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Seeing Green

Mike Gilloon | Sunday, September 24, 2006

Forty years ago, the Michigan State athletic department handed out 745 press credentials for a football game played on a dreary November day in East Lansing.

Forty years ago, seven consensus All-Americans played in that contest.

Forty years ago, Notre Dame ran out the clock on Michigan State as the game ended in a 10-10 tie.

This Saturday night, Notre Dame and Michigan State mark the anniversary of one of the greatest college football games ever played when the Irish and Spartans square off for the 38th time since their infamous deadlock.

And while Michigan State looks back on the 1966 matchup and cringes at a national title that slipped away, Notre Dame looks at more recent history with the thought that the team they so famously edged for the championship 40 seasons ago has finally gained the upper hand.

Immovable objects

Notre Dame was rolling in 1966. Three years into the Era of Ara, the Irish were No. 1 in the country, had outscored their opponents 301-28 through eight games and needed just two more victories to win Ara Parseghian’s first national championship.

Michigan State wasn’t doing so bad itself. The Spartans were undefeated, No. 2 in the country and fresh off a 12-3 victory at Notre Dame one year earlier.

Notre Dame came one win from a national title in 1964. Michigan State almost won the championship in 1965, falling 14-12 to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Now ranked first and second in all the major polls, the Irish and Spartans met to decide the national champion.

The Irish had four All-Americans on their side – defensive end Alan Page, offensive guard Tom Regner, halfback Nick Eddy and linebacker Jim Lynch (who would go on to win the Maxwell as the nation’s best player.)

The Spartans had three of their own in halfback Clinton Jones, defensive end Bubba Smith and defensive back George Webster. Smith, especially, was a force. Standing 6-foot-7 and weighing 283 pounds, he was a monster by 1966 standards. Comparatively, Page – who would become an NFL Hall-of-Famer – stood 6-foot-5 and weighed in at 238 pounds.

Simply put, the only squad in the country that could stop Notre Dame was Michigan State and the only squad in the country that could stop Michigan State was Notre Dame.

Unfortunately, neither went anywhere.

“Tie one for the Gipper”

It’s hard to find anything bad about Ara Parseghian.

A legendary coach, charismatic speaker and head of a foundation searching for a cure to a disease that has taken the lives of three of his grandchildren, Parseghian is known, respected and loved by millions.

If there is a chink in his armor, it could only come from one event.

The year – 1966. The opponent – Michigan State. The score – 10-10.

When Parseghian ran out the clock with the ball at Notre Dame’s own 30-yard line and 1:10 remaining, he took plenty of heat.

Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins wrote that Notre Dame had “tied one for the Gipper.”

Michigan State fans howled, upset the Spartans were still stuck at No. 2 with no more games to play. (Though Big Ten champions, Michigan State could not play in the Rose Bowl that season because of conference rules against back-to-back appearances.)

Notre Dame exhaled – happy to win after losing Eddy and quarterback Terry Hanratty to injuries during the game – and went on to thump USC 51-0 and win Parseghian’s first national title.

Of course, the tie would never happen today, as overtime was introduced to college football in 1996.

Spartan backers like to say Parseghian was afraid to lose. Irish fans point out he had a diabetic backup quarterback in Coley O’Brien and choosing to escape East Lansing without a loss and with the No. 1 ranking was a smart decision.

Neither side will ever agree.

No easy win

1966 was Michigan State’s last serious run at a national title. While the Spartans struggled for the next 30 years, the Irish flourished, winning three more championships.

Notre Dame rarely lost to Michigan State after the famous tie, winning all but four from 1967 until the series took a two-year break, beginning in 1995.

That’s where things get interesting.

Maybe Notre Dame just declined. Maybe the Spartans finally figured out a formula for beating the Irish. Whatever the reason, the Irish-Spartans series – whose most famous game is one only Notre Dame remembers fondly – has turned into one dominated by Michigan State.

It might be the years of beatings by Irish hands. It might be the national title they felt they should have won. It might be just that one program has gotten better and the other has declined.

The fact is that Michigan State isn’t just a pesky opponent Notre Dame must deal with before bigger games against Michigan and USC every season. Michigan State is now Notre Dame’s biggest problem.

Upset no more

The Irish have entered their game with the Spartans as the higher-ranked team six times since the annual series returned from its hiatus in 1997. Notre Dame’s record in those games? 1-5.

Overall, the Irish are 2-7 against the Spartans in that span. The only time Michigan State entered as the higher-ranked team was 1997, when Notre Dame lost 23-7 at home in former coach Bob Davie’s first season.

After the 1966 matchup, Notre Dame could practically write in the Michigan State game as a win. In more recent years, the same could be said for the Spartans.

Michigan State has found the formula to beat Notre Dame. It doesn’t matter if Notre Dame is the favorite – which it almost always is – the Spartans consistently beat the Irish.

Unlike 40 years ago, Notre Dame enters this game far from the No. 1 spot after its 47-21 loss to Michigan last Saturday. Still, No. 12 Notre Dame heads to East Lansing in a more prominent position than the Spartans, who haven’t cracked the AP poll, but do have 33 votes.

What’s Vegas have to say about Saturday’s game? The Irish by three.

The only sure thing is there won’t be a tie.