Big things could be ahead for Irish

Originally Published: September 15, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Let me tell you what more than a few giddy Notre Dame followers are doing after the Fighting Irish upset Michigan State, 20-3, Saturday night.

They're looking at ND's schedule and they're channeling their inner Ara or Lou. They're letting their imaginations wander. They're dreaming of Jan. 7, 2013, in Miami.

Jan. 7 ... and the BCS Championship.

"Don't do it," warned senior wide receiver John Goodman, whose first-quarter touchdown catch gave Notre Dame all the lead it would need. "From past experiences, if we ever looked ahead or something, things didn't work out."

[+] EnlargeJohn Goodman
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesNotre Dame WR John Goodman isn't ready to go there yet ... there being Miami.

They worked out against Michigan State. And who knows, maybe it stays that way.

After the victory against 10th-ranked Michigan State, a small, but vocal group of ND fans in the corner of Spartan Stadium began chanting, "Un-de-feated." Then the Notre Dame cheerleaders picked up their megaphones and started their own chant: "B-C-S ... B-C-S."

What once seemed impossible -- Notre Dame making a run at a national title -- now seems a tiny bit plausible. I'm not saying it will happen, but I do know this: the Irish are 3-0 and the Spartans aren't.

That counts for something. So does the way Notre Dame rolled out Michigan State like a ball of pizza dough.

"It's a big leap," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. "It's a signature win. There's no question when you go on the road against the No. 10-ranked team in the country and you beat them, it's definitely going to build a confidence in that locker room."

It wasn't fancy. It wasn't artistic. And nobody is going to confuse Notre Dame with Alabama. But you have to give the Fighting Irish some BCS brownie points for efficiency.

Notre Dame rushed for 122 yards and held Michigan State to a net 50 (running back Le'Veon Bell had 77 for MSU). It sacked Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell four times. ND's defense played hard and with heart, as it rallied around star linebacker Manti Te'o, who was dealing with an unfathomable situation: the deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend this past week.

Afterward, as Te'o left the field, he pounded his chest and pointed toward the night sky. The win and his 12 tackles were for the ones he loved.

"They were with me," Te'o said.

It might not sound like much -- especially when you compare it to the real-life tragedies Te'o has dealt with -- but this is the first time since 2002 that Notre Dame has started 3-0. It's the first time since 2005 that Notre Dame has beaten a top-10 team. And it's the first time since seemingly forever (or 2006) that Notre Dame can think big postseason thoughts.

A week ago, the Irish needed a backup quarterback and a last-second field goal to beat Purdue. Against Michigan State, they needed none of that. It wasn't a stress-free win, but it was complete, decisive and impressive.

"We're not even close to where we could be, especially on the offensive side of the ball," said Kelly, who isn't quite buying the anything-is-possible theory just yet. "Heck, we had wristbands this week and the first play we couldn't even read the wristbands [Notre Dame had a false start and then had to call a timeout]. We've got high SAT marks, but for some reason the wristband thing threw them for a loop."

Notre Dame threw Michigan State for a loop, too. The Irish controlled the game from start to finish. It didn't put up huge numbers (300 total yards, but first-year starting quarterback Everett Golson avoided turnovers), but it didn't give up any, either (only 237 for the Spartans).

Maxwell, MSU's first-year starter, completed 23 of 45 passes for less than 200 yards. Bell couldn't crack the 100-yard mark. And there were those four sacks.

"Tough day at the office, I guess you could say," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.

Tough day for the Spartans, but a wonderful one for the BCS-starved Domers. In fact, you can't fault Irish fans for peeking ahead at Notre Dame's schedule, can you? Think about it:

Michigan at home.
Miami at home.
Stanford at home.
BYU at home.
At Oklahoma.
Pittsburgh at home.
At Boston College.
Wake Forest at home.
At USC.

Tell me a game the Irish can't win. I'll wait.

Michigan has recovered after its season-opening wedgie by Bama, but the Wolverines are beatable.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Mike Carter/US PresswireNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly calls this victory over Michigan state a signature win.

Miami has a 39-point loss this season.

Stanford, which has an upset against USC, is going to be a toughie. But the game is in South Bend.

BYU is no gimme, but Notre Dame should be favored at home.

I don't know what to make of the Sooners yet (they face Kansas State next week), but a win at Norman isn't out of the question.

Pittsburgh is capable of the upset (hello, Virginia Tech), but Notre Dame has beaten the Panthers in each of the last two seasons.

Boston College is 1-2 and looking like a team headed nowhere.

Wake Forest just got beat, 52-0, by Florida State.

USC has defeated Notre Dame nine of the last 10 times, but I think we can agree that the Trojans have some flaws. And Stanford just beat USC with a first-year starting quarterback.

So start booking those January flights to Miami, right?

"Any team that's 3-0, you can't let your head get too big," said running back Cierre Wood, who returned from a two-game suspension. "Coach, as soon as we got in the locker room, he brought us down to earth. He said, 'Celebrate the win, but also know that this is nothing. We haven't reached our peak yet. We haven't done anything."'

That's not true. Notre Dame has something -- something it hasn't done for years.

Given its followers hope.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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