SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame took advantage of nearly every opportunity Michigan State gave it in the No. 22 Irish's 17-13 home Saturday.
While the Spartans' four pass interference penalties helped keep Irish drives alive, it was Matthias Farley's interception on a trick play that sealed Michigan State's fate.
"Any time you pick off a pass and a drive, it's a definite momentum builder for your football team," Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "Taking care of the football was an absolute premium. We did and they did not."
With the game tied at 10 in the third quarter, Michigan State (3-1) called on receiver R.J. Shelton to attempt a pass from his 47-yard line. Shelton heaved the ball into the middle of three Irish defenders and ultimitately into the hands of safety Matthias Farley at Notre Dame's 19-yard line.
"I made the suggestion on that one because I felt like we needed a big play," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "(Shelton's) got a great arm on him. The guy was covered. Probably should have just pulled it down and ran. So that's my call. I'll take responsibility for that. But I felt like we needed a big play."
Farley returned the interception 29 yards, and the Irish got 15 more yards when Trevon Pendleton was called for a personal foul at the end of the play to put Notre Dame at Michigan State's 37 with 2:06 to play in the third quarter.
Five plays later – and thanks to two pass interference calls against Michigan State – Cam McDaniel ran in the game-winning touchdown from 7 yards out with 14:44 to play
"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," Kelly said. "You're going to get some pass interference calls when you put the ball in a good position."
Dantonio said he had never seen so many pass interference calls against a team he coached in 30-plus years, and Irish freshman receiver Corey Robinson said when the flags kept flying, Notre Dame wanted to continue to press the issue against the cornerbacks to draw penalties if they couldn't come down with receptions.
"They were calling it a lot," said Robinson, who led Notre Dame's receivers with three catches for 54 yards. "For us it was just try to go win your one-on-one matchup and go get the ball regardless. It doesn't matter what's happening. It doesn't matter if he is holding you. It doesn't matter if he is jumping on top of you. You have to get around him and get the ball.
"That was our main focus today, and we were fortunate that the refs were calling those and seeing those. They were all over us today."
Fitting the defense together
Notre Dame had to change its defensive line because of an injury, and Kelly said other defensive changes were made to try and find the right mix.
Starting defensive end Sheldon Day didn't play against the Spartans as he recovered from a sprained right ankle he suffered against Purdue last week. Kona Schwenke started in place of Day and finished with three tackles.
Notre Dame also changed its starters at inside linebacker and safety.
Jarrett Grace started next to Carlo Calabrese at middle linebacker with Dan Fox, who started the first three games, coming off the bench. At safety, Elijah Shumate started over last year's starter Matthias Farley.
Grace and Calabrese each had eight tackles to lead the Irish, and Shumate had five tackles. Farley had had two tackles and returns an interception 29 yards, and Fox had three tackles with one for a loss.
Kelly said Day could have played if needed, but the Irish decided to rest the sophomore, who should be available next week against Oklahoma. Kelly said Farley was healthy and it was not an injury to prompt Shumate to get the start.
Kelly said the mixing and matching was mainly about finding the right defensive mix, and it paid off Saturday as the Irish held Michigan State to 254 yards with one touchdown and two field goals.
"We had been alluding to the fact we made some changes," Kelly said. "We think it's starting to come together. It's hard for it to all be there in the first four weeks when you're playing three Big Ten teams in a row. You could sense it. The pass‑rush was better. We were on body a lot better. Assignment was much better. We gave up 30 yards, 45 yards in penalties that we'd like to eradicate. Definitely you could sense that that defense is starting to come together."
Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt had one tackle in the two games coming into Saturday.
And even more disturbing, the junior hadn't recorded a sack since the season-opening win over Temple.
Tuitt put some concerns to rest against Michigan State as he got three tackles, including a sack for a seven-yard loss midway through the fourth quarter that halted a Spartan drive.
"He's rounding into the kind of shape we all want him to be in," Kelly said. "We're getting that push. We're seeing that from Shembo. We're starting to see those guys really start to round into that kind of presence that we saw last year. It's getting better."
Notre Dame continues to use plenty of freshman each game as the Irish used 11 against the Spartans.
Former Bishop Luers star Jaylon Smith started at outside linebacker and finished with four tackles.
Robinson and receiver William Fuller combined for four receptions for 91 yards, and at one point, freshmen cornerbacks Devin Butler and Cole Luke were on the field at the same time.
"We played a lot of freshmen on both sides of the ball," Kelly said. "We were on the field a lot, as you know. If you look at the breakdown, I think it was almost 10 minutes there late in the game. Jarron Jones played quite a bit, too, on the defensive line.
"Again, it's kind of how we've put this team together, is that we need to count on the depth, especially in this freshman class."
- Notre Dame has won 10 straight games at home.
- Michigan State's block on Kyle Brindza's punt in the first quarter was the first time the Irish had a punt blocked since a game in 2008 against Boston College. Notre Dame had gone 254 straight punts without being blocked.
- Notre Dame has won three straight against Michigan State, and the Irish didn't give up a point in the first quarter to the Spartans for the sixth straight season.
- Irish receiver TJ Jones caught his 12th career TD in the second quarter and is now tied for 10th all-time at Notre Dame along with Bobby Brown and Tim Brown.