By TOM COYNE
SOUTH BEND — Nothing epitomized the ugliness of Notre Dame’s victory over Michigan State better than a kicker who missed a field goal and had a punt blocked being given the game ball.
That about sums up the season so far for the Fighting Irish (3-1), though, where victories don’t come with style points. Kyle Brindza was given the game ball on the strength of his fourth quarter punting, when a 45-yard punt and a pair of 51-yard punts kept the Spartans from getting good field position. Coach Brian Kelly took exception when asked about winning ugly following the 17-13 victory over the Spartans (3-1), saying he would prefer to think of it as two good defenses playing well.
But in a game where Notre Dame had four fewer yards rushing (82) than penalty yards (86) and Michigan State had four more rushing yards (119) than penalty yards (115), ugly appeared to be an apt description. That is especially true with Tommy Rees completing 14-of-34 passes for 114 yards and pass interference calls providing the bulk of the momentum for the Irish, who managed 224 yards total offense against the nation’s top-rated defense.
Still, Kelly said Sunday he sees reason for hope as the Irish prepare to face No. 14 Oklahoma (3-0) in a rematch of a game the Irish won 30-13 a season ago en route to the national championship game. The Irish hold a lopsided 9-1 advantage in the series that pits two of the most storied programs in college football history.
Kelly particularly saw progress against Michigan State in the play of the Irish defense, which had played well below expectations through the first three games. It may be hard to judge how much the Irish improved, though, because Michigan State’s offense has not been impressive so far this season. But Kelly saw better play along the defensive line, among the linebackers and more physical play overall. He said the Irish coaches demanded from the players last week that they focus on doing their jobs.
“We had guys trying to do other people’s jobs and not taking care of their own business,” Kelly said. “So this week was about you get what you demand, and do your job. I know those sound like some pretty standard watch words. But we didn’t reinvent any defense; we didn’t create any new schemes. We just demanded more and expected more from our players and got it on Saturday.”
On the offensive side, the Irish are trying to find a rushing game. Against the Spartans, the Irish used four ball carriers but no one had more than nine carries until Cam McDaniel took over in the fourth quarter as the Irish tried to run out the clock and finished with 44 yards on 16 carries. Through four games, the Irish are 99th in the country at 114 yards a game rushing. That’s 75 yards a game below last year’s average and is on pace to be the third lowest total in school history. The only two seasons that were worse were in 2007 (75 yards a game) and 2008 (110) under Charlie Weis.
But Kelly said part of the reason for the rushing problems is that opponents are putting more players near the line of scrimmage and challenging the Irish to throw. He also said he knew the Irish had to depend on the pass against the Spartans.
“You’re not going to win running the ball against them,” he said.
So with a struggling offense and an improving defense, maybe the game ball going to the kicker shouldn’t be a big surprise. But Kelly said he couldn’t remember if he had ever given a game ball to a punter before, saying it was easy because of how important Brindza’s punts were.
“Even with the missed field goal, he was able to affect the game by punting the ball so effectively in the fourth quarter,” Kelly said.