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McGRATH: Irish top error-prone Spartans in ugly, flag-filled matchup

Brian Kelly is held back by line judge Paul Engelberts after an unsportsmanlike-conduct call. | Michael Conroy/AP

Brian Kelly is held back by line judge Paul Engelberts after an unsportsmanlike-conduct call. | Michael Conroy/AP

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Updated: October 23, 2013 6:49AM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Forty-seven years ago, Notre Dame and Michigan State pounded on each other for 60 brutal, unyielding minutes while playing to a 10-10 tie in what remains the signature game of their long-running series nearly a half-century after it took place.

Saturday’s 77th meeting between the Irish and Spartans was tied at 10 for about seven minutes of the second half, but that’s all it had in common with their 1966 epic. ND’s 17-13 victory, before a full house of 80,795 fans at chilly Notre Dame Stadium, was largely attributable to the Spartans running out of feet in which to shoot themselves.

Michigan State was assessed 115 yards in penalties, nearly as much territory as it earned passing the ball (135 yards) or running it (119 yards). Four of the flags came on pass-interference calls and one for defensive holding, giving Notre Dame a more effective passing attack than it merited with Tommy Rees’ 14-for-34, 142-yard effort.

“We played the ball the way we teach them to play the ball,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said of the flurry of yellow laundry. “Beyond that, I’m not going to have any comment.”

Well, one little one.

“I’ve been coaching 30-plus years . . . no, I’ve never had that many [pass-interference] calls in one game,” Dantonio said.

Speaking of calls, Dantonio took responsibility for an odd one — a halfback pass into triple coverage that resulted in an interception that ended a Spartans possession as they were driving toward a possible go-ahead score with 2:06 left in the third quarter.

“I made the suggestion because I felt we needed a big play,” Dantonio said.

Instead, freshman R.J. Shelton’s ill-conceived throw to ND safety Matthias Farley became a big play for the Irish, who improved to 3-1 despite a ground game that hardly offset Rees’ struggles, managing only 82 yards on 32 attempts.

“It was the game I envisioned — not a beauty contest,” said coach Brian Kelly, who stopped short of calling it an ugly win.

“Both defenses carried the day today. Michigan State has a great defense — tough and physical. We had to match that.”

So Notre Dame completes the three-game Big Ten portion of its schedule with a 2-1 record, which will have them frowning at conference headquarters in Park Ridge.

The Irish remain stubbornly independent in football, but their other-sports agreement with the Atlantic Coast Conference kicks in next season. Under its terms, Notre Dame is obligated to play five ACC opponents per year in football. It still wants to play a national schedule (USC, Oklahoma), and it still needs to play some games it can count on winning (Temple, Navy), so longstanding rivals such as Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue will no longer be staples on future schedules.

History and tradition don’t matter as much in big-time college athletics, where it’s every school for itself.

The Big Ten insists it doesn’t need Notre Dame, and, truth be told, it doesn’t. But love them or hate them, the Irish warrant a seat at college football’s head table, bringing a profile few schools can match. A full house and national TV exposure are all but certain to accompany a date with Notre Dame. That makes the Irish a far better vehicle for commissioner Jim Delany’s vision of manifest destiny than Rutgers or Maryland or anybody else the Big Ten might add in this era of unchecked expansion.

But Notre Dame will continue to call its own shots, thank you.

On what amounted to Cupcake Saturday, most teams were trying to sneak in one final gimme before dealing with the rigors of conference play. So Michigan State-ND was the marquee matchup as an NBC network telecast.

The Irish weren’t as bad as they were the last time center stage beckoned — that would be against Alabama in January’s BCS title game — but they weren’t exactly good, either — at least not on offense. Rees lacks the dangerous maneuverability suspended quarterback Everett Golston gave them, so he has to be more accurate with his throws to be effective. And no one from among George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel or Tarean Folston has emerged as the big dog in the running game.

When the punter gets the game ball . . .

Not that Kyle Brindza didn’t earn it for averaging 42.8 yards on four kicks and tilting field position in ND’s favor with fourth-quarter punts of 51, 51 and 45 yards.

But Oklahoma, Arizona State and USC are up next for the Irish. They’ll have to do more than punt well.

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