EAST LANSING, Mich. — For four quarters of this weekend’s primetime main event Notre Dame’s defense answered the Bell. The 20th-ranked Irish proved for the first time in a long time that they were ready to go blow-for-blow with college football’s heavyweights in a 20-3 victory over No. 10 Michigan State on the road Saturday night.
Fifth-year senior John Goodman hangs on to a 36-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.
Notre Dame’s defense held Heisman hopeful Le’Veon Bell and the Michigan State running game to under 100 yards — 50 total — for the second year in a row. The Spartans never cracked the red zone and settled for a single second-quarter field goal in their first loss of the year.
Meanwhile, the Irish improved to 3-0 for the first time in a decade by out-manning a legitimate BCS contender on the road for the first time in twice as long. After two wins that failed to erase the question marks that surrounded head coach Brian Kelly and his football team this offseason, the Irish announced their next step toward legitimacy with a big win in Spartan Stadium.
“It’s a signature win,” said head coach Brian Kelly following the game. “There’s no question when you go on the road against the No. 10 ranked team in the country and you beat them it’s definitely going to build their confidence in that locker room.”
The Notre Dame offense bit off big chunks of yards against one of the nation’s top defenses early in the first half and finished them off late in the game by grinding to a pair of late scores.
Fifth-year senior John Goodman started the scoring early with his first touchdown reception since October 2009. Sophomore Everett Golson delivered Goodman’s score on a play that highlighted his arm and his legs. Golson slipped outside the Michigan State pass rush before planting his feet at the 40-yard line and heaving a pass to the opposite corner of the end zone. Goodman pulled in the ball with one hand as he held Spartans cornerback Johnny Adams at bay with the other.
A quarter later sophomore George Atkinson III put his team within striking distance again with a 32-yard run. The Irish cardiac backfield — Golson and Atkinson — dragged the Spartans defense to the right with a rollout before Atkinson took the ball and cut back through the left side on a well-designed draw that brought the ball down to the 19-yard line. Golson tucked a passing attempt under his arm four plays later and scrambled past the pylon for his second career rushing touchdown to give Notre Dame a 14-0 lead.
“That’s Everett,” Kelly said. “He has the ability to do those kinds of things. We knew what we had. He just needs a lot more seasoning, and he’s going to get better.”
Golson, who led the Irish from wire to wire for the first time this season, was far from perfect in his true road debut. He finished 14-for-32 passing for 178 yards and several collar-yanking close calls. The first half started with a false start and a timeout before the Irish ran their first play. It ended with four passes bouncing in and out of the hands of Michigan State defenders. Notre Dame emerged unscathed, pinning the Spartans deep in their own territory to take a 14-3 lead into the locker room.
“We need to make plays and create in situations like that,” Spartans linebacker Max Bullough said. “We weren’t able to do that tonight. It’s something we need to work on and improve on.”
Notre Dame created only one late turnover of its own on Saturday night, but made more than enough big plays to lock down the Spartans. The Irish sacked first-year starter Andrew Maxwell four times and added a slew of quarterback hurries from a rotating cast of defensive linemen. Junior Prince Shembo, freshman Sheldon Day and sophomores Stephon Tuitt and Tony Springmann all corralled Maxwell in the backfield when it looked like the Michigan State offense might be picking up steam.
The Spartans appeared to be back on track as the second quarter came to a close. They strung together a 13-play drive following Golson’s rushing touchdown, nickel-and-diming down to the 24-yard line before the freshman Day sacked Maxwell on one play and nearly intercepted a short pass on the next. Michigan State settled for a 50-yard field goal attempt from senior Dan Conroy, which he made for the team’s only score of the night. Conroy also missed a 44-yard attempt earlier in the first half.
Maxwell, who like Golson was starting the third game of his career, completed 23 of his career-high 45 passing attempts for 187 yards as the Spartans tried to play catch up in the final two quarters. Bell became a non-factor in the second half, only six of his 23 touches came after the break.
“We felt like if we could get [Bell] under control and force them to throw the football we would much rather have that scenario than him grinding the football at us,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame’s offense did the grinding as the game wound to a close. Senior running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood combined for 22 of the teams’ 30 rush attempts. Seven of those came on a clock-draining, 12-play, 84-yard scoring drive midway through the fourth quarter. The veteran duo helped Notre Dame dig out of a field position hole on its 4-yard line with one big run after another. Wood, playing in first game of the season after a two-game suspension, delivered the knockout blow on 4th-and-1 from the 37-yard line. He got to the edge of Michigan State’s defense and turned up field for eight yards and a crucial first down.
“Right before the drive started we told our line just give us a couple second and that’s exactly what they did,” Wood said. “That’s what good teams do, and that’s what we did.”
Sophomore Kyle Brindza’s finished that drive with a 27-yard field goal and tacked on a 47-yarder at the end of the following drive.
A heavy-hearted Manti Te'o ended Michigan State's last real attempt at a comeback, picking off a desperation lateral from running back Larry Caper on fourth down in the closing minutes to finish another gutsy performance. Te'o, who lost his girlfriend and his grandmother earlier in the week, made 12 tackles Saturday night and inspired a defining night for the Notre Dame defense.
“Our defense continues to be the group that we committed to building when we started this process and they’re starting to get to that level where they can play against anybody,” Kelly said.
The undefeated Irish defense moves right into its next major test next week when it will be tasked with slowing down Michigan and its own Heisman candidate, quarterback Denard Robinson. Meanwhile, Michigan State falls to 2-1 in its second consecutive double-digit loss to Notre Dame.