Notre Dame and Michigan State have played in some outstanding games during the tenures of head coaches Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio. Saturday will mark the sixth time Kelly and Dantonio have squared off, and the 79th time the Fighting Irish and Spartans have met.
It is a rivalry that goes all the way back to 1897, when Notre Dame beat Michigan State 34-6. Since then, the Irish have won 47 meetings and the Spartans have won 29, including last season’s 36-28 victory in Notre Dame Stadium.
Dantonio is well aware of the history of this rivalry, and of Notre Dame’s program.
“Way back in the day, I grew up … Notre Dame football was always on Sunday, and I’d watch it,” said Dantonio, who is 61 years old. “So I grew up a little bit seeing Notre Dame, you see Michigan State back in the ’66 game. I watched that game as a young person.
“Just got involved in that respect, and then when I came here as an assistant coach, we played them in ’97, ’98, ’99 and 2000. They were always very good games.”
Michigan State won all four of those contests when Dantonio was an assistant coach under Nick Saban (1995-99) and Bobby Williams (2000). Dantonio has twice beaten Notre Dame as a head coach, but he has also lost three times.
“They have been good games, great games, and they are always going to be packed houses and they are always going to be nationally televised,” Dantonio said. “There’s always going to be a little something that goes with that game.”
The Spartans and Irish find themselves in very similar situations. MSU made the College Football Playoff in 2015 and Notre Dame was two plays away from doing the same. Last season, the two programs fell flat with Notre Dame going 4-8 and Michigan State finishing 3-9.
Both went through tumultuous offseasons for very different reasons, and both are trying to quickly bounce back.
Notre Dame enters this contest 2-1, with wins over Temple (49-16) and Boston College (49-20) plus a home loss to No. 11 Georgia (20-19). Michigan State is currently undefeated, having beaten Bowling Green (35-10) and Western Michigan (28-14) on its home field.
It is still early in the season, but both coaches are learning a lot about their young football teams. Dantonio has a very inexperienced squad, but thus far his group has played sound football on both sides of the ball.
“What I’ve learned about our football team is that we’ll compete,” Dantonio said during his weekly press conference. “We’ve a very excitable group, we have fun. We have a lot of fun. They enjoy practice, they enjoy playing, they enjoy getting ready for a football game.”
The Notre Dame game will certainly provide a stiffer test for Dantonio’s young squad, but he is aware of that and is preparing his team for the challenge.
“They like their place,” he said. “We have to continue to just sort of take a step-by-step process here as we go through this … and every week brings a new challenge, and that’s the way it’s going to be the entire year.
“Every week will bring a new challenge, and we have to be able to handle those challenges and take the good with the bad.”
One unique challenge that Notre Dame presents is the running ability of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who has rushed for 314 yards and six touchdowns in three games. That includes a Notre Dame quarterback-record 207 yards and four scores in the lopsided win at Boston College.
“Brandon Wimbush is a guy that can create,” Dantonio said. “I don’t think there’s any question that he can create. When you look at a quarterback, I’ve said it all along, you’ve got to be able to create with your mind, with your throwing motion, your mechanics, your release or with your feet.
“You saw what he could do this last week. A lot of plays broke down and he created, even a shovel pass. The shovel pass hung up and he runs for 70 yards.
“He’s a dynamic athlete. He obviously has a good style of leadership,” Dantonio added. “You could see that they follow him. Even though I think he’s a redshirt sophomore, he’s a relatively young player in that regard.”
Notre Dame’s offense has been putting up big numbers, but Dantonio has been impressed with the Irish defense, which has given up just 18.7 points and 352.0 yards per game.
“Active. Big. They are going to try to control the C Gap,” he said of the Irish defense. “I think any time in a run defense, and we try to run the football, if you can control the C Gap and you can control the nose tackle position, the zero, the A Gap type things, that’s when it’s the toughest to run the football.
“They want to put a big guy, 290 pounds, 6-3½ over the tight end,” continued Dantonio, referring to Notre Dame senior end Jay Hayes. “If he’s to the field or something like that, that’s a big guy. You’ve got to get movement and you’ve got to win that. You’ve got to win that individual battle.”
Notre Dame is more aggressive on defense this year, and Dantonio took notice of that.
“They are active, their linebackers play downhill,” Dantonio explained. “They are playing well defensively. I think for all the things that you hear about the big plays, because that’s what I guess sells tickets, they are playing well defensively and they are playing well on the front seven.”
No matter what Notre Dame brings to the game and no matter how big the stage, Dantonio believes his young football team is prepared to meet the challenge. Having a bye week and extra time to prepare doesn’t hurt his squad's ability to be ready.
“We’re ahead in terms of our preparation,” Dantonio said. “Now, as game time approaches, they catch up. But I do think that we are ahead so that we can — as a younger football team — we can sort of sit there and say, okay, here, this is what we have to do.
“So they understand their challenge. They have looked at that challenge for a week and a half now. … So I just think that they are looking forward to this opportunity, this moment. They had a couple weeks to do this.
“Let’s see if we can go 3-0.”