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September 24, 2013
There's a tendency when a team escapes with a few narrow victories to point to the details instead of the results, particularly after an undefeated regular season like the one Notre Dame experienced last year.
After a 12-1 record in 2012, the Irish were expected to take it to the next level, which presumably meant a few more easy victories after five of the 12 regular-season games were won by seven points or less.
A little perspective is in order after Notre Dame's 17-13 victory over Michigan State. A game between Notre Dame and Michigan State is survival of the fittest. Neither team particularly cares how they do it, just as long as they come out on top, which is exactly what the Irish have been doing in recent seasons against the Spartans.
"Let's give Notre Dame some credit," said NBC analyst Mike Mayock. "We've been jumping on their defense. They showed up today. They played their tails off. It wasn't always pretty. But there were two great defensive teams out there playing ball today."
Actually, there was one great defense out there, and it was Michigan State's, and Notre Dame found a way to score more points than its own defense allowed in a much-improved performance by Bob Diaco's troops.?
Notre Dame played a Michigan State team that had beaten them 10 out of 14 heading into 2011 and won for the third straight time as well as the third time in a row in Notre Dame Stadium after losing six in a row at home from 1997-2007.
Notre Dame beat Michigan State by 18 in 2001, by 17 in 2012, and then came up with a narrow victory against one of the great defenses in the country. To expect style points against Michigan State, regardless how poor the Spartans are on offense, is unrealistic against a team that lost five games by a total of 13 points last season. Every game against Michigan State is a street fight, not just for Notre Dame, but for everyone that plays the Spartans. In this series, if you win the game, you've accomplished the only goal that matters, especially since a loss would have dropped the Irish to 2-2.
Michigan State didn't plant a flag in the middle of the Notre Dame Stadium turf like they once did. The Spartans didn't add to the success they had prior to the last three seasons of the Brian Kelly regime.
"I think this is who both teams are," Mayock said. "Notre Dame's defense is playing better; Michigan State's defense is playing phenomenally well. They're going to knock the tar out of each other, it's going to come down to the last minute and we're going to have some fun."
The Irish faced an incredible ten 3rd-and-shorts (3rd-and-3 or less) in the first half alone and 13 for the game. Notre Dame converted five of those 13 short-yardage situations into first downs, which is a very low percentage (38.4) considering the short distance.
The Irish tried to run for first downs and throw downfield for first downs on 3rd-and-short, but didn't look for and/or connect on anything in the intermediate range. Here is a breakdown of the success/failure of the Irish in 3rd-and-short from a) an empty backfield, b) running plays, c) single-back passes and d) the Pistol formation.
Empty - The Irish converted three-of-six short third downs from an empty set. The conversions were a 24-yard pass to Corey Robinson, a 17-yard pass to Robinson and a first down on a facemask penalty as Tommy Rees was being pulled to the ground. The other three passes were incomplete.
Rush - The Irish tried to run the football in 3rd-and-short situations, but managed just one conversion in five attempts. Cam McDaniel gained two yards on a 3rd-and-3, Tarean Folston was stopped short on 3rd-and-1, George Atkinson III failed to gain on 3rd-and-1, and McDaniel was held to zero yards on 3rd-and-1. The only 3rd-and-short conversion on the ground was a three-yard gain by Amir Carlisle on 3rd-and-2, and that took a second effort on the part of Carlisle.
Pistol - Notre Dame ran from the Pistol four times among the 3rd-and-shorts, converting two. Carlisle's 3rd-and-2 conversion and an interference penalty were the successes while Folston's short run and an incomplete pass were the two failures.
Single-back pass - Whether in the Pistol or with a running back offset to one side of Rees, the Irish converted one out of two. They picked up an interference call on a 4th-and-1 and a pass to DaVaris Daniels fell incomplete.
It will be interesting to hear Brian Kelly's explanation for not looking in the intermediate areas to convert those 3rd-and-shorts.
Notre Dame defense
This was undoubtedly a plus-performance for the Irish defense after allowing 41 points to Michigan and 24 points to Purdue. Michigan State had just 254 yards - that's two straight weeks the Irish have held an opponent under 300 yards total offense -- and when the defense was up against it, Bob Diaco's unit came through following the early blocked punt that led to a missed field goal and two other red-zone scoring opportunities that resulted in field goals.
To hold the Spartans to just one touchdown on four red-zone appearances is a winning performance, albeit against an offense that continues to spin its wheels.
After some contact on the practice field early in the week, Notre Dame's run fits were better and the Irish gave the offense a chance to win it with an interception return and personal foul call that required just 37 yards for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
The Irish did this without Sheldon Day, which, for a defense so thin on depth, is an accomplishment.
"I think you'll see some changes this week, both at inside linebacker and at safety," said Mayock prior to the start of the game. "But if you're a Notre Dame fan, what you really want is for All-American defensive end Stephon Tuitt to start playing like one."
The changes came with Jarrett Grace entering the starting lineup in place of Dan Fox, and Elijah Shumate starting at safety and playing nickel back (instead of Cole Luke) with Austin Collinsworth coming in at safety. Grace has earned it and the Irish had to have Shumate's physicality on the field against a team like Michigan State.
Not sure that Tuitt played like an All-American, but his six tackles were two more than he accumulated in the first three games combined. He came up with a crucial fourth-quarter sack. Louis Nix also had six stops. Grace and Carlo Calabrese remained active and effective. The yards after the catch were limited by the secondary. Michigan State averaged just 3.57 yards per snap, which is a number comparable to what the Spartan defense held its first three opponents to, and that's outstanding.
High marks for the Irish for their toughness and coming through in the clutch. In addition to holding the Spartans to a missed field goal after a deflected punt, the Irish limited Michigan State to just three points on that 8:39 drive.
Michigan State got down to the Irish 12 and Calabrese nailed Langford for a gain of one out of the Wildcat. Tuitt's pressure forced Cook to scramble to his right. Grace stumbled but remained in stride and Jaylon Smith beat the block of wide receiver Aaron Burbridge. Smith got a hand on him, Grace made the tackle, and Bennett Jackson came up and put a physical hit for a three-yard gain. On third down, Jackson and Farley bracketed the receiver for an incompletion with pressure up front.
After taking 17-10 lead, Notre Dame allowed the Spartans to move from their own 25 to the Irish 19, but held them to a 42-yard field goal. Fox made a tackle for a five-yard loss, Nix broke up a pass at the line of scrimmage, and after a false start, Michigan State dropped a 3rd-and-20 pass.
A Tuitt sack in the next drive followed by a KeiVarae Russell pass break up with Prince Shembo pressuring Cook ended that drive.
But if this were the "buy or sell" segment of ESPN's Around the Horn, I'd have to sell - or at least not buy - that the Irish defense has arrived based upon its performance against Michigan State's offense.
It's difficult to get too excited about a defense that gives up a 14-play, 79-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, a 15-play, 75-yard drive to start the third quarter, and then another 16 yards on two carries in the second drive of the third quarter, only to have a halfback pass picked off by Matthias Farley, which turned the entire game around.
At that point in the game, the Spartans were winning if not controlling the line of scrimmage over the last one-third of the second quarter and most of the third quarter before the ill-fated halfback pass. The Spartans ran seven straight times in the opening drive of the third quarter that spanned 8:39.
A Connor Cook-led offense isn't capable of beating a whole lot of teams on the Spartan schedule, especially in his first career road start. R.J. Shelton's ill-advised pass into double coverage with two more defenders in the vicinity is the sign of a poorly-coached player in that critical situation. Shelton has to throw that football away when all signs point to nothing but disaster if he tries to squeeze that pass in.
So while there were numerous things about Notre Dame's defensive performance that were a significant improvement over the two previous weeks, it was just one small step for a unit that will be facing skill-position athletes this weekend that will test Notre Dame much more sternly than the Spartans could.
Based upon what I had seen and heard about sophomore quarterback Connor Cook, I was pretty sure the positives had been overrated somewhat, particularly in the mobility department. Yes, he was willing to run when he had to. But he was by no means the running threat that Temple quarterback Connor Reilly, Michigan signalcaller Devin Gardner, or Purdue quarterback Rob Henry were.
"He's mobile, he's a dual threat, but he's not an explosive runner," NBC analyst Doug Flutie accurately assessed before the game.
Worse news for the Spartans was the inaccuracy tag that not only tailed Cook coming into this game, but proved correct.
To be sure, Michigan State's receivers have earned their reputation for not being able to hold on to the football. But if you were the receiving corps for the scatter-armed Andrew Maxwell and Cook, you'd be second-guessing yourself and having difficulty knowing just what to expect when a football came flying your way, too.
"He's an inaccurate passer from a consistency perspective, but he can run the football and Notre Dame has struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks," Mike Mayock said.
Cook had some success in the 15-play, 75-yard drive to start the second half when the number of Spartan snaps began to add up. From the middle of the second quarter through the middle of the fourth, Michigan State had 41 snaps to Notre Dame's 31. Jeremy Langford in particular was having success with the Michigan State offensive line pushing the point of attack upfield.
But Cook is not a true dual quarterback. They'll call his number on read-option, but he doesn't run that well. He has size and an inclination, but that's about it. He was sacked once and had a long run of five yards on three actual carries. It shows you how immobile Andrew Maxwell is if Spartan fans consider Cook a mobile alternative.
When Cook needed to make a clutch pass, he didn't. He had a huge overthrow on 3rd-and-5 in the fourth quarter that would have moved the ball into Notre Dame territory with the Spartans down four points with about five-and-a-half minutes remaining. Michigan State didn't enter Irish territory the rest of the game.
"For me, (Michigan State) can compete on a national level, but they've got to get better play at the quarterback position," Mayock said. "They play great defense, they're tough, but the quarterback position is not very good right now."
Credit Notre Dame for contributing to Cook's struggle. But it appears pretty obvious that Cook and the Michigan State offense is going to struggle against just about everybody they play. That alone prevents a declaration that the Notre Dame defense has arrived heading into the Oklahoma game.
Notre Dame needed just 37 yards following Matthias Farley's interception and subsequent late hit to score the game-winning touchdown with 14:44 left in the game. Credit to the Irish for making the plays and, once again, taking advantage of Michigan State's penalties.
Amir Carlisle started the drive with a nice six-yard burst. After Ben Koyack was called for moving early, the Irish picked up one of the easy-to-call interference penalties on Darqueze Dennard. The Irish had to overcome a five-yard loss by McDaniel when freshman right tackle Steve Elmer - filling in for a play for Ronnie Stanley - couldn't handle Shilique Calhoun.
That's when the Irish picked up one of their controversial interference penalties against cornerback Trae Waynes at the goal line on a pass intended for Corey Robinson. Tommy Rees then checked into a running play to McDaniel, who picked up outstanding blocks from Troy Niklas and Koyack for the seven-yard score.
It wasn't a long drive and the interference call was a break since rarely does an official call a penalty on a defensive back with inside position on the receiver. But that marked the fourth touchdown in the last six red-zone appearances for the Irish, which is about a 20 percentage-point increase over last year/the beginning of 2013.
Clearly, this was Rees' most inaccurate throwing performance of the season, and a good example of what happens to a quarterback lacking athleticism when he has pressure bearing down on him.
Give Notre Dame's offensive line a tremendous amount of credit against a ferocious, tough defensive front. Rees was not sacked and quite frankly, took very few hits. But when he had some pressure in his face - or at least at his feet, which compromised his throwing stride - his throws were high because the short stride forces an early (and high) release.
He missed seeing TJ Jones underneath on 4th-and-1. He missed seeing Daniels, who wrapped underneath Jones' deeper sideline route midway through the third quarter. He was almost picked off by linebacker Jairus Jones in the second series, but Rees' improved arm strength makes it tough from point-blank range to intercept him. Two years ago, that's an interception.
He missed Daniels who had inside position on free safety Kurtis Drummond on the first play of second quarter.? He missed Daniels in the end zone with a rush in his face. He missed Jones high in the late first-half drive that ultimately resulted in a touchdown.
His worst deep ball was an overthrow of Jones after Michigan State took a 7-3 lead. It was a 2nd-and-1 and Rees had no pressure in his face. Jones widened the route just enough on strong safety R.J. Williamson to split Williamson and Isaiah Lewis, but Rees misfired.
In addition, he took a couple of delay of game penalties, which always adds to the negative mood in Notre Dame Stadium. You could feel the Notre Dame Stadium crowd ready to boo the Irish offensive effort had Rees' 3rd-and-goal pass to Jones before halftime fallen incomplete.
But Rees' critics are so unrelenting that they blame him for things that aren't his fault and aren't true, or rather, are misguided stereotypes.
The crowd grows restless when he throws the football away into the end zone on 1st- and 2nd-and-goal from the two. That's what he's supposed to do, although more and more, those groans are related as much to the play call as Rees' lack of execution.
Rees doesn't stare down receivers any more than any other quarterback does. When he knows his primary receiver and sees that he's in the process of breaking open, you don't want him looking away and then having to find that receiver a split second later.
On three clear-cut occasions, he studied the field to one side, and then came back to the other for completions.
He looked downfield to the right and came back to Corey Robinson on the left for 24 yards.
He had a trips right, looked it off, and came back to George Atkinson III for 13 yards on 2nd-and-14.
He looked long and hard left on a 3rd-and-3 at the Michigan State 19 late in the first half, and then came back across the field to the right to Robinson for 17 yards with Mayock crediting Rees for a "full field read."
Not only is his arm stronger, but so is his entire body. The "fumble" that was ruled incomplete would have been a fumble in years past. As Tyler Hoover beat right guard Christian Lombard, Rees drove his arm forward through the hit, prompting the replay officials to overturn it into an incomplete pass. His pass to Will Fuller for 37 yards was a beauty.
I would not concede that Rees' arm was stronger in the pre-season because I wanted to see it in live competition. There is absolutely, positively no doubt that his arm strength is dramatically improved. Even his ability to get an incomplete call on the near fumble was due to added strength. At least he was able to drive through with his arm and force the replay official to overturn it. Rees rifled a 20-yard out pattern to Jones in the second half.
Bottom line: no turnovers, no fumbles lost, an 8-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio through four games. The misfires against Michigan State can't happen in future critical games, otherwise the Irish will fall again. If he hits just one of those deep balls, we're talking about a two-score lead, which a game like this is the equivalent of a three- or four-score lead in most others. That's Rees. He usually finds a way to miss an opportunity or two over a 60-minute span.
Michigan State came into this game allowing just 35 completions in 101 attempts. That's what they do to everybody. They did it to Rees, but contrary to the first three Spartan opponents, Rees and the Irish didn't allow turnovers to turn the game over to Michigan State.
Notre Dame's defensive effort in the red zone and Rees' ability to prevent a mistake from crippling the Irish won the game, or maybe it just prevented them from losing. At the end of the day, that adds up to a winning performance by the Irish quarterback. Rees didn't win the game. But in a game like this, he won it by not losing it.
George Atkinson III
Still don't understand why GAIII is so apt to tip-toe through kickoff returns, and why the Irish coaching staff doesn't try to light a fire by giving a return or two to someone else. Clearly, there are enough talented athletes who will attack a kick return to give Atkinson something to think about the next time he fails to aggressively approach a kick return opportunity. But this was one of Atkinson's better performances at running back against a tremendously physical defense, and at the very least, Atkinson secures the football well on kick returns.
He gained five by running hard into the line, planting his left foot, and avoiding a fingertip tackle. He broke two tackles on a 13-yard reception. He gained nine yards in the first half touchdown drive in which he cut the corner and broke an arm tackle of an ailing Kurtis Drummond, and then bounced off a square hit by R.J. Williamson. Atkinson broke more tackles against Michigan State than he has in any other game of his career.
If you're going to keep putting the ball in his hands - he had 16 rushes, two receptions and three kick returns for a total of 21 touches -- I'm not sure why you'd put the ball in his hands when he's running laterally, although you've got to mix it up a bit and try to get him into space. The handoff to McDaniel, who then pitched it to GAIII, had him running toward his own goal line for a few steps before he turned it upfield and broke a couple of tackles for a 10-yard gain.
Most agree that freshman Greg Bryant could give the Irish everything that Atkinson offers, other than the threat of a long breakaway run, or at least not to the extent that Atkinson provides. With all the checks at the line of scrimmage by Rees, that puts a lot of pressure on a freshman running back to adjust. Unfortunately for those pining for Bryant, Atkinson's strong performance on the ground probably keeps the five-star prospect on the bench for at least another week.
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