McCarthy Saves Irish, Weisposted by John Vannie
Clausen was outstanding again, hitting 22 of 31 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns. A third touchdown was disallowed by the Big-10 officiating crew, who confounded Notre Dame for the second consecutive week with several highly suspect calls. Armando Allen, arguably the most improved Irish player this season, ran for 115 yards on 23 carries. The junior tailback ran for one touchdown and threw for another.
The Irish started fast with quick touchdowns in its first two possessions, sandwiched around a field goal by Michigan State’s Brett Swenson. Notre Dame led 13-3 after a missed extra point, but the Spartans did not wilt. Despite a missed 52-yard field goal by Swenson at the end of the first quarter, Michigan State sacked Clausen on the next series and temporarily hobbled the Irish star. Clausen appeared to injure his foot and limped noticeably the rest of the way.
Two personal foul penalties jump started the Spartans moments later, and they cut into Notre Dame’s lead when reserve Keshawn Martin hit Blair White with a 30-yard halfback pass for a score. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio correctly sensed that the Irish were reeling after the penalties and the touchdown pass, so he ordered an onside kick. The Spartans easily recovered a perfectly executed boot by Swenson and were back in business.
Notre Dame quickly reversed the momentum when Kapron Lewis-Moore forced a fumble and Toryan Smith recovered for the Irish. Runs by Allen and Jonas Gray moved the offense into scoring territory, but Floyd’s outstanding catch in the end zone was seen as a touchdown by everyone on the planet except the referees. To make matters much worse, Floyd broke his collarbone when he landed on the play and is out indefinitely. After a fumbled snap two plays later cost them another chance at a touchdown, Notre Dame settled for a 22-yard field goal by Nicholas Tausch and a 16-10 lead.
Irish penalties enabled the Spartans to take the lead before the half. Pass interference and a facemask violation helped move the ball to the one yard line and Larry Caper finished the drive on a burst up the middle.
Trailing by a point, Notre Dame wasted little time upon receipt of the second half kickoff. Tate caught a deep ball from Clausen and Robbie Parris scored on a five yard pass from Allen out of the Wildcat formation. The Irish extended their lead with 5:34 left in the period when Tausch drilled a 47-yard field goal after Tate dropped a perfect throw from Clausen inside the Spartan five.
Once again, Michigan State rallied from the brink of defeat. Quarterback Kirk Cousins directed his team down the field and Caper finished the drive with a seven yard scamper around left end. Ethan Johnson blocked the extra point and the Irish lead was 26-23 at the end of the third period.
Cousins continued his sharp second half passing with ten straight completions in one stretch. He hit Mark Dell on a slant with ten minutes left, and missed tackles by the tiring Irish defense allowed Dell to ramble for 59 yards. Cousins hit White for the go-ahead score from 17 yards out moments later for a 30-26 Spartan lead.
Clausen came right back with what proved to be the game-winning pass to Tate, who held on this time despite running into the Michigan State band after the catch. When the Spartans went three and out on the next series, Notre Dame hoped for a time consuming drive to run out the clock. Unfortunately, another costly penalty and a mishap in the Irish backfield from the Wildcat formation forced Notre Dame to punt the ball back to Michigan State with 2:58 remaining.
The Spartans quickly moved from their own 20 into Swenson’s field goal range as Cousins hit B.J. Cunningham at the Irish 30. A subsequent third down completion on a fortunate pass deflection moved the ball to the Notre Dame 18 yard line with 1:20 on the clock. As Irish fans fidgeted in their seats, Cousins lofted a pass into the end zone where Caper stood completely alone. The ball sailed inches above his outstretched arms, and the Notre Dame faithful breathed a sigh of relief that the 5’11” Caper was not Charles Rogers or Plaxico Burress.
Notre Dame’s struggling defense dug deep on the next play to stave off defeat. Darius Fleming beat his man to get pressure on Cousins, who lofted a wounded duck over the middle. McCarthy cut in front of the receiver to snag it to save the day. With overtime almost a certainty given the accuracy of Swenson, and with more than a minute still on the clock, it’s mind-boggling that Cousins would attempt to throw the ball deep over the middle. After the events of last week, however, the Irish were more than happy to accept the gift.
Coach Charlie Weis tried to downplay the impact of the victory on his future employment prospects, but it indeed saved him from a week of intense heat and speculation. Notre Dame technically kept its BCS Bowl chances alive, but the defense is certainly not at a BCS level right now.
Let’s review the answers to the key questions coming into this contest.
Can Notre Dame avoid a letdown after a disappointing loss? Yes, the Irish started fast and were emotionally into the game.
Will Notre Dame play more disciplined defense or continue to be out of position? The secondary played a soft zone and was burned often because the front seven did not apply much pressure.
Can the interior of the Irish offensive line keep Jones from dominating in the middle? Yes, Jones was not a significant factor despite nine tackles.
How will Cousins handle the pressure from a blitzing defense? Great, right up until his final pass.
Will Weis be able to keep the Spartans off balance with his play calling? Weis had the Spartans reeling in the first quarter with scripted plays, and had several other successes in the second half despite losing Floyd from his arsenal.
Will a special teams play have an effect on the outcome? Absolutely. The onside kick, missed extra points by both teams and Tausch’s 47 yarder were all important.
Can Notre Dame’s much maligned defensive front stop the Spartans’ anemic running game? Yes, Ian Williams played well and the Spartans managed only 105 yards on the ground.
Will Allen be at full speed, and if not can Gray and Riddick pick up the slack? Thankfully, Allen was ready and productive. Gray runs well but is a liability when trying to pick up the blitz.
Notre Dame will travel to Purdue next week to complete the Big 10 portion of the schedule. Although the rebuilding Boilermakers should not pose a difficult challenge, the Irish have already seen a full season’s quota of phantom penalties and head scratching replay decisions. The current 2-1 record does not reflect the best of times nor the worst of times, but one can sense that this season is not meant for the faint of heart.