SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame took advantage of a trick play that backfired, as well as four pass interference calls and a holding penalty that kept drives alive, to defeat Michigan State for the third straight time.
The mistakes led to all of Notre Dame’s points in the 17-13 victory, including two on the game-winning drive after a pass by Michigan State receiver R.J. Shelton led to an interception by safety Matthias Farley, setting up the go-ahead touchdown.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said he couldn’t ever recall so many defensive pass interference calls in one game.
“I’ve been coaching 30-plus years, no. Never,” he said. “I guess that’s where we should stop.”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said he wasn’t surprised by the calls because of the number of long passes the Irish attempted.
“When you know the quarterback is going to throw it back shoulder, and the defensive back doesn’t know where it is, you have an advantage in that situation,” he said. “You’re going to get some pass interference calls when you put the ball in a good position.”
The costliest mistake, though, likely was the interception thrown by Shelton that shifted momentum Notre Dame’s way after the Spartans were making progress against the Irish. Shelton threw into double coverage and Farley picked it off.
Dantonio said he called the trick play.
“I felt,” he said, “like we needed a big play.”
The Spartans were called for two pass interference calls on the ensuing drive, allowing Notre Dame to maintain possession. The Irish, who continually passed, even on short running situations, scored moments later when Notre Dame appeared to surprise the Spartans with a call. Cam McDaniel raced into the end zone to take the 17-10 lead with 14:44 left to play.
The Irish (3-1) also took advantage of another questionable pass interference in the first half that set up a 2-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Rees to TJ Jones, and a holding penalty that kept alive a drive that led to a 41-yard field goal by Kyle Brindza. The Spartans (3-1) had 10 penalties for 115 yards by the Big Ten officials. But the Irish were flagged eight times for 86 yards.
“We’ve got to be able to handle those things,” Dantonio said, “and play through the adversity.”
Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard said the Spartans couldn’t let the penalties affect them.
“In the end, we just got to make more plays to help the offense out,” he said. “The refs call what they had to call. They thought it was pass interference. We got to continue to play.”
The Spartans entered with the nation’s No. 1 defense, allowing 50 yards a game rushing, and 127 passing. Michigan State’s defense had also scored four touchdowns, which is also how many it had allowed. They stopped the Irish on the ground, holding them to 82 yards, and limited Rees to a season-low 142 yards passing. But it wasn’t enough, as the rivalry was decided by a touchdown or less for the ninth time in the past 14 meetings.
Rees, who opened the season with three 300-yard passing games, was 14-of-34 passing.
“He just missed open receivers,” Kelly said. “I mean, we had guys open. He just didn’t hit them.”
Rees said the Irish needed to attempt some long passes because of what the Michigan State defense was giving them.
“We want to hit those, and we hit a few of the early, but we missed a couple big ones,” he said. “We found a way to get the ball in the end zone in the end, but we need to find a way to be more efficient.”
Despite the offensive struggles, the Irish have now won 10 straight at home for the first time since 1999, when Bob Davie was coach. Notre Dame won 19 straight under Lou Holtz 1987-90.
Dantonio said the difference was the Spartans only managed one touchdown in four trips inside the red zone and missed a field goal.
“When you get into the red zone, you have to score touchdowns,” he said. “You’ve got to score touchdowns in those situations.”
Of course, Notre Dame had something to do with that. And Kelly was pleased with the overall defensive effort.
“Both defenses,” he said, “really carried the day here today.”
His was better.