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Establishing a killer instinct

I spent last night rewatching parts of the Michigan State game, trying to figure out why the score was as close as it was. On the Irish’s first drive of the second quarter, they had a chance to bury the Spartans and put them in a hole that could’ve changed their entire offensive identity.

To Weis’ credit, he sensed the opportunity. On 3rd and 4, just on the Spartans side of midfield, he played conservatively, calling an Armando Allen run from the Wildcat instead of passing for the conversion. You got the feel that Weis knew it was a two-down situation, because he didn’t hesitate to keep his offense on the field, and narrowly converted the 4th and 2 the very next play.

From there on, things unraveled for the offense. Allen handed the ball to Golden Tate in the Wildcat, where Tate had the option to pass, but tucked it away before being tackled for a one-yard loss. Sam Young forgot the snap count on 2nd down, backing the Irish up to midfield for a 2nd and 16. Weis set up a screen to Allen on the next snap, but Trevor Robinson drove his man into the ground, picking up an easy holding call that caught the eye of two officials, backing the Irish all the way back to their own 42. 2nd and 25 saw Jonas Gray completely whiff on blitz pickup in the middle of the field, giving up the Irish’s first sack off the season. It was all the more painful when Jimmy Clausen didn’t get off the turf. With Clausen hobbled, Dayne Crist came in on 3rd and 35, settling for a everybody-in-the-stadium-knows-it’s-coming screen pass that got snuffed out for a loss of one.

Sloppy plays and mental mistakes cost the Irish 26 yards of field position, and a chance to push the game out of the Spartan’s comfort zone. Adding insult to injury (you could almost say quite literally) the Irish defense got in the act with two personal fouls on three plays. Robert Blanton made a boneheaded play finishing his tackle five yards out of bounds, while Harrison Smith was caught pile-hunting when he took a run at an unsuspecting Spartan lineman. (Meanwhile, a play earlier, a Spartan offensive lineman mugged a helmetless Kapron Lewis-Moore, but I digress...)

Again, to Weis’ credit, he made a smart decision, burning a timeout to help the defense get their composure. But the Spartans countered with a perfect play-call, an end-around pass from Keshawn Martin to a wide-open Blair White for a 30-yard touchdown. Both Jamoris Slaughter and Harrison Smith were completely beat on the play.

From there, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio smelled blood, and the Spartans executed a perfect 9-yard onside kick. The drive stalled when Toryan Smith forced Caulton Ray to fumbled around midfield, but in span of under four minutes, the Irish went from nearly putting the contest out of reach to completely losing the game’s momentum.

Watch the sequence for yourself, and see the Irish shoot themselves in the foot on both offense and defense. While people continue to bang the drum that Weis was outcoached, he did everything he could to minimize the swings, but ultimately the Irish players have to stop making mental mistakes. To Dantonio’s credit, he knew he’d have to steal a possession or two from the mighty Irish offense, and he did that with a successful trick play and a perfect onside kick.

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For Weis, coaching with the lead brings about a different set of challenges, and those situations are unfamiliar to most of the current Irish roster. It’ll be up to the coaching staff and the players to learn how to put teams away.