Saturday, September 23, 2017

Notre Dame 38, Michigan State 18: Irish blow out the candles on the Spartans for the next decade

                                                 Photo Credit: Notre Dame Athletics

By: Jeremy Rosenberg

On a sweat-soaked Saturday night at Spartan Stadium, the MSU-Notre Dame rivalry (and hopefully excessive alliteration) began a 10-year hiatus. Unlike so many of the match-ups in this historical rivalry, this one fizzled out early, as multiple turnovers sank the Spartans. In the end, Notre Dame outclassed Michigan State for a 38-18 victory.

Notre Dame opened the scoring with a brilliantly scripted opening drive. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush picked the Spartan defense apart with his arm before capping the drive off with a 16-yard touchdown run right through the heart of the MSU defense. The drive and touchdown were an emphatic statement by the Irish.

An even greater statement came on MSU’s opening drive. The Spartans picked up a first down and looked to be moving the ball effectively, when Spartan quarterback Brian Lewerke made a horrendous mistake, serving up a perfect 59-yard pick-six to Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love. Less than five minutes into the game, Notre Dame had burst to a 14-0 lead.

Michigan State could have wilted, but Lewerke shook off the interception to lead the Spartans on a seven play, 75-yard touchdown drive. The drive was marked by a 52-yard run up the middle by Lewerke on a 3rd and 1 quarterback sneak. The Spartan QB was practically untouched as he slithered through the Notre Dame defense line, then he exploded ahead for the big gain. MSU scored their touchdown on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Lewerke to WR Darrell Stewart Jr., cutting the Irish lead to 14-7.

The game stabilized a bit at this point, falling into the defensive match a lot of us were expecting. The Irish and Spartans traded punts, as MSU began to blitz Wimbush in earnest, and the Irish defense completely stymied the Spartans.

After forcing a second ND punt, Michigan State made another mistake. On a desperate third down run, Notre Dame linebacker Greer Martini shook and stirred Lewerke until he coughed up the ball. Irish defensive end Daelin Hayes recovered, and all the sudden the Irish had a short field, starting at the MSU 29-yard line.

Irish running back Dexter Williams took over, culminating with an 8-yard touchdown reception for the junior. Williams displayed the nifty footwork of an experienced WR, deftly touching his toe in bounds for the score. The Irish now had a 21-7 lead with 9:30 left in the half.

Just like before, MSU shook off the turnover and proceeded to march down the field on a drive punctuated by some surgical passing by Lewerke. On what appeared to be a strong 15-yard run up the middle by Spartan junior running back L.J. Scott, disaster struck for the MSU. Just as Scott was about to cross the plane of the end zone, Irish junior cornerback Shaun Crawford jarred the football loose and the Irish recovered in the end zone. Replays confirmed the call, and the atmosphere at Spartan Stadium completely deflated.

What better way for the Irish to keep the stadium quiet than to take the ball down field, five plays for eighty yards, and punch the ball in the end zone. The highlight of this drive was a diving third down catch for 21-yards by graduate transfer tight end Dylan Smythe. Dexter Williams proceeded to punch the ball in the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown. Notre Dame was up 28-7, and the rout was on.

MSU opened the second half with a promising drive that stalled just inside the red zone. Kicker Matt Coughlin booted a 40-yard field goal to make it a 28-10 lead for the Irish.

A strong defensive stand could have made this a game again, but Notre Dame methodically drove down the field, on a drive marked by eight plays, of which almost every play was reviewed. By the time Irish running back Deon McIntosh scampered into the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown run, the entire stadium was numb. The Irish lead expanded to 35-10.

The rest of the game was marked by conservative play-calling by the Irish, trying to chew clock, and more stalled near-miss drives for Michigan State. Finally, with 3:09 left in the game, MSU managed to score a second touchdown, a 25-yard touchdown run by Gerald Holmes.

As for the Fighting Irish, Notre Dame looked terrific at times – very much the team that hung with Georgia for four quarters. Notre Dame needs to run the table to get into the playoff conversation, and their schedule, while difficult, is not overwhelming.

Notre Dame may have outclassed MSU tonight, but expect good things from this rivalry in the future. Both programs will look very different in a decade, but the overall intensity should stay the same. In an era where tradition seems less and less important, college football needs rivalries like this. MSU-Notre Dame played their first game in 1897. We can all look forward to 2027.