Fighting Irish Flashback: Notre Dame and Michigan State end in a stalemate
Notre Dame and Michigan State have had some memorable contests over the years. However, none were more iconic (or rather, infamous) than their matchup that occurred 57 years ago today, when the top-ranked Fighting Irish faced off against the second-ranked Spartans. The battle of the two unbeaten teams, each led by legendary coaches in Ara Parseghian and Duffy Daugherty, was considered that season's de-factor national championship game.
Both teams were hungry for a victory after their efforts for a championship were thwarted in the two seasons leading up to the contest. The Fighting Irish were favorites to be named national champions in 1964 before USC handed them their first loss in the final game, dashing their hopes for a Bowl Game appearance. Meanwhile, Michigan State's 1965 season ended in heartbreaking fashion, as they lost 14-12 against UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Some still recognized them as co-national champions, but Alabama occupied the top spot in the rankings once the dust had settled.
Notre Dame may have an edge in the rankings, but there is no denying that Michigan State had the better team for the better part of two decades leading up to the contest, and that was clear whenever they went head-to-head. Between 1950 and 1965, Michigan won 12 games between the teams, while Notre Dame only came out on top in only two. The Spartans also came out on top in their meeting a year prior, winning 12-3.
History may not have been on Notre Dame's side, but they were on an absolute tear in 1966. They dished out five shutouts and won their eight games by a combined score of 301-28, displaying a level of dominance that had rarely been seen in college football history. The Spartans also fielded a great team in '66, and they were actually first in the polls until suffering a close loss to Ohio State a month before their clash.
The contest was billed as the 'Game of the Century,' but some were weary of that title after the previous game to earn that recognition, a 1946 game between Army vs. Notre Dame, ended in a 0-0 tie. Nevertheless, over 80 thousand fans were in attendance at Spartan Stadium for the contest, which set a record that stood until the two teams faced off again in 1990. The game was originally only scheduled to air regionally, but pressure from across the county led ABC executives to air it everywhere but North and South Dakota (so it could still be considered a regional broadcast).
Both teams featured a slew of talented players (Michigan State had four players selected within the first eight picks of the 1967 NFL Draft) on both sides of the ball, but the Irish were severely undermanned in the contest. They were without their star running back Nick Eddy, who slipped on ice while getting off the train in Michigan, and their highly efficient quarterback, Terry Hanratty, also got knocked out of the game after a brutal hit by the Spartans All-American defensive lineman Bubba Smith in the first quarter.
Michigan State controlled the game's tempo early and raced to a 10-0 lead midway through the second quarter. The outlook was bleak for Notre Dame without some of their top offensive talent. However, the Irish's backup quarterback, Coley O'Brien, showed he would not go down without a fight, leading a quick scoring drive to cut the lead to three going into the half.
The two defenses took turns dominating the opposition from there, and the score remained deadlocked at 10-7 until Notre Dame tied the game at ten on the first play of the fourth quarter. From there, it was more of the same. Hard-nosed defensive play, lots of punts, and little offensive action. Michigan State didn't have any more plays past midfield, and each opportunity Notre Dame had in their opponent's territory was because of defensive turnovers. Unsurprisingly, those opportunities were promptly squandered.
Notre Dame had one more chance to break the tie after getting the ball back with a minute-and-a-half left to play. However, to the surprise of everyone involved, Parseghian chose to play ultra conservatively to close out the game. He opted to run four times in a row to bleed out the clock instead of attempting to drive down the field in the waning moments.
The defenses should have received all the credit for the game's outcome, as each side of the ball was dominated by stifling defensive play. Four interceptions, five fumbles, and 20 rushing plays that got stood up at the line of scrimmage. Nevertheless, all anyone could talk about was the tie, and the fact that Notre Dame seemed to have fully accepted it.
Notre Dame did not get reprimanded for the tie. In fact, it seemingly worked out in their favor. They defeated USC 51-0 the following week and were named college football's consensus national champions. Meanwhile, Michigan State's season was over with the tie. Had the Irish gone for the victory against the Spartans and made a mistake along the way, it feels safe to say they would not have received the honor.
By the end of the contest, Notre Dame was simply playing not to lose, and, to the dismay of seemingly everyone, they accomplished that task. Those who had been around 20 years earlier for the previous 'Game of the Century' could not believe the outcome. It was the worst type of Déjà vu. Another all-time hyped battle ending in a tie.
The game may have ended in a tie, but Notre Dame's willingness to do so left everyone with a sour taste in their mouth. It's a moment that the Fighting Irish faithful would like to bury entirely. A stain on their otherwise pristine history as one of college football's most prestigious programs. In fact, loyal Notre Dame lifers might curse you out for even reminding them this game ever existed. I'm sorry I had to, but it was still an iconic moment in college football history.