Spartans shocked by Fighting Irish
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- There were two things you never expected to see Saturday night at Spartan Stadium.
The first was a Michigan State offense that wouldn't reach the red zone. Forget the end zone. The Spartans couldn’t get closer than 26 yards away from paydirt in a 20-3 loss to Notre Dame before a sellout crowd of 79,219.
The second unlikely sight for a team ranked 10th entering the game was all the empty seats midway through the fourth quarter. There couldn’t have been more than 20,000 fans remaining for the last five minutes. And many of those were wearing Fighting Irish gear and chanting, “We WANT Michigan!”
Spartans outside linebacker Chris Norman, a tri-captain, was asked for his thoughts as he walked off the field and looked up at a nearly-vacated stadium.
“If we don’t make plays,” Norman said, “the fans are going to start leaving, and the media might start bashing.”
It was pretty desolate, and pretty hard to explain for the highest-ranked team in the Big Ten.
When asked if the performance was an aberration, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said, “I don’t view it as an aberration. I’ve said all along that rankings are for people drinking the Kool-Aid. That was after two games. We were going to find out who we were this week.”
A 50-yard field goal by Dan Conroy provided the only points for the Spartans, who had not been stifled like this at home since a 20-3 loss to Central Michigan in 1991. Michigan State didn't cross the 50-yard line in the second half and rushed for just three first downs in the game.
Quarterback Andrew Maxwell couldn’t get into a rhythm with his receivers, who dropped several balls, and was sacked four times after not getting planted once in the first two games.
Irish linebackers Prince Shembo and Manti Te’o – playing at the end of a week during which both his girlfriend and grandmother died – were constantly in Maxwell’s grill.
“Getting pressure without blitzes is going to cause problems,” said Maxwell, who completed 23 of 45 passes for 187 yards without an interception.
Notre Dame was able to get to the quarterback with pretty much four linemen bull-rushing five or six offensive linemen. Starting offensive right tackle Fou Fonoti – out half the season with a foot injury – was replaced by Skyler Burkland, who had just returned this week from an injury of his own.
But Dantonio wasn’t buying that as a valid excuse for the offensive impotence.
Le’Veon Bell couldn’t break a long run, and finished with 19 carries for 80 yards.
“I dropped a couple balls and I didn’t make plays,” Bell said. “I put it on myself. Those guys depend on me, and I didn’t get it done.”
However, the reality is that until the passing game comes along, Bell is not going to be able to carry the Spartans to victory against a quality opponent.
I asked wideout Bennie Fowler what he would have told somebody before the game if they had predicted his team would not reach the Irish red zone.
“I’d have said they were crazy with the offense we have,” said Fowler, who did not make a single catch. “We’re explosive and we have Le’Veon.”
Field position was part of the problem. Michigan State never started a drive closer than its own 34-yard line. But it also couldn’t make anything happen, even after getting a brief spark from a no-huddle approach.
“We got pressure when we needed to,” said coach Brian Kelly, whose Fighting Irish play host to Michigan next Saturday night. “We got them behind the chains. We got them throwing the football, and I think that was the key defensively.”
Michigan State's defense wasn’t at fault in this one. It played well enough to win.
Middle linebacker Max Bullough stepped up to make the kind of plays that win games. He regularly disrupted plays – particularly ones on third down – and nearly made a huge interception near the end of the first half.
Bullough fully extended to catch a pass Everett Golson put up under pressure and came down with what was initially ruled an interception. But an official review of the play showed that the ground helped him secure the ball.
It was a play symbolic of the frustrations the green and white felt on this night. Nothing worked out in the end.
“It was an eye-opener and a gut-check for this team,” said Bullough.
Fowler added, “It’s very disappointing. We let our fans down.”
There was no Kool-Aid to drink.
“This game has a way of defining you and bringing you down to earth,” Dantonio said. “We had a taste of humble pie.”