SHARP: Michigan State-Notre Dame biggest game in rivalry since 1966 tie

Fifty years later, the game remains one of the iconic moments in college football’s long historical narrative.

It was called “The Game of the Century” back when such distinctions didn’t possess a social media shelf life of a few hours. Michigan State versus Notre Dame. The Irish were ranked No. 1. The Spartans No. 2. A 10-10 tie. The result of a highly anticipated regular-season finale ensured two national champions.

College football was strictly a regional sport then. ABC couldn’t televise the game live nationally because both the Irish and the Spartans had used up their allotted television appearances by the time they played the game in November. ABC agreed to show the game nationally on tape delay only after complaints from fans from the South and West.

Mark Dantonio was 10 years old.

“I think I did,” the Michigan State coach said when asked Tuesday if he remembered watching the game on television. “At least as far as I know. I think I did.”

Current players can’t even remember a time when a college football games ended in a tie. Michigan State defensive back Demetrious Cox recalled the last time he played for a tie in any competitive endeavor.

“Tic-tac-toe,” he said.

Fifty years later, the 1966 Michigan State-Notre Dame game represents the true birth of a football program. Despite MSU’s national excellence in the 1950s and its winning the 1965 national crown, the 1966 game with Notre Dame is still looked upon as the breakthrough moment for Michigan State football because Notre Dame targeted the Spartans.

If Notre Dame points to you, then you must be a big deal.

Fifty years later, Saturday’s renewal in South Bend is the closest in long-range magnitude between these two teams since the 1966 encounter. Michigan State’s the team pursued. Same as 50 years ago, Notre Dame needs a win over Michigan State for its national championship prospects more than the Spartans need a win over the Irish. This is only the fourth time in the 32 meetings since the ’66 game that both teams are ranked in the top 20 nationally. It’s also only the third time since the ’66 game that Michigan State is ranked higher when both are ranked in the top 20.

“Once you’ve been some place,” Dantonio said, “and once a program has been to a certain place, I guess, in history, then it can always return to that place. That’s what I feel. It can always cycle back.”

This is a must-win for Notre Dame. The Irish’s season-opening overtime loss at Texas placed them in a position where they must run the table, finishing 11-1 for any reasonable shot at the College Football Playoff. Michigan State still has a margin for error, considering this will be only its second game of the season following an early bye in Week 2. But the Spartans are not seeking a crutch, a readily available excuse should a desperate and determined Notre Dame annihilate them Saturday.

The odds don’t favor Michigan State this weekend. And Dantonio is comfortable with that.

This isn’t about a lack of respect for the Spartans. Please, enough with shoulder chips, mispronounced names or other potentially motivational slights. If anything, the sentiment that the Spartans will likely have a difficult time against Notre Dame is a reflection of the program’s strengthening national reputation. Nobody takes them for granted any longer.

Opponents now point toward success against them as a testament to their own growth.

“The following of Notre Dame is obviously huge,” said MSU quarterback Tyler O’Connor. “In a sense, we have always kind of had a chip on our shoulder no matter what. But obviously, Notre Dame gets so much national coverage and everything like that. We’re going in there with a bigger chip on our shoulder and a bigger opportunity to show what we can do.”

It’s impossible for today’s players to fully appreciate what this series meant nationally 50 years ago, when college football played on a much smaller scale. They remain trapped in a time warp in which Michigan State found resolve through the doubts of others. But it’s actually Notre Dame grappling with outside perceptions that it can’t keep up with a changing landscape in the modern realm of reduced scholarships and multiple television appearances.

It’s the closest available parallel to 50 years ago. Except that — this time — no tie is permitted.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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