SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Michigan Stateprovided a fitting reminder of what has been missing at Notre Dame since the Spartans’ previous trip here in 2013.
That time, the Irish handed the Spartans their only loss in what went on to be a Rose Bowl-winning season for the green-and-white.
Since then, Notre Dame had been searching for a signature victory like that one.
If Saturday is any indication, the Irish probably will be waiting at least a year for the chance to play in another big game. In a major statement if ever there was one, Michigan State went on a 36-point run and withstood a late Irish charge for a 36-28 win at Notre Dame Stadium.
Michigan State, which had lost a three-year starter at quarterback, its top two receivers and its top two offensive linemen, looked the same as it ever was, which means it played like the only program in the country that has finished in the top six of the final AP poll in each of the last three years.
It’s early, and when the book is written on these teams’ 2016 campaigns several months from now, this Week 3 tilt might very well turn out to be a blip on the radar. But on Saturday, it was the nation’s No. 12 team going into the house of the No. 18 team and serving notice to the rest of the nation that Sparty won’t be deterred by its semifinal flameout last season.
Mark Dantonio likes to talk about the inches that help shape a game or a season, and that was certainly true again at Notre Dame — the fumble recoveries his guys came up with against the Irish, or the sure-to-be interception that his receiver, Donnie Corley, ripped from Cole Luke for a touchdown. Then there was the surprising two-point call after that score, with the visitors taking an early 8-7 lead.
But none of that really mattered against these Irish. Michigan State was just the better team on both sides of the ball, with Tyler O’Connor looking nothing like a third-time starter in orchestrating Sparty’s offensive attack.
This was a Michigan State defense that saw its longtime chief, Pat Narduzzi, graduate to head-coaching status at Pitt two years ago. All the unit has done since then is win the Big Ten and, in its first real test this season, shut down for three quarters a Notre Dame offense led by a guy (DeShone Kizer) who could be playing on Sundays at this time next year.
“They’re just physical,” Irish safety Drue Tranquill said earlier in the week, when asked what he admires about Michigan State’s defense. “They do their assignment, they know their assignment and they’re consistent, and Coach [Brian] VanGorder always tells us consistency is the mark of greatness. And if you look at their defense, they’re consistently strong and they’re constantly winning up front with their front four, they’re aggressive in the back end, making plays in the back end.
“So Coach Dantonio and his staff have done an incredible job of establishing a good culture there on the defensive side of the ball.”
That’s where it starts, as anyone from the Irish’s 2012 national finalist team can attest. That’s what has ached the Irish since then, particularly now as the third chapter of the VanGorder era looks doomed here in the first month of the season.
Because head coach Brian Kelly is going on seven years here, it is easy to forget about the mess he inherited when he took over before 2010, and how he has since turned Notre Dame into one of the most stable programs in the country. But in the three-plus seasons since that charmed 2012 run to the national title game, the Irish have come up short again and again when faced with these marquee tests, and it’s a big reason why they haven’t won double-digit games in consecutive seasons since 1991-93.
If these first three weeks are any indication, that streak looks destined to continue for these 1-2 Irish, barring a massive, unforeseen improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
It’s the kind of improvement that never seems necessary for Michigan State.