Having now had nearly 20 hours to catch my breath and come down off the post-win high (although the second part hasn't actually happened yet), I will now attempt to recap a game that defies recapping.
Any recap has to start, of course, with The Fake. By now, everyone's read about the inspirational (if somewhat sappy) nature of the play's name: "Little Giants." With a first-year starting placekicker facing the prospect of attempting his first field goal of the game in what would have been about as pressure-packed a situation as you could draw up--a 46-yard attempt from the hashmarks to keep the prospect of a win in a storied rivalry series alive--Mark Dantonio opted to instead put the fate of the game on a senior captain, and on the state of his own repute.
And it worked (with the help of some merely-mortal officials). The primary receiver on the play, Le'Veon Bell, got tangled up with the two Notre Dame players in position to cover the secondary option, Charlie Gantt, leaving Gantt open with nothing but green grass between him and the end zone (with the two Irish players in the backfield on the wrong side of the field and caught flatfooted). Aaron Bates held the ball the extra split second necessary as he moved to his right and put the ball right on the money.
It's a play that instantly enters the list of all-time great Spartan football moments. The 60-plus minutes of up-and-down football that preceded that moment will likely be less well-remembered. Both teams came out looking disjointed on offense, put together several impressive offensive drives in the second half, and made enough mistakes to prevent either side from pulling away from the other.
A few key moments and contributors after the jump.
- Le'Veon Bell does not like getting tackled. I still don't know how he shed that tackler on a screen play to convert a 3rd-and-11 and set up Bell's touchdown run to give MSU the lead (at 21-14) on the next play.
- Kirk Cousins' first-half interception into the endzone would foreshadow how the rest of Cousins' game would go. All night, he wanted to make big plays so badly. It didn't work on a number of occasions (the interception, the 4 sacks he took, the very unveteranesque illegal forward pass), but it resulted in some great playmaking moments--the improvised touchdown pass to B.J. Cunningham to tie the game at 28 in the 4th quarter being the most notable.
- Speaking of Cunningham, I thought he was arguably the best offensive player on the night for MSU, as he made several clutch catches in traffic to keep drives alive in the first half and finished the game with 7 catches for 101 yards. He also drew a key pass interference penalty (on a long bomb off another Cousins-holding-the-ball-too-long play) early on the drive that ended with his TD catch.
- Penalties at the both ends of halves hurt the Spartan offense. Some of that's on the offensive coaches; the plays need to get called in sooner so the players are more settled when they get to the line. In total, the team finished with 11 penalties for 79 yards, which is unacceptable.
- Aaron Bates was pretty darn good in his day job, too: 45.4 yards/punt on 8 attempts, with only 25 punt return yards by Notre Dame. That average is pulled down by a 33-yard punt to pin the Irish at their own 9 with just over 2 minutes to go in regulation. Bates significantly reduced the field position advantage Notre Dame seemed to have for most of the game.
- As good as the rushing game was for the most of the game (after the team came out with a couple ineffective pass-heavy drives), the first down loss on a sweep play when MSU got the ball back with 6 minutes to go and a chance to go ahead would have been the key negative event had MSU lost. MSU had the momentum at that point after the defense forced Notre Dame into a fumble on a 4th-and-1 play on their own side of the 50. Thankfully, "Little Giant" became the game's key play (to put it very, very mildly).
In terms of the big-picture make-up of this team, not much has changed. The pass defense is still giving up way too many easy completions (Dayne Crist: 32-55 for 369 yards), partly due to a lack of good pressure on the quarterback by the front four (1 sack and 3 QB hurries--with 2 of those plays coming from Greg Jones--on 56 drop backs by Crist). To be fair, the substantial talents of Michael Floyd and Theo Riddick had something to do with Crist's numbers, too. And give credit to the MSU defense for stiffening at the end of the game, allowing the Notre Dame offense to gain just 59 total yards on its final 5 drives of the game.
The running game we saw in the first two games appears to be the real deal (221 yards on 34 carries for Bell, Edwin Baker, and the now-active Larry Caper), and the passing game showed flashes of the big-play ability displayed last season (8 catches for 96 yards by Keshawn Martin). For large parts of the game, the offense was out of rhythm, though. Finding the balance between the newfound running game and the pre-existing passing potential will be the trick for Don Treadwell over the next couple weeks. On the list of potential coaching challenges, that's a pretty good one to have to deal with.
As reported earlier, Treadwell will also be taking on day-to-day head coaching responsibilities for at least the next week, and quite possibly a longer period of time, as Mark Dantonio recovers from the mild heart attack he suffered last night. Unfortunately, Charlie Gantt's romp into the endzone was not the final newsworthy moment of the night, but it sounds like Coach Dantonio will be back to normal (with perhaps a few schedule tweaks to reduce stress levels) in the near future.
What a night. When LVS posted the Smoker-to-Haygood clip in his game preview, none of us could have imagined we'd end up getting a memory to match, if not exceed, that one in terms of pure drama. Soak it in, my friends. It's good to be a Spartan.