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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Notre Dame Fights Back

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Trailing by 17 points at halftime, Notre Dame faced a sobering reality: A season that began with so much promise was about to be derailed by a second straight defeat.

Coming off a blowout loss to Michigan, the Irish looked beaten again -- still down 16 going into the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Michigan State looked unstoppable in front of a fired-up crowd.

"I think that at halftime the guys realized the season was starting to fall away for us," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "Everyone could feel the same thing. After the game we played last week, and now we're down big at halftime ... it was basically 'Hey fellas, what's it gonna be? Are we just going to be a bunch of also-rans or are we going to come out here and give it a chance to win the game?'"

In stunning fashion, the Irish stepped up.

Cornerback Terrail Lambert capped a furious rally by returning an interception 27 yards for a touchdown with 2:53 remaining to give the 12th-ranked Fighting Irish a 40-37 victory over the Spartans on Saturday night.

The loss shocked Michigan State (3-1) and its fans, who remained in the stands despite heavy rain in the second half, convinced they were going to see the Spartans beat the Irish (3-1) for the eighth time in 10 meetings.

But it wasn't to be

Lambert made sure of that, following up his score by ending the Spartans' hopes moments later with a juggling interception of Drew Stanton's pass in the closing seconds.

"Late in the game, I made some stupid mistakes," Stanton said.

That the decisive plays came from the Irish defense, exposed in the loss to the Wolverines and for much of the game Saturday, may have been the biggest surprise.

But the Irish offense also clicked late, led by quarterback Brady Quinn.

Quinn started slow, going just 2-of-8 for 6 yards in the first quarter as Michigan State jumped out to a 17-0 lead.

But he finished 20-of-36 for 319 yards with five TDs against one interception.

"Give all the credit to Notre Dame," Michigan State running back Javon Ringer said. "They stepped up when they had to."

The Irish trailed 37-21 entering the fourth quarter. But Quinn threw TD passes to Jeff Samardzija (43 yards) and Rhema McKnight (14 yards) to cut the lead to 37-33 with 4:57 remaining.

McKnight's score was set up by another big play from the defense. Notre Dame safety Chinedum Ndukwe stripped the ball from Stanton and recovered it at the Michigan State 24 with about six minutes remaining.

Michigan State's Jehuu Caulcrick finished with 111 yards and a TD on eight carries. Stanton ran for 53 yards, and completed 10 of 22 passes for 114 yards. He had two TD passes and the two interceptions.

Michigan State looked like it might continue its recent good fortune against the Irish, which included a 44-41 overtime victory in South Bend last year after which a few Spartans planted a school flag near midfield.

The Spartans led this one 31-14 at halftime and looked as if they should be preparing for another postgame celebration.

It was all Michigan State early, as the Spartans rolled up 260 yards of offense in the first half.

After forcing a Notre Dame punt, the Spartans scored on a three-play, 73-yard drive on their first possession. The drive was capped by a 34-yard touchdown pass from Stanton to Kerry Reed.

Notre Dame's Tom Zbikowski fumbled a punt that Michigan State's punter, Brandon Fields, recovered at the 50. The Spartans scored on a trick play, with receiver Matt Trannon throwing a 26-yard TD pass to a wide-open Ringer.

Brett Swenson added a 32-yard field goal late in the first quarter to make it 17-0.

But the Spartans struggled in the second half as turnovers and penalties cost them.

"We just made two many mistakes when it counted," Michigan State coach John L. Smith said. "We couldn't sustain drives."

The teams were meeting for the 70th time and Notre Dame holds a 44-25-1 edge in the series.

This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the famous 10-10 tie between the two programs, the 1966 "Game of the Century." The Spartans retired the No. 95 jersey of defensive end Bubba Smith, a star of the '66 team who was picked No. 1 overall by the Baltimore Colts in the 1967 NFL Draft.

Weis said after the win that he would give Ara Parseghian, the coach of Notre Dame's 1966 team, a ball from Saturday's game.


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