Sept. 20, 2017
By John Heisler
Call it the “plus-one” reunion.
Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team held a 50th anniversary reunion a year when the Irish played host to Michigan State.
But, since that memorable 1966 Irish-Spartan clash was played in East Lansing, Michigan State waited a year to hold a reunion of its own for that group—with a series of social functions set for this weekend when Notre Dame comes to town.
Irish players have been invited to join the party remembering that 10-10 tie between the two top-rated teams in the country (31 combined players went on to the NFL, 10 as first-round draft selections)—and a delegation led by former Notre Dame all-star center George Goeddeke (he lives in White Lake, Michigan) will be in attendance.
Once the reminiscing ends, the modern-day Irish and Spartans will take center stage at Spartan Stadium under the lights in prime time.
It’s the ninth time these two teams have played at night—including 1998, 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2012 in East Lansing (Irish wins in 2004, 2006 and 2012).
Those games have featured some amazing finishes—with 2006 from a Notre Dame standpoint standing out as the Irish in the pouring rain came back from a major deficit to win 40-37. Notre Dame scored the last 19 points of the contest in the final period, Brady Quinn threw five touchdown passes and Terrail Lambert won it with a 27-yard interception return with 2:53 remaining.
Eleven of the last 15 games in the series have been determined by one touchdown or less. The last nine games in East Lansing have been won by an average of 8.7 points.
USC owns the most all-time wins (37) over Notre Dame—and Michigan State is second with 29 (15 of those taking place in East Lansing).
Both head coaches previously spent three years in that role at Cincinnati. When Mark Dantonio left after the 2006 season to become head coach at Michigan State, Brian Kelly replaced him. Then three years later Kelly came to Notre Dame.
Michigan State junior linebacker Byron Bullough is the grandson of former Irish star halfback Jim Morse (1954-56)—and Byron’s mother LeeAnn is a Notre Dame graduate.
Even Spartan radio play-by-play man George Blaha is a Notre Dame graduate.
Yet all of that fades to the background Saturday as each of these programs attempts to take another major step forward in 2017. At stake is the historic megaphone provided by the Detroit alumni clubs of the two institutions.
Keep in mind that just two seasons ago in 2015 Notre Dame finished the regular season 10-2 and played in the Fiesta Bowl and Michigan State advanced to the semifinals of the College Football Playoff.
After 2016 campaigns that didn’t measure up to that standard, both programs are attempting to prove they can regain that level.
Here are some of the storylines:
--Notre Dame’s offense, which this week ranks fifth nationally in rushing (330.7 yards per game), will be up against a Michigan State defense that has yet to allow an offensive touchdown (opponents have scored three TDs—two on fumble recoveries, one on a kickoff return).
--Irish coach Brian Kelly and his offensive coaches continue to work to find ways to make first-year starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush both more comfortable and more productive—and yet the Spartan defense Wimbush will face leads the Big Ten in total defense (third nationally at 203.5 yards), pass efficiency defense (second nationally) and passing yards allowed (112.0).
“He found a way to win (at Boston College),” says Kelly. “He wasn't throwing the ball very well, so he ran it really well. That's pretty good. He willed himself into finding a way to be successful on Saturday. He's got that kind of will and want and desire to win. I love coaching a guy like that.
“As he grows into the position, remember, we're three games into this, he's only going to feel more comfortable each and every week. So these conversations that we're having right now are totally natural for a first-year starter. He's had a clipboard and head set (before 2017), and that's it. Now he's in the middle of it. I think that you'll continue to see progress from him from week to week.”
--After Western Michigan managed 357 total yards at USC, the Spartans held the Broncos to 195 (only 79 passing).
--Michigan State is best in the country in terms of third-down defense (.107 success rate by opponents).
“Structurally Michigan State (on defense) is very similar to what they've done in the past,” says Kelly. “They're built certainly inside out. Two inside linebackers, really strong defensive tackles. They've had outstanding edge players in the past, now they have really solid players at the defensive end position. But they just look structurally all together. It looks like 11 guys working together play after play.
“They've got a nice third-down package that's difficult sometimes to know where pressures are coming from. They've got some guys that come in on third down that can bring some pressures. They really did a nice job against Western Michigan on first and second down and that put them in some third-and-long situations. I think stats right now as it relates to Michigan State are a little early. But it's a really good defense.”
--The Irish defense faces another relatively young quarterback in sophomore Brian Lewerke (he’ll be making his fifth career start)—and Lewerke is the leading Spartan rusher after two games (150 total yards).
“Certainly everybody knows about the backs,” says Kelly. “They ran all over us last year, and we'll have to play a lot better to contain those two backs. I've been very impressed with Lewerke. Very poised and he can run--if you fall asleep in zone option he's going to pull it and he's capable of running out. He can throw it, and he’s highly accurate. I think he has more than just escapability. He's fast, and he can run. And this is a much more athletic offensive line than Michigan State has presented to us in the past.
“We can't afford to have some of the lapses that we had in terms of mental intensity (against Boston College). I like our physicality, we just need to keep it tuned up and dialed up for four quarters.”
--Michigan State will have to deal with Notre Dame’s quick-strike tendency. Of Notre Dame’s 15 TD drives, nine have come in five or fewer plays and eight of those nine have lasted at least 69 yards.
“After three weeks we've got a better sense of where we need to be--we can't appease people in terms of what looks good as much as what we're going to be good at,” says Kelly. “If running the football is what is going to be the common denominator for wins, then that's what we're doing.
“Efficiency is the most important thing. Clearly we have to work on our weaknesses, right? So wherever we feel like our weakness is within the offense, we have to get better at those weaknesses each and every week. So we're going to do what we're good at, and that's what you'll see this offense does moving forward.
“Teams are starting to figure out how to defend us, too. So we're going to have to adapt as we move forward. If teams want to play a lot of man-to-man coverage, they're going to have to deal with Brandon Wimbush running the ball. If we see more zone coverages, he's going to have to be able to throw the football, too. So we've got to continue to grow as an offense in both of those spaces.
“You're fighting for every inch when you're playing Michigan State because they're going to take care of the football on offense. They're going to play really good defense. That will have to be the case on Saturday.
“We can't turn the football over like we did against Boston College. We're going to have to play really good run defense. We're going to have to put some points on the board.”
How close have the games in this rivalry been of late? Consider these numbers.
Over the last 15 meetings, the Notre Dame-Michigan State game has been decided by one possession or less on 11 occasions:
--2000 Herb Haygood 68-yard TD reception with 1:48 left (27-21 Michigan State)
--2001 Charles Rogers 47-yard TD reception with 7:41 left (17-10 Michigan State)
--2002 Arnaz Battle 60-yard TD reception with 1:15 left (21-17 Notre Dame)
--2003 Greg Taplin 40-yard INT return with 6:55 left (22-16 Michigan State)
--2004 Notre Dame jumps to 24-7 lead, Michigan State scores last 17 but falls short (31-24 Notre Dame)
--2005 Notre Dame rallies from 21 down to force OT; Jason Teague 19-yard run wins it (44-41 Michigan State
--2006 Terrail Lambert INT caps 19-point 4th quarter for Notre Dame in 40-37 win
--2009 Golden Tate 33-yard TD reception with 5:18 left (33-30 for Notre Dame)
--2010 Fake field goal in OT gives Michigan State win 34-31
--2013 Cam McDaniel 7-yard TD rush with 14:44 to play (17-13 Notre Dame)
--2016 Notre Dame scores last 21 points, but falls 36-28 to Michigan State
“It will be an electric atmosphere. It will be loud,” says Kelly. “I think playing at Boston College was a tune-up for us to enter into a louder and more boisterous atmosphere.
“I think with our guys being on the road for the first time last week, I think it was a great kind of entry into going into an even more hostile environment playing at Michigan State.
“It's loud and it's a raucous atmosphere. They've had a week to prepare for us, and they're going to come out with a lot of energy. They've probably had the first 10 plays scripted since May. They're going to look like really good plays. We've got to sustain things for the first few minutes and just hang in there. When the game settles in, if you're doing really well, it starts to quiet down. If you're not, it's really loud.”
Kelly likes this rivalry.
“As games start to kind of lose that local flavor in terms of teams playing each other, this is one that I still think captures a lot of people's interests,” he says.
“So I'm all for those kind of traditional match-ups.
“The megaphone--we need it back.”