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Notre Dame Pushes Back Against M.S.U.

Earlier this summer, I wrote of Notre Dame’s ability to “push back” against more physical opponents – in the widescreen view, I wrote of Notre Dame’s quest for a tougher mentality, a sort of rediscovery of the bullying, confident mindset that propelled the program for generations. I thought that the Irish were close; I thought that under the surface, behind the negativity, the program had made clear and steady progress in nearly every facet of the game. No one game can possibly encapsulate this idea more so than Notre Dame’s dominating victory over Michigan State.

Dominating: not too strong a word. Notre Dame was dominating, completely dominating, and nowhere more so than along the defensive front seven. The offensive line won the battle against Michigan State’s vaunted stable of linemen and linebackers – but Notre Dame’s linemen and linebackers were absolutely outstanding.

The Irish beat the Spartans at their own game. A team that can roll in the mud with Michigan State and come out clean on the other side can do the same with anyone, even if the Irish must still handle Michigan, Oklahoma, B.Y.U., U.S.C. and Stanford, among others.

It’s about the mentality we saw last night. That’s not something to gloss over, lost behind Everett Golson’s maneuverability, Cierre Wood’s patient-quick-burst running style, John Goodman’s one-handed stab and the steady play of receivers Robby Toma and T.J. Jones.

Let the numbers tell the story. Michigan State gained 50 yards on 25 carries, thanks in part to four Notre Dame sacks. Le’Veon Bell’s Heisman campaign hit the skids thanks to his 19-carry, 77-yard performance – Bell would have had more, but as in last year’s loss to Nebraska, Mark Dantonio and his staff did not pay enough attention to the running game.

M.S.U. converted 5 of 17 third downs, missed on both fourth-down conversions. Andrew Maxwell completed 23 of 45 attempts for only 187 yards, though he did avoid any turnovers. Notre Dame kept the Spartans out of their rhythm. They beat M.S.U. at its own game.

Not that the Irish were perfect. Golson was sloppy throughout. But his maneuverability: Golson extends plays, makes defenders miss in the pocket and can give the Irish some juice on the ground – and he did all three of those things on a six-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

The offensive line, combined with Golson’s elusiveness, prevented Michigan State’s line and second level from finding a home in Notre Dame’s backfield. In the beginning, you could see the steam rising out of the Spartans’ ears – it was that frustrating to come so close yet miss. Later, all you saw from Pat Narduzzi’s defense was resignation.

But the line needs to do a better job in the traditional running game. At the same time, Brian Kelly needs to make sure that he remains committed to the running game throughout the span of 60 minutes, not just once his team builds a lead late in games.

A better running game will take pressure off of Golson, though the redshirt freshman has handled every potential sticking-point thrown his way with senior-like aplomb.

So what does this win say about Notre Dame? It tells one major story: Notre Dame is tougher both mentally and physically than at any point in years. Not just during Kelly’s tenure, though that’s true; I’m talking about years, prior to Charlie Weis, before Ty Willingham, perhaps before Bob Davie.

This was the most impressive win of the Kelly era. It was also an era-defining win, one that the Irish can carry into Saturday’s date with Michigan and beyond. What can you say? A team was born last night in East Lansing. A team found its identity in the play of the front seven, in the legs of a freshman quarterback who found a way to move the football despite struggling with his consistently through the air.

These Irish are different. There is leadership, not just in the veterans on both sides of the ball – Manti Te’o was an inspiration last night – but along the sidelines, where Kelly’s image has trickled down throughout this entire roster.

It’s time to take this team seriously. Pushed by a physical team, a seasoned coaching staff and a tough road environment, Notre Dame responded in greater measure with its own level of physicality. The Irish pushed back.

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  1. Dave says:

    Call me when they beat Oklahoma.

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