Notre Dame provided a powerful one-two punch in the first five minutes of Saturday’s contest en route to a 38-18 victory over Michigan State in Notre Dame’s most impressive performance to date.
The first of the combination punches came in an efficient opening drive that was capped by a 16-yard Brandon Wimbush touchdown run. The second blow came when Irish cornerback Julian Love intercepted Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke and returned it 59 yards for a score.
The Spartans would hang around a bit through the first half, but the Irish kept MSU at arm’s length throughout the night. Michigan State would not get within one score after the 9:35 mark of the second quarter as the Irish onslaught proved to be too much as Notre Dame won their second consecutive road game. The victory also marked the first time since 1983 that the Irish tallied consecutive road victories by 20 or more points.
Saturday’s matchup was the final time Notre Dame and Michigan State will meet until the 2026 season.
Wimbush Bounces Back
Despite Wimbush’s historic game on the ground against Boston College, the redshirt junior struggled in the passing game (11-24, 96 yards, 2 INTs). Much of the blame for the poor outing was placed on Wimbush, but the coaching staff had to alter its scheme as well.
Brian Kelly and Chip Long overhauled the passing gameplan heading into Michigan State to put the young quarterback in a better spot to succeed. The moving pocket and intermediate throws were replaced by higher percentage routes.
Wimbush was able to develop a rhythm on the first drive by completing a series of stop routes and screens. That sequence caused the MSU secondary to creep into the box and allowed Equanimeous St. Brown to get pass the Spartan defense for a 40-yard reception to set the Irish up in the red zone.
The emergence of Chase Claypool was another major asset for Wimbush. Claypool had the best game of his young career as the wideout caught a career-high four passes for 56 yards, including a 27-yard toe-tapping reception along the sideline in the third quarter.
The Irish are as deep at the wide receiver position as any spot on the roster, but the over rotation was becoming detrimental. Going forward, Kelly and Long seem set on Cam Smith, St. Brown, and Claypool as the mainstays with Kevin Stepherson getting more reps when he returns to the field.
Wimbush clearly made strides, but he still has the benefit on relying on his running game when necessary. While the Irish did not put up jaw-dropping numbers like in their first two wins, Notre Dame still had four players account for at least 35 yards rushing.
Red Zone Success
One of the surprises of the 2017 is Notre Dame’s increased efficiency in the red zone. The Irish are 19-19 in red zone opportunities and 17 of those trips have resulted in touchdowns. The increased reliance and proficiency of the running game is a main cause of the success, but it is how the Irish run the ball that has allowed them to succeed in a condensed part of the field.
While there are still elements of an “east-west” running game, Long’s scheme has the running backs moving north and south much quicker, which plays to the strengths of the offensive line.
Due to the yards gained while the outcome was settled, the final box score was not indicative to the effectiveness of Notre Dame’s defensive performance – Michigan State gained 178 yards in the fourth quarter when the lead was well out of reach.
The Irish stayed aggressive throughout and never allowed Lewerke to feel comfortable in the pocket. Notre Dame converted the three Spartan turnovers into 21 points, which brings their season total of points off turnovers to 56-3 vs. their opponents.
The difference between the 2016 and 2017 defensive units is obviously night and day, but the following stat provides tangible context. Through four games last season, Notre Dame had allowed 33.5 ppg and 10 rushing touchdowns. Through four games this season, the Irish have surrendered just 18.5 ppg. and only one rushing touchdown.
For as fast as the Irish started, Michigan State, like any Mark Dantonio coached team, did not back down and had answers. The Spartans were threatening to cut the Irish lead to one score midway through the second quarter.
With a 2nd & 6 on the Notre Dame 15-yard line, Michigan State running back L.J. Scott took the handoff and weaved his way to the endzone.
However, before Scott was able to cross the goal line, Notre Dame cornerback Shaun Crawford lunged and punched the ball free. Crawford then dove on the ball in the endzone for a touchback.
On the ensuing Notre Dame possession, the Irish would take five plays to go 80 yards for another touchdown to take a 28-7 lead and full control of the contest. The 14-point swing proved to be the death knell for the Spartans.
In recent years, the Irish have been on the wrong end of similar goal line fumbles. In 2012, Cierre Wood fumbled the ball inches from the endzone against Pitt in double overtime. However, Wood was bailed out by a missed Pitt field goal and Notre Dame’s perfect season remained intact.
Last season, Stanford scored the game-winning touchdown against the Irish when Bryce Love fumbled just short of the goal line only to have the fumble recovered by a Cardinal offensive lineman in the endzone.
Something to Consider
Just as I was talking ND fans of the edge after the Georgia loss, expectations should be somewhat tampered after Saturday. It was a statement win for sure, but how many people had the Irish losing to Michigan State before the season?
The Irish have been inconsistent in recent years on the road, so to see them dominate an opponent in a hostile atmosphere is a nice change of pace. Even lesser Spartan teams have given ND fits over the years, especially at night.
Saturday night was a great performance in all facets of the game, but Michigan State is at the most, 7-8 win team. It was a much-needed win, but far from the biggest challenge the Irish will face.