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Notre Dame-Michigan State: What the Irish Learned

September 25, 2017

By John Heisler

If Boston College and Michigan State historically have caused as many irritations for Notre Dame football teams as any opponents on the schedule, then consider the last two Saturday results of 20-plus-point victories over those two programs-both games on the road-as noteworthy. Here are Irish takeaways from East Lansing:

1.The Irish coaches came up with a savvy start. Expecting Michigan State to drop extra defenders into the box and load up against the run after Notre Dame’s recent success in that category, give Brian Kelly and his staff huge props for crafting an early philosophy that paid big dividends. The Irish came out flying by throwing the football five straight times, marching down the field and producing a 7-0 lead before most of the Spartan fans had settled into their seats. That set the tone for the whole night and had Michigan State back on its heels from the opening gun. “I felt like getting the quarterback off with some quick throws, some easy throws to get into a rhythm, was important. I wanted to make sure Chip (Long, the Irish offensive coordinator) got some openers for (Brandon Wimbush) in his first nine plays that were high-percentage completions for him and would get him into a nice rhythm. He completed maybe four or five in a row to get into a rhythm before we took a shot down the field–so it was orchestrated that way,” says Kelly.

2.The defense is making plays. Notre Dame currently rates 21st nationally in turnover margin and 13th in turnovers gained (with nine) and three of those Saturday night in East Lansing (against none for the Irish) made all the difference. There probably was no bigger play in the football game than Shaun Crawford’s goal-line punch-out and end-zone fumble recovery-mainly because it came just as Michigan State thought it was getting itself back into the football game. Notre Dame’s quick-change approach sent the Irish the other way and an ensuing TD made it a three-touchdown Irish lead at intermission. “Turnover-free on the offensive side of the ball, and coming up with a play like that and playing really smart football on the road, those are the traits that you need to be successful as a football team,” says Kelly.

3.Football needs to be fun. Postgame video from the Irish locker room gave evidence of a serious celebration after the victory in East Lansing. Explains Kelly: “I love my guys. I love being around them. They’re fun. They do the right things. We don’t have a lot of guys on lists–they pay attention to all those things. So when you have those opportunities to enjoy it–they’re kids, they’re young, and sometimes we need to share that with them and be young. Even though I might not look it or act it at times, you’re with young guys all the time, and it’s important that you get to share that with them. I made a promise to them that we’d get that megaphone back, so I wanted to make sure that we were able to present it to them.”

4.Rushing offense and defense. After a month of games Notre Dame has produced 16 rushing touchdowns (after 18 in all of 2016) while allowing only a single rushing touchdown (23 permitted in 2016). Those 16 rank fourth nationally in 2017 (20 by Oregon, 17 by both Clemson and Tulsa). That one allowed ranks second (Virginia Tech has allowed none-Notre Dame is one of 13 teams that has permitted just one). Says Kelly: “It’s a determined, intentional decision to go that route. It’s focused on that fundamental principle of physicality–running the football and being great against the run. This has been intentional from January in terms of what I wanted this to look like. We want the differential.”

5.Notre Dame made progress in the passing game-not just at the quarterback slot but with production by the receiving corps. Adds Kelly, “Brandon obviously had to throw it better, and we had to catch it better. I wasn’t alarmed, but during practice if a ball was not caught there was a comment about how important it is for us to focus on the football and catch that football. Again, it was intentional to make sure our guys were locked in and focused. We’ve got some guys gaining some confidence out there, and I think you’ll see a better rapport as the season goes on here with Brandon and the receivers as confidence grows in that regard.”