Penalties, late mistakes doom MSU in 17-13 road loss to ND
Notre Dame defensive lineman Louis Nix III rips off junior running back Nick Hill’s helmet during a game Sept. 21, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. A flag was later called on the play. Julia Nagy/The State News
It was difficult to tell what was more troubling for the Spartans early Saturday evening.
There was the fact that a disappointed MSU team could walk away from its 17-13 loss to No. 22 Notre Dame and probably feel it outplayed the Fighting Irish. Or was it the haunting reminiscence of last season as the Spartans faltered once again with a shot at victory late in the game?
MSU (3-1 overall) held the advantage in total yards (254 to 224), first downs (19 to 14), time of possession and also punted one fewer time than Notre Dame (3-1). The Spartans also were physical at the point of attack and commanded the line of scrimmage for much of the game.
In the final quarter, the Spartan offense had three opportunities to engineer potentially game-winning drives, but squandered each possession.
The frustration surely will hit each coach and player differently. The rivalry bout was billed as MSU’s first real test, an early-season measuring stick after pulverizing FCS opponent Youngstown State.
For now, they’re left with the familiar feeling of going back to the drawing board.
“(Notre Dame) did the things they had to at the end of the game to win the football game,” head coach Mark Dantonio said.
“Very proud of our football team in how we came out and played. (I) wish we had some plays back and some situations back obviously, but proud of our football team. Obviously, Notre Dame won the football game, so you have to say they outplayed us.”
The Fighting Irish won the coin toss and elected to receive the opening kick on a cool overcast day at famed Notre Dame Stadium. Three plays later their punting unit was on the field, and redshirt freshman receiver Matt Macksood partially blocked the kick, giving MSU outstanding field position to start the day.
The effort from walk-on Macksood was negated, however, as the Spartans came away empty-handed on their first possession once senior kicker Kevin Muma misfired from 30 yards out.
Less than five minutes into the fourth quarter, freshman kicker Michael Geiger put the score at 17-13 with his 42-yard field goal. Geiger had his redshirt removed by replacing Muma and tied the game at 10 in the third quarter with a 25-yard chip shot.
“Right now he’s the kicker. You don’t put him in against Notre Dame unless he’s the kicker,” Dantonio said of Geiger.
From there, the MSU defense came up big by forcing three straight punts, but it proved useless as the Spartans gained just one first down in the three possessions.
MSU began its final possession 67 yards away from paydirt with 2:11 on the clock. Senior Andrew Maxwell was surprisingly thrown into the fray at quarterback.
Maxwell — who had not played since week two and was spending much of his time practicing with the scout team — threw three straight incompletions before making a poor decision to tuck the ball and run for 8 yards on fourth-and-20.
“I think we put him in there just to try to change the pace,” Dantonio said of Maxwell.
“(I) felt like he needed an opportunity, should give him an opportunity. Tough situation to put him in at. … Obviously, (it) didn’t work out.”
Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook started his second straight game and, aside from a handful of off-target passes, had a solid day, finishing with 135 yards and a touchdown. His wideouts did not offer much help, either, as dropped passes plagued the group once again.
Cook said quarterbacks coach Brad Salem told him he’s still the No. 1 guy privately, but he didn’t mask his disappointment of being benched with the game on the line.
“I don’t know why they pulled me,” Cook said. “They said I was a little inaccurate, but I would’ve wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there in a critical situation like that.”
In his three-plus decades of coaching, Dantonio said he has never seen as many pass interference flags against a team than he did Saturday.
Spartan defensive backs were penalized four times for interference and once more for defensive holding. All three of Notre Dame’s scoring drives were extended by one of the flags.
MSU racked up 10 penalties for 115 yards, which is the most since the 2011 game against Michigan, where the catchphrase was “60 minutes of unnecessary roughness.”
“When it comes down to it, you’ve just got to make plays,” senior defensive tackle Tyler Hoover said. “It’s not the refs, it’s gonna be us all the time. There’s no reason to get into the refs — there’s no point.”
MSU coaches also made a few questionable decisions aside from the Maxwell blunder.
The most notable came near the end of the third quarter when Dantonio, desperate for a spark, dialed up a trick play in which freshman receiver R.J. Shelton got the ball on a pitch and pulled up to pass to senior Bennie Fowler.
Shelton was picked off, and one drive after MSU found its rhythm marching 75 yards in 15 plays against the Fighting Irish defense, the mojo vanished and never returned.
Rest and reflection
Despite the loss — the third straight to Notre Dame — there were plenty of positives MSU can take into the bye week before opening up Big Ten play at Iowa on Oct. 5.
The offensive line exerted its force and used a variety of lineups. Junior running backs Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford ran tough and the defense held up exceptionally well against the first credible opponent on the schedule.
The Spartans held Notre Dame to 3.4 yards per play and virtually shut down the running game.
Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly gave MSU’s defense its biggest compliment — or the biggest snub to the offense, depending on perspective — when he said he feared their scoring ability more than the offense’s.
“I wanted to throw the ball so bad on those last few drives,” Kelly said. “But we felt like we wanted to put our defense back on the field and not give Michigan State, because they’ve been so opportunistic defensively, an opportunity to win the football game on defense.”
The last time MSU was defeated in South Bend, Ind., the Spartans wound up returning to the Hoosier State to play for the Big Ten championship.
“We played a good game, and at the end of the game we could have made a couple more plays to help the offense out and get them in better position to win the game,” senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said.
“… It’ll give us good momentum into the Big Ten season. All our goals are still in front of us.”