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Notre Dame vs. Michigan State: Clone Wars

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In the past 15 years, Michigan State has quietly become Notre Dame’s alter-ego in college football. 

For eight glorious years from 1987 through 1994, Notre Dame concocted an eight game win streak over Sparty. All praise and honor be to Papa Lou for bringing almost a decade of prosperity against this rival. Perhaps some credit goes to George Perles, too, since he was at the helm of MSU for these particular beatdowns – Notre Dame’s average margin of victory in this span was 16.5 points.

The series was put on hiatus for the 1995 and 1996 seasons, while Michigan State was getting their hand slapped by the NCAA for academic chicanery. Upon the restart of the series in 1997, Notre Dame had let the old grass picker wander off, and Bob Davie ushered in his own tenure with a loss to Michigan State. Worse yet, the pendulum continued to swing north toward East Lansing for the next five years. MSU beat Notre Dame five times in a row from 1997 through 2001, with an average margin of victory of 12.2 points.

But the new era has seen an equalizing of the Midwest superpowers. After MSU’s five game run, Notre Dame and Michigan State began a crash course that shows no signs of slowing down. Each team burnt through a few coaches in this timeframe, trying to find that staid leader who would prevent boomerang streaks of momentum. Michigan State found theirs in Mark Dantonio, and Notre Dame got Brian Kelly.

In these most recent 15 years, both schools have ridden an upward trajectory back into college football’s elite. This parity isn’t new, the teams famously knotted 10-10 in the 1966 Game of the Century. In addition, the head to head results since 2001 confirm the Spy vs. Spy nature of their relationship. Since 2001, the teams have faced off 13 times. The Irish have 7 wins, Sparty has 6. Average margin of victory in these games is a little over 8 points. The visiting team in the series prevailed seven times in a row at one point. Nine games were decided by a touchdown or less, two games went into overtime. If you smash the memories together, it looks something like this: Charles Rodgers-Arnaz Battle-Zibby-Terrail Lambert-rain-MSU Radio meltdown-Little Giants-clock was ZERO-heart attack-flag plant-megaphone.

For their part, Dantonio and Kelly match up nicely as complementary field generals. Kelly has a career edge over Dantonio with a winning percentage of .736 to .679. But Dantonio is faring better in his current career stop, boasting a hefty .727 at Michigan State, while Brian Kelly is .696 at Notre Dame. Dantonio is a bit older, and 2016 marks his 10th year for Sparty, Kelly obviously in his 7th. Kelly has been to nine bowl games with a record of 5-4, Dantonio is 5-5. Kelly peaked in 2012 in the Natty, Michigan State has a playoff berth – both of them being lambs on the altar of Alabama. The coaches even shared a resume stop in Cincinnati, and each left the Bearcats with mostly fond memories.

Zoomed out to the school’s overall performance, the past 15 years support the narrative. Michigan State is 120-72 overall in this time, Notre Dame is 116-72. Being only 150 miles apart, each fan base has to deal with a fair amount of seeing the other team’s incorrect color of green at their local grocery store.

It could be argued that Michigan State has had a quieter, more understated type of success in the last 15 years, but Notre Dame is nothing if not a media lightning rod. No matter which team truly has the edge, and no matter who wins their latest installment, it’s hard to argue these programs aren’t aligned closely. And in recent memory, that has typically produced classic results on the field.