Michigan State-Notre Dame always has major implications. The Irish constantly gain national attention and since Mark Dantonio came to town, the Spartans often do the same.
It’s a unique rivalry that is not based on conference play or even geographical location. In fact, MSU and ND don’t have all that much in common at all. But the Irish did play a key role in MSU’s emergence as a football program.
“When I came back as a head football coach, I learned a little bit more about the game, the rivalry, the understanding that Notre Dame had a big impact on Michigan State getting into the Big Ten, way back, and all the things that they really did,” coach Mark Dantonio said at his weekly press conference. “They were the first major team that started playing Michigan State home and away and I think that prompted others to do the same.”
Last year, Michigan State vs. Notre Dame was everything you’d want it to be. It was a top-20 matchup under the lights in South Bend. The Spartans won 36-28 and after a scary week one contest against Furman, MSU looked to be back on track to compete for a Big Ten title. After all, if the Spartans could beat the Irish in South Bend, they must be good, right?
Well, not exactly.
Nobody knew it at the time, but Michigan State and Notre Dame were both horrible in 2016. For the 2-0 Spartans, the next 10 weeks were nothing short of hellish. They only won one more game and finished 3-9 for the year. Notre Dame didn’t do much better, finishing 4-8.
Fast forward to 2017, the MSU-ND rivalry still has major implications, but for a completely different reason. It resembles two programs trying to prove that they are still relevant on a national landscape. They are both eager to put last year’s ugliness behind them and regain power as national forces.
Michigan State and Notre Dame’s goals are intertwined. But on Saturday, their ambitions will oppose each other in every way possible. Both sides desperately need a big win to inspire confidence back into their fan bases.
“There’s a lot of history there with Notre Dame,” Dantonio said. “There have been some great football games. It’s a great program. A lot of respect for Brian Kelly and for Notre Dame in general and I think it’s one of the classic football games in America. So every year, you know, the Notre Dame-Michigan State, probably because of the ‘66 game itself, probably takes on a whole new level of interest, of national interest, I think.”
This game also means a lot to both teams’ head coaches. Brian Kelly’s seat could not be hotter. Kelly has had fair success at Notre Dame. His record is 60-32 as he enters his eighth year in South Bend. He had a great 2012 campaign, going 12-0, followed by a blowout loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.
But overall, it always seems like Kelly does just enough to lose. He’s had multiple eight or nine-win seasons, but never won a major bowl. In seven seasons at Notre Dame, he only finished ranked in the AP poll three times, with one top-ten finish. That won’t cut it for the second-winningest program in the FBS.
After last year’s abysmal 4-8 season, it’s now or never for Kelly to rebuild his status. Sept. 9th’s 20-19 loss against then-No. 15 Georgia was reminiscent of much of Kelly’s career. The 24th-ranked Irish were good, but not great. They had chances, but couldn’t quite finish.
For Mark Dantonio, the story is different but has a few similarities. Dantonio is not on the hot seat yet. He’s 92-42 at Michigan State with three conference championships, a Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl victory and a College Football Playoff appearance. Dantonio has impressed in East Lansing, but last year hurt him in more ways than one.
On top of going 3-9, there were two separate alleged sexual assaults over the offseason, one of which involved Auston Robertson and the other with Donnie Corley, Josh King and Demetric Vance. The latter’s investigation rolled on for months. There were also numerous smaller off-the-field issues. Whether or not these problems were Dantonio’s fault, they have cast a shadow over his career.
Dantonio’s job is safe for now, but if he doesn’t show serious improvement in 2017, things could change. With a daunting Big Ten schedule looming, Dantonio needs as many non-conference wins as he can get.
We are almost a week away from another rendition of MSU vs. Notre Dame, and it will once again be a big game for both sides. But this time, it will be a dogfight between two former powerhouses that dropped off the edge in 2016, scrappily looking to regain their balance.
Both sides were hit. But who will be the first to get back up?