One of college football’s greatest rivalries will be renewed this weekend. No, I’m not talking about Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt (they have played each other 37 times). I’m, of course, talking about Notre Dame and Michigan State. These two schools have played 77 times since 1897 with the Fighting Irish winning 48 games and the Spartans winning 28. Oh, and the one tie is considered to be one of the greatest moments in college football history.
I recently tallied a list of Notre Dame’s greatest rivalries and the series with Michigan State clocked in at No. 3 for its longevity and competitiveness. There have been countless games over the years that have stood out for their drama and bearing on the national title. Here are the five greatest.
5. Michigan Agricultural College 13, Notre Dame 7
East Lansing, Mich. – Nov. 16, 1918
In this early game in the series, both teams struggled to move the ball through inches of mud in the pouring rain. The Aggies (the school did not become Michigan State and adopt the Spartans mascot until 1925) got on the board first with a touchdown but missed the extra point. Notre Dame responded in the second quarter thanks to a drive engineered by the play of George Gipp (yes, “The Gipper”) and took a 7-6 halftime lead. The Aggies then put together a drive in the third quarter that was comprised of smash-mouth runs and short passes to take a 13-7 lead. The Aggies held on to win, giving Irish head coach Knute Rockne the first loss of his career. Notre Dame would not lose to the Aggies/Spartans again until 1950.
4. Notre Dame 14, Michigan State 10
South Bend, Ind. – Oct. 6, 1973
Some fans of these programs may argue this game’s placement but let me say this: Notre Dame’s 1973 national championship team sported one of the toughest defenses in college football history. The Irish gave up an average of eight points a game and blew out most of its regular season opponents. Michigan State was an exception. Notre Dame jumped out to a 14-0 halftime lead, but the Spartans pulled within four points in the fourth quarter thanks to a field goal and an interception returned for a touchdown by linebacker Ray Nester. On its next series, Michigan State drove all the way down to the Irish 24-yard line, but Mike Townsend intercepted Charlie Baggett’s pass and Notre Dame held on to win. The only team to play a closer game with the Irish that year was then-undefeated Alabama, which the Irish beat 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl.
3. Michigan State 34, Notre Dame 31
East Lansing, Mich. – Sept. 18, 2010
Michigan State’s first 11-win season ever was made possible by winning this slugfest. Both teams seemed to trade scores and neither led by more than a touchdown throughout the game. A pair of touchdown passes by quarterback Dayne Crist put Notre Dame ahead 28-21 early in the fourth quarter, but Michigan State tied the game when Kirk Cousins hit B.J. Cunningham with a 24-yard touchdown pass with 7:43 left. Neither team was able to move the ball through the remainder of regulation and the game went into overtime. Notre Dame kicked a field goal on its first possession to take a 31-28 lead, which was followed by Irish linebacker Darius Fleming sacking Cousins for a nine-yard loss during Michigan State’s possession. Facing fourth-and-14 yards from Notre Dame’s 29-yard line, the Spartans set up to kick a game-tying field goal. Holder Aaron Bates took the snap, stood up and tossed the ball to tight end Charlie Gantt for the game-winning touchdown. In the hours after the game, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio suffered a mild heart attack and missed the next two games so he could recover.
2. Notre Dame 20, Michigan State 19
East Lansing, Mich. – Sept. 22, 1990
The top-ranked Irish got on the board in the first quarter with a five-yard touchdown run by Ricky Watters. However, the Spartans responded by scoring 12 points within 5:20 in the second quarter, thanks to a field goal, a blocked punt out of the end zone and a one-yard touchdown run by Hyland Hickson. Michigan State added another touchdown to take a 19-7 lead into the fourth quarter. Notre Dame closed the gap with a second touchdown by Watters. Irish quarterback Rick Mirer then drove his team 81 yards for the game-winning score. For Michigan State, the heartbreaking play came when Mirer lined up on the Spartan 36-yard line and fired a pass that bounced off Michigan State defensive back Todd Murray’s shoulder pad into the hands of wide receiver Adrian Jarrell just two yards from the end zone. The play is known amongst the two teams as “The Immaculate Deflection.”
1. Michigan State 10, Notre Dame 10
East Lansing, Mich. – Nov. 19, 1966
The first college football matchup to receive the “Game of the Century” moniker in 20 years pitted 8-0 Notre Dame against 9-0 Michigan State. The legendary game featured a cadre of talent, including Alan Page, Jim Lynch and Bubba Smith. In a hard-fought contest, Michigan State took a 10-7 lead into halftime, but Notre Dame tied the game with a 28-yard field goal at the start of the fourth quarter. Another field goal attempt by Irish kicker Joe Azzaro went wide right with 4:39 left, giving Michigan State the ball back. The Spartans actually converted a fourth-and-one situation on its own 29-yard line with a quarterback sneak, but were eventually forced to punt. Notre Dame got the ball back and head coach Ara Parseghian chose to run the clock out instead of go for the win. His decision has been debated for the last 50 years, but Notre Dame still won the AP and UPI Coaches Poll national championships, while Michigan State was crowned by four minor ranking systems.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)