This week is the tenth week in my series on Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football national championship winning seasons, and this week I’m highlighting the 1977 match-up between Notre Dame and the Michigan State Spartans. It wasn’t a blowout, and neither team played their best game, but it was a win on the way to a national title and who could complain about that?! The below excerpt is from the 1977 Scholastic - Notre Dame Football Review, detailing the Notre Dame vs. Michigan State game, written by John Vincent.
“Any victory over Michigan State is a satisfying one.”
When Notre Dame fans discuss great rivalries over the years they will usually start with the Trojans from USC; but the greatest modern-day contest between Notre Dame and a rival school is undoubtedly the 1966 Michigan State game that ended in a 10-10 tie and is referred to by many as “The Game of the Century.” Michigan State and Notre Dame have met to battle on the gridiron over 40 times. In those 40 games there has been a consistent recurring pattern. The common denominator that has been present in 70 years of football between ND and MSU is defense with a capital “D.” When the Spartans and the Fighting Irish clash, regardless of which team has more talent this particular season, fans know they will be in for hard hitting. It was with this historic view that Dan Devine’s team prepared for its highly rated opposition.
The Spartans brought with them what everyone expected - a knack for hitting. In a closely fought game that Rarryl Rodgers’ club would not be counted out of, the Irish held on for a 16-6 victory. Notre Dame, under the supervision of first-time starter Joe Montana, was sloppy on offense but more than made up for any offensive blunders with a stingy defense that held onto an early lead bringing the Blue and Gold record to 3-1.
If Irish coach Dan Devine knew that the first ND offensive drive was an omen of what was to come, he probably would have remained in bed that morning. The magic of Montana brought smiles to the hometown supporters when on the second play from scrimmage last week’s hero at Purdue tossed a 43-yard bomb to All-American tight end Ken MacAfee, bringing Notre Dame into Spartan territory. From there the ground crew was called on as Jerome Heavens and Dave Mitchell pounded out yardage with a Mitchell pass reception bringing ND to the three-yard line. Up to now this 79-yard drive was the best Devine’s crew had put together the whole year, but that thought alone must have jinxed it as Mitchell fumbled on the next play and Michigan State’s Kim Rowekamp recovered.
Four plays later Notre Dame had the ball back at the MSU 22-yard line, thanks to Randy Harrison’s 25- yard punt return. The second scoring opportunity disappeared one play later as Montana’s pass was intercepted by Mark Anderson, one of three the sophomore free safety was going to record this afternoon. All Big Ten quarterback Eddie Smith got his team moving this time but as far as the Fighting Irish defense bent, but they did not break. Hans Nielsen put the Spartans on the board first with a 38-yard field goal giving MSU a 3-0 lead.
While Notre Dame’s offense did not commit a turnover on their third possession of the day, it did contain a play that Heavens is not likely to forget the rest of his life. On a second-and-seven situation Montana sent his junior fullback on a pattern out of the backfield. Forty yards downfield Heavens found himself all alone and so did the Irish signal caller. Heavens, however, started running for an open end zone too soon and dropped a pass that hit him in the stomach. Dan Devine wondered when it would all end.
As bad as the home team was in the first quarter, they got on the board with less than one minute gone in the second stanza as Dave Reeve split the uprights from 42 yards out knotting the game at 3-3. While the defense continued to thwart any substantial drive by Michigan State, the offense continued to stumble around as Waymer fumbled on a double reverse that had picked up big yardage followed minutes later by a missed Reeve field goal from 35 yards out.
Notre Dame was bound to score eventually as the defense allowed the offense to continually get the ball in good field position. It finally came with 2:50 left in the half as Heavens broke loose on a 24~yard scamper followed by a nine-yard TD jaunt by Mitchell; pushing the Irish ahead 10-3. Halftime statistics showed Notre Dame holding a decisive edge, but four glaring turnovers accounted for the small lead.
Golic intercepted a Smith pass on the first play of the second half giving the offense the ball 27 yards from the goal line. This time a penalty kept the hapless South Bend squad from reaching the end zone as Notre Dame settled for another Reeve field goal stretching the lead to 13-3.
Both teams swapped interceptions with Joe Restic’s snag setting up what proved to be the final Irish score of this very imperfect game. With the offense going nowhere, Reeve was called in to make his fourth field-goal attempt of the afternoon, a modern ND record. This four-year starter promptly split the uprights. With a booming 51-yard boot giving him his third three-pointer of the game, tying him with Bob Thomas for another record mark. With 2:35 remaining in the third quarter, the score stood 16-3.
Marshall Lawson, playing for an ineffective Smith, got the Spartan offense to show signs of life as he connected on three passes in a row, bringing MSU to the Fighting Irish 20-yard line. After Leroy McGee dropped a pass in the end zone Nielsen was brought in to kick a 36~yard field goal wrapping up the scoring at 16-6 in favor of Notre Dame.
Both teams exchanged five straight punts between them before Michigan State brought their fans to their feet as they drove to within four-yards of paydirt. A quarterback sack and a penalty against MSU for using too much time culminated by a missed 28-yard field goal brought this comedy of errors to a close. Seven interceptions and three fumbles between the two teams brought the turnover total to ten.
Darryl Rogers summed up the reason the Irish proved to be victors,
“We threw too many interceptions and we really did not stop them with our defense. They just gave us a lot of turnovers.”
The Spartan mentor added,
“We had terrible field position throughout the game, and you cannot stay in bad position against a good team.”
Michigan State almost got away with doing just that due to Montana’s 8-out-of-23 pass completions and three interceptions. Jerome Heavens was the only consistent performer on offense garnering 136 yards on 23 carries with most of the yardage picked upon a singular effort.
The defense had one of their best days of the early season holding MSU to 92 yards rushing and intercepting four passes ... Golic led all tacklers with 18 stops, followed by Ross Browner and Ted Burgmeier with 11 and 10, respectively. A tired looking Devine complimented his defense as he claimed,
“Any victory over Michigan State is a satisfying one.”
The Irish field marshall also pointed out that his team would be getting something they seemed to need.
“Now we have a week off. We have just played four very physical teams and we can really stand a week of rest.”
With two weeks to prepare for Army, the Irish would have time to shape up before Southern Cal landed in South Bend.
Next week I wrap up the series with the 1988 championship season. Which game do you want from ‘88?
Cheers & GO IRISH!