Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio argues a call with head linesman Kelly Saalfeld in the fourth quarter against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 17-13. (Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports)
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - "Classic" may be strong, maybe way strong, but it was another scenic day at Notre Dame Stadium, another close one between Michigan State and Notre Dame - and a third straight win for the Fighting Irish in the series.
Notre Dame used tough defense and some big plays, many of them MSU pass-interference penalties to hold on for a 17-13 win. It was the 10th time in 14 meetings that has been decided by a touchdown or less, and it was Notre Dame's third straight victory over the Spartans and seventh in 12.
Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook got the start for MSU, but senior Andrew Maxwell got the final drive - and missed on all three of his passes before running for eight yards on a fourth-and-20. It appeared Cook hurt his throwing arm on a previous series, but Mark Dantonio said the switch was made to give MSU's offense a boost. It didn't work.
As expected, defenses ruled early. Notre Dame (3-1) won the opening coin toss and elected to receive - then promptly went three and out. MSU then made the first big play of the game, with walk-on receiver Matt Macksood diving and getting a chunk of Kyle Brindza's punt.
MSU started at the Irish 31 and got to the 13 before Kevin Muma had to come on for a 30-yard try. He pulled it left, squandering an early chance, and combined with an earlier short miss this season, that was enough for MSU coaches to make a change there.
Freshman Michael Geiger was on for the extra point when the Spartans finally got on the board, with 7:43 left to play in the second quarter.
Cook's perfect 12-yard touchdown pass to Macgarrett Kings Jr. capped a 14-play, 79-yard drive - MSU's first good one of the day - and made it 7-3 Spartans.
It looked like that might be the halftime score, but Notre Dame went for it on fourth-and-1 from the MSU 41. The deep pass to TJ Jones was incomplete, but cornerback Trae Waynes was called for interference.
With 17 ticks left in the half, Rees unloaded just before he was buried, and Jones made a terrific catch in the back of the end zone with Darqueze Dennard covering closely. That made it 10-7 Irish at the break, but the Spartans responded right after it.
They took the opening possession of the third quarter and marched 75 yards in 8:39, the longest drive in terms of yardage and possession time of the season against Notre Dame. But the drive stalled at the Notre Dame 8 and Geiger hit his first career field goal from 25 yards to tie it at 10.
MSU's defense got a stop and its offense was moving when a head-scratching play call changed the game. On first down from MSU's 47, true freshman receiver R.J. Shelton took a pitch and looked downfield on a trick play.
Bennie Fowler was covered by multiple defenders downfield, but Shelton threw it anyway. Notre Dame's Matthias Farley intercepted it, MSU got a personal foul as well - and the Irish only had to drive 37 yards to go up 17-10.
And it took a pair of MSU pass interference penalties, one on Dennard on a play that saw him intercept a pass in the end zone, and one on Waynes that may have been the most controversial of the day.
MSU hung in with a drive and a 42-yard Geiger field goal, and the Spartans' defense gave it back to the offense three times after that. But Cook couldn't get in a rhythm the first two times and appeared to hurt his throwing arm.
So Maxwell came on and threw too hot for Aaron Burbridge, then high for Burbridge - on a play Burbridge appeared to have a chance of making.
MSU got a delay of game. A false start. Maxwell's third-and-20 pass was off the mark to Bennie Fowler. And on fourth-and-20, he inexplicably ran for 8 yards on a play that had no chance.
Contact Joe Rexrode: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @joerexrode. Check out his MSU blog at freep.com/heyjoe.