South Bend, IN – Cierre Wood rushed for two touchdowns and 13, for its first victory of the season.
Rees finished 18-of-26 for 161 yards, Wood ended with 61 yards on 14 carries and George Atkinson added an 89-yard kickoff return for the Irish (1-2), who recovered nicely from last week's shocking defeat in the final seconds at Michigan.
Michael Floyd posted 84 yards on six catches and T.J. Jones posted a TD reception for Notre Dame, which won despite a 358-275 deficit in total yards.
"Much needed victory for our kids today," said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. "We obviously felt like coming into this ball game we hadn't lacked any confidence in our ability to win football games. We just had to find a way to win.
Kirk Cousins passed for 329 yards and B.J. Cunningham notched 12 receptions for 158 yards but it wasn't enough for the Spartans (2-1), who had opened up the year with easy wins against Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic.
Michigan State was limited to 29 rushing yards in defeat on 23 attempts.
"I congratulate Notre Dame on their win. I thought they played very well, especially on the defensive side of the ball," said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. "And I thought they ran the football in the first half, which I think was the key to some of their success."
The Irish opened up a 28-10 advantage on their initial series of the third quarter, as Jones came down with a Rees offering in the end zone from 26 yards out. It capped a 71-yard drive in eight plays.
Notre Dame's defense held on two successive possessions by the visitors to take that edge to the fourth.
Dan Conroy converted a 35-yard make with just under 11 minutes to play to bring the Spartans within two scores, but Michigan State was unable to make headway later in the period after John Goodman coughed up a punt and Steve Gardiner recovered on the Irish 21.
On that drive, Cousins was intercepted by Robert Blanton on 1st-and-goal from the three, and he raced 82 yards to the Spartans' 12. Four plays later, David Ruffer connected from 33 yards out to make it 31-13 with 3:11 remaining.
"He's extremely active. He's got great instincts. The ball is in the air, he's going to get it," Kelly said of Blanton. "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. So when you need a big play, he seems to be around the ball quite a bit."
MSU's final possession ended with Cousins coming up short on 4th-and-8 from the Notre Dame 18 with 36 seconds to go.
Notre Dame's opening drive proved successful, as Wood scampered 22 yards for a touchdown to cap a 76-yard drive in eight plays.
Later in the first, Cousins was sacked on a third down and coughed up the ball, which the Irish recovered at the MSU 49. However, on a 3rd-and-12 back across midfield, Rees was picked by Kurtis Drummond, who raced to the home team's 27.
Conroy ended that series with a 40-yard make and a 7-3 game, but Atkinson returned the kickoff 89 yards down the right sideline for a 14-3 ND edge.
The Spartans responded on the following possession as Cousins found Dion Sims alone in the end zone for a six-yard strike to pull within 14-10, but Wood added a six-yard TD run with 3:36 left in the half to restore the 11-point margin.
Michigan State faked a chip-shot field goal inside the final minute of the half but failed, and trailed 21-10 at the break.
Notre Dame leads the all-time series 46-28-1, and posted its second straight home win vs. Michigan State, after losing six in a row at South Bend from 1997-2007....The Spartans were held to 13 rushing yards in the first half...Both schools are in action next Saturday, as Notre Dame travels to Pitt and Michigan State hosts Central Michigan.