Chicago Colleges: Michigan State
Ulis, a 5-foot-9 point guard from Marian Catholic in Chicago Heights, Ill., is ranked No. 38 in the Class of 2014 and the No. 8 point guard by ESPN. He trimmed his list to four schools in early August.
"Yes, we did [eliminate USC;] we never said it in the media or anything, but did speak to USC about it a couple weeks ago," James Ulis, Ulis' father, wrote in a text message on Monday. "Didn't want to just take a visit if Tyler had cooled on possibly going there. We thanked [them] for their time and we wanted to allow them to have an opportunity to recruit another PG."
Ulis made an official visit to Iowa this past weekend and will make official visits to Michigan State on Sept. 6-7 and Kentucky on Sept. 8-9. Kentucky recently offered Ulis a scholarship on an unofficial visit, and Iowa and Michigan State previously offered him.
James believes his son's commitment could come as early as the weekend of Sept. 14.
CHICAGO -- The NCAA may now permit coaches to call and text recruits unlimitedly, but the restrictions in contacting Simeon’s Jabari Parker, the nation’s Class of 2013 recruit, haven’t changed.
Parker remains off limits. His parents, Sonny and Lola Parker, do not permit college coaches to contact Parker directly. They must call or text them.
“Everybody doing their job, but they still can’t have Jabari’s number,” Sonny said on Tuesday. “That ain’t changed.
“We want him to enjoy being who he is. If he wants to talk, we’ll ask him first. Right now, we don’t want him to be over-bombarded because coaches can sometimes be aggressive, and that can be overwhelming.”
Sonny said all of the coaches have stuck to the rules and have not attempted to contact Parker directly. Just in case, though, Parker did change his number recently.
“It’s okay,” Sonny said of the new NCAA rules. “It’s how you handle it. Don’t get overwhelmed, don’t get caught up. They have to do their job. We’re doing our job.”
Coaches have been reaching out to Parker’s parents in the last week. Sonny said they’ve heard from Duke, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, among others.
“I talked to (Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski) the other day,” Sonny said. “He wished me a Happy Father’s Day. My voicemail is filled. It’s been filled for a year.”
Parker, who was the ESPNChicago.com 2011-2012 Player of the Year, and his family haven’t discussed recruiting much yet. Sonny said Parker would trim his list to five schools at the end of the summer and begin to make visits.
Parker is currently training with the 17-and-under USA team in Colorado for the upcoming FIBA World Championship in Lithuania.
The struggles of DePaul and Illinois in recent years have been largely blamed on their in-state recruiting. While both programs have attracted some Illinois players, they’ve struggled to sway the most significant ones and in some cases failed to project players who became stars.
Here are my top 100 players the state has produced since 2003, which spans Illinois coach Bruce Weber’s career and that of three DePaul coaches. The criteria for this list included success in college and the pros for the older players and ability and potential for the younger ones.
1. Derrick Rose (Memphis, Class of 2007): DePaul and Illinois were said to be in the mix, but neither seemed to have a real chance. Rose wanted a shot at a national championship in his one year in college. Memphis lost in the national championship game in that one season, and the Tigers later had to vacate the season due to NCAA violations -- some of which had to do with Rose. He was the No. 1 pick by the Chicago Bulls in 2008 and is the reigning NBA MVP.
3. Evan Turner (Ohio State, 2007): DePaul and Illinois offered Turner, but Ohio State won out. Turner was undervalued nationally coming out of high school, but he was the second-best player in the state’s Class of 2007 next to Rose. After being named the Big Ten player of the year as a junior, Turner was drafted No. 2 in the 2010 draft and averages 8.4 points and 5.7 rebounds for the Philadelphia 76ers.
4. Shaun Livingston (Duke, 2004): Livingston chose Duke over Illinois and Arizona, but ended up entering the NBA draft instead. He was taken No. 4 overall by the Los Angeles Clippers. He suffered a career-changing knee injury in 2007 and is now a role player for the Milwaukee Bucks.
5. Shannon Brown (Michigan State, 2003): Brown was already committed to Tom Izzo by the time Weber took over at Illinois. Brown started nearly every game of his three-year career at Michigan State. He was taken in the first round of the 2006 NBA draft. He averages 8.7 points for the Phoenix Suns.
6. JaVale McGee (Nevada, 2006): McGee played his senior year in Chicago and didn’t receive a whole lot of interest. Northwestern recruited him, and he signed with Nevada. He spent two years at Nevada and was selected in the 2008 NBA draft. He now starts for the Washington Wizards and is averaging 12.0 points, 8.8 points and 2.7 blocks.
7. Julian Wright (Kansas, 2005): Bill Self swooped in and convinced Wright to commit to Kansas during a home visit. Wright was thought to be heavily considering DePaul and Illinois. He spent two years at Kansas before being picked No. 13 in the 2007 NBA draft. He last played in the NBA in 2011.
8. Wayne Blackshear (Louisville, 2011): Blackshear included DePaul and Illinois on his list, but Louisville was the team to beat after he visited there. He just recently began playing for Louisville after suffering an injury prior to the season. He’s expected to be a future NBA player.
9. Iman Shumpert (Georgia Tech, 2008): Shumpert eliminated Illinois before his final list. He chose Georgia Tech over Marquette and North Carolina. Shumpert led Georgia Tech in scoring, rebounding and assists his junior season. He left school early and was drafted No. 17 in the 2011 NBA draft. He’s started 17 games in his rookie season for the New York Knicks.
11. Sherron Collins (Kansas, 2006): Collins chose Kansas and former Illinois coach Self over the Illini. Collins’ class won 130 games and a national championship in his four years at Kansas. Collins was among the top guards in the country his last two seasons and is now playing overseas.
12. Meyers Leonard (Illinois, 2010): The Illini were on Leonard as early as anyone, and he awarded them with his commitment. He was ranked No. 47 overall in the Class of 2010 by ESPN. He’s blossomed as a sophomore for Illinois and is expected to be a future lottery pick. He could be among the nation’s premier college players if he stays for another season.
13. Jereme Richmond (Illinois, 2010): Richmond committed to the Illini as a freshman. He wavered in his commitment at times, but remained loyal to the Illini. He showed glimpses of his potential as a freshman, but his first year at Illinois was defined by its rockiness. He entered the NBA draft after one year and was not selected. He was later arrested for gun charges. Richmond is now playing for the Sauk Valley Predators of the Premier Basketball League.
14. Jerel McNeal (Marquette, 2005): McNeal chose Marquette over Dayton and Purdue. Despite being one of top players in the Chicago area, McNeal wasn’t highly touted nationally. He is Marquette’s career leader in points and steals. He is now playing overseas.
15. Jacob Pullen (Kansas State, 2007): Pullen had considered Illinois, but decided on Kansas State. Pullen was a star in the Big 12 during his final seasons at Kansas State. He averaged 19.2 and 20.2 points in his last two years. He is now playing overseas.
16. Ryan Boatright (Connecticut, 2011): Boatright committed to USC as a freshman, later committed West Virginia and finally ended up at Connecticut. He wasn’t given much national respect out of high school, but he was the best high school player in the Chicago area last season. He’s now starting as a freshman for the Huskies.
17. Jeremy Pargo (Gonzaga, 2005): Pargo also considered Illinois during his recruiting process. He had a memorable career at Gonzaga and is now a backup guard for the Memphis Grizzlies.
18. Demetri McCamey (Illinois, 2007): McCamey was outshined by high school teammate Evan Turner his senior season, but was still among the state’s top players. McCamey was a four-year starter for the Illini and earned all-conference honors his final three seasons. He is now playing overseas.
19. Patrick Beverley (Arkansas, 2006): Illinois was in the mix for Beverley. He starred at Arkansas for two seasons before being suspended and then leaving the team. He was selected in the 2009 NBA draft and is now playing overseas.
20. DeAndre Liggins (Kentucky, 2008): Liggins played his final high school season at an out-of-state prep school. Liggins started for Kentucky his junior year and helped the Wildcats to the Final Four. He entered the draft early and was taken in the second round in 2011. He plays for the Orlando Magic.
22. Brandon Paul (Illinois, 2009): Paul was the state’s top high school player in 2009, but didn’t receive a lot of national recruitment. Paul was erratic his first two years at Illinois, but has taken strides to becoming a star this year. He has NBA potential.
23. Michael Dunigan (Oregon, 2008): Dunigan, a McDonald’s All-American, and his AAU teammate Matt Humphrey were considering Illinois, but opted to attend Oregon together. Dunigan left Oregon after two seasons and has been playing overseas since.
24. Mac Koshwal (DePaul, 2007): Koshwal was ranked as high as No. 18 in the Class of 2007 by one scouting service. Koshwal was near a double-double throughout his career at DePaul. He left after his junior season and was not drafted.
25. Bobby Frasor (North Carolina, 2005): Frasor, a McDonald’s All-American, picked North Carolina over Stanford. Injuries derailed his career, but Frasor was still a role player for the Tar Heels and helped them to a national championship. He recently retired from playing overseas to pursue a coaching career.
The next 10
26. Jamarcus Ellis: Junior college, Indiana, 2004
27. Stefhon Hannah: Junior college, finished at Missouri, 2004
28. Jerome Randle: California, 2006
29. Michael Thompson: Northwestern, 2007
30. Chasson Randle: Stanford, 2011
31. Tracy Abrams: Illinois, 2011
32. Drew Crawford: Northwestern, 2009
33. Jack Cooley: Notre Dame, 2009
34. D.J. Richardson: Illinois, 2009
35. Lenzelle Smith Jr.: Ohio State, 2010
Maurice Acker: Ball State, finished at Marquette, 2005
Joseph Bertrand: Illinois, 2009
Ben Brust: Wisconsin, 2010
Calvin Brock: Illinois, 2004
Brian Carlwell: 2006, Illinois, finished at San Diego State
Joevan Catron: 2006, Oregon
Justin Cerasoli: 2004, Seton Hall, finished at Loyola
Bill Cole: 2007, Illinois
D.J. Cooper: 2009, Ohio
Jamee Crockett: 2011, DePaul
Justin Dentmon: 2004, Washington
Kevin Dillard: 2008, Southern Illinois, now at Dayton
Dion Dixon: 2008, Cincinnati
Alex Dragicevich: 2011, Notre Dame
Osiris Eldridge: 2006, Illinois State
Brandon Ewing: 2005, Wyoming
Nnanna Egwu: 2011, Illinois
Myke Henry: 2011, Illinois
Colin Falls: 2003, Notre Dame
Carlton Fay: 2007, Southern Illinois
Tony Freeman: 2005, Iowa, finished at Southern Illinois
Reggie Hamilton: 2007, now at Oakland
Crandall Head: 2008, Illinois, now at a junior college
Matt Humphrey: 2008, Oregon, now at Boston College
Lewis Jackson: 2008, Purdue
Othyus Jeffers: 2003, junior college, finished at NAIA
Aaron Johnson: 2007, UAB
Anthony Johnson: 2010, Purdue
Jeremy Jones: 2009, junior college, now at Kansas State
Lazeric Jones: 2008, junior college, now at UCLA
Roosevelt Jones: 2011, Butler
Verdell Jones: 2008, Indiana
Frank Kaminsky: 2011, Wisconsin
Jeremiah Kelly: 2008, DePaul
Robert Kreps: 2007, UIC
Mario Little: 2006, junior college, finished at Kansas
Kevin Lisch: 2005, Saint Louis
Sam Maniscalco: 2007, Bradley, now at Illinois
Dameon Mason: 2003,Marquette, finished at LSU
Richard McBride: 2003, Illinois
Mike McCall: 2010, Saint Louis
Chas McFarland: 2006, Wake Forest
Charles McKinney: 2011, DePaul
Trent Meacham: 2004, Dayton, finished at Illinois
Nate Minnoy: 2005, Purdue, finished at NAIA
Bryan Mullins: 2005, Southern Illinois
Jeremy Nash: 2006, Northwestern
Cully Payne: 2008, Iowa, now at Loyola
Shaun Pruitt: 2004, Illinois
Jason Richards: 2004, Davidson
Brian Randle: 2003, Illinois
Rayvonte Rice: 2010, Drake
Justin Safford: 2007, Missouri
Matt Shaw: 2004, Southern Illinois
Mike Shaw: 2011, Illinois
Stan Simpson: 2008, Illinois, now at Memphis
Jamar Smith: 2005, Illinois, finished at Southern Indiana
Ahmad Starks: 2010, Oregon State
David Sobolewski: 2011, Northwestern
Mike Stovall: 2007: Oregon State, finished at DePaul
Sam Thompson: 2011, Ohio State
Mike Tisdale: 2007, Illinois
DeAndre Thomas: 2005, junior college, later at Indiana
Willie Veasley: 2006, Butler
Will Walker: 2006, DePaul
* In alphabetical order
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Here’s a quick look at Northwestern’s 81-74 win over No. 7 Michigan State on Saturday.
How it happened: Unlike its past two games (losses to Illinois and Michigan), Northwestern didn’t unravel in the second half against the Spartans. The Wildcats led by two points at halftime and only extended that in the second half. They led by as many as 13 points in the second half, holding strong when Michigan State cut the lead to five points with 5:32 left. The Wildcats got their usual production from John Shurna (22 points) and Drew Crawford (20 points), but where this game was won was by the play of the Northwestern role players. Senior Davide Curletti and junior Reggie Hearn combined for 27 points for the Wildcats.
What it means: Northwestern’s NCAA tournament hopes could have vanished with another Big Ten loss. The Wildcats not only remained alive with their upset, but they also added a quality win over a top-10 team to their resume.
Outside the box: Can anyone figure out the Big Ten at this point? On Saturday alone, Northwestern upset Michigan State, and Iowa took down Michigan. No one is safe at this point.
Player of the game: Curletti was making only the second start of his career. His last one came back in his freshman year. After averaging 3.7 points and 2.9 rebounds before Saturday’s game, he went off for 17 points, six rebounds and four assists.
What’s next: Northwestern’s schedule doesn’t get it any easier. The Wildcats travel to Wisconsin next. They haven’t won in Madison since February 1996. Michigan State heads to Michigan on Tuesday.
Asked whether Notre Dame could take its special-teams play to a new level this week, the head coach replied with a question of his own.
"What level would you like me to take them to?" he said to a room full of laughs.
If there was one thing that kept Kelly from proclaiming Saturday's 38-10 win at Purdue his team's best performance of the season, special teams may be it.
John Goodman netted minus-3 yards on two punt returns and let another ball roll by him for a 61-yard punt in the first quarter. David Ruffer had one field goal blocked and missed another.
And Kyle Brindza, who saw more action than normal given the Fighting Irish's offensive outburst, averaged 64.3 yards on seven kickoffs, matching a season low from a week earlier at Pitt, where he kicked off just three times.
"Kyle took a step back last week in his performance against Purdue, so we gotta find out why," defensive line coach and special teams coordinator Mike Elston said, adding that Brindza has been punting in practice as well.
"Maybe we've overpunted him a little bit. He's been awesome up until last week, which he understands. And he'll do a better job this week."
Of bigger concern is the punt return game, which has netted 3 total yards for the season on 10 returns between Goodman and Theo Riddick, who have each turned it over once.
Goodman, who has returned eight punts, ranks last among all 76 qualifying FBS players in returns, averaging 0.63 yards per return.
"When you're going backwards, we gotta make better decisions catching the ball, first of all," Elston said. "We can't catch the ball with a guy in our face. And we gotta do a better job of holding up. We gotta get guys out there that can run a little better, that can hold up. And Purdue had good skill and we didn't really match up well and we'll match up better this week with guys that we can get out there. So we just gotta put better guys on their fast players and try to do a better job of holding up."
And then there is Ruffer, a fifth-year senior who converted 23 of 24 field goal attempts last season, when he was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award. Ruffer has made just 3 of 7 field goal attempts so far this year.
There have been some bright spots on special teams, specifically freshman George Atkinson III, whose 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown broke open the Irish's Week 3 win over Michigan State. Atkinson ranks fifth among 100 FBS-qualifying players in kickoff returns, averaging 30.56 yards per return.
And punter Ben Turk has averaged 40.9 yards per punt over his past three games after a rough first two weeks left him with an average of just 33.85.
Still, a lack of clarity at several key spots five weeks into the season has forced Notre Dame into some tough situations, such as the first possession of the third quarter of its Week 4 win at Pitt, after the defense forced a three-and-out.
"It's very frustrating," Elston said, "because now you feel compelled to make a play so you call a block against Pittsburgh. And you rough the punter. So it's like you're trying to make something happen, you're trying to get something positive going on that unit and you're too aggressive, so it's very frustrating."
2) The rush defense is for real: Notre Dame had another dominating performance up front Saturday, limiting the Big Ten's second-ranked rushing offense to 84 yards on 27 carries. This came two weeks after the Irish allowed just 29 rushing yards against Michigan State and one week after holding Pitt's Ray Graham to 89 yards, something that looks like more of accomplishment after Graham exploded for 226 yards Thursday against South Florida.
3) Special teams need to improve. Still: Brian Kelly said Saturday that he didn't want to sound like sour milk when listing what his team could have done better, but the Irish did leave points on the board. David Ruffer, a 2010 Lou Groza Award finalist, missed two field goals. And the punt return experiment once again looked like just that -- an experiment. John Goodman netted -3 yards on two returns and, in a real head-scratcher, watched one ball sail over his head and roll for a 61-yard punt in the first quarter.
4) Penalties still need clearing up: This one gets overshadowed because the Irish didn't turn the ball over, won by 28 points and saw their opponent commit an astounding 13 penalties for 118 yards. But Notre Dame itself committed eight penalties for 85 yards, including an ugly one when long snapper Jordan Cowart got tangled up with several Purdue players on a second-quarter punt. Mental lapses such as these are forgivable against the Boilermakers, not so much against USC or Stanford.
For now, it's worth taking a look at what other potential Notre Dame prospects are doing in their time before then.
William Mahone, the highly touted four-star running back from Austintown Fitch (Ohio) High School, will be joining prep teammates Demitrious and Chris Davis at Heinz Field tonight for Pitt's game against South Florida, according to our guy Jared Shanker.
Shanker says this is the last shot for Pitt to make a strong impression on Mahone, who will likely choose between the Panthers, the Irish and Michigan State. The Davis twins have already committed to Pitt.
Still, Shanker said, it would be surprising if Mahone didn't end up in South Bend, Ind. He visited Sept. 17 for the Irish's win against the Spartans, and he liked it so much that he is paying his own way back for the Irish's Oct. 22 game against the Trojans.
Until then, however, don't expect much movement from a Notre Dame 2012 recruiting class 15-deep, one that moved up two spots to 11th overall in the nation in ESPN's latest rankings, released Wednesday.
The latter figure is of less importance to the Irish because of just how effective their defense has been. And, more specifically, because of how effective their defense has been once the offense turns the ball over.
Following Notre Dame's past four turnovers, Irish opponents have totaled just 12 yards on 14 plays, an average of just less than .86 yards per play. Two field goals are all the Irish have allowed during that stretch.
The sudden-change defense was at its absolute best in the first quarter Saturday, after Pitt's Andrew Taglianetti forced a Tommy Rees fumble on a third-and-12 at the Irish 26 yard line.
Pitt took over at the 23, committed a false start penalty and, two plays later, lost five more yards when Manti Te'o sacked Tino Sunseri. The drive, which ended with a 45-yard Kevin Harper field goal to put Pitt ahead 3-0, totaled -5 yards on four plays.
A week earlier, following a John Goodman fumbled punt deep in his own territory in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame's defense responded three plays later by picking off Michigan State's Kirk Cousins in the end zone to seal the game.
"I think Coach [Bob] Diaco and the defensive staff do a great job of talking about it," Brian Kelly said of his defensive coordinator during his Sunday teleconference. "I think it's something that we coach every day and talk to our players about, and they then -- I think right now, any time you have some early success in that, it starts to build a confidence level where they are talking about it themselves, and I think we have got that going for us."
That's no lie. Just a week earlier, following the Irish's win against the Spartans, Te'o said being ready for such situations is part of the defense's DNA.
Fifth-year safety and captain Harrison Smith said the unit has come to enjoy being ready to get back out there, acknowledging the unusualness of the statement by adding, "as sick as it sounds."
Notre Dame's defense has just five takeaways on the season, but Kelly doesn't see that as a problem.
Given the circumstances the unit has been put in, it is doing just fine.
"Well, I think there's a balance there in terms of big plays," Kelly said. "We really have not let up any big-play runs, and if you are going to gamble a little bit and look to get that takeaway, there's a chance that you give up some more big plays.
"We are philosophically more in line with wanting to be gap sound and disciplined against the run game. I mean, we are doing pretty good this year relative to teams in running the football. I'm more interested in that right now than gambling on defense to get some more turnovers."
This past Saturday, he saw seven different first-year players take the field at times for Notre Dame, and what they did reminded him how college football has changed in just a short period of time.
"I don't know that you ever want to play as many freshman that we're playing, but times are changing," Kelly said. "College football is such that these kids are coming in physically so much more mature that they can come in and physically handle the rigors of playing major college football."
Freshman George Atkinson III stood out by returning a first-quarter kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. That came one Michigan State possession after rookie Aaron Lynch forced a fumble by sacking Kirk Cousins.
Lynch finished the game with six quarterback hurries, one week after not even seeing the field against Denard Robinson and Michigan.
The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Lynch acknowledged how much different it was going against Big Ten offensive linemen Saturday, especially since his high school opponents were at times 100 pounds lighter.
Not being able to simply bull rush someone at this level was a rude awakening.
"He gets better with playing more with his technique and then building confidence," defensive line coach Mike Elston said. "Buying into what we're coaching hasn't been easy because it hasn't worked for him in practice, because he's not doing it right. So he's back and forth on using the proper technique and not using it. And then in a game he used it and it worked out well and he built confidence on it."
The give and take was fairly simple.
"They told me I wasn't gonna play if I didn't do it right," Lynch said.
As one of five Fighting Irish freshmen who enrolled in the spring, Lynch had a longer time to earn the trust of his coaches.
Kelly credited the strength and conditioning director, Paul Longo, for getting the freshmen physically ready to shorten the learning curve.
"You're looking at Aaron Lynch going against four- and five-year players, and you worry about their physical ability to get in there and mix it up," Kelly said. "But the last four or five years, these guys are weight training all year, nutrition is important to 'em, they're taking care of their bodies, and they're coming in. And Coach Longo said this -- I didn't -- he said this was physically the most impressive group relative to their conditioning level when they came here.
"Usually they come in a few weeks after the veterans are here. They come in and they're lost. They're so far behind. This group was not. They were physically ready to compete right away."
Even then, however, there is an adjustment period.
Lynch could only go roughly six plays at a time on Saturday, something he acknowledged was difficult, but a feat that also showed how far he had come with one offseason.
"I know before the season started I wouldn't have been able to go six straight plays," he said. "It's kind of hard to do six straight plays now, just going into my first game and actually having to put that pressure on my back. But I feel like just work hard during practice and go to the ball every time you see it, you'll be straight. You won't be really tired, because you got the energy going and adrenaline rushing and stuff like that, so you'll be straight."
Sophomore noseguard Louis Nix, who didn't play last season, had to drop more than 40 pounds before he could take the field for the first time this season.
This past spring, Kelly told him to expect 12-15 snaps per game, and Nix said that wouldn't be good enough. With fellow noseguard Sean Cwynar dealing with a broken right hand, Nix has lived up to his word, playing 30-40 snaps per game and starting twice so far, surprising even himself with his stamina.
"Last year or the year before, I probably could have did two snaps," the now-326-pounder said with a laugh.
Such contrast between the early development of Lynch and Nix helps explain why defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has a blanket philosophy on playing freshmen.
"I don't think at this point in time that there's any timetable," Diaco said. "Just, when you're ready, we're ready. When you're ready, we're ready. That's it. And when you're ready to do the jobs, whatever they are, you don't have to do be able to do all the jobs, if you can do some of the jobs. You're ready, we're ready.
"When you're ready to go in and you're better than everybody else at that spot, when you're ready to go in and whip your individual matchup, when you're ready, we're ready."
2. Special teams can make all the difference: George Atkinson III's kickoff return for a score made it 14-3 early and the Irish never looked back. The return came after MSU's first scoring drive and gave Notre Dame plenty of momentum and distance the rest of the way.
3. Turnovers need to be curtailed: Three turnovers are still too many. Tommy Rees, at 19, is still growing as a quarterback and will make mistakes, but senior John Goodman's fumble of a punt return deep in his own territory could have been costly if not for Blanton's pick three plays later. Three is better than five, and the Irish have at least showed they're capable of bouncing back from mistakes by not letting up against MSU on Saturday. But at some point the bleeding has to stop.
4. Don't look now, but the Irish could be in business: The Irish should be favored in every game moving forward except for the final one, at Stanford. For now, they can focus on a Pitt team that looked more vulnerable Saturday than the Irish themselves through the first two weeks, as the Panthers blew a 21-point lead to Iowa in a 31-27 loss. Purdue and Air Force follow for Notre Dame before its bye, after which it will host rival USC in its first home night game in 21 years.
"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.
"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."
Robert Blanton's goal-line interception and ensuing 82-yard return to the MSU 11 sealed the victory for the Fighting Irish, who had just turned it over on a John Goodman fumble on a punt return with less than five minutes to play.
Notre Dame turned the ball over three times Saturday but was able to overcome those mistakes thanks to a solid defensive performance. The unit turned the Spartans into a one-dimensional unit on offense, as Michigan State's ground game never got going.
Be sure to keep it here for more coverage after the game from the Irish's first victory of the season.
An efficient ground game on the opening drive. A tough performance early from a hungry defense. And yes, turnovers. Two of them, giving the Fighting Irish a dozen on the year.
But freshman George Atkinson III gave the Irish a spark late in the first quarter, returning a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown to go up 14-3.
The return was much needed after Michigan State got on the board with a 40-yard field goal, which the Spartans -- naturally -- were in position to do because of Tommy Rees' interception, which came one drive after a Rees fumble.
Rees has seven turnovers in seven quarters of football and must do a better job of protecting the ball if Notre Dame wants to escape with a victory. Fortunately for him, Cierre Wood has done a great job on the ground so far, going 57 yards on seven carries, including a touchdown on the opening drive.