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Notre Dame’s defense stuffs Michigan State

By Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune –

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Near the end, Manti Te’o scooped a ball out of mid-air, robbing Michigan State of whatever fledgling hopes it had left.

At the end of a week of profound personal loss — his grandmother passed away, followed hours later by his girlfriend losing a final battle with leukemia — Notre Dame’s bulwark middle linebacker cradled the ball and skipped backward, out of the maw of teammates mobbing him. Te’o then kissed his fingers, and he pointed to the sky.

Yes, everything opens up from here, Notre Dame riding a resolute current of optimism and possibility into the rest of a season seeming so much less perilous. A 20-3 victory over No. 10 Michigan State on Saturday night was a gnashing, snarly triumph, a two-handed shove into the mud with a clean getaway.

“That was for them,” Te’o said. “That was for my girl and my grandma and all my loved ones that have passed on. I know they’re all watching. It was just a happy moment.”

No aesthetics here, at least for those who enjoy the occasional first down. Oddly, this possibly enhances what the 20th-ranked Irish did even more. They hitched themselves to an unquenchable defense and a couple of welcome opportunities on offense and skedaddled out of a hostile environment with a victory.

“We’re not even close to where we could be,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “(But) it’s a big leap. It’s a signature win. When you go on the road against No 10 team in country, it’s going to build confidence in the locker room. You need one of those wins to break it open.”

In the first half, it was an Everett Golson touchdown pass and an Golson touchdown run. For the entire night, it was a defense allowing Michigan State no hope, leaving an opponent without an offensive touchdown for the first time since Nov. 20, 2010.

“They’re starting to get to the level where they can play against anybody,” Kelly said of his defense.

Very few games on the schedule seemed more daunting than this one, and the Irish dismissed it with a backhand slap.

Indeed, Notre Dame should have awakened Sunday poised to climb ever higher in the national polls — maybe higher than they have climbed in the Kelly tenure, which was No. 16 before the 2011 opener. And they set themselves up for one of the most important games in recent memory with Michigan visiting for a night tilt.

Notre Dame did what good teams do on the road: Take the rare opportunities served on a platter and convert decisively.

Golson scrambled to his right on a first-quarter second down in Spartans territory, launched a cross-field missile aimed at John Goodman in the end zone. The senior wideout outleaped two Spartans defenders to haul in a spectacular 36-yard touchdown for the 7-0 lead.

Notre Dame didn’t encounter such good fortune again until the second quarter, but it again would not let it pass. Another series starting at midfield got kickstarted with a 31-yard George Atkinson III run and ended with a 6-yard Golson scramble for a score and a 14-0 lead.

“He needed these kind of experiences, and he’s going to get more of them,” Kelly said of Golson.

Michigan State answered with a 50-yard field goal, but even that featured two plays emblematic of a Notre Dame defense that wouldn’t allow the Spartans loose: A second-down sack and a third-down pass break-up from freshman Sheldon Day that stymied the drive, part of a three-sack, five-pass break-up first half from the Irish defense.

It was exactly the kind of effort required to win on the road, and all that was left was for the Irish to make it stick.

Two Kyle Brindza field goals in the last 61/2 minutes rounded out the scoring and the defense did the rest, and that surely was enough for a happy, hopeful ride home.

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