IRISH FALL TO SPARTANSposted by John Vannie
The game began well in all phases for Notre Dame before things began to unravel. Three straight running plays produced a first down near midfield on the opening drive. The Spartans forced an Irish punt, but Geoff Price pinned the visitors back on their own three yard line. Brian Hoyer fumbled a snap on State’s second play from scrimmage and John Ryan recovered for Notre Dame on the Spartan nine.
After Robert Hughes fought his way to the one yard line, Travis Thomas walked in around left end for a 7-0 Irish advantage only five minutes into the contest. Michigan State wasted no time getting untracked, however, as they took the ensuing kickoff and drove for the tying score in only three minutes. Hoyer hit Devin Thomas on a thinly disguised pick play for a seven yard touchdown pass.
Notre Dame started to lose ground on its next series. Asaph Schwapp went nowhere on a third and one rush, and Price shanked a punt. The Irish defense held its ground, but the offense was backed up moments later after a holding penalty on special teams put them inside their own ten. The offensive line surrendered a sack and the Spartans began to win the field position battle. After another Irish punt, the first quarter ended with Michigan State inside Notre Dame territory.
A 26-yard run by Javon Ringer set up another MSU touchdown pass by Hoyer, who hit tight end Kellen Davis in the back of the end zone for a 14-7 lead. The Irish managed a first down on its next possession until disaster struck. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen was running for his life and was unable to get rid of the ball before it was stripped from him and recovered by Jonal Saint-Dic.
The Spartans were held to a field goal when Hoyer misfired on third down, and they led by 17-7 with 12:19 left in the half. Notre Dame then showed the grit and determination that fans expected after a week of intense practice. Following a diving pass reception by George West, James Aldridge rumbled for 43 yards and Hughes ripped off 17 more to the MSU six. The Irish stayed on the ground and Hughes scored the touchdown from the three to cut the deficit to 17-14.
Special teams play then put the Irish in the hole with sloppy kick coverage and poor punts, but free safety David Bruton prevented further damage before the half by intercepting a deep pass by Hoyer in the end zone. Freshman linebackers Brian Smith and Kerry Neal also impressed when they saw the field late in the final two Spartan possessions.
While Notre Dame hoped to build on the positives and regain the lead coming out of the locker room, Michigan State immediately seized control with a long kickoff return to start the third quarter. The Spartans frustrated the Irish by converting a pair of long third down plays before Hoyer hit a wide open Mark Dell for a 16-yard score.
Trailing 24-14, Notre Dame returned to the ground game and Aldridge brought them to midfield. Once again, the offensive line imploded on a fourth and one play, and the Irish failed to penetrate MSU territory for the remainder of the afternoon.
The Spartans iced the win with a 30-yard strike from Hoyer to Davis on a well-conceived fourth down play. Coach Charlie Weis inserted Evan Sharpley at quarterback in the final period as a bruised and battered Clausen watched from the sideline. What began as a promising day ended in all too familiar fashion for Notre Dame.
Although there were more positives for the Irish than in the first three games, there is little evidence that the team is ready to break into the win column anytime soon. Aldridge ran for over 100 yards and Hughes looked like a future star, but the passing game still suffers from protection breakdowns, a tentative quarterback and receivers who cannot consistently get open. Tight end John Carlson has not been a factor downfield because he must help to slow down those who intend to inflict grievous bodily harm on his quarterback.
Defensively, Trevor Laws, Patrick Kuntz, Maurice Crum and Tom Zbikowski continue to play hard and freshmen Brian Smith and Kerry Neal flashed speed and talent. The time has come, however, for Coach Charlie Weis to stop talking about special teams and do something to fix them. Continued breakdowns are bound to cost the Irish a victory this year in an otherwise winnable game.
A quick look at the answers to key questions heading into the game:
Can Notre Dame finally establish the run? Comparatively speaking, yes. Unfortunately, the line still could not convert critical short yardage third and fourth down plays.
Will the Irish linebackers neutralize Ringer and Caulcrick? Except for Maurice Crum, ND’s starting linebackers were ineffective. The Spartan pair ran for over 200 yards.
Which young quarterback will have time to throw? Hoyer will not need to send his uniform to the laundry this week.
Will Notre Dame's receivers be able to make plays? That’s hard to say. Four games into the season and I can barely remember their names.
Who will win the special teams battle? MSU in an embarrassing rout.
The Irish will return to the practice field for another week of banging before traveling to Purdue next week. As with any major overhaul, the process of building this football team will be measured in small steps rather than giant leaps. Any Notre Dame fans that do not have the patience to endure this process had better spend the next four Saturdays on the golf course.