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TGS COLLEGE FB SPECIAL REPORT...THE BIGGEST GAME OF THEM ALL

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Occasionally on these pages, we at TGS like to assume the role of reviewer if a certain book merits attention. And it just so happens that this upcoming week’s gridiron schedule, featuring another renewal of the Notre Dame-Michigan State rivalry, has reminded us of one of the most in-depth college football literary classics that has gone mostly unmentioned by major media sources since it was first published in 1992. It’s time, however, to give this book the acclaim it deserves.

Indeed, we believe all serious college football fans should make room in their bookcases for the late Mike Celizic’s The Biggest Game of them All: Notre Dame, Michigan State and the Fall of ‘66. For in the nearly six decades of publishing TGS, we cannot recall of a bigger or more ballyhooed college football game than the battle between the unbeaten and untied Fighting Irish and Spartans (ranked 1-2 since mid-October that year) on November 19, 1966. And Celizic’s description of not only the game, but also the context in which that storied matchup took place, remains must-read material for any serious gridiron follower.

From our point of view, there will almost assuredly never be another regular-season game with the same sort of dynamics and impact as Notre Dame-Michigan State. While it is hardly the only 1 vs. 2 matchup in our publishing history, it will remain forever unique because neither squad was going to be engaged in upcoming bowl action. Of course, in those years, Notre Dame was still encumbered by a no-bowl policy that we detail in some length in our 2013 College Preview Independent Retrospective piece, which can still be accessed via our website at www.goldsheet.com. As for the Spartans, they were staying home for the postseason due to the Big Ten’s draconian “no repeat” rule of the day after MSU had participated in the Rose Bowl the previous campaign of 1965. Indeed, many believe that those added consequences of the great battle of 1966 helped accelerate changes in both the Fighting Irish bowl policy (finally altered three years later) and the Big Ten’s no-repeat rule, which was eventually repealed in 1972.

While Celizic’s attention to detail in recounting every on-field angle of ND-MSU is riveting stuff, it’s how the author framed the context of that encounter that really sets this book apart from most football-related publishing works. Admittedly, Celizic gained some insights from a unique vantage point as a Notre Dame freshman in the fall of ‘66. But from well-woven tales of the individual journeys of many players at Michigan State (especially the colorful DE Bubba Smith) and Notre Dame (such as QB Terry Hanratty’s memorable reaction to the pre-game meal, and the chance to eat a steak for the first time in his life, before his 1966 varsity debut vs. Purdue!) to reminders of a more innocent era that was about to change dramatically within the next couple of years, Celizic hits the sort of “sweet spot” that few sports journalists ever find.

Celizic’s details of the build-up to the big clash are loaded with anecdotal nuggets before he begins to dissect “The Game of the Century” from 47 years ago. Celizic also challenges the media for much of their distortion of events that existed from almost the moment the game ended; few recall some of the developments during the clash that made it more remarkable that Notre Dame could rally from an early 10-0 deficit to forge a 10-10 scoreline. Indeed, the Irish lost starting QB Hanratty (shoulder) and their best offensive lineman, C George Goeddeke (ankle), early in the game to injury, and star HB Nick Eddy didn’t play at all after hurting his shoulder when falling on the train that took the Irish from South Bend to East Lansing. Backups such as QB Coley O’Brien (a diabetic, an angle also explored in depth by Celizic) and RB Bob Gladieux thus filled important roles; the pair combined on a 34-yard TD pass in the 2nd quarter to get the Irish back into the game after falling behind 10-0.

Notre Dame HC Ara Parseghian, of course, would immediately come under heavy fire for his late-game strategy when not putting the ball in the air in the final moments and effectively settling for the eventual 10-10 deadlock. Ara rationalized at the time, and with some justification, that the Spartans, who had already intercepted three Irish passes and had blanketed top Notre Dame receiving threat Jim Seymour all afternoon, had stacked their defense with ball-hawkers ready to seize upon another mistake by backup QB O’Brien, and Parseghian feared an error that could cost the game. A bit earlier, the Irish had their best chance to go ahead midway in the 4th Q after S Tom Schoen picked off a Jimmy Raye pass and returned it to the Spartan 18. But MSU LB Phil Hoag nailed Irish HB Dave Haley for an 8-yard loss on 2nd down, forcing an eventual 41-yard FG try by PK Joe Azzaro, who pushed the kick wide right. Neither team would threaten thereafter; this game was mostly a defensive war featuring 6 turnovers and 16 punts, and big offensive plays were few and far between.

We recall that 1966 game well and also believe that Parseghian has always been criticized a bit too harshly after he came under extreme scrutiny from a variety of media sources. Including the LA Times’ iconic Jim Murray and Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins, who would set the agenda for the ages when decrying Parseghian’s tactics (Murray, in character, doing it in sarcastic tones, leaving more blunt criticism to SI’s Jenkins). But we have long believed that Murray and Jenkins unduly influenced the masses by excoriating the Notre Dame coach for his tactics. Which, upon review, were not overtly timid until QB O’Brien’s sneak on the final play of the game. Indeed, Parseghian had gone for it (!) on 4th and 1 from his own 39 yard line with only 21 seconds to play...a gutsy move by any standard, and in stark contrast to MSU counterpart Duffy Daugherty, whose team punted the ball away on 4th and 4 at his own 36 with just over a minute to play, despite realizing his Spartans would likely not see the ball again. On the last Irish series (which covered six plays), O’Brien had rolled out twice and appeared intent on passing until scrambling for a short gain on the first play of the drive, then sacked by Smith on the game’s penultimate play. A draw play to RB Rocky Bleier on second down threatened a longer gain until aforementioned MSU LB Hoag made a terrific play to shake free of a block and limit the gain to three yards. Parseghian has long said that if he could have moved the ball as far as his 45-yard-line, he would have been more inclined to instruct O’Brien to look deep for the agile WR Seymour, though it is true that most Irish players were displeased that their coach had decided to sit on the ball in the final seconds.

But if the objective was to finish on top in the polls, Parseghian knew he had a last chance to impress the voters the following week in a high-profile season-ender at Southern Cal, while MSU’s season was complete after the 10-10 tie. Ara didn’t miss the opportunity, as the Irish rolled to a 51-0 blowout over the 7-2 and Rose Bowl-bound Trojans. Narrowly ahead of the Spartans in the rankings following the 10-10 tie, Notre Dame secured 40 first-place votes to 10 for MSU in the AP rankings in the aftermath of the USC rout (and 41 first-place votes to 8 in the final tally two weeks later) to finish a clear number one in the polls. Which has always satisfied us that Parseghian was justified in his actions vs. the Spartans.

Leave it to the brilliant Celizic, however, to best sum up the aftermath of Notre Dame-Michigan State, and attach something more meaningful to the proceedings. “Unlike other matchups of undefeated teams since which created their own splash and then were relegated to the back of the memory because someone did win and someone did lose,” Celizic concluded, “Notre Dame-Michigan State lives forever because there was no resolution.”

Brilliantly said, like so much else in this book.

(The Biggest Game of Them All: Notre Dame, Michigan State and the Fall of '66 is available on Amazon.com)


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