Michigan State Football: 5 most memorable Notre Dame games

What are the five most memorable games of Michigan State football’s rivalry with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish?

The Michigan State football rivalry series with Notre Dame has to be one of the best and most storied in program history. The Spartans and Fighting Irish go way back and even though Notre Dame leads the all-time series 48-28-1, things have been much more competitive since the 1997 campaign.

In fact, the Spartans hold a 10-7 lead in the series since then, but Notre Dame has had the last laugh, winning three straight in the series from 2011-13. It’s odd to think that such a big rivalry hasn’t been active since 2013, but that happens to be when these two programs last met.

South Bend was the location of the last contest between the two and the Fighting Irish stole a win from underneath the Spartans’ noses, somewhat controversially. Michigan State was flagged a handful of times for pass interference and they were all fairly questionable. That loss happened to be the Spartans only one of the season and could have been the difference between a Rose Bowl win and a national title appearance.

Let’s take a look at which other five games are the most memorable in Michigan State football history against Notre Dame.

5. Jeff Smoker to Herb Haygood (2000)

One of the first games my dad ever brought me to as a young Spartan fan, I remember walking down the ramp to ‘beat traffic’ and we thought the game would be over. We stopped to watch a 4th-and-10 play which would be Michigan State’s last hope to beat Notre Dame at home.

Jeff Smoker dropped back at his own 32-yard line, hit a perfect slant route past the first down marker over the middle of the field and Herb Haygood did the rest.

Scoring with under two minutes left, Spartan Stadium went nuts. This was the first year post-Nick Saban and fans were down in the dumps about the departure of the elite head coach, but this put their minds at ease, if only for a little while.

The Smoker to Haygood play will always be a memorable play for those who were Spartan fans at the time. Michigan State won, of course, 27-21.

4. Notre Dame ends John L.’s tenure (2006)

Many of the more memorable games during the series have happened over the past two decades. Prior to the 1997 season, the Spartans had just four wins against Notre Dame since 1966 and that was the year the rivalry really took off. As you can imagine, those four wins were probably memorable for the MSU fans at the time, but only because they were so rare.

Now, since the rivalry has been resurgent, the Spartans and Fighting Irish play much more competitive games. Heck, even when Bobby Williams and John L. Smith were head coaching the program, Michigan State gave the Irish a run for their money.

The 2006 game is memorable for all the wrong reasons, though. It was the game that inspired Mike Valenti’s “make a play” rant. The famous rant by the radio host made its rounds in the media and he had a point. The Spartans, under John L., seemed to play lifeless football.

Even after retaining a 37-21 lead in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Spartans squandered every opportunity they had to put the Fighting Irish away and the rain-soaked stadium fell silent as Brady Quinn marched them all the way back.

Drew Stanton and Co. couldn’t believe their eyes when the final seconds ticked off the clock and they were defeated 40-37 in epic meltdown fashion.

This game can be looked at as a positive, though. It was the game that truly decided John L.’s fate and led to the hiring of Mark Dantonio.

So for that, we thank you, Notre Dame.

3. Planting the flag (2005)

The year before John L.’s final Notre Dame debacle, the Spartans went into South Bend and came out with one of the most exciting wins in the series’ history. It was also one of the most controversial post-game actions Michigan State has ever subjected on an opponent.

The two teams battled it out for four quarters which led to an overtime meeting. The Irish kicked a field goal in the second overtime after both tied it up in the first OT. Michigan State needed a field goal to send it into a third extra period and a touchdown to win.

Drew Stanton engineered a perfect option play, pitching it to Jason Teague who ran it 19 yards for a touchdown and the team swarmed the field. A few Spartan players decided to plant the block ‘S’ flag in the field, much to the dismay of Irish fans.

Obviously the two programs are big-time rivals and stuff like this can happen in the heat of the moment, but Notre Dame took it to heart. This is probably why the Irish stormed back to victory at Spartan Stadium and ended John L.’s Spartan career the next season — OK, this was probably the last thing on their minds when the Irish were down 37-21.

The flag planting game will forever be remembered as John L.’s last triumph and a huge early-season win for Michigan State over a top rival.

2. ‘Little Giants’ (2010)

There may not have been a more exciting game in the series to attend, other than what comes in at No. 1 on this list, than the 2010 ‘Little Giants’ game which ended in a 34-31 overtime victory for Michigan State.

Unfortunately, Mark Dantonio was taken to the hospital because of a minor heart attack after the game and maybe it was because he called the play of the year to win. He showed just how ballsy he was, setting up for the game-tying field goal in the first overtime from 46 yards out.

Dan Conroy had been one of the more reliable kickers Coach D had during his short time in East Lansing, but he wasn’t going to let the All-Big Ten specialist knock one through the uprights to send it into a second OT. No, he was about to let the punter, Aaron Bates, throw a touchdown pass on a fake to tight end Charlie Gantt.

The snap was good, the hold seemed to be in place, but Bates stood up, bounced a bit, ran to his right and hit a wide open Gantt who ran it into the end zone with the ball in the air. The celebration was crazy as the play dubbed ‘Little Giants’ gave the Spartans a big non-conference win.

Michigan State needed a win like that after a tough 2009 season in which the Spartans hovered around .500. The Spartans finished the season 11-2 and ranked No. 14 after a blowout loss to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.

1. Game of the Century (1966)

No, I wasn’t alive for this one and can’t really say I remember it, but listening to how it’s described, it has to be the most memorable game in the rivalry’s history. Something can’t be dubbed the ‘Game of the Century’ and not be remembered by millions of fans, coaches and former players.

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The ‘Game of the Century’ is in its 50th year anniversary. Back in November of 1966, the No. 2 Spartans hosted 8-0 and No. 1 Notre Dame in what looked to be the game that would decide the eventual national champion.

This was where the rivalry really gained momentum. Michigan State and Notre Dame weren’t even supposed to meet during the 1966 season, but a scheduling snafu led to Iowa dropping the Fighting Irish from their slate at the last minute and the Spartans agreed to continue a series with Notre Dame.

Finishing controversially, the bout between the college football heavyweights ended in a 10-10 tie, dropping each record to 9-0-1 for the Spartans and 8-0-1 for the Irish. Each team went on to claim a national title, though, and it happened to be one of the most evenly matched games in series history.

We can only hope Saturday’s contest is just as exciting.

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