There was a time when the Notre Dame-Michigan State rivalry was the only thing that mattered to the entire country, let alone just to fans in South Bend and East Lansing. The date was November 16, 1966. ND hadn’t won a National Championship since 1953 and was ranked #1 in one poll and #2 in the other. Defending National Champion MSU entered the game ranked #2 in one poll and #1 in the other. The outcome, a 10-10 tie, would become instantly infamous in sporting circles, with the media blasting Irish Coach Ara Parseghian for running out the clock instead of trying to move his offense into field goal range. Even though ABC aired the “The Game of the Century” on tape delay, it drew better TV ratings than that year’s Super Bowl. (Random trivia note: the game was the first-ever live sports broadcast to Vietnam and Hawaii.)
ND’s detractors mocked Ara, saying he chose to, “Tie won for the Gipper.” But when the dust settled, history judged Ara and the Irish more kindly. Noting that a team minus its starting QB (Terry Hanratty was knocked out in the first quarter) and starting running back (Nick Eddy separated his shoulder getting off the train in East Lansing) still managed a tie on the road, pollsters kept the Irish at #1. Notre Dame would go on to win the 1966 National Championship, and in 1999 The Sportings News named the ‘66 Fighting Irish and the 1965-66 Spartans as the eleventh and thirteenth greatest teams of the 20th Century respectively.
The problem with the ND-MSU rivalry is that it’s wildly inconsistent, with one team dominating the series for decades at a time. Prior to the Game of the Century, Notre Dame had gone an abysmal 2-12 versus MSU since 1950. After the Game of the Century, Notre Dame lost to Michigan State only four times through 1997. Like many Irish opponents, however, MSU has been the beneficiary of Notre Dame’s inept HR department in the post-Holtz years, winning nine of the last 12 in the “Charlie Davieham Era,” including six straight in South Bend until that streak was snapped in 2009 thanks to MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins shoving his head up his ass in the closing 90 seconds.
While there have not been national title implications in really any of the games, for the last 20 years ND-MSU has taken a backseat to no other rivalry in terms of sheer balls-out, what-the-hell-is-going-to-happen-next drama.
First, there was the Immaculate Deflection in 1990:
Then there was Dillingham-to-Battle in 2002:
The 2005 overtime thriller in Charlie Weis’ first year taught me to always preset my DVR for a six-hour game, just to be safe:
In 2006 Notre Dame staged one of the greatest comebacks in the history of Irish football:
…which was nearly upstaged by possibly THE greatest on-air meltdown by a radio broadcaster.
And as referenced previously, 2009 was Kirk Cousins’ gift to the Irish Nation:
So, what’s going to happen in 2010? In typical ND-MSU fashion, there’s a story beyond the sidelines. I’d like to think both coaches takes this game personally. When John L. Smith was fired, Kelly was passed over for the MSU job in favor of Mark Dantonio. Ironically, Kelly replaced Dantonio at Cincinnati and did what Dantonio could not. With a roster made up largely of Dantonio’s recruits, Kelly posted a 34-6 record, won two straight Big East Conference titles and took the Bearcats to back-to-back BCS bowls. Kelly turned winning most of the time into winning all of the time, and he made competitors into champions. That’s got to annoy the piss out of Dantonio, don’t you think?
With the Big Ten expanding to 12 teams, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney has said that a 9-game conference schedule is all but inevitable. A consequence of this move would most likely be that at least one of Notre Dame’s three annual Big Ten rivals—Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State—will eventually be knocked off the Irish schedule. MSU would seem to be the logical pick here, with Purdue remaining on the schedule as ND’s lone in-state rival and Michigan not going anywhere either because we relish beating them (and hating them). I guess I’d be in favor of keeping Michigan, and putting Purdue and MSU on two-year rotations. But saying goodbye to Sparty for good? Saying goodbye to a series in which eight of the past 10 meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less, with three of the last five being decided by just three points? Hell no!
McSweeney is a longtime blogger and poster on UHND. His novel, EXOTIC MUSIC OF THE BELLY DANCER, a coming-of-age story about sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and Notre Dame football, is available as an e-book on Amazon by clicking here.