At First Glance…

At First Glance…

O'Malley's weekly performance review offers an initial look at each position group's efforts in Game Three.

Tommy Rees, Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Rees survived two turnovers to complete 7 of 11 first half throws for 83 yards, including a key third-down pass to tight end Tyler Eifert deep in Irish territory and another post pattern to Eifert who absorbed a huge hit to secure a 16-yard gain down to the Spartans 6-yard line; the completions setting up a 6-yard Cierre Wood score – one made possible by Michael Floyd's perimeter block…

Rees threw his 13th career interception in the first quarter and also lost his third career fumble – the result of a blind side hit…Notre Dame moved to 5-0 with Rees under center when the sophomore throws fewer than 35 passes…

Rees and Jones connected for a 26-yard touchdown on a beautifully thrown fade route to give the Irish a healthy 18-point edge – 28-10 with 9:30 remaining. The play was set up by a 22-yard Rees-to-Floyd connection on the opposite sideline on the previous snap. The 22-yarder was Floyd's 200th career catch. Jones secured three for 41 yards including a third-down slant reception that moved the sticks. Floyd's 35-yard gain – the longest of the season – also contributed to the 92-yard scoring drive capped by Wood's run around the right side.

Theo Riddick had a quiet day, catching one pass for seven yards and ceding multiple series to classmate Robby Toma in the slot…Ben Koyack appeared in multiple short-yardage situations as the No. 2 tight end.

Initial Assessment: Floyd and Eifert are a difficult pair to defend on third down and the duo gives the Irish a huge advantage blocking on the perimeter when Eifert splits wide. The Irish receivers/plus Eifert have been the offense's best unit over the past two contests. The numbers were down vs. MSU, but Saturday's approach best fits head coach Brian Kelly's current roster.

'Backs and Offensive Line

Cierre Wood was tremendous early, scurrying for 64 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries while Jonas Gray added nine more rushes and 54 yards…Wood is excellent in open space with tremendous vision and cut-back skills…Gray continued to run hard – a trait showcased in his efforts at the Big House – and found room bouncing outside as well, once for 14 yards, another time for 13, but it was his multiple 6-and-7-yard efforts that keyed a dominant first-half rushing effort by the Irish…

Wood also made a potential touchdown-saving tackle on Rees' interception. He added six receptions for an ineffectual five yards, usually as a check down receiver to avoid a sack and keep the clock moving late…

Though the offensive line review is best left for Monday's film columns, it was apparent Left tackle Zack Martin was fooled by an MSU stunt that resulted in a blindside sack and forced fumble vs. Rees…Guards Chris Watt and Trevor Robinson had first half success as move (pulling) blockers ahead of the Irish running back tandem, but the OL and Wood/Gray combo found only seven yards on five third quarter carries as the offense stagnated….

Initial Analysis: Incomplete: a BCS-bowl level effort in the first half turned reminiscent of Weis-ian days past in the second half.

Defensive Line

Ethan Johnson continues to play excellent football from his left defensive end position; his three quarterback hurries, fumble recovery, and pass breakup were overshadowed by his the efforts of his understudy, as the story of the game was the emergence of freshman backup Aaron Lynch, who earned his first sack and forced fumble in the opening quarter, and also debuted as an interior lineman in the team's nickel package.

Lynch was also credited with six hurries, three QB hits, and drew a fourth quarter holding call following a beautiful swim move vs. left guard and Spartans captain, Joel Foreman

Redshirt-freshman nose guard Louis Nix is a force-in-the-making, one that commands double teams and patrols from tackle-to-tackle with shocking quickness. Senior Kapron Lewis-Moore forced a holding call and totaled five stops, his 7 tackles leads the defensive line through three games.

Senior Sean Cwynar returned to action after missing the Michigan contest with a broken hand. His presence allowed Nix crucial breathers throughout the contest. Freshman defensive end Stephon Tuitt lined up at both right end and defensive tackle – the latter in the team's nickel package.

Initial Analysis: The unit was the team's MVP of the afternoon and of the season to date. Complete dominance up front vs. a solid offense with an effective senior quarterback armed with ample weapons.

Linebackers

With Prince Shembo absent due to a family emergency, freshman Dog ‘backer Troy Niklas was thrown to the fray; he predictably struggled in red zone pass coverage, allowing the Spartans first touchdown and an easy 10-yard gain that set up MSU with a fourth-and-goal at the ND 2-yard line near the end of the half…

Steve Filer fared well in less time at the position, stopping a slot screen for a loss of three yards. Filer also earned a QB pressure during the first quarter as part of the nickel defense…

Though the statistics won't bear fruit, I'm certain the film review will show that senior outside linebacker Darius Fleming had his best game of the season, dominating the boundary edge vs. the run, finishing with five stops…

Manti Te'o continues to play solid if unspectacular football, leading all tacklers with 12 though he was targeted in pass coverage at times by Spartans QB Kirk Cousins and his bevy of talented tight ends…

Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese continue to split snaps next to Te'o; Calabrese nearly earned a sack after Aaron Lynch forced QB Kirk Cousins to move up in the pocket (credited with a tackle for no gain). The pair totaled nine tackles and were part of the game-defining rush defense authored by the Irish….

Senior Will linebacker Anthony McDonald saw his first action, participating in both halves…

Initial Analysis: Tremendous effort vs. the run – the key to Michigan State's attack – overrides pass coverage issues vs. Spartans tight ends, full backs, and tailbacks on repeated screen plays.

Defensive Backs

The unit allowed 329 passing yards but broke up 10 passes and recorded the game's crucial turnover – an 89-yard return by Robert Blanton to ensure victory.

Harrison Smith broke up four and was all over the field in the final quarter; Blanton – discussed throughout the column – finished with three tackles for loss; three passes defended and the interception. Smith, Blanton, and boundary cornerback Gary Gray combined for 24 stops (and all of the passes defended).

Gray was singled out by head coach Brian Kelly for his efforts post-game, though his failure to turn around on a 3rd-and-long sidelines completion to Spartans WR B.J. Cunningham was the key play on MSU's only touchdown drive.

Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter combined for 10 tackles with Slaughter contributing the game's best hit – a third quarter pop of WR Keshawn Martin to force a Spartans punt. Slaughter had an early interception nullified by a holding penalty on Blanton.

Lo Wood appeared during the game's second quarter in the cornerback rotation (and in the red zone, to boot)…

Initial analysis: Aside from Blanton, the back end coverage was solid not outstanding, with Cunningham earning his keep on repeated slants and in routes totaling 12 receptions in excess of 150 yards. The Irish won't lose if the secondary can continue to play at this level in the red zone and with Smith and Blanton nullifying anything deep downfield.

Special Teams

Ben Turk authored two quality punts, both rugby-style, the latter a 50-yard effort down to the Michigan State 1-yard line. Turk suffered his requisite 30-yard offering early in the contest…

John Goodman's muffed punt and subsequent lost fumble in the fourth quarter gave the Spartans life at the 4-minute mark. MSU had apparently conceded victory, punting to the Irish down 15 with 4:19 remaining…

David Ruffer nailed a point-blank 36-yarder to provide the final 18-point cushion and a crucial three-score advantage late…

George Atkinson's 89-yard return was the difference in an otherwise nip-and-tuck first half. Walk-on Chris Salvi received press box mention (formally announced) and post-game plaudits for his springing, pinball block of two Spartans…

The team's suddenly shaky kick coverage allowed two in excess of 40 yards. Senior ‘backer David Posluszny recorded two tackles including one that could have turned into a long sideline return had he not made the play…Linebacker Kendall Moore – a player that excelled last week in the coverage game – received a Grade A verbal beating from special teams coordinator Mike Elston after the former attempted to run around a block (thus out of his coverage lane)…Kyle Brindza hammered two first half kick-offs for touchbacks.

Instant Analysis: A good day turns sour with Goodman's muffed punt in a simple fair catch situation. The Irish punt return team has been the nation's worst since Armando Allen (a 38-yard return) injured his wrist during the first game of the Brian Kelly era. But any day with no missed kicks, a crucial kick-return score, and the punter's best offering of the year in a two-score fourth quarter deserves applause.

First-half Firsts

  • Freshman Aaron Lynch registered his first career sack and forced fumble on the same play – a third-down pop of quarterback Kirk Cousins…
  • Senior linebacker Anthony McDonald earned his first appearance from scrimmage of the season, subbing for Manti Te'o early in the 2nd Quarter…
  • Freshman running back George Atkinson earned his first start at kick returner, taking his second offering back for Notre Dame's first kick return touchdown since the 2008 season (Armando Allen vs. Hawaii). It was the first regular season kick return score for the Irish since 2002 (Vontez Duff vs. Navy) and the first kick return touchdown by an Irish freshmen since a guy nicknamed, "The Rocket" brought back a pair vs. Rice in a 54-9 Irish victory…

    Senior walk-on Chris Salvi took out two defenders on Atkinson's touchdown return, a feat noted by Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, post-game…

Rotation Rewards

Aaron Lynch earned his first "start" at least in team parlance, taking over for absent Prince Shembo as the interior tackle in the team's nickel defensive line. Also earning nickel duties were safety Austin Collinsworth (at linebacker next to Manti Te'o) and freshman defensive end Stephon Tuitt at the interior tackle spot occupied most of the day by Kapron Lewis-Moore.

Backup Dog linebacker Troy Niklas played extensively in Shembo's absence. The freshman was beaten for the Spartans only first-half touchdown, a smash-route by tight end Dion Sims

Senior Steve Filer also played the Dog position, dropping wide receiver Keshawn Martin for a three-yard loss on a slot-screen (officially scored a running play)…

Freshman outside linebacker Ishaq Williams entered as a nickel passer in the fourth quarter. Williams drew a holding penalty from the right defensive end position…

Sophomore safety Austin Collinsworth saw time as a nickel linebacker next to Manti Te'o…

Ten on Top

Irisheyes.com's top 10 performers Saturday vs. the Spartans:

  1. Robert Blanton – The best player on the field, among his contributions – and in addition to the game-sealing goal line interception – were multiple breakups and pass coverage efforts near the end zone as well as a team season-high three tackles for loss…
  2. Aaron Lynch – An absolute pass-rushing force vs. the Spartans…
  3. Harrison Smith – Patrolled the back end, finishing with three pass breakups while adding eight tackles…
  4. Cierre Wood – The game's 1st half MVP, Wood piled up 64 yards on 9 carries (7.1) with two touchdowns including a 22-yarder to stake the Irish to leads of 7-0 and 21-10…
  5. Ethan Johnson – Recorded three QB hurries, a pass defended and a fumble recovery while securing the left edge defensively…
  6. Michael Floyd – Snared six balls for 84 yards and his key block on the perimeter provided Wood a lane toward his second score…
  7. George Atkinson – His 89-yard kick return energized the sidelines, Stadium, and provided a 14-3 advantage…
  8. Gary Gray – Bounce back effort included 10 tackles and a pass breakup.
  9. Manti Te'o – Led the Irish with 12 stops, 10 assisted…
  10. Tyler Eifert – Kept crucial second-half drive alive with a third down reception and added another down the post – absorbing a huge hit – to set up Wood's second touchdown and a 21-10 halftime edge….

Also considered: Jonas Gray, Louis Nix, T.J. Jones

Coming Monday: Our full-film review of the offense, defense, special teams, and key points during contest.

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