A pair of freshmen stepped up for Notre Dame as the Irish survived two turnovers to lead No. 15 Michigan State 14-3 after the first quarter.
George Atkinson III returned a kick off 89 yards for a score, and Aaron Lynch recorded a sack that forced a fumble in the opening quarter.
Atkinson's return was the Irish's first since the 2008 Hawaii Bowl, and he was the first freshman to return a kick off for a TD since Rocket Ismail did it in 1988.
Notre Dame started with a balanced drive to go up 7-0 just more than 4 minutes into the game.
The Irish marched 76 yards on eight plays with Cierre Wood scoring on a run from 22 yards out. Wood had six carries for 59 yards in the opening drive.
Notre Dame's first defensive series started with a holding call that wiped out an interception, but the Irish still forced Michigan State to punt after three plays.
But Notre Dame gave the ball back when Tommy Rees was nailed from behind for a sack. The ball popped out of the sophomore's hands and was recovered by Spartans defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.
The Irish answered with Lynch sacking Kirk Cousins three plays later and jarring the ball loose. Ethan Johnson recovered at Michigan State's 49, but Notre Dame gave the ball back as Rees' pass intended for Tyler Eifert was intercepted by Kurtis Drummond at Michigan State's 39 and returned to the Irish's 27.
The defense held up for Notre Dame, limiting Michigan State to a 40-yard field goal as the Irish held a 7-3 lead with 1:32 to play in the first quarter.
Atkinson quickly turned things around for the Irish by returning the kick off 89 yards for a touchdown and a 14-3 lead with 1:20 to play in the first quarter.