Mike Johnston kicked three field goals to give the 11th-ranked Irish a victory in a mistake-filled game in East Lansing, Mich.
Johnston was good from 33, 29 and 42 yards -- all in the second quarter -- after the defense sacked Michigan State quarterback John Leister for a first-quarter safety.
Ralf Mojsiejenko, whose booming punts kept Notre Dame (3-0) in poor field position most of the game, kicked a 50-yard field goal in the third period for Michigan State (0-4).
"Our defense rose to the occasion today," Irish Coach Gerry Faust said. "When the chips were down, they did an excellent job . . . We're glad to get out of here alive."
He thought so much of the defense, which allowed only 140 yards, 19 rushing, that he gave game balls to the four defensive coaches. "We ought to give one to Johnston, too," Faust said.
Irish quarterback Blair Kiel had three passes intercepted, the Spartans four.
Kiel threw to flanker Joe Howard for an apparent 44-yard touchdown in the third period, but the play was nullified by a penalty. In the fourth quarter, tailback Phil Carter failed to get into the end zone on fourth down at the Michigan State one.
It was the first time the Irish had won a game without scoring a touchdown since they beat Louisiana State, 3-0, in 1970.