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Taplin puts hurt on N.D. offense

September 22, 2003

South Bend, Ind. - Greg Taplin has traveled a long way.

But the 40-yard jaunt after his interception in Saturday's win over Notre Dame were the final baby steps he needed to get himself out of John L. Smith's "doghouse."

Demoted to third string early in fall practice, the defensive end was asked to prove himself and regain his starting job. The punishment lasted a mere four days, but the remnants of his altercation with the first-year Spartan coach have been obvious from comments by both parties all season.

He was the scapegoat in the loss last week, when, with 30 seconds remaining in the game on Louisiana Tech's final drive, the senior was called for a flagrant face mask, setting up the Bulldogs' game-winning touchdown.

But, when the Florida native dropped back from the line, smothered Irish quarterback Carlyle Holiday's fourth-quarter pass and scampered to the end zone to give MSU a 13-point lead, all seemed forgotten.

"I was just hoping that he wouldn't stumble," Smith said. "Tap, he's like my son. You've got to love him. We've come a long way and I'm so proud of that kid and what he's doing. Good things will continue to happen for him."

Taplin's game-breaking play was part of a defensive effort that held Notre Dame's offense in check and led MSU to a 22-16 victory.

"I just thought I could do something special and I did," Taplin said. "It happened so fast, but I just caught it and ran as fast as I could for the end zone."

The Spartan defense had three sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery as the Irish struggled for any sort of consistency, juggling Holiday and freshman Brady Quinn at the quarterback position.

"I feel good about the defensive front and our secondary stepped up for the most part," junior safety Jason Harmon said. "We didn't give up that many deep balls. Our defensive line has played well all season and they just came up today and did it again."

Sophomore safety Eric Smith, who has been the subject of scrutiny because of MSU's porous pass defense, made several big plays, recording two sacks and leading the team in tackles with 12.

"We actually got them stopped this week. It was amazing," Smith said. "We made some good calls and the blitzes were opening up."

The Spartan turnovers came on senior linebacker Mike Labinjo's first-quarter interception and when senior whip linebacker Ronald Stanley forced a fumble that Harmon recovered.

Despite the big plays, the Spartans did allow 100 yards rushing for the first time this season but held Notre Dame's two running backs to just more than 2 yards per rush. Senior Julius Jones had 32 yards on 14 carries, while junior Ryan Grant had 21 yards on 10 carries.

They have now allowed 165 yards on the ground in four games, an average of just 41 yards per game.

"We played well against a good team at running the football and we didn't let them just jam it down our throats," John L. Smith said. "I've always been a believer that we're not going to sit back and we're going to attack it. Our ability to do that hinges on our ability to play in the secondary."

The Spartans allowed 202 yards in the air, with 99 yards for Holiday and 103 and a late touchdown for Quinn. But that was an improvement for a team that has allowed 345 yards per game in the first three games of the season.

"We've got to be better about putting them away," Harmon said. "That was once again our fault. They made a good play on that (touchdown). We're getting better in the back end. I don't think we redeemed ourselves, but I think we stepped up. As the season goes on, we'll get more confidence back there."

Another positive for the Spartans rush defense was increased playing time for linebacker Seth Mitchell. A former high school All-American, Mitchell has been held back by several injuries, including several knee problems. The hard-hitting sophomore had three tackles against the Irish.

"We couldn't use him at the beginning of the year because he wasn't ready," John L. Smith said. "He's crying on the sidelines because he wants to play, but he's not going to be crying down the road because we're going to use him a lot more when we play against these running teams. So, from here on out, he becomes a factor."

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