Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Labinjo becomes big-play man in Notre Dame win

September 24, 2001
Sophomore linebacker Mike Labinjo rushes Saturday during the 17-10 win over Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. —

South Bend, Ind. - Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie said Saturday he and his staff ran a sneaky play against the Spartans after researching MSU for the past couple of years.

Sophomore linebacker Mike Labinjo cracked it in about two seconds.

On fourth down and six, with about four minutes left, Labinjo pounced on kicker Nick Setta’s fake field goal attempt for a 3-yard loss.

“We said from the sidelines to watch the fake,” MSU head coach Bobby Williams said. “Mike came through with a great individual effort. He had to beat a guy one-on-one to make the play.”

The play helped seal the Spartans’ fifth straight win over the Irish and concluded a breakthrough performance for Labinjo - who was originally recruited as a fullback.

Saturday’s 17-10 win marked Labinjo’s second start ever at linebacker.

He was moved to the position two weeks before MSU’s Sept. 8 home opener against Central Michigan.

The change has strengthened a Spartan defense that has given up only two touchdowns in as many games. The defense gave up one touchdown in the Central game - the punt coverage team was scored on twice after blocks from linebacker James King.

It took an all-out effort from the defense and some luck to anticipate what the Irish were going to do, Labinjo said.

“We all just really tried to block the kick as hard as we could,” he said. “They tried to run a fake, I saw it, and I just ran right into it.”

Davie thought the Spartans were going to bite on the play since the Irish drove 48 yards to MSU’s 17-yard line during the series.

“The way we were executing on offense at that point really gave us a good opportunity to convert the fourth down,” he said. “That (fake field goal) was something we practiced an awful lot on.”

The foiled fake wasn’t the only significant play Labinjo made in Saturday’s win.

He also recovered a fumble by Irish tailback Julius Jones on MSU’s 28-yard line late in the first quarter and had three out of his career high four tackles for losses - including one sack.

Labinjo, who has lost about 10 pounds since the spring, has dedicated himself to improving at his position, he said.

“Usually I try to see the coaches after practice and see what I might have made mistakes on,” he said. “I’ve been working on my foot speed and have watched a lot of film.”

Senior cornerback DeMario Suggs credited the coaching staff for getting Labinjo and the rest of the defense ready to face anything.

“We have prepared for every situation possible, everything from reverses to passes back to the quarterback,” Suggs said. “Mike played well, especially since he’s never really been in a game like this. Our coaches helped because they really prepared all of us well.”

Labinjo’s offensive teammates were also surprised by his play, senior tight end Chris Baker said.

“He came out and played like a man today,” he said. “Hopefully he can continue to do that and keep making plays.”

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