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Carson: ND, MSU an old-fashioned gridiron rivalry

| Friday, September 16, 2016

Just a look at the final score tells you it’s from a bygone era. So might the fact that the Irish made the journey to East Lansing, Michigan, via train, or perhaps that the game wasn’t televised live nationally — despite being between the two top-ranked teams in college football.

It finished No. 1 Notre Dame 10, No. 2 Michigan State 10.

The 1966 “Game of the Century” was one for the ages, and a game that, ever since its conclusion, has lived on as one of college football’s greatest and most impactful games.

This exclusive from then-Irish head coach Ara Parseghian appeared in the third-ever issue of The Observer prior to the "Game of the Century."Observer File Photo, Notre Dame Archives
This exclusive from then-Irish head coach Ara Parseghian appeared in the third-ever issue of The Observer prior to the “Game of the Century.”

A quick aside before we go further. I’m not going to devote 500 words to defending then-Irish head coach Ara Parseghian’s decision to run out the clock, rather than go for the win, because it’s clear it was the right call. The next week, Notre Dame throttled No. 10 USC, finished 9-0-1 and won the national championship. That’s the whole goal, right?

But that game was everything a college football fan could’ve wanted. The two top teams in the land, playing a rivalry game, going head-to-head for a national title, effectively. The Irish, down a starting quarterback and running back by the end of the first quarter, rallying from 10-0 down to tie the game. And, of course, a coaching decision from Parseghian that would’ve made Skip Bayless’ head roll Monday morning on cable television.

We won’t get anything like the 1966 showdown Saturday, but this week’s matchup between the two programs, 50 years on from that great game, provides a great opportunity. An opportunity to reflect on that game, to look at the state of the programs and, perhaps above all else, to remind ourselves of how great this series has been over the years

It might not end up being the case this year, but one season ago, the Spartans and Irish were both in the thick of things for the playoff race. Ahead of Notre Dame’s trip to Stanford last year, Irish fans were involved in a politicking battle with State fans over which team had the better resume for inclusion in that year’s College Football Playoff. And while it ultimately proved irrelevant thanks to Notre Dame’s loss Thanksgiving weekend at Stanford, wouldn’t it have been a little annoying if one school missed out on the playoff because the series was on a short hiatus?

For Notre Dame to make the playoff in any given year, it must assert itself as being better than two major conference champions. The Irish will likely have that opportunity regularly with Stanford, a perennial power in the Pac-12, and this year, that opportunity might present itself with the Spartans. If the Cardinal and Michigan State win their leagues and Notre Dame wins out, the Irish are in the playoff. End of discussion.

What head coach Mark Dantonio has done at Michigan State is nothing short of remarkable. In 2013, he led Michigan State to within one game of the BCS National Championship — that game? A loss at Notre Dame, of course — and last year, he took his program into the playoff out of a division with Michigan and Ohio State.

You know what you’re going to get with the Spartans: a good, physical, old-fashioned football team. Quite fitting, right?

But when it’s all set and done, with Campus Crossroads construction and reminders of the school’s membership in the ACC around, perhaps this weekend will offer a glimpse back in time. To an era where Notre Dame’s local rivalries with the Spartans, Purdue and, yes, Michigan flourished. While perhaps hatred has never been the theme of this specific game, we’ve seen some great moments, from Golden Tate jumping into the Spartan band in 2009 or the fake field goal State won to win in overtime the next season.

After Notre Dame makes that 150-mile trip to Spartan Stadium next season, it’ll be another six until a 2023 neutral-site game reunites the once-annual rivals. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of conference realignment that’s happening all around the country — not just at Notre Dame — and one that forces us to pause a bit when those rivalries are able to take place.

Fifty years ago, in the third-ever edition of The Observer, Ara Parseghian had the following to say about the Spartans:

“Michigan State is a fine opponent year after year, and we are fortunate to enjoy such a series.”

It’ll be an old-fashioned college football Saturday this week in South Bend. A half century on from the “Game of the Century,” to echo Parseghian, we’ll be “fortunate” to enjoy it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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