South Bend, Ind. — An errant, seemingly innocent bounce of a football took a victim.
Notre Dame's Miles Boykin, backpedaling and caught in a block, became a casualty of the game's largest momentum swipe.
The punt brushed off his left foot and skidded right into the eager hands of a group of Spartans on the protection, turning the ball back to the MSU offense inside Notre Dame territory.
After sputtering during earlier promising drives, MSU football was afforded the prime opportunity of the game, one they wouldn’t waste this time.
Taking the snap from the Irish 38-yard line, fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler O'Connor took his hurried drop and snapped the ball to the back end zone for intended target true freshman wide receiver, Donnie Corley.
Corley snared the 38-yard pass from the grip of Irish cornerback Cole Luke, wrestling it away with one hand while falling backwards into the end zone.
“He is that type of player,” Dantonio said. “We've got a lot of other good players that are going to make plays as well, but this was his time at this point in time.”
Corley’s touchdown spurred on an offensive breakthrough. MSU ditched the conservative play calls that dominated the limping victory over Furman and opted for an offense willing to test the air and stay true to the ground attack.
Boykin’s stray foot became the break which propelled MSU to a rip-roaring 36-28 victory over then-No. 18 Notre Dame Saturday. It all but ended the Irish’s College Football Playoff hopes and kept then-No. 12 MSU football in contention as the newest rendition of MSU football forges its identity.
Following Corley’s grab, the mojo of the game flipped from the Irish.
The Spartans opted for a two-point conversation and converted, going up 8-7 in the first quarter.
“Donnie Corley huge catch in the end zone,” Dantonio said. “Two-point conversion after it sorta sends us going.”
MSU would rattle off the next 28 points unanswered behind the stellar passing and “moxie” of O’Connor. MSU doubled up with sometimes ferocious running on the legs of junior Gerald Holmes and sophomore LJ Scott.
With the offense clicking and churning its way into opportunistic territory, the rhythm and hum materialized.
“When we win the field position battle get the ball in great field position it’s much more easier play calls, it's better to take deep shots,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor was given more room with the offense taking shots downfield throughout the game, including four completions to Corley for gains of 11 yards twice and a key pick up late for 28 yards.
The offense as well shifted into calling end arounds for senior receiver R.J. Shelton, a play call he and former receiver Aaron Burbridge ran frequently last year. It proved effective as Shelton racked up 80 yards through the air, mostly on the quick toss of the end around.
“He's done a nice job with that his entire career here,” Dantonio said of Shelton, “and, you know, I keep saying if we have a great to believe team, seniors gotta have their best years, and you saw an example of that right there.”
The ground attack was formidable behind Scott and Holmes. After the recent death of his grandmother, Holmes had a game-changing performance, often times chugging through the Irish defensive line.
“I came in the game with a mindset that I was going to grind and work hard and play for her,” Holmes said.
His 73-yard burst for a score capped the game, putting MSU ahead for good, especially as Notre Dame mounted a comeback late in the game.
The offensive line created space for the tailbacks all night as well, receiving praise from the running backs, as well as Dantonio.
“We've been working,” Dantonio said of the offensive line. “We had a little extra time to work, and when you don't play well and people sort of write you off a little bit, you have a tendency to rise up a little bit. I think that's what we did.”
MSU stayed true to its roots, not winning with flash, but with grit, grinding Notre Dame down until the clock hit zero.
The Spartan Defense
MSU’s defensive line written off after Furman as a low-level unit held Notre Dame to 57 yards rushing, keeping the mobile Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer in the pocket most of the night, except near the goal lines.
The secondary gave up 344 yards, though most came through the air in the third and fourth quarters under a leaky prevent style defense. Kizer exploited the miscues and on-top coverage, weaving the Irish into a comeback chance.
“Oh, yeah, it's 39-6, (36-7) you're saying let's just play good defense not give them big ones, and let's milk the clock a little bit,” Dantonio said of the play calling that ultimately lead to Notre Dame’s comeback. “That's pretty much what we did until, you know, it got within 15, and then we had to play the game a little bit.”
Jon Reschke, after missing the opening game with a hand injury, blew up a Notre Dame rush attempt in the third quarter. One play later he snagged an interception.
Three plays later, LJ Scott broke the plane boosting the MSU lead to 29-7, all from Reschke’s momentum-swinging pick.
As the Irish seemed about done, linebacker Riley Bullough knew Notre Dame would fight back.
“We knew we had to keep playing, we were playing hard but they were making plays,” Bullough said.
The defense stood tall in the end after allowing 21 points on three consecutive Irish drives. A sack on third down and two by Raequan Williams set up a crucial punt by the Irish.
The decision to punt allowed MSU to retain possession and siphon the clock, effectively ending Notre Dame’s comeback chance, and boosting the Spartans to a 2-0 record.
The next step for MSU
With a win over Notre Dame, MSU captured the Megaphone Trophy, giving them possession of all four of their rivalry trophies.
Coming off that, however, will be a tough matchup with a Big Ten foe.
Lying in the wings is No. 11 Wisconsin. With stout offensive and defensive lines, Wisconsin upset then No. 5 LSU, shaking up the college football landscape.
This will be MSU's first chance to notch a Big Ten win and stay within contention for the Big Ten East Division. A win here would help further the groundwork on developing an identity.
“We certainly took a step from our first game, and we came down and we played a good football team away from home in a great environment, and on a national TV, national stage, and you've got to be able to measure up in those times,” Dantonio said. “Lights come on, you've got to be able to make big plays when the lights come on, big time.”