SOUTH BEND, Ind. – So far, Notre Dame’s season has been defined by gritty wins and come-from-behind nail biters. Clearly, head coach Brian Kelly inspires his team to respond when deep in a hole, because – for the third straight week – the Fighting Irish have come from behind in the second half to win a game.
The Michigan State Spartans entered South Bend boasting a 3-0 record. Late in the 4th quarter, they believed they’d be leaving Notre Dame Stadium still undefeated.
But, Kelly and his army had different plans. After linebacker, Ed Davis, scooped up a Tommy Rees fumble and returned it for a touchdown, it seemed like the game was out of reach for the Irish. The final nail had seemingly been pounded into the coffin as the score stood at 31-19 with only 12 minutes left in the game.
Rees showed frustration on the sideline by slamming his helmet to the ground – an act that seemed unfamiliar to those surrounding him. But, that display of frustration was exactly what the offense needed to see. They rallied behind their discouraged quarterback, lifted him up, and fought.
“You never want to see your players put the ball on the ground. But, I think that maybe this particular instance was good for the guys,” Kelly said. “Look, we all know what Tommy’s been through here at Notre Dame. But what’s important to recognize is the fact that, despite the negative attention he may receive, he still puts his focus on his brothers. Period. And tonight, they rallied behind him. And, listen, that’s all I needed to see to know that this season is going be special.”
On the ensuing drive, Rees’ demeanor morphed into a persona that may dictate the remainder of the season’s success. He showed a passion and a yearning that provided the perfect amount of spark the Irish needed. George Atkinson capped an 80-yard drive with his first touchdown of the game pushing the Irish within five.
The grit wouldn’t end there, though. Michigan State marched back down the field and into the redzone. What seemed like yet another breaking moment for the Irish defense turned into another miraculous come-from-behind rally.
Bennett Jackson – for the second game in a row – recorded a timely interception. After returning it 42 yards, the Irish were within striking distance. Time was winding down, and a field goal wouldn’t do the trick.
On cue, Rees connected with one of his favorite targets, tight end Troy Niklas, for his second touchdown of the night, pushing the score to 32-31 in Notre Dame’s favor. After a successful 2-point conversion, the Spartans needed a field goal to regain some momentum.
But the Irish defense held, leaving the Spartan fanbase stunned.
“What I love most about my guys is that they don’t give up,” Rees said after the game. “They looked adversity square in the eyes, laughed at it, then smacked it across the face. It sure makes life more enjoyable when I get to wake up every day knowing that these are the men I get to do battle with.”
The 4-0 Irish face another tough homestand matchup next week, as 4-0 Oklahoma comes into town. The Sooners will be playing with an extra chip on their shoulder, as the Irish went into Norman last year and embarrassed them 30-13.