The top performances in Notre Dame's 38-18 victory over Michigan State, followed by some thoughts on a few things that worked, and some that didn't in the win.
Offense: QB Brandon Wimbush - 14-20, 173 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT / 52 rushing yards, 1 TD
In Notre Dame’s 49-20 win over Boston College the previous week, the junior quarterback made an impact on the ground (207 yards), but his 11-of-24 performance as a passer left much to be desired and drew criticism from some in the national media for his inability to make plays with his arm.
Wimbush quickly silenced his critics against Michigan State, completing 4 of 5 passes for 62 yards before capping Notre Dame’s opening drive off with a 16-yard touchdown run. He finished the game 14-of-20 passing for 173 yards with a score, and he was really good when it mattered.
Notre Dame converted eight of its 14 third-down chances, and Wimbush was a primary factor. He connected on 5 of 6 throws on third down, with all five completions moving the chains.
Defense: CB Shaun Crawford - 4 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
There might have been other defenders that had better beginning to end performances, but no defender made a bigger play than the junior cornerback.
Notre Dame held a 21-7 lead in the second quarter, but Michigan State was in the midst of a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive. Spartans running back LJ Scott broke through the Irish front and was on the verge of scoring, but Crawford stripped the football out of his hands just inches away from the goal line and then recovered the loose ball in the end zone. He also finished the game with four tackles.
Special Teams: P Tyler Newsome - 4 punts, 38.2 avg., 3 inside the 20
Michigan State moved the ball relatively well against the Notre Dame defense, but the Spartans were constantly starting deep in their own territory, which made it easier for the Irish defense to keep the points down.
The senior punter played a key role in that, placing three of his four punts inside the 20-yard line.
A CLOSER LOOK
BEATING THE BLITZ: One of the keys for Notre Dame coming into the game was finding a way to handle Michigan State’s aggressive and complex pressure package, especially as it relates to the linebackers.
A season ago, the Spartans relentless attack made the Irish pass game highly inefficient. Junior quarterback DeShone Kizer completed just 54.1 percent of his passes, and the Irish ground game gained just 57 yards (2.3 per attempt).
This season, however, the Irish offense was prepared for the pressures, and offensive coordinator Chip Long kept the Spartans’ defense off balance all game long.
Coming out and pushing the tempo on the opening drive forced Michigan State to just line up and play, keeping it from moving around pre-snap like it wanted to. Notre Dame quickly went down the field, scoring on a seven-play, 78-yard drive.
Michigan State had a pressure and a sack on back-to-back plays to stall the next drive, but Long started to move his receivers into motion, he kept at it with the play-action passes and he effectively sent five players out to slow down the blitz.
The best example was the touchdown that put Notre Dame up 21-7 in the second quarter. Michigan State was bringing linebacker Chris Frey on an outside blitz to the side of Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams.
Instead of keeping Williams in to block, Long called for him to run a wheel route. Frey was forced to stop his blitz and peel back to find Williams, something he could not do. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush rolled right and found Williams in the end zone to give the Irish a two-score lead.
PRESSURING THE QUARTERBACK EARLY: Michigan State redshirt sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke is a talented player, and if he got into an early rhythm it could have been a long night for the Irish defense. Lewerke finished the game 31-of-51 passing for 340 yards, but most of that production came after the Irish jumped out to a big lead.
Notre Dame mixed up its pressures and coverages, and had Lewerke out of sync from the start. He completed his first three passes, but they totaled just 17 yards, and he didn’t have time to look down the field.
On Michigan State’s first possession, senior defensive end Jay Hayes tipped a Lewerke pass on second-and-six, and then sophomore cornerback Julian Love baited Lewerke on third down. As soon as the ball was released to the flats, Love jumped the pass, picked it off and ran it back 59 yards for a touchdown.
A first-down sack of Lewerke on Michigan State’s third series led to a punt, and a pressure by sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara on third down of the next series resulted in a Lewerke scramble. Senior linebacker Greer Martini drilled Lewerke near the sideline, forcing a fumble that Notre Dame recovered at the MSU 24-yard line. The Irish scored six plays later to make it 21-7.
That third-down play showed an effective adjustment made by defensive coordinator Mike Elko. In the first three games when opponents got to third down, Elko had an alignment of four down lineman, two linebackers and five defensive backs.
Against Michigan State, a team with a mobile quarterback, Elko kept senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti off the field and inserted Martini, which gave the Irish more speed and range on the field. It paid off in a big way on that third-down scramble and forced fumble.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK
NOT HANDLING THE MIDDLE: Michigan State loves attacking the middle of the field with its pass game, and throughout the night the Spartans had far too much success in that zone.
Too many times the Irish defenders allowed MSU receivers to get an inside release with slant routes or other quick moves, and it allowed Lewerke to complete quick hitters over the middle to move the chains.
Lewerke also found success later in the game with deep throws over the middle, which helped convert a pair of third-and-long plays (10 yards or more) in the first half.
The end result was the Notre Dame defense allowing Michigan State to convert 11 of 19 third-down opportunities (57.9 percent). None of Notre Dame’s first three opponents reached the 30 percent mark on third down, which provides some context to Notre Dame’s struggles on that down after Love’s early third-down interception, which came on a throw to the outside.
One area where Notre Dame did have success over the middle was with the deep throws. The Irish safeties did a very good job recognizing Michigan State’s long downfield attempts, and every time they were in place to force incompletions.