|Stephon Tuitt and the Irish march into East Lansing and end the Spartans' home win streak. (Getty Images)|
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Between now and January you're going to hear a lot about Notre Dame, which makes this season like every other season. You always hear a lot about Notre Dame, because we always write a lot about Notre Dame. Why do we do that? I honestly can't say. I honestly don't know. Old habits, or something.
But rest assured that this season is different. This season, when you hear a lot about Notre Dame, go ahead and listen. Because this season Notre Dame has earned its relevancy just as surely as Notre Dame earned its 20-3 victory Saturday night against No. 10 Michigan State.
"It's a signature win," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "There's no question, when you go on the road against the No. 10-ranked team in the country and you beat them."
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The Irish manhandled Michigan State, dominating a team that doesn't get dominated under coach Mark Dantonio -- and doing it at Spartan Stadium, where Michigan State had won its previous 15 games, its longest home winning streak in nearly 60 years.
The streak is dead and buried because Notre Dame is alive and flourishing, doing what Kelly's teams tend to do in his third season. His breakthrough seasons at Central Michigan (9-4 in 2006) and Cincinnati (12-0 in 2009) came in his third year on the job, and it's happening again at Notre Dame. After back-to-back 8-5 seasons, the Irish are 3-0 under Kelly -- 3-0 for the first time since 2002.
In the 16 years since Lou Holtz was at Notre Dame, winning a national championship and drawing NCAA sanctions, Notre Dame has truly mattered just one year -- that 2002 season, Tyrone Willingham's first season as coach, when the Irish won their first eight games to reach the No. 4 ranking. Notre Dame mattered in late October 2002. Since late October 2002? Notre Dame had gone 64-53.
Notre Dame hadn't mattered since late October 2002, not for damn near a decade, no matter how much we wrote about Brady Quinn and Charlie Weis and Jimmy Clausen and Michael Floyd.
Notre Dame matters this season. Believe that, because that was a belief-inspiring beatdown the Irish gave to Michigan State. Notre Dame took the Spartans' best offensive player, tailback Le'Veon Bell, out of the game -- and attacked the Spartans' best two defensive players, feared cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard.
Bell came into the game as an early Heisman candidate, a workhorse averaging 140 rushing yards per game. He got barely half that, with 19 carries for 77 yards against a Notre Dame defensive front that is fast but enormous, and backed by linebackers Manti Te'o and Prince Shembo, who combined for 21 tackles Saturday.
On offense, Kelly had quarterback Everett Golson go right at Michigan State's vaunted cornerbacks. The Spartans' defense has been so good in recent years in large part because Adams and Dennard are that good, shutting down receivers without much safety help, allowing Michigan State to crowd the line of scrimmage with seven or eight defenders.
Kelly wasn't scared. He had Golson throwing on the first three plays from scrimmage, two of them long passes right at each cornerback. The Irish didn't score on that first possession -- they got only one first down, actually -- but they had declared their intentions. On the next drive, Golson found John Goodman behind Adams for a 36-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Golson continued to take shots down the field, which opened up enough room for tailbacks Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III to gain 99 yards on only 15 carries. Atkinson set up the team's second touchdown with a 32-yard run, leading to Golson's 6-yard scramble that made the score 14-0, and from there the Spartans were forced to play a comeback game that doesn't suit their methodical strengths -- namely, Bell's ability to pound the ball.
"We felt like if we can get him under control and force [Michigan State] to throw the football, we would much rather have that scenario than him grinding the football at us," Kelly said. "I think once they started to throw the football more, that was exactly where were hoping the game would kind of shift."
That's not all that shifted Saturday night. Notre Dame matters again, for the first time in a decade. This was Notre Dame's first victory against a top-10 opponent in 10 tries, a skid that dated to 2005, which means it was Notre Dame's first such victory under Kelly.
"It's a big leap," Kelly said. "It's definitely going to build the confidence in that locker room. ... We're not even close to where we could be, especially on the offensive side of the ball."
There isn't one game on the schedule the Irish can't win, though trips to Oklahoma and USC won't be easy, and home dates with Michigan and Stanford are no joke.
But neither is this Notre Dame team. Wood, the suspended senior who ran for 1,186 yards last season, made his 2012 debut Saturday night and averaged 5.6 yards on 10 carries -- including gains of 9 and 26 yards on the first two plays of a drive that started on the Notre Dame 4 and ended at the other end with a short field goal for a 17-3 lead.
Wood headlines a solid three-back core. The receivers have no star, but good depth. Tight end Tyler Eifert is a future pro. Golson is steady as well, with Tommy Rees pretty damn good as far as backup quarterbacks go.
Kelly likes his personnel enough to get creative in a night game at Spartan Stadium, fooling Michigan State with a trio of misdirection plays. On the 36-yard touchdown pass to Goodman, Kelly had Golson roll right, almost to the sideline, before stopping and finding Goodman in the left side of the end zone. Atkinson's 32-yard run started on a play where Golson rolled right and then handed to Atkinson on a counter going the other way. Later that drive Kelly had Golson roll right before throwing left to TJ Jones for a 14-yard gain that put the ball at the 4. Two plays later, Golson scrambled for the touchdown.
This wasn't trickery to match "Little Giants," that crazy fake field goal that Michigan State used to stun Notre Dame in 2010, the teams' last meeting at Spartan Stadium. Then again, trick plays tend to be the refuge of teams that are overmatched.
And Notre Dame, in Year 3 under Brian Kelly, is not overmatched. Not after three games. Maybe not until the Oklahoma game in Week 8, or the USC game in Week 12.
Maybe not even then.