The Notre Dame football program is still struggling through 4 games, although for the first time this year, Notre Dame played in a game that resembled a competitive football game (for the first half at least).
I feel like there is finally something here that we can hang our hat on - an identity that can carry this team through the remainder of the season. This team played with the passion and fire that I expect from a Notre Dame team. The echoes were awakened, albeit briefly.
The First Half: Awakening the Echoes
The opening kickoff was short, giving the Irish some momentum going into the game. Aldridge came out with a short gain, but then on second down, he lowered his shoulder and laid a hit on the Spartans. At that point, I thought we had a chance. Then Allen got the corner, and made it to midfield and got us a first down. Young had a great block, and the Irish line looked somewhat improved. Then on 1st down, our coverage problems reared their ugly head, forcing an unimpressive completion by Clausen. Aldridge was then hit in the backfield, leaving the Irish with a 3rd and long. After a missed opportunity on third down, the Irish punted, and got a great bounce, recovering the lost momentum by downing Michigan State inside the 2 yard line.
The crowd was hopping, and the defense was ready to play. We hit Caulcrick in the backfield on 1st down, and then the magic happened. Fumble on the snap, and the Irish take over on their own 9. I have to admit, at this point, I believed we would win this game. Despite the fact that our offense had struggled, I just knew we would get that elusive offensive touchdown.
An overthrown fade route to Robby Parris left Clausen still without a pass touchdown. Then Weis got back to power football, and Hughes absolutely pounded his way to the 1. Then, Weis gave his 5th year senior the chance to earn a touchdown, and Thomas sprinted to the corner, giving this team their first offensive touchdown, and bringing the crowd into the game.
The Irish then faltered on defense. The offense just did their job, handing the defense a lead and all of the momentum, but they failed to execute. From the very first play, where Hoyer overshot a sure touchdown, the defense played on its heels. Ringer broke some tackles at the line of scrimmage, gaining 15 yards, all after first contact. At this point, I knew our struggles weren't over, but that we were improving. However, the struggles of this team are multi-faceted. While much was made of the offense not carrying the load the past few weeks, the defense has given up lots of points this season. And in this game, they gave up a quick 7 when we really needed a stop. A long pass play, some hard runs, and then a blown coverage in the flat on a quick out, and it's a tie ball game, and our momentum is gone.
For the next few minutes, things seemed like nothing had changed.
On the next drive, the Irish stuggled. After a short run, the O-line gave Jimmy some time, and he completed a pass to Grimes for a 3rd and short. That drive stalled as Schwapp couldn't get a yard. Then I saw something that still bugs me - Charlie sent the offense back out on fourth and short, and then changed his mind when the refs decided to measure. A shanked punt resulted in good field position for Michigan State. There was a bright spot as the defense trotted back out after a 3-and-out. This time, they stepped up and forced a punt by the Spartan offense.
A holding penalty gave us poor field position, and the offense tried again. Aldridge continued to run hard, through holes that were opened up (although barely). Our protection problems continued as Jimmy was sacked, forcing a conservative run in the shadow of our goalposts and another 3-and-out. Once again, penalties and protection problems placed us in a poor position and left the Spartans with a short field.
Ringer slashes through our defense, and another blown coverage in the flat places the Spartans knocking on the door. The interior run defense was tough, but the defense bit on a play action fake, leaving the tight end wide open for an easy pitch and catch. It seemed like the start of another long day.
End of 1st: Michigan State 14, Notre Dame 7
Momentum: All Michigan State, gave up 14 straight points, and back-to-back 3-and-outs by the offense. Only bright spot was a 9-yard drive for a TD. Poor field position. Nightmares of 47-7 final scores were running through my head.
It didn't get mush better, after one nice first down, Jimmy is stripped and we hand Michigan State the ball on our 14.
This looks like the beginnings of a blowout.
But then, this team showed me something. They showed me that they have pride and they have heart. For the next 10 minutes, I got to see (for the first time this year) some NOTRE DAME FOOTBALL.
MSU run for short gain, gang tackled. MSU run for short gain, couldn't get the corner. On 3rd and 6, the student section forces a timeout. Incomplete pass by Hoyer. Michigan State forced to settle for a field goal. Sudden change defense stepped up.
Now, the question is whether the Notre Dame offense could respond. They did.
Clausen roll out, completion for a 1st down - nice catch by Grimes, reviewed and upheld. Aldridge bursts through a big hole, for a gain of 43 - huge hole, great downfield blocking. Hughes for a first down, great receiver blocking (and a nice cutback by the freshman RB) and someone got Schwapped. Aldridge pounds down to the 3, most of it after contact. Then Hughes bulls his way behind big Sam Young and scores his first TD as a true freshman. Power football all the way, with attacking blocks and hard runs, and just enough passing to keep 'em honest. I almost felt like it was 1993 all over again.
Then the defense had the chance to step it up, and keep us in this game. The run stoppers start penetrating and gang tackling. We force another 3-and-out.
The offense is left in another poor position (thanks to special teams). Clausen shows some great poise throwing out of his end zone, throwing the ball away after a rollout. Aldridge made something out of nothing, gaining 5 yards after being hit for a loss. Allen ran hard, tripped up just shy of a 1st down. A 3-and-out, but not a poor showing by the offense.
Defense bends, but doesn't break. A steady dose of Ringer and Caulcrick gets MSU a couple 1st downs, but the David Bruton makes the most athletic play I've seen by a Notre Dame safety. Playing center field, Bruton was at midfield when the QB cocked his arm, and was able to get to the ball and out leap the receiver to snatch the ball at his highest point, pulling it down inbounds for an interception.
The rest of the game was disappointing, and the very next drive was a microcosm of our struggles all year.
On first down, our linemen showed a continued ability to be unable to block in space, robbing Armando Allen (again) of a chance at a big gainer. We got a first down with a pass to Grimes, but then let the entire defensive line into the backfield (again) to gang tackle Aldridge. Then we had another defender back there, forcing an early throw by Clausen (again). Then a delay of game penalty (again - I blame the coaches). Then Jabbie is gang tackled in the backfield (again). Then we punt, and Price drops the snap, getting off a crappy roller for 26 yards, giving the Spartans excellent field position (again).
We manage to avoid a score before halftime, but the second half was more of what we've seen all year.
Biggest problem: Special Teams: Consistently poor field position for us, good field position for them. No great returns, pinned back far too often.
Player of the game: David Bruton. Although Aldridge almost single-handedly solved our rushing problems, Bruton single-handedly kept this blowout from getting uglier than it was, both on defense and on special teams, with key tackles and a timely interception.
Scapegoat of the game: Geoff Price. He couldn't get a decent kick to save his life - so much for having an All-American punter.
Positive stat of the game: 117 yards rushing, 2 rushing touchdowns
Negative stat of the game: Average starting position: MSU 43 yard line ND 25 yard line