakes. Michigan State finished the day 16-of-36 for 136 yards through the air. The longest pass play went for 19 yards, compared to 26 against Temple, 61 against Michigan and 48 against Purdue.
"In the past, it was just we were in the right spot, but we just didn't finish the play," senior cornerback and captain Bennett Jackson said. "I feel like in this game, even in our practices, we worked on finishing the play, running to the ball.
"At the end of the day, we just executed well. Guys ran to the ball. Guys attacked the ball in the air. We executed our fundamentals on defense."
Executing those fundamentals in the secondary can make all the difference in a game, according to the aforementioned Russell who smiled as he admitted he broke those fundamentals when he peeked into the backfield.
"If the secondary has a great game, you're bound to win in the end," Russell said. "No matter what the front seven does, if the secondary has a great game -- not an okay game, not a mediocre game -- but a great game, it's close to 80 or 100 percent that you're going to win the game. If the secondary has a bad game, you're going to lose."
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