NOTRE DAME — The way Brian Kelly saw it, the annual battle between Notre Dame and Michigan State played out exactly how he expected.
Undoubtedly, Notre Dame’s head coach was referring to the gritty, down-to-the wire, low-scoring boxing match between his Irish and Spartans, not necessarily the missed field goals, overthrown passes, special teams miscues and overall dull offensive performances from both teams.
It wasn’t the prettiest way to win a football game, but like it did against Purdue last week and so many times last year, Notre Dame found a way to come out ahead in a tight game. The Irish (3-1) escaped longtime foe Michigan State (3-1) in a 17-13 win at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, Sept. 21.
“We came into this week knowing and respecting the way (Michigan State) coach (Mark) Dantonio plays the game and his team,” Kelly said. “They’re tough and physical. We had to match that. We knew what we were getting into.”
Bitten by a slow start, a blocked punt to end its first series, Notre Dame found an unexpected spark in freshman receiver Corey Robinson. Robinson seemed to be the only receiver that could connect with quarterback Tommy Rees in the first half, grabbing three catches for 52 yards.
On all three occasions, the 6-foot-5 freshman converted third downs when no one else could.
“You’ve got to be super confident in knowing that you have to go in there and make this catch to help the team win,” Robinson said. “Everyone is counting on you to make this play.”
Despite Robinson’s efforts, Notre Dame could only manage three points until the final 16 seconds of the first half, when TJ Jones’ acrobatic 2-yard touchdown catch put the Irish ahead 10-7.
Rees struggled with accuracy more than usual, finishing 14-of-34 for 142 yards and the touchdown to Jones. In attempts to exploit Michigan State’s man-to-man secondary coverage, Rees overthrew deep threat DaVaris Daniels on several attempts. Daniels finished with three catches for six yards, while Jones only caught one other pass after his touchdown to finish with 15 total yards.
While the Notre Dame offense struggled with consistency, the Michigan State defense unintentionally lent a hand by racking up 10 penalties — four of which came on pass interferences, one on defensive holding and another on a personal foul — for 115 yards.
Michigan State’s penalty yards were more effective than the Notre Dame ground game, which finished with 82 total between four backs. Cam McDaniel led the way for Irish tailbacks for a second straight week, finishing with 16 carries for 44 yards. After Matthias Farley grabbed a back-breaking interception late in the third quarter, it was a 7-yard dash by McDaniel that gave Notre Dame its final go-ahead score.
Four weeks into the season, Kelly knows what he has in a backfield swimming with depth but struggling to average more than 3.0 yards per carry. “You got to be efficient enough to win football games,” Kelly said. “That’s what I’m looking for in our running game, efficient enough to win games.”
If “efficient enough” is the mantra, then Notre Dame is learning how to fulfill it after back-to-back grinder wins.
“We grind enough drives and points to find a way to win that game,” Rees said. “Battling in those close ones, it’s exciting to win those. We’ve done a good job preparing and understanding what it takes to win those games.”