Sept. 18, 2016

By John Heisler

Notre Dame Saturday in prime time played the second contest in a three-game home stand against a Michigan State team that qualified for the College Football Playoff a year ago.

Here are some Irish takeaways from their 36-28 loss to the eighth-rated Spartans:

1. Turnovers against good teams are lethal. Notre Dame after three games ranks 48th in turnovers, after the Irish didn’t commit any in the opener at Texas and what proved to be only one harmless interception against Nevada. But three miscues against a very good Michigan State team proved too many to overcome. Brian Kelly’s squad missed a chance to take a lead in the first 10 seconds when the opening kickoff return for a score was negated by a flag-while the Irish punt return in which the ball hit the back leg of a Notre Dame blocker legitimately was a fluke. Still, the second-period muffed punt turned into a Spartan touchdown in one play-and a third-period interception was turned around into Michigan State points in three plays for a 29-7 advantage for the visitors. That proved important when the final margin was eight points. Said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio after the game, “I think the three turnovers to one probably makes a big difference in the football game.”

2. The Irish-again-proved resilient. Notre Dame fans might feel differently today if the final score had been 36-7. But, after a tough third period in which Michigan State put up three unanswered scores and outrushed the Irish 164-5 in the period (those three TD drives equaled 15 plays and 192 yards), Notre Dame matched that with three consecutive TDs of its own (21 plays, 214 yards). After coming from 17 points down to lead late at Texas, the Irish this time came from 29 down to trail by only eight with the ball and 4:18 remaining-after Notre Dame’s defense forced three straight Spartan punts late in the contest.

3. The Irish need to match their opponents’ second gear. Michigan State played it conservatively early Saturday night. The Spartans almost seemed to be trying to lull the Irish to sleep in the early going by running the ball between the tackles (that translated to only 22 first-period rushing yards on 11 carries). Michigan State didn’t come up with a double-figure gain until the second-to-last play of the first period-and three plays later Devin Studstill intercepted for the Irish. But somewhere in the second period, Dantonio’s club kicked things into another gear-and that translated to 342 total yards in the second and third periods combined (compared to 146 for the Irish). A multiscore deficit had something to do with the philosophy later on the game, yet the Irish will need to improve on their combined second- and third-period rushing total of 13 yards.

4. Notre Dame needs all three phases working to win. Kelly in his postgame comments firmly rejected the notion that quarterback DeShone Kizer needs to carry the Irish (Kizer had a career-high 344 passing yards and also ran for two scores). Notre Dame simply needs to play consistently well enough in all three areas to beat quality teams. In the end, Michigan State Saturday night accumulated almost 16 more minutes of possession time-and that’s the sort of ball control and domination of the line of scrimmage Kelly absolutely believes his team needs to be able to display on a regular basis to be successful.

5. The Irish defense needs to be productive against good teams. Kelly made it clear after the game-he and his coaches will find a way to win with the personnel they have. There’s no draft, no waiver wire, no trades to be made–and Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day aren’t coming back this fall to wear blue and gold again. So Kelly, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and the other defensive coaches simply need to dig in and stiffen their troops. How much better the Irish can tackle and defend in general will play a major role in where they go from here.

Notre Dame senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been watching Irish football since he joined the athletics commu nication staff in 1978.