SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Cierre Wood ran for two touchdowns, freshman George Atkinson III returned a kickoff 89 yards for a score and Robert Blanton had a late interception Saturday as Notre Dame beat No. 15 Michigan State 31-13 for its first win.
The Spartans (2-1), who stunned Notre Dame in overtime a year ago with a game-winning TD pass off a fake field goal, tried to surprise the Irish with another fake near the end of the first half.
Notre Dame (1-2) was ready this time. On fourth-and-goal from the 2, Ethan Johnson broke up a shovel pass attempt and the Irish led 21-10 at halftime.
Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, who had 11 straight completions at one juncture of the second half, was 34-for-53 for 329 yards but he was intercepted at the Notre Dame 6 with just under four minutes left by Blanton, who returned it 82 yards to the 12.
The Spartans had just recovered a fumbled punt by Notre Dame's John Goodman at the Irish 21 and were ready to set the stage for another frantic finish between the rivals. But with the Spartans trailing 28-13 and having a first and goal at the 3, Blanton came up with a juggling interception and took off on his long return that sealed the win.
Notre Dame held the Spartans to 29 yards rushing on 23 carries. And Michigan State was hurt by its own sloppiness — 12 penalties for 86 yards. Cousins completed 12 of his passes to B.J. Cunningham as the Spartans were forced to go to the air and play catch up.
Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees overcame a first-half fumble and interception and finished 18 of 26 for 161 yards.
Notre Dame pushed the lead out quickly the third quarter when Rees hit Michael Floyd on a 22-yard pass and then lofted a perfect 26-yarder to TJ Jones for a touchdown — the Irish were penalized on the ensuing kickoff for unsportsmanlike conduct after Jones made a hand signal following his catch. And coach Brian Kelly came out after the extra point to apparently ask officials to explain the penalty.
Wood's 6-yard TD run capping a 92-yard drive that featured a 33-yard pass from Rees to Floyd and another of 16 to Tyler Eifert helped the Irish to a 21-10 lead.
Cousins came right back after a 42-yard kickoff return by Nick Hill gave the Spartans good field position. His 21-yard pass to Todd Anderson and an 11-yarder to Cunningham gave the Spartans a first down at the Irish 8.
But after the drive stalled, MSU lined up for a field goal, only to have their attempt at trickery turned away.
After Notre Dame took an early 7-0 lead on a Wood TD run, the teams traded turnovers twice.
Rees took a hard blindside hit from Kevin Pickelman and fumbled with MSU's Jerel Worthy recovering. Moments later, Notre Dame freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch drove into Cousins from behind, forcing a fumble and Johnson recovered for the Irish. Three plays later Rees' pass was picked off by Kurtis Drummond and returned 34 yards to the Irish 27, setting up Conroy's 40-yard field goal that made it 7-3. It was Notre Dame's 12th turnover of the season.
But 12 seconds later, Atkinson — the son of the former NFL star defensive back — took the ensuing kickoff, broke to the sideline and sprinted in for the touchdown. It was Notre Dame's first kickoff return for a TD by a freshman since Raghib Ismail returned two against Rice in 1988.
Michigan State's offense then began to click as Cousins hit a 25-yarder to Cunningham. Cousins connected on 5 of 7 passes in the 80-yard drive, hitting Dion Sims on 6-yard TD pass when freshman linebacker Troy Niklas fell down in the end zone. Niklas started the game because starter Prince Shembo was absent to attend to a family medical emergency.
Wood ran six times for 59 yards in the opening drive of the game, carrying 22 yards for the TD.
Michigan State starting right tackler Skyler Burkland was carted off the field with a left leg injury late in the first half.