Sept. 14, 2016

By John Heisler

The University of Notre Dame hasn’t met Michigan State University on the football field since 2013–so that means none of the freshmen, sophomores or juniors on Irish football coach Brian Kelly’s current team have firsthand experience facing the Spartans.

The Irish last played the Michigan State on the fourth week of the 2013 campaign, handing the Spartans their only defeat of that season. Since that game Michigan State’s combined record is 34-4.

That led to Kelly spending plenty of time Tuesday at his weekly media conference explaining his players’ appreciation for the physical manner in which the Spartans do business on the football field.

And if any of the current Notre Dame players have any questions, there are more than enough former Irish (and even a former Michigan Wolverine) with offices in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex with memories and stories of their own to explain the Irish-Spartan rivalry.

Kelly’s own experiences with the Spartans go back to 2004 when he took his Central Michigan team to East Lansing. When current Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio left Cincinnati to take the Spartan job beginning in 2007, Kelly came from Central Michigan to Cincinnati to replace him.

Irish players have plenty of other resources if they want clues on playing the guys in green and white:

Autry Denson, the current Notre Dame running backs coach and a former all-star Irish running back, never beat Michigan State-with his Irish teams losing in both 1997 and 1998, with Denson scoring a third-period touchdown in pacing Notre Dame in rushing in ’98 with 62 yards.

–Former Irish safety Jeff Burris, now a senior defensive analyst under Kelly, was a perfect 4-0 against the Spartans from 1990-93, with his Notre Dame squads coming in ranked first, 11th, seventh and fourth in those years. Burris made nine tackles against Michigan State as a junior in ’92.

Todd Lyght’s Irish beat Michigan State four straight years (1987-90), including as a junior and senior when he and his teammates ranked number one nationally when they faced the Spartans (Lyght missed the ’90 game due to injury). The Flint, Michigan, product and All-America cornerback (and current Irish secondary coach) made a late interception against the Spartans as a freshman in ’87 and added another interception as a junior in ’89.

Greg Hudson, now an Irish defensive analyst, played linebacker for Notre Dame in 1986 and ’87, with those Irish teams splitting a pair of games against the Spartans.

–Current Irish linebacker coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston, who played on the defensive line at Michigan, hasn’t forgotten that he made a tackle for loss against the Spartans in a ’95 loss to Michigan State in East Lansing (his Wolverine teams split four games from 1993 to 1996, with the home team winning each time).

Ron Powlus’ first true road game as an Irish starting quarterback in 1994 came in East Lansing-just two weeks after his collegiate debut featured four touchdown passes against Northwestern at Soldier Field in Chicago.

It did not begin quite so well at Spartan Stadium, as Michigan State grabbed a 20-7 halftime lead while Powlus completed only three of 15 passes in the opening half. He threw two interceptions in the second period and two more in the fourth quarter.

Still behind in the final period, Powlus (now the Irish director of player development) connected on a 15-yard scoring pass to Robert Farmer to cap an 84-yard drive for what proved to be the game-winning points in a 21-20 victory.

“It was a pass in the left flat to Robert,” recalled Powlus this week. “It was a big win for us coming off the heartbreaker at home versus Michigan the week before (the Irish lost that one 26-24 on a Wolverine field goal with two seconds to go).

“I only threw nine interceptions that year as a freshman, but four came in that game. . . . Ugh. I was happy to also have thrown a couple of TD passes that day (another came in the second period for 29 yards to Derrick Mayes) to help us win.”

The two teams did not play in ’95 or ’96, but Powlus came back in 1997 as senior to complete a Notre Dame record 14 straight passes (breaking the mark of 10 by Joe Montana and Angelo Bertelli) against Michigan State. Overall Powlus completed 23 of 37 throws for 181 yards that day-but the 17th-ranked Spartans prevailed 23-7 in South Bend.

And if that’s not enough, there are 70 members of Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship team in town this weekend for their 50th reunion, all of them happy to explain what facing Michigan State was all about in the days of Jim Lynch and Alan Page (for the Irish) and Bubba Smith and George Webster (for the Spartans).

It’s hard to imagine a rivalry that has been more competitive of late than the one between the Irish and Spartans. Here are some of the most recent heroics, as over the last 14 meetings (dating back to 2000), the Notre Dame-Michigan State game has been decided by a touchdown or less on 10 different occasions, with the game-winning score coming late in the fourth quarter or overtime in eight of the 13 meetings:

–2000: Herb Haygood 68-yard TD pass from Jeff Smoker with 1:48 left in regulation (MSU 27-21).

–2001: Charles Rogers 47-yard TD pass from Ryan Van Dyke with 7:51 left in regulation (MSU 17-10).

–2002: Arnaz Battle 60-yard TD pass from Pat Dillingham with 1:15 left in regulation (ND 21-17).

–2003: Greg Taplin 40-yard INT return with 6:55 left in the 4th quarter (MSU 22-16).

–2004: Notre Dame builds a 24-7 third quarter lead before MSU rallies with 17 points in 31-24 ND win.

–2005: Jason Teague’s 19-yd TD run in the first overtime gave the Spartans a 44-41 victory in Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish had rallied from a 21-point deficit to force overtime.

–2006: Notre Dame CB Terrail Lambert intercepts Drew Stanton and returns it 27 yards for the go-ahead TD with 2:53 remaining as the Irish rallied from a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit for a 40-37 victory. Lambert added another interception on the Spartans final drive to ultimately secure the triumph.

–2009: Notre Dame SS Kyle McCarthy’s interception at the 4-yard line with 57 seconds sealed Notre Dame’s 33-30 win after Jimmy Clausen threw for 300 yards, including the game-winning score on a 33-yard touchdown to Golden Tate with 5:18 left.

–2010: Michigan State P Aaron Bates threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to TE Charlie Gantt on a fake field goal in overtime, giving the Spartans a 34-31 victory over the Irish. With Dan Conroy lining up for a 46-yard attempt to tie the game in the first overtime, Bates took the snap, stood up and had time to wait for Gantt to come open downfield. Gantt caught the pass for an easy touchdown.

Here are special recognitions slated for the Notre Dame-Michigan State football game Saturday evening:

— The national colors will be presented by members of the Notre Dame Naval ROTC unit in the year of its 75th anniversary.

— Former Notre Dame football players will form a pregame tunnel Saturday night through which the Irish will enter the field just prior to kickoff.

–The 1966 Notre Dame consensus national championship football team, celebrating its 50th reunion, will be recognized just prior to kickoff. More than 70 team members are expected.

— Presidential Team Irish Award (first timeout in first period)-Waste Warriors.

— At the end of the first period, Notre Dame will recognize the University’s two-and-a-half-decade relationship with NBC Sports to televise Irish home football games that now has resulted in more than $100 million being allocated from contract revenues to University financial aid.

— Notre Dame faculty recognition (first timeout in third period)-Agustin Fuentes, Department of Anthropology.

–There will be a pregame flyover by US Navy VAQ-209 “Star Warriors” pilots Commander Arch Watkins, Lieutenant Commander Dave Brennan, Lieutenant Commander Cameron Dekker, Lieutenant Commander Michael Bernard, Lieutenant Commander Adam Kerrick and LieutenantAdam Kouloumoundras.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler joined the University of Notre Dame athletics communications staff in 1978 and writes about Irish athletics for Fighting Irish Media.