Photo courtesy of Michigan State athletics
It had the moniker as so many matchups of No. 1 vs. No. 2 do. The 1966 contest between top-ranked Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State earned the “Game of the Century” title.
When all was said and done in East Lansing, the two teams proved to be as even as even could be. On this day 55 years ago, they played to a 10-10 tie.
Setting the Stage
Under head coach Duffy Daugherty, the Spartans had claimed the national championship in the Coaches Poll the year prior. Included during a perfect regular season in 1965 was a 12-3 win over No. 4 Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish were 8-0 and looking to avoid having history repeated as they arrived at Spartan Stadium on Nov. 19, 1966. They were unable to avoid defeat against the 9-0 Spartans, but most would agree that they were the winner as the clock hit zero.
The highly-anticipated showdown featured just 20 total points, but 17 of those came in the second quarter. Early on, it looked like the home crowd might be the difference for Michigan State.
Michigan State raced to a 10-0 lead behind a second-quarter touchdown run by Regis Cavender and a field goal by Dick Kenney. But before the break, Notre Dame had crawled to within three.
The Fighting Irish came in averaging nearly 38 points per game, but were soon without two of their biggest playmakers. Running back Nick Eddy was injured getting off the train in East Lansing and quarterback Terry Hanratty was injured in the first quarter after being sacked by Michigan State standout Bubba Smith.
Before the break however, Notre Dame found the end zone. Jess Phillips connected with Bob Gladieux for a 34-yard touchdown to make it 10-7. After a scoreless third, Notre Dame drew even on the first snap of the fourth as Joe Azzaro’s 28-yard field goal knotted the score at 10.
From there, the Notre Dame defense dominated, but the offense could not make it count. Tom Schoen intercepted consecutive Michigan State passes, but all Notre Dame had to show for it was a missed 41-yard field goal attempt by Azzaro with less than five minutes to play.
With just over a minute remaining, Notre Dame would get one last possession from its own 30-yard-line. Head coach Ara Parseghian however, elected to play conservatively and run the football. After picking up one first down, the contest ultimately ended on a quarterback sneak.
When the season was over, Parseghian’s decision would ultimately prove to be a good one. Notre Dame closed the season with a 51-0 road rout of No. 10 USC to finish 9-0-1.
When the final polls were released, the Fighting Irish were the consensus national champion. The tie with the Fighting Irish would result in Michigan State finishing No. 2 in the polls. They would however, claim a national championship after receiving the distinction from multiple selectors.
Many called Parseghian’s decision to play for a tie cowardice, but at season’s end, he was called a national champion. His notorious decision came on this day 55 years ago.