SOUTH BEND, Ind. — An inspired rally came too late for a Notre Dame team that was flatly out-played and out-coached for most of Saturday evening’s tilt with No. 12 Michigan State.
Notre Dame was dealt its second loss of the season, 36-28, by a Michigan State side that commanded the game until late in the third quarter. It was Notre Dame’s first home loss since falling to Louisville on Senior Day in 2014.
The Spartans wrestled control of things away from the Irish in the second quarter thanks to back-to-back mistakes by the home side.
Holding a 7-0 lead in the second quarter while keeping the Spartans’ offense at arm’s length, Notre Dame forced Michigan State to punt. But with returner C.J. Sanders signaling to get out of the way of a short kick, the ball bounced off the leg of redshirt freshman receiver Miles Boykin and was recovered by Michigan State.
Quarterback Tyler O’Connor quickly turned that mistake into a score, finding on the next play Donnie Corley for a 38-yard touchdown in which the freshman Spartans receiver ripped the ball away from Irish senior cornerback Cole Luke.
Michigan State then caught Notre Dame off guard and easily converted a two-point score to take an 8-7 lead.
The second mistake came on the first play of Notre Dame’s next drive when Sanders lost a fumble, turning the ball back over to Michigan State.
While the Spartans didn’t score on that drive, the fumble — and, of course, Boykin’s error — meant Notre Dame only was able to run 27 plays in the first half.
Meanwhile, Michigan State’s offense rumbled 92 yards on 11 plays into the end zone with 23 seconds remaining in the first half and took that eight-point lead into halftime. And after a three-and-out to begin the third quarter, the Spartans landed a trio of haymakers against a wobbly Irish defense.
Remember, this is a Michigan State team that lost its record-setting quarterback (Connor Cook), its two leading receivers (Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings) and its two best offensive linemen (Jack Conklin and Jack Allen) from last year’s playoff team. But facing an Irish defense struggling to replace a host of regulars from 2015, those losses hardly mattered.
A 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive was the first blow, and after DeShone Kizer was intercepted, the Spartans needed only two tries to go 38 yards into the end zone. And then came the really embarrassing one: running back Gerald Holmes flying through the Irish front seven and 72 yards for a touchdown that put the Spartans up by four scores late in the third quarter.
But Notre Dame, after showing every sign it would, didn’t fold. Kelly talked after that gutting night in Texas about his team’s resiliency shining through even in in a loss — and after not playing resilient through most of the third quarter, that switch was flipped for both the offense and defense.
Notre Dame sandwiched scoring drives — a highlight-reel catch by Equanimeous St. Brown and DeShone Kizer’s three-yard plunge both accounted for touchdowns — around a defensive stop, and then after Kizer’s score got another one when Isaac Rochell dropped Holmes for a nine-yard loss.
That stop turned into more points when Kizer found tight end Durham Smythe for a 12-yard touchdown, drawing the Irish within one possession.
And things started getting interesting after the Irish defense forced another three-and-out. But Kizer was sacked on third down, and after a timeout Notre Dame decided to punt to put faith in its defense instead of its offense.
Notre Dame quickly forced a third-and-eight, but O’Connor found a wide-open Corley for a 28-yard gain and a first down that effectively put things out of reach. Shelton dashed 23 yards to get the Spartans in victory formation — and get them over 500 yards of offense in the game.