The shoe was on the other foot this week as the Irish had the bad luck with turnovers and eventually succumbed to a pretty good Michigan State team in East Lansing. In many ways, this game mimicked the Week 2 game vs Michigan, but unfortunately ND was on the wrong end of turnover margin as MSU beat the Irish 23-7. If this didn’t cost them the game outright, it certainly prevented it from being real close at the end. The Irish repeatedly shot themselves in the foot, and it also appears that somebody shot the feet of ND’s kicker’s, too.
Let’s first talk about the kicking game. ND’s Brandon Walker missed 2 field goals … one was a rather lengthy 51 yarder in which he had the distance and the second was a real momentum killer in the 4th quarter, a very makeable 42 yarder. If you’re gonna win a tough rivalry game on the road, he’s got to make one of these kicks. But Walker’s accuracy and confidence have been very poor since he stepped on campus, so ND fans and coaching staff know this will likely be a problem all year. Furthermore, ND’s kicker on kick-offs has consistently been short of the end zone, and this tendency really cost the Irish in the 4th quarter after they grabbed the momentum and closed the score to 13-7. The ensuing kick-off was fielded by MSU at their 15 yard line and returned to the 45 … this really seemed to deflate ND as MSU marched down to kick a field goal making it 16-7. But there was plenty of time left, as ND moved the ball into the red zone yet again, only to witness Walker’s back-breaking miss from 42 yards.
Now let’s talk about ND’s running game, or lack thereof 16 net yards rushing! Before including lost sack yardage, ND had only 50 yards from their backs and averaged only about 2 yards per carry. Again, OL play was a huge weakness last season and run blocking has been a major deficiency for 3 games now. The pass blocking has been fairly good as MSU tallied the only sacks allowed by ND this season … 3 in this game. When Clausen had time, he was pretty effective. But the OL and running backs need to improve greatly if ND is to become a “real contender”.
Now we get to the turnovers. Similar to the San Diego State game, ND killed itself with red zone turnovers … primarily a 1st half INT in the end zone which cost them points, and a fumble by Michael Floyd on the MSU 13 yard line in the 2nd half likely also took valuable points away. There were a couple of very significant penalties as well, especially one in the 4th quarter which cost ND a 1st down at MSU’s 8 yard line and instead pushed them back to the 23 … leading to Walker’s second FG miss.
MSU gets credit, though, for playing a very good, smart game. They relied on their strengths … a really good running game, a stiff defense, and good line play on both sides of the ball. They made very few mistakes and waited for the Irish to make theirs. Still, for ND, there were some positives, especially when compared to last season’s team. The skill position talent is pretty obvious … Clausen, Tate, Floyd, etc … but the running game has been stifled and will continue to be until the OL matures and gets more push off the line of scrimmage. The defense really kept ND in this game … holding the score down … until the very end. The D-line is very young and is not generating enough pass rush, plus ND’s blitzes aren’t really yielding any payoff. MSU’s Hoyer was not sacked once and really not pressured all game. ND’s secondary is strong and has anchored the D through 3 games.
The Irish face Purdue next week at home. The 2-1 Boilermakers squeaked by Central Michigan Saturday and have yet to play on the road. Their lone loss was in OT to Oregon. If ND believes they are a bowl bound team, they must win this home game vs a suspect Purdue squad. The Irish have clearly superior talent up and down the roster and will be playing in front of the home fans. As for today’s loss, it should be another learning opportunity for this relatively young team. ND was an 8.5 point underdog coming in and the game was winnable in the 4th quarter, but ND made too many mental errors and red zone turnovers to come out on top. Irish faithful will be looking for a turn around next week.
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