SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – No surprises this time for Notre Dame. Just a victory that kept them out of an 0-3 hole and showed they can finish a game when they have a lead.
The Irish used two touchdown runs from Cierre Wood, an electrifying 89-yard kickoff return from freshman George Atkinson III and a key late interception from Robert Blanton to beat No. 15 Michigan State 31-13 Saturday for their first win.
“We wake up every morning and prepare to win,” said Blanton, part of an Irish defense that limited the Spartans to 29 rushing yards and only a field goal in the second half. “We just had to show we could go out and get the job done.”
The Irish also showed they can stop a play off a fake field.
The Spartans (2-1) stunned Notre Dame in overtime a year ago with a game-winning TD pass off a fake field goal and tried to surprise the Irish again after lining up for a field goal near the end of the first half.
Notre Dame (1-2) was ready this time. On fourth-and-goal from the 2, Ethan Johnson broke up a shovel pass attempt and the Irish led 21-10 at the half.
“It just looked like a shovel play up inside,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “We had some time to talk about it and just remind our guys to be gap conscious and do their jobs. We just did our job on that and obviously came up with a big play.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio took the blame for the play failing.
“Field goal at the end of the half, my call, didn’t work. Three points. But I don’t think that’s why we lost the game,” Dantonio said. “But I’ll take the blame for that.”
Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins, who had 11 straight completions at one juncture of the second half, was 34 of 53 for 329 yards but he was intercepted at the Notre Dame 6 with just under four minutes left by Blanton, who returned it 82 yards to the 12.
The Spartans had just recovered a fumbled punt by Notre Dame’s John Goodman at the Irish 21 and were ready to set the stage for another frantic finish between the rivals. But with the Spartans trailing 28-13 and having a first and goal at the 3, Blanton came up with a juggling interception and then took off on his long return that sealed the win.
“There was a crowd in there and in hindsight, I probably should not have thrown it,” Cousins said.
Notre Dame was coming off a crushing loss at Michigan, giving up 28 fourth-quarter points and a game-winning TD pass with two seconds to go.
Only two previous Notre Dame teams had started a season 0-3 and Kelly didn’t want to be part of that history.
“We stressed all week that you have to make your own luck. And we did,” Kelly said. “Our guys haven’t lacked confidence, they just needed to finish. At halftime, I think I said, ‘Finish, finish, finish,’ more times than I’ve said anything else. Finish the game and find a way to win.”
Michigan State was hurt by its own sloppiness – 12 penalties for 86 yards. Cousins completed 12 of his passes to B.J. Cunningham as the Spartans were forced to go to the air and play catch up.
“I think Notre Dame’s coverage did a nice job of taking the longer stuff away and we didn’t always have time to throw deep. If you are giving us 8-10 yards, we are going to take it,” Cousins said.
“Getting behind early made it harder to execute the running game for us. We will get back on track. We will run the ball better next week. We just came up short. We got to the 5-yard line or closer twice and came away with no points and you can’t expect to win doing that.”
Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees overcame a first-half fumble and interception and finished 18 of 26 for 161 yards.
Notre Dame pushed the lead to 28-10 in the third quarter when Rees hit Michael Floyd on a 22-yard pass and then lofted a perfect 26-yarder to TJ Jones for a touchdown. The Irish were penalized on the ensuing kickoff for unsportsmanlike conduct after Jones made a hand signal following his catch.
Cousins came right back after a 42-yard kickoff return by Nick Hill gave the Spartans good field position. His 21-yard pass to Todd Anderson and an 11-yarder to Cunningham gave the Spartans a first down at the Irish 8.
But after the drive stalled, MSU lined up for a field goal, only to have their attempt at trickery turned away.
After Notre Dame took an early 7-0 lead on a Wood TD run, the teams traded turnovers twice.
Rees took a hard blindside hit from Kevin Pickelman and fumbled with MSU’s Jerel Worthy recovering. But just moments later, Notre Dame freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch drove into Cousins from behind, forcing a fumble and Johnson recovered for the Irish. But three plays later Rees’ pass was picked off by Kurtis Drummond and returned 34 yards to the Irish 27, setting up Conroy’s 40-yard field goal that made it 7-3. It was Notre Dame’s 12th turnover of the season.
But 12 seconds later, Atkinson – the son of the former NFL star defensive back – took the ensuing kickoff, broke to the sideline and sprinted in for the touchdown. It was Notre Dame’s first kickoff return for a TD by a freshman since Raghib Ismail returned two against Rice in 1988.
“That kickoff return was a huge play for them and I think it kind of deflated us momentarily on the sideline,” MSU linebacker Max Bullough said. “When a team can make plays like that in their own stadium, it is tough to beat them.”
Whether Notre Dame can build on the victory remains to be seen. On this one, the Irish got some validation for their effort.
“We’re 1-2 right now and we’re not happy with it, but it’s great to get a win,” said Johnson, who also recovered a fumble in addition to snuffing the fake field goal. “You have to enjoy the wins and get over the losses.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)