Sunday, February 25, 2024

Team looks to Smoker for leadership, wins

South Bend, Ind. - Presents: Gifts brought to you on celebrations.

Presence: A gift Jeff Smoker brings to the field.

The senior quarterback was hurt and didn't fully practice until midweek.

His favorite wide receiver didn't catch a single pass.

He threw two interceptions and no touchdowns.

But Smoker's presence in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday was instrumental to his team's victory.

MSU (3-1) beat the Irish (1-2), 22-16, on the road, though Smoker's statistics would lead many to believe the result was a typo.

The starter finished the game with 13 completions on 27 attempts for 119 yards - fair numbers but nothing compared to what Smoker has been recording this season.

He has thrown 450 career completions, 17 shy of the school record held by Jim Miller.

But Smoker's numbers didn't matter on Saturday.

What mattered was that he was lining up behind sophomore center Chris Morris and not next to the water jug on the sidelines.

This season, MSU is undefeated when Smoker plays at least 75 percent of the game. Smoker's teammates said they're secure when the experienced quarterback is in the backfield.

"Every time you get (Smoker) back there, you feel safe and you feel comfortable," junior running back Tyrell Dortch said. "He's been in the big games."

Notre Dame didn't record a single sack Saturday.

This could easily be attributed to the skill of the veteran offensive lineman guarding Smoker - but the Irish barely blitzed. Notre Dame players had prepared to line up against Smoker in practice despite the signal caller's injury.

MSU gave up only two tackles for a loss all game while Notre Dame sat back in zone coverage and waited for the injured quarterback to make a mistake.

It was obvious that Smoker made two bad throws on the two picks, but he also made less visible good calls.

On one play in the second half, Smoker checked each of his receivers, only to find none open. So instead of forcing another ball into defender hands, and to avoid being dropped for a loss, Smoker threw the ball away.

The less-experienced quarterback duo of Carlyle Holiday and Brady Quinn for the Irish not only threw three interceptions, but also fell victim to prolonging their stay in the pocket and being sacked three times as well.

While the defense remained focused on Smoker, who in 2001 was a consensus preseason first-team All Big Ten candidate, the Spartan running backs quietly pounded out yard after yard.

With fewer linebackers and linemen in on defense for the Irish, the tailback tandem of Dortch and sophomore running back Jaren Hayes combined for 177 yards on 32 attempts.

The distraction for Smoker this week wasn't pain but popularity.

The victorious quarterback was prevented from entering the team bus by fans wearing gold and blue posing for pictures and asking for autographs.

Smoker's influential bearing on the game even won over the opposing coach.

"His presence made a difference," Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham said.

"It gave his entire team a lift. He's a quality quarterback and did some great things for them."

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