Friday, September 16, 2005

Into the Way Back Machine | by Pat

At 2:00 I'm going to meet with the team and I'm going to tell you right now exactly what I'm going to say to the team to start off the meeting. Michigan State has now won four consecutive games at Notre Dame Stadium, which happens to be the second longest winning streak for a Notre Dame opponent in Notre Dame Stadium. Only Purdue had won five straight from 1954 to 1962. No other school has won as many as three straight games against the Irish here at Notre Dame

In addition, Michigan State has won 11 games here at this stadium, which is more than any one of our opponents in the history. Purdue has beaten Notre Dame 10 times, Southern Cal has beaten us 10 times, Pitt has beaten us eight times, but no one has beat us more times (in Notre Dame Stadium) than Michigan State. And by the way, one last comment about Michigan State - in their first two games they won 91-28. So before the players hear anything as it relates to the Michigan game, that's the first thing they are going to be hearing today.
- Charlie Weis, September 11th 2005

Coach Weis started off his press conference with a bang, immediately hammering home the importance of the upcoming ND/MSU game. Aside from the sobering reminder of the recent home record against Sparty, the fact that no team has beat Notre Dame at home more than Michigan State comes as a bit of a surpise. Perhaps that is because when the Spartans don't immediately come to mind when one tries to think of Notre Dame's most challenging foes.

In fact, to me, Michigan State tends to be a bit of the forgotten "traditional" opponent. There does seem to be some reasoning behind this though. Lately, the game has followed the Michigan tilt which tends to attract most of the fan/media attention, both the week before and after. Likewise, MSU doesn't share the Hoosier pride angle (such that is is) that fuels the Purdue game, the respect paid to Navy, nor the sheer history and grandeur of the annual Notre Dame/USC game. Maybe it's a factor that outside of the 10-10 tie in 1966, games against the land grant school in East Lansing haven't always had the national importance or significance of other opponents. Whatever the reason, it is safe to say that the average Notre Dame fan is unaware of the rich history shared between Notre Dame and Michigan State on the gridiron.

The first game between Notre Dame and the Spartans - then the State Agricultural College Aggies - was in 1897. The only current day opponent that Notre Dame played before that was Purdue in 1896 (unless we get Illinois Cycling Club or Physicians and Surgeons back on the schedule.) It was only the Aggies second season playing football and Notre Dame's tenth, so both schools started to play each other in their program's infancy.

Missing a year here or there, Notre Dame kept playing Michigan State on a regular basis. In 1917, the futures of both schools almost took a decidedly different turn. Jesse Harper was head coach of the Fighting Irish and was enjoying another successful season. So too was his assistant coach, Knute Rockne, who was gaining notice for this motivational skills and football knowledge. Ready to take over a program of his own, Rockne began fielding offers from schools eager to have him as their head coach. Late in 1917, Rockne verbally accepted Michigan State's offer to become their next football head coach. However, early in 1918, while Rockne was preparing to become a Spartan, Coach Harper decided to retire from coaching and return to his family's farm in Kansas. Now with the ND head job open and the alumni and administration alike calmoring for him to take the job, Rockne decided to stay at his alma mater and informed Michigan State he wouldn't be taking the job. We could take a second to try and fathom what would have happened had Rockne taken the job in East Lansing, but I'd rather not.

Notre Dame continued to play MSU for another 3 years until 1921, when the ND/MSU series took a 27 year break. In the meantime, MSU did eventually get their ND man when they named former Four Horsemen member Jim Crowley as their head coach in 1929. Crowley only coached in East Lansing for four years, but never had a losing season and help develop an assistant coach by the name of Frank Leahy.

In 1949, Michigan State joined the Big Ten to fill the vacancy left by the departed University of Chicago. Fellow conference member and Michigan AD, Fritz Crisler pressured the Spartans to follow Michigan's lead and drop Notre Dame from their schedule. However, owing to the fact that Notre Dame had stayed loyal and kept Michigan State on its schedule when the Spartan program was an independent, the Spartans decided not to boycott the Irish.

Those games in the '50s weren't kind to the Irish however as the Spartan program under head coaches Clarence "Biggie" Munn (along with assistant coach Dan Devine) and Hugh "Duffy" Daugherty were a powerhouse and went 7-1 against ND during the decade.

In the '60s, the Spartans kept the winning advantage by winning six of the ten games. In fact, until Notre Dame won in during Ara's first year in 1964, Michigan State had won eight in a row against the Irish. But the one game that defines this period was the so-called "Game of the Century" 10-10 tie in 1966. One of the most famous games in college football history, it is the only time the two teams met ranked #1 and #2 in the country.

The tides turned in the '70s, '80s, and early '90s as the Irish established dominance over the rivalry. It was a down period for the Spartan program that was only ranked twice during those 20 years while facing the Irish.

The matchup took a two year break in 1995 and 1996 and when it resumed, the Spartans took full advantage. The recent history was summed up by Coach Weis above, as the Spartans have won six of the last eight against Notre Dame, with three of the Irish losses coming when Notre Dame was ranked and Michigan State was not. Most of the more recent games were not of much national significance, but will be remembered for the way they all seemed to come down to a dramatic big-yardage 4th quarter plays such as Gary Scott's 80 yard TD catch and run, Herb Haywood's 68 yard TD reception, Charles Rodgers 47 yard TD receptions (getting sick of this pattern yet?), and Arnaz Battle's 60 yard TD catch and run from Pat Dillingham (finally, we get one).

The biggest thing to take away from the Notre Dame/Michigan State series, aside from the loyalty that each school showed one another, is the way the balance of power shifts back and forth from one extreme to the other. Just look at the Notre Dame W-L records against Michigan State broken down by years.
1897 - 1921: 13-2
1948 - 1969: 6-13-1
1970-1994: 22-3
1997-2004: 2-6
Tomorrow we will find out if Weis is able to buck the current trend and get the Irish back on track.

(Kudos once again to Shake Down the Thunder for its excellent history of the early years of Notre Dame football and BGS reader Mike, who contributed some of the info used in his post.)