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Spartans game a crossroads for ND

Matt Lozar | Thursday, September 16, 2004

Think back to the Michigan State game during the 2002 season.The No. 12 Irish were 3-0 and coming off a 25-23 statement win over No. 7 Mich-igan. The Spartans had defeated the Irish in the previous five match-ups between these teams.And it looked like that streak would extend to six.Michigan State receiver Charles Rogers made a circus catch in the back of the end zone to put the Spartans ahead 17-14 late in the fourth quarter. It turned out the Irish, for once in this series, had a big play of their own.Pat Dillingham, filling in for an injured Carlyle Holiday, hit an open Arnaz Battle who got a block from Gary Godsey and sprinted down the left sideline to give the Irish a miraculous 21-17 win.That play, that win, kept that team believing something special was brewing in Tyrone Willingham’s first season in South Bend.”Two years ago was exciting with the big play Arnaz made, because it changed our season,” Holiday said. “It was the start of big things to come in 2002.”Now think back to last year’s game against Michigan State.The Irish were 1-1 and coming off a 38-0 embarrassment at Michigan. Meanwhile, the Spartans were 2-1 and coming off an embarrassing loss of their own – a 20-19 defeat at the hands of WAC “powerhouse” Louisiana Tech. The Spartans had a plus-five turnover margin, but Louisiana Tech scored 13 points in the final 69 seconds of the game to pull off the upset.The Spartans appeared to be the perfect medicine for a beaten-down Irish team.But holding true to recent history, the Irish couldn’t solve the Michigan State mystery, losing 22-16 at home in a game no one thought the Irish should lose. Brady Quinn relieved Holiday, couldn’t complete the comeback and became the eventual starter next week at Purdue en route to a disappointing 5-7 campaign.”I think this team remembers the game last year, I know I do,” Quinn said. “I feel that was the game we really felt slip through our fingers. “That’s something we are going to be looking at this weekend.”So what does all this mean?For some unexplainable reason, the Spartans always seem to play their best game against the Irish. Holiday said the closeness of the games stays in the back of your mind. Kyle Budinscak can’t put his finger on it. But Brandon Hoyte “couldn’t care less” about the past – whether it’s the losses to the Spartans or last week’s win over Michigan. Derek Curry said nothing in the past will affect this game.Willingham’s job is trying to find a place somewhere in the middle to get his team ready for a pivotal game.”You want a balance. You want an awareness of what happened in the past, but you don’t ever want to linger on it,” he said Tuesday. “If those players from the past were going to play for Michigan State, then I would put more emphasis on it. But I don’t think any of them are in the lineup.”It’s going to be their 2004 team against our 2004 team. It simply will come down to this: the team that plays the best will win.” That’s the attitude this team needs to take.The Irish did it last week against the Wolverines. They were the best team on the field and didn’t focus too much on the opening-week loss.Now they have the chance to continue their season turnaround. Once again, that game comes against Michigan State.Once again, the Spartans will have a major impact on which way this season heads.The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.Contact Matt Lozar at [email protected]