September 14, 2016
This Saturday night at 7:30, the No. 12 MSU football team will take on the No.18 Notre Dame Fighting Irish in South Bend, Ind. for the 78th time. MSU head coach Mark Dantonio and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly have both their teams prepared for battle, ready to carry on tone of the oldest rivalries in NCAA history.
This battle for the Megaphone Trophy has been through it all, including the 1966 “Game of the Century” that ended up a 10-10 tie between then No. 2 MSU and No. 1 Notre Dame. This marks 50 years since that historic game, and this matchup will carry heavy implications for the remainder of the Spartan season.
Dantonio and his Spartans meet up once again in Irish territory, looking for revenge after their last meeting in 2013. That year, MSU went on to be Rose Bowl champions, but was prevented from a potential spot in the NCAA championship game, as their lone loss came at the hands of Kelly’s Irish squad.
“At the end of the day, when you get on the field everything sort of I think dissipates and goes away, and you start playing football,” Dantonio said. “And that’s the way it’s always been. That’s the way it will be again I’m sure. Good football team down there to play, great challenge for us. And we’ve got to live up and measure up to that challenge.”
After senior captain and quarterback Tyler O’Connor said this week has been the “toughest bye week that we’ve had since we’ve been here over the past two years,” O’Connor talked about how the team was preparing for the game.
“The prep never stops whether it’s in the film, it didn’t really stop this whole weekend in the film room or getting our bodies right and healthy and getting our legs up under us,” O’Connor said. “It’s been a long time coming. I think they said it’s almost like a second season opener because the bye week was so early, and this could catapult our season right here.”
Motivated to win
Heading into the game, some of the Spartan players have a little extra motivation. With it being the 50th anniversary of the “Game of the Century,” senior linebacker Riley Bullough, whose mom and grandfather went to Notre Dame and has family ties to both universities, has the motivation.
“I think it means a lot especially to me, my grandpa being part of that game,” Bullough said. “But the guys now understand what kind of program Notre Dame is. … So we know it’s going to be a battle down there. But we feel like our guys are going to be ready to play and we’re all excited for the opportunity.”
O’Connor and Dantonio praised the play of the offensive line, who will have to be a little better across the board if they want to maintain that praise. Notre Dame’s starting front four linemen on defense average a height of 6-foot-4 and a quarter inch with a combined weight of 1,156 pounds.
MSU’s defensive unit will be up to a major challenge, especially the secondary, since the last meeting with the Irish in 2013 the secondary was flagged numerous times in for pass interference calls. Dantonio referenced that Notre Dame attempted downfield throws 20 times against MSU when they last played.
“It’s all about technique,” senior safety and captain Demetrious Cox said. “Guys are going to play fast on both teams. We’ve got to play sound technique, doing little things down the field. Getting our hands on guys early off the line. Certain things like that, like (assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator) Coach Harlon Barnett tried to teach us early on.”
The challenge ahead
On top of that, the defensive front will have to deal with the playmaking ability of Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, who has had an impressive first two weeks of the season. After throwing for more than 200 yards and accounting for six total touchdowns in a double-overtime loss to Texas, Kizer followed up that performance with a 15-for-18, 156-yard and two touchdown showing against Nevada.
The Irish have a plethora of other offensive weapons, including wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and running back Tarean Folston. But, Dantonio thinks he has his players ready to step up and play physical against the potent Notre Dame attack.
“I think that our defensive line is going to have to come to play,” Dantonio said. “Going to have to pressure the quarterback. Going to have to stop the run, do those type of things. Obviously, Malik will be a catalyst involved in helping to do that. All of our players, every single one of our players will have their hands full when we go down there, that’s the nature of this and they’ll have to play to a high level.”
Notre Dame’s defense, on the other hand, looked susceptible to long completions, as they gave up two completions of more than 65 yards to the Longhorns and as a unit allowed 300 total yards to Nevada. That being said, O’Connor has been working with co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner and his receivers on how to take advantage of potential weak spots in the Irish defense.
“It’s important for us to get the ball in our playmakers hands, and we’ll do that early and often, I guess, is what Coach Warner says,” O’Connor said. “We’ll have them on their heels and kind of keep attacking because we know we’re going to have to score points.”
The Irish secondary matched up against Spartan receivers is certainly something to watch for on Saturday night, but Notre Dame cornerback Cole Luke said they “expect to shut people out and that’s what we are going to do,” in advance of their meeting.
A two week break
Nevertheless, the Spartans will be looking to capitalize off the two week preparation they had before this game. It will be seen whether or not MSU could keep their in-game conditioning intact or if their bruises in week one have healed, but one thing is for certain — they will have to come out with the same intensity of the 1966 team when they step onto the field.
“Notre Dame, their team was like a pro team to me… those guys were huge,” former MSU player Clinton Jones, a key player in MSU’s tie in the 1966 game with Notre Dame, said. “We didn’t have the height or size of Notre Dame, but size and height has nothing to do with your spirit… When I look back, it was a testimony to the whole collegiate football spirit. …I think we will be talking about it forever, as the game of the century. It’s a game that people won’t forget.”
The same holds true now and Dantonio, with his players at his side, will have to embody that same spirit if they want to leave South Bend with a victory, honoring those greats who wore the green and white before them.
Check out statenews.com on Friday for more on the 50th anniversary of the “Game of the Century.”