SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A lagging Notre Dame defense found itself Saturday, just in time for a stiff challenge next weekend.
After back-to-back lackluster performances, Notre Dame's defense held Michigan State to 254 yards of total offense in a 17-13 win. More importantly, the defense limited Michigan State to three points and 71 total yards in four possessions after scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
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Coach Brian Kelly decided to put the game into the hands of a defense that, two weeks ago, was gouged by a good Michigan offense and a week ago struggled against a not-so-good Purdue attack. Notre Dame's offense went three-and-out on three straight fourth-quarter drives, the product of conservative playcalling.
But that was Kelly's plan: Run the football, don't risk an interception and let the defense win it.
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"We felt like we wanted to put our defense back on the field and not give Michigan State, because they've been so opportunistic defensively, an opportunity to win the football game on defense," Kelly said.
That confidence didn't go unnoticed by members of the Irish defense.
"That's what we want -- we want to be able to end the game," cornerback Bennett Jackson said. "We're 100 percent confident in ourselves when we're on the field."
"We always practice that and have it in our mind that the defense is going to go on the field and win the game," linebacker Carlo Calabrese added.
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Whereas Notre Dame's win over Purdue last weekend seemed to expose a number of differences between the 2012 and 2013 Irish teams, the win over Michigan State had a far more similar makeup to what was the norm last fall.
It was sloppy offensively, but Notre Dame didn't turn the ball over. Defensively, an opportunistic turnover led to the go-ahead touchdown. And the game, ultimately, was won on the collective backs of Notre Dame's defense.
That turnover -- a Matthias Farley interception on a bizarre wide receiver pass -- was the product of an overall message sent to Notre Dame's defense this week.
"We stayed sound -- that's something we haven't been doing a lot this year. We've been trying to make plays instead of letting them come to us," cornerback KeiVarae Russell said. "I think that was one of the plays we let come to us and it went in our favor."
For all of Michigan State's physicality, the Spartans didn't represent much of a challenge on paper for Notre Dame's defense. Against a pair of bad FBS opponents (Western Michigan and South Florida), the Spartans averaged 281 total yards and scored 14 points as an offense.
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Michigan State pass-catchers dropped a number of Connor Cook's throws, and only running back Jeremy Langford (14 carries, 69 yards) seemed to make a positive impact. It was an excellent defensive performance by Notre Dame, to be sure, but one that didn't come against an offense in the same area code as that of a Top 15 Oklahoma team.
Last weekend, Bob Stoops inserted Blake Bell in at quarterback for an injured Trevor Knight, and the Belldozer went against his battering-ram reputation: 27 completions on 37 attempts, 413 yards and four touchdowns.
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While that came against a weaker defense in Tulsa, it showed the Sooners still have the offensive firepower that's led to a slew of 10-win seasons since Bob Stoops took over in Norman. Notre Dame will have its hands full with a spread offense, one that features a quarterback who showed he's much more than a short-yardage specialist.
If Notre Dame's defense indeed is coming together, we'll get a better grip on that a week from Saturday. Kelly and Bob Diaco are still working on tweaking who goes where in the defense -- Jarrett Grace, Elijah Shumate and Kona Schwenke were all first-time starters against Michigan State, although Schwenke started because of an injury to Sheldon Day.
But Notre Dame thinks the signs are there, and that a defense that got off to a slow start is finally beginning to round into form.
"You could sense it," Kelly said. "The pass rush was better. We were on body a lot better. Assignment was much better. We gave up 30 yards, 45 yards in penalties that we'd like to eradicate.
"Definitely, you could sense that that defense is starting to come together."