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Saturday, September 17, 2011
Blanton lets play do talking for Irish 'D'

By Matt Fortuna

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly pulled his star cornerback aside as Notre Dame walked off the field Saturday, and he told the senior not to share with anybody else what he had just told his head coach.

"We had a conversation that I didn't want our DBs, in particular, Gary [Gray] and him, to sit back and be apprehensive based upon last week," Kelly said. "I said, 'Be aggressive.' He said, 'Coach, I was maybe a little too aggressive on that play.'

"I said, 'Make sure you don't tell anybody that. You were correct in all of your alignments and assignments.' "

Chalk it up to a pair of devastating losses or even a handful of more turnovers against Michigan State, but Robert Blanton and the Fighting Irish played with a make-or-break mentality Saturday, winning their first game of the season by a 31-13 score.

Robert Blanton
Robert Blanton's fourth-quarter interception sealed the win for Notre Dame.
Blanton sealed the contest with an interception at the goal line with less than four minutes to play, returning it 82 yards deep into Spartans territory. And he made good on his promise to Kelly afterward, biting his tongue when asked about the conversation between coach and senior leader after victory No. 1.

"Yes, sir," he said politely when asked if he told Kelly he was too aggressive.

"Yes, sir," he said again when the conversation was repeated to him for clarity.

"No, sir," he said when asked if there was anything else he would like to share from that conversation.

"No, sir," he said again when told the conversation seemed longer than what he was letting on.

The funny postgame episode with the media went against the way his coaches and teammates described him nearby -- brash, loud, aggressive.

And, in a game he finished with six tackles -- three for a loss -- he was the difference-maker for Notre Dame.

"He's usually a talkative guy on the field," fifth-year safety Harrison Smith said, "but I think after that one he was out of gas, so I think he was pretty quiet."

Blanton deserved all the time he needed after a second-straight end-zone pick in the fourth quarter, this one actually sealing the game after last week's frenetic final minutes rendered his first pick of the season moot.

It came one drive after Notre Dame had seemingly shut down Sparty once and for all, forcing a punt with less than five minutes left and holding a 28-13 lead.

And it came three plays after the yips returned again, this time to punt returner John Goodman, who lost the ball at his own 21-yard line.

MSU pounced on it, and all of a sudden the Spartans were poised to deliver one more heartbreak to an Irish team that suffered more than its fair share two weeks into the 2011 season.

"It's just like second-nature now," Smith said of the sudden-change defense. "That's something we practice and we almost like that, as sick as that sounds.

"When we get a bunch of adversity where we gotta go back on the field, that's a challenge for us that we need to step up to, and that's just the way we see it. That's what we need to do for our team."

Added linebacker Manti Te'o: "I think it's part of our DNA."

So Blanton broke in front of B.J. Cunningham, the only bright spot for MSU's offense on the day, and the cornerback rumbled, stumbled and finally collapsed at the Spartans' 11, receiving an earful from safety Jamoris Slaughter afterward for not lateraling it to him on the return.

"He's extremely active," Kelly said. "He's got great instincts. When the ball is in the air, he's gonna go get it. I feel very confident no matter who goes against him that when the ball's in the air he's gonna make a great play on the ball.

"And sometimes you try to coach that as much as you can, but some guys are just good at it. And he's really, really good. And he's a spirited guy. He's really, you talk about guys that lead by example, he also leads. He's probably one of our more emotional leaders back there. So when you need a big play, he seems to be around the ball quite a bit."

Smith said that passion transcends the football field -- to workouts, the film room, ping pong and even video games.

"It doesn't matter what it is," Smith said of Blanton. "He's gonna be out there, he's gonna be loud and he's gonna make sure that you know his presence is felt, not just with talking but with his play."

He needed only one of those during a week Smith, the lone team captain, set the tone for the defense by refusing to talk about the past and telling the media it was time for the Irish to walk the walk.

Te'o, who was with Smith during that press conference Wednesday, paused when asked about Blanton, searching for words before finally labeling him special, which drew laughs from everyone within earshot.

"He's real special," Te'o said, "and he knows what to say at the right time."

Knowing how reserved Blanton had been minutes earlier, Te'o offered a clarification.

"To us," he said with a laugh. "I really love him and he had a great game today."