SOUTH BEND, Ind.—After getting caught in a Texas twister in its opener, No. 18 Notre Dame faced a virtual elimination game when it took on No. 12 Michigan State on Saturday night.
The College Football Playoff doesn’t look kindly on teams with two losses.
The Spartans, meanwhile, were a bit of an unknown. They had only played one game, a lackluster slog past Furman.
The Irish know now. And so does the rest of the college football world.
On the 50th anniversary of their historic 10-10 tie, Michigan State smacked Notre Dame in the mouth early and then held on for a 36-28 upset win after opening a 36-7 lead.
“When you get yourself in that kind of hole, it’s hard to dig out against a really good team,’’ said ND coach Brian Kelly, turning aside the suggestion that his defense is the culprit. “Look at college football. Defenses give up points all over. What we have to do is clean up some things. There is not a referendum on who’s got to carry who, the defense can’t do that, we’re too sloppy overall as a football team.
“This is everywhere, and this is on me. We have to clean up everything. We are a sloppy football team.’’
If the Irish had their back to the wall, they didn’t act that way until the third quarter was winding down. After falling behind 36-7, ND scored a pair of touchdowns to close to 36-21 with 11:45 left in regulation.
When DeShone Kizer found tight end Durham Smythe open up the middle for a 12-yard score, ND was down 36-28 with 6:02 left.
The Irish forced a three-and-out, but couldn’t move the ball when they got it back and had to punt. MSU added another dagger, with a 28-yard catch from Tyler O’Connor to Donnie Corley on third down.
Kizer wound up passing for a career-high 344 yards as the Irish played catch-up. He denied being frustrated with a defense that couldn’t get that critical stop.
“What’s frustrating is when you don’t execute your job,’’ Kizer said. “I get asked to do a couple of things and those things weren’t done right today. We can go out there and score every drive. And we fell short of that. That has a lot to do with me.’’
Asked what two losses means to ND’s season, Kizer wasn’t ready to go there.
“I have no idea how to refocus,’’ he said glumly. “We just got done losing. I have to evaluate the situation and figure out what we have in front of us, We’ll game-plan tomorrow and figure out how to go about it.’’
With the win, the apparently under-rated Spartans (2-0) not only left Notre Dame (1-2) with its season on the brink. They announced to their Big Ten brothers that, despite all the love given to Ohio State and Michigan, they intend to defend their conference championship with grit and smarts as well as speed and muscle.
“When you don’t play well, and when people sort of write you off a little bit, you have a tendency to rise up a little bit,’’ Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think that’s what we did. We had something to prove.’’
Leading 15-7 after a first half in which it was the aggressor, Michigan State struck for two lightning-like touchdowns in 80 seconds to open a 29-7 advantage with 6:28 left in the third quarter.
The Spartans gained 501 yards to Notre Dame’s 401. MSU controlled the ball for 38 minutes to ND’s 22. MSU converted 9 of 18 third-down plays. ND was 4 of 11.
Michigan State also kept its mistakes to a minimum, winning the turnover battle 3-1, including a 2-0 edge in the first half.
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