SOUTH BEND, Ind. --- Robert Blanton regretted being too aggressive on the biggest play of Notre Dame's season. Coach Brian Kelly refused to accept his apology.
The team Kelly thought he had during training camp finally showed up at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. An efficient offense, smothering defense and a big play on special teams helped Notre Dame defeat 15th-ranked Michigan State 31-13 and keep their dreams of participating in a Bowl Championship Series bowl alive.
This time, instead of committing a critical turnovers, the Irish came up with one when Blanton returned a Kirk Cousins interception 82 yards to snuff any chance of Michigan State (2-1) making the kind of late-game comeback that cost Notre Dame (1-2) against Michigan last week.
"He's extremely active," Kelly said of his senior cornerback. "He's got great instincts. The ball is in the air, he's going to get it. I feel confident no matter who goes against him that when the ball is in the air he's going to make a great play on the ball. Sometimes you try to coach that as much as you can. But some guys are just good at it. He's really good."
Ten turnovers --- including five in the red zone --- and 17 penalties plagued Notre Dame in back-to-back losses to South Florida and Michigan. There is still work to do in both areas after the Fighting Irish had six penalties and three more turnovers, including a muffed punt by John Goodman with 4:28 left that gave the Spartans the ball at Notre Dame's 21.
Michigan State had a first-and-goal on the 3 when Blanton made a bobbling interception and raced downfield to help the Irish do what they have struggled to do in recent years: Put away an opponent.
"At halftime I said, 'Finish, finish finish,' more times than I've said anything to a football team," Kelly said.
George Atkinson III became the first freshman since Rocket Ismail in 1988 to return a kickoff for a touchdown when he raced 89 yards to give Notre Dame a 14-3 lead late in the first quarter. It was one of two significant special teams plays in the game. The first came late in the second quarter when Michigan State kicker Dan Conroy lined up for a 19-yard field goal.
Notre Dame hasn't forgotten the fake field goal that beat Notre Dame in overtime last season. The play, called "Little Giants," resulted in holder Aaron Bates taking the snap and throwing a you're-kidding-me 29-yard TD pass to Charlie Gantt. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio tried it again but holder Brad Sonntag shovel pass was foiled by pressure from Notre Dame's front.
"My call," Dantonio said. "It didn't work. I don't think it's why we lost the game but I'll take the blame for that."
The Notre Dame secondary appeared at tentative last week when Michigan scored 28 fourth-quarter points to pull off a miracle comeback. Blanton was so aggressive on his late-game interception that he apologize to Kelly afterwards. Kelly told him he didn't do anything wrong.
"We've had a lot of potential from the start," safety Harrison Smith said. "We had a lot of mistakes today but this was a first step."