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Matt Charboneau and John Niyo talk about Michigan State's win over Notre Dame.

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South Bend, Indiana  — They sat on the lead until they couldn’t sit still any longer.

But once they decided to end it, they could, and they did. And now that it’s over for 12th-ranked Michigan State — an impressive 36-28 win over No. 18 Notre Dame stashed away in their luggage — there’s no telling “what we can be,” as the Spartans’ senior quarterback, Tyler O’Connor, put it late Saturday night.

Early in a season that began with plenty of questions for the defending Big Ten champs, that’s suddenly the most intriguing one, as the Spartans headed home to begin conference play flush with possibility, and suddenly self-assured.

“The biggest thing from this game is it gives guys confidence, coming in here and playing as well as we did,” senior co-captain Riley Bullough said. “We could’ve put the throttle down a little bit more. But it’s a win, and it’s a tough place to win.”

And this win, no matter how “sloppy” the Fighting Irish were — and Brian Kelly was right about that, no question — or how slippery that big lead got in the fourth quarter, should do wonders for a Michigan State team looking to make its own mark.

They’ll face a tough test — a more physical one, too — with No. 9 Wisconsin up next in the Big Ten opener. But the Spartans’ four remaining road games this season — Indiana, Maryland, Illinois and Penn State — aren’t particularly daunting.

‘Something to prove’

And now Mark Dantonio, whose team looked flat — and a bit frustrated — in its opener against Furman two weeks ago, has something to build on. Something more than his program’s track record, or last season’s playoff run. Something of it’s own, most important.

“We came down here and felt we needed to win on toughness — I thought we did that,” Dantonio said. “When you don’t play well, and people sort of write you off a little bit, you have a tendency to maybe rise up a little bit. So I think that’s what we did. We came into this game feeling like we had something to prove.”

To themselves, too. That’s the unspoken part of all the “chip on the shoulder” talk that’s now boilerplate in East Lansing. Bullough dropped that phrase again Saturday night, and we’ll hear it plenty in the coming weeks.

But you could hear it most honestly in the laughter in O’Connor’s voice, as he talked about what this win — 501 yards of offense, including 260 on the ground — might mean for his team. His team, mind you, since he’s no longer merely a caretaker under center.

“It can really set the tone for our offense for the rest of the season,” said O’Connor, who finished 19-for-26 for 241 yards and two touchdowns along with a tipped interception, all of which should help him down the line.

And you could hear it in the voice of freshman receiver Donnie Corley, as he talked about his first career touchdown — an acrobatic, 38-yard catch he stole over the top of a Notre Dame defender — as well as his final grab of the night, a third-down reception that all but clinched the victory.

“It just shows the coaches have confidence in us,” said Corley, who’d largely been kept under wraps by the coaching staff — last spring, and in the opener — until Saturday’s breakout performance.

That last target in a four-catch, 88-yard night came courtesy of another busted coverage by Notre Dame’s depleted secondary, as cornerback Cole Luke, who had a terrible game Saturday, left Corley wide open.

“When I saw him run away, I didn’t know what he was doing,” Corley shrugged, sounding more like a senior than a freshman.

Too close for comfort

But it also came when the Spartans desperately needed it, with the game squarely in jeopardy again.

Do what we do, as Dantonio likes to say. And clearly, he and his staff know exactly what they’re doing in these situations, something they proved again Saturday. Michigan State has now won 10 of its last 13 games against ranked opponents, and six of its last seven — all but one of those away from home.

As promised, the Spartans actually came out rather aggressively early, going for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 44-yard line on their opening drive and then pulling out a surprise 2-point conversion attempt after Corley’s touchdown grab — a deep shot on the first play following a muffed punt return by the Irish — answered Notre Dame’s initial score.

“We came here to win,” Dantonio said. “Our M.O. is we came here to win. I just kept saying it the whole time.”

Yet after his team started rolling in the third quarter, turning a 15-7 halftime edge into a 36-7 runaway, he found himself saying something else, even though he probably knew better.

“You’re just saying, ‘Let’s just play good defense, not give up any big ones and milk the clock a little bit,’ ” Dantonio admitted. “And that’s pretty much what we did, until it got within 15 and then we had to play the game a little bit.”

They had to because Kelly finally had given up any pretense of a balanced attack and directed his talented quarterback DeShone Kizer to air it out. Michigan State wasn’t taking many chances defensively, rushing four and dropping linebackers in coverage. So the Irish took advantage with touchdown drives of 65, 80 and 69 yards.

“I thought our guys played very confidently,” Dantonio said. “At the end, I’m not sure if their coach was confident, totally. That big wave was rollin’ but we found a way and our guys kept playing. We just said, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta play the game.’ ”

Once they remembered to do just that it was all but over. Raequan Williams’ big third-down sack forced a Notre Dame punt with 3:37 left and Michigan State never gave the ball back, as O’Connor finally dropped back and took another shot of his own downfield. A few plays later, after R.J. Shelton had scooted for 23 yards to seal it, it was time to celebrate.

“We just finished,” Shelton said.

But if recent history is any guide, and if Saturday is what it felt like for the Spartans, the fun is only just beginning.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @JohnNiyo

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