Sept. 17, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - It was going to take an attention to detail and success with the "little things" to beat Notre Dame. Everybody from Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio to any number of players said so.
They were proven correct during the Spartans' 31-13 defeat at the hands of the Fighting Irish in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.
None of the miscues, penalties or decisions, which appeared questionable with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, was enough to doom MSU. Taken together, they form the anatomy of a loss that dropped the No. 15-ranked Spartans to 2-1 and have them looking to regroup for their last non-conference tune-up against Central Michigan before heading into the Big Ten meat grinder.
They are benchmarks in the play-by-play, and if any had gone Michigan State's way, it could have change the complexion of the game.
-- On the very first series, an interference penalty called on senior free safety Trenton Robinson turned what would have been a third-and-5 at the MSU 45-yard line into a first-and-10 at the 35. Three plays later, Notre Dame scored a touchdown for a 7-0 lead.
-- After Dan Conroy cut into the lead with a field goal, George Atkinson III was sprung for an 89-yard kickoff return for touchdown by an "ambush" block by senior walk-on Chris Salvi, who took out two MSU tacklers with one block.
-- In the second quarter, linebacker Steve Gardiner appeared to make a crucial stop deep in Notre Dame territory on third-and-7. However, Gardiner was called for pass interference and with new life, the Irish went on to complete a 92-yard scoring drive that put them ahead 21-10.
-- With under a minute to play in the first half, MSU faced fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Dantonio eschewed a field-goal attempt that would have made it a one-possession game and called for a fake which Notre Dame thwarted.
The second half was marred by penalties, trick plays that failed to fool the Irish, more penalties and an interception quarterback Kirk Cousins threw near the goal line and was returned 82 yards.
Throw in a rushing attack that was outgained, 114-29, and produced just 13 yards on 14 carries in the first half, and it's somewhat heartening that MSU still had a chance to mount a comeback in the late stages.
"You always look to clean those up, but I also think this is the game of football," Dantonio said. "So they make a couple of plays, there's a couple of (officials') calls, whatever. There's always going to be plays you wish would have gone our way. But again, you just have to deal with what really happened..., and then clear those things up.
"And I think if we do those things, we're going to have a good football team. We've got guys who can make plays."
For an instant, Gardiner appeared to be one of those playmakers. He had tight coverage on the receiver, and then appeared to have stuffed him 3 yards short of the first-down marker. However, even though the receiver made the catch, an official threw the flag.
"It's a really fine line between having an outstanding play and having a drive-killer for the defense," said sophomore middle linebacker Max Bullough. "Instead of going three-and-out, they come all the way down the field and get some points and that's how you lose football games.
"It's completely not on Steve Gardiner. He made an outstanding play I think. I might feel differently after I watch the film, but from what I saw it was a good play, and I think if we get that stop, it's a different ball game."
It was one little thing that when added to the others became a big thing.
A year ago, Dantonio's decision to try a fake field goal in overtime against the Irish made national headlines because it worked. He might have been lauded again for his courageous decision-making had he been able to get lightning to strike twice.
"Field goal at the end of the half, my call, didn't work," he said. "I don't think that's why we lost the game, but I'll take the blame for that. They got some push right there on the wing side and they got penetration right there.
"So, it knocked the tight end back, the guard back, and because of that it didn't go."
If one little thing goes right, Le'Veon Bell would have received the pitch from the holder and "it looked like he would have walked in," Dantonio said.
There was also a decision to throw deep on third-and-1 at the MSU 32 early in the third quarter when a more prudent approach would have gone for first-down yardage. However, Cousins was under intense pressure and his pass to B.J. Cunningham fell incomplete. Notre Dame took a 28-10 lead on the ensuing series, which was aided by a Spartans offside penalty on second-and-3.
"Well, our M.O. (method of operation) thus far on third-and-1 has always been to run it," Dantonio said. "We're trying to get in the game and make big plays. So, we took a shot. Calculated risk, I guess. It didn't work.
"Sometimes it's there. If we would have converted it, it would have been a great call. I challenge our coaches to be playmakers as well, and try to make plays."
Despite the 12 penalties for 86 yards and two turnovers, the Spartans persevered through seemingly a season's worth of setbacks. The defense held Notre Dame to just 80 of its 275 yards and six of its 18 first downs in the second half.
"You can point at this play or that play," Cousins said. "You can play that game all day. But, we showed character. We continued to battle and played tough in a tough environment. We did not give up, and I think that will serve us well the rest of the year.
"Football's a game of adversity. We faced some adversity today and did all we could to bounce back, but came up a few plays short."