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Notre Dame gets ‘a signature win’ behind stifling defense

Irish quarterback Everett Gols(14-for-32 178 yards one TD pass one TD running) gets off throw behind solid protection. | Al

Irish quarterback Everett Golson (14-for-32, 178 yards, one TD pass, one TD running) gets off a throw behind solid protection. | Al Goldis~AP

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Updated: October 17, 2012 6:54AM

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Sheldon Day grabbed his helmet with both hands and leaped high in the air, stomping his feet into the ground two, no, three times. He couldn’t believe he didn’t come up with what possibly could have been a pick-six.

Instead, all the true freshman lineman did was athletically break up a third-down swing pass. This, after recording a nine-yard sack on the previous play.

And he was furious with himself.

Yes, the bar officially has been raised.

Notre Dame changed the ­conversation on its season with a 20-3 victory at No. 10 Michigan State on Saturday night. No longer a team loaded with question marks and facing a Quixotic schedule loaded with college football ­gargantuans, the No. 22 Irish are suddenly 3-0 with a sizable notch on their belts, legitimate players on the national stage.

“It’s a signature win,” coach Brian Kelly said.

Beating Michigan State at its own game, the Irish defense held the Spartans without a touchdown by suffocating star tailback Le’Veon Bell (77 yards) and pressuring inexperienced junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell into relying exclusively on simple, short, easy-to-defend passes.

Linebacker Manti Te’o, playing days after he lost his grandmother and girlfriend in a devastating 48-hour span, did exactly what Kelly expected him to do — “rise to the occasion.”

The All-American had two pass break-ups, a late interception and 12 tackles, moving up to sixth on the Irish’s all-time list. ND fans and MSU fans alike showered him with love late in the game when he pointed to the sky after a big play.

“That was for them,” Te’o said. “That was for my girl and for my grandma and all my loved ones who’ve passed on and brought me to this point. It was a very happy moment.”

His teammates had his back off the field all week, and they pitched in plenty on the field, too. Linebacker Prince Shembo had eight tackles, two for loss, in the first half. Day made his presence felt. And the secondary held its own despite losing safety Jamoris Slaughter to a leg injury on the first snap of the second half.

In all, the Irish held the Spartans offense to just 237 yards, most of it on non-threatening swings and flares from Maxwell.

Meanwhile, Everett Golson — like Maxwell, making just his third career start — kept backup QB Tommy Rees on the bench until mop-up time (a different kind of closer role than last week against Purdue) with an effective outing, shouldering the offensive load as Michigan State’s stout defense predictably kept the ground game in check.

Golson finished 14-for-32 for 178 yards, throwing for a TD and rushing for another. He didn’t get much help from his trio of tailbacks until a clock-killing, game-clinching 84-yard drive in the fourth quarter that ended with the first of two Kyle Brindza field goals. Cierre Wood, returning from a two-game suspension, had 56 yards on 10 carries — 45 of them on that drive.

No matter. Golson’s two scores — the first two TDs the Spartans defense gave up this season — were more than the Irish defense needed. It was the fewest points ND allowed against a Top 10 team on the road since a 51-0 win over USC in 1966.

But the bar has been raised. The Irish believe they can do better.

“It’s OK, man,” nose guard Louis Nix III said. “You know, a shutout would be fantastic.”

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