From pass protection by inside linebackers to punting, No. 11 Notre Dame pieced together its most complete game of the young season last Saturday against Michigan State to improve to 3-0. Head coach Brian Kelly said the name of the game moving forward is execution, particularly on offense.
“We had too many opportunities to put points on the board and to get the kind of production we need,” Kelly said Sunday. “A lot of it is in the quarterback's development. Again, [Everett Golson] did some really good things. But we've got a long way to go. He needs to continue to stay on task, Everett, and continue to develop each and every week.
“There are a lot of things. We are so far from where we need to be offensively. I think a lot of it is just in the stuff that we're doing right now. We don't need to extend the playbook any deeper.”
It was a tough night for Irish tight ends against the Spartans. Senior Tyler Eifert led Notre Dame with eight catches for 120 yards and a touchdown heading into the contest, but didn’t register a catch, nor did backups Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas. Both sophomores have been asked to primarily block, but had had one reception in each of the first two games.
“I think [he needs] just more of a consistent approach,” Kelly said of Koyack. “He does some really good things. He's a young guy. He really has to be focused on the little things during the week. He's coming. We need him. We desperately need him to play for us at a higher level.
“He's getting better. He cares. He's got to be more consistent at the position, in particular blocking. That's what we ask him to do for us. He's committed. He's a good teammate. He's just got to continue to grow, and he is each and every week.”
Making an already difficult day for MSU that much harder was the continued excellence from Irish senior punter Ben Turk. In 2011, Turk had six games where he finished with an average below 40 yards, with the first two games against South Florida and Michigan his worst outings of the year, with averages of 34.2 and 33.5, respectively. His performances fluctuated the rest of the season and ended with a 40.3 average on 53 attempts.
Turk’s averaging 41.5 yards per boot through three games this fall, and in the third quarter alone versus the Spartans, he collected kicks of 53 and 50 yards — the first time he had registered a punt at least 50 yards since his 55-yarder against Boston College on No. 19, 2011.
“Our special teams played a large role in flipping the field,” Kelly said. “I think Michigan State had average starting field position at the 20-yard line. That was absolutely crucial to the success we had. I think you need all three phases if you're going to win a game on the road against Michigan State.
“He's progressed. I think we all saw signs of that at the end of last year. I think he had a great off season. His mind has been so focused on being consistent. We're getting that kind of play from him.”
Notre Dame sophomore placekicker Kyle Brindza, who didn’t attempt a field goal last year but is four-of-five in 2012, did his part as well, including kickoffs.
“Obviously Kyle Brindza, as well, in terms of kicking the ball out of the end zone,” Kelly added. “I think he was four for five on kickoffs that went out of the back of the end zone, and of course the field goals. So our two specialists have really impacted the football game.”
The Irish defensive secondary took another hit Saturday with the loss of starter, co-captain and fifth-year senior safety Jamoris Slaughter, who was lost for the year with an Achilles tendon tear — the same malady that cost junior cornerback Lo Wood a chance to start for the first time. Slaughter, who had 98 career tackles in 39 games, is to have surgery at some point this week.
“You lose a Jamoris Slaughter, you're losing an ‘A’ player,” Kelly said. [Sophomore] Matthias [Farley] is certainly not at the level yet of a Jamoris Slaughter. He's got to continue to develop. But we have a lot of confidence and trust in him. He'll be getting a lot of work back there. So we'll have to continue to develop him. But we have a lot of confidence in him.”