SI Vault
Dan Jenkins
November 28, 1966
College football awaited an epic that was supposed to decide the national championship. But it all fell apart when Michigan State faltered after a fast start, and Notre Dame took the easy way out
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November 28, 1966

An Upside-down Game

College football awaited an epic that was supposed to decide the national championship. But it all fell apart when Michigan State faltered after a fast start, and Notre Dame took the easy way out

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Old Notre Dame will tie over all. Sing it out, guys. That is not exactly what the march says, of course, but that is how the big game ends every time you replay it. And that is how millions of cranky college football fans will remember it. For 59 minutes in absolutely overwrought East Lansing last week the brutes of Michigan State and Notre Dame pounded each other into enough mistakes to fill Bubba Smith's uniform—enough to settle a dozen games between lesser teams—but the 10-10 tie that destiny seemed to be demanding had a strange, noble quality to it. And then it did not have that anymore. For the people who saw it under the cold, dreary clouds or on national television, suddenly all it had was this enormous emptiness for which the Irish will be forever blamed.

Forget everything that came before, all of that ferocious thudding in the line that was mostly responsible for five fumbles, four interceptions, 25 other incompletions, a total of 20 rushing plays that either lost yardage or gained none, and forget the few good plays—the big passes. Put the No. 1 team, Notre Dame, on its own 30-yard line with time for at least four passing plays to break the tie. A No. 1 team will try something, won't it, to stay that way?

Notre Dame did not. It just let the air out of the ball. For reasons that it will rationalize as being more valid than they perhaps were under the immense circumstances, the Irish rode out the clock (see cover). Even as the Michigan State defenders taunted them and called the time-outs that the Irish should have been calling. Notre Dame ran into the line, the place where the big game was hopelessly played all afternoon. No one really expected a verdict in that last desperate moment. But they wanted someone to try. When the Irish ran into the line, the Spartans considered it a minor surrender.

"We couldn't believe it," said George Webster, State's savage rover back. "When they came up for their first play we kept hollering back and forth, 'Watch the pass, watch the pass.' But they ran. We knew the next one was a pass for sure. But they ran again. We were really stunned. Then it dawned on us. They were settling for the tie."

You could see the Spartans staring at the Irish down there. They had their hands on their hips, thoroughly disdainful by now. On the Michigan State sideline, the Spartans were jeering across the field and waving their arms as if to say, "Get off the field if you've given up." And at the line of scrimmage the Michigan State defenders were talking to the Notre Dame players.

"I was saying, "You're going for the tie, aren't you? You're going for the tie,' " said Webster. "And you know what? They wouldn't even look us in the eyes. They just turned their backs and went back to their huddle." Bubba had hollered, "Come on, you sissies," while other Spartans were yelling at Parseghian.

Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian made the decision to end the so-called "game of the century" that way. The players only followed instructions, some of them perhaps reluctantly. "We'd fought hard to come back and tie it up," Ara argued. "After all that, I didn't want to risk giving it to them cheap. They get reckless and it could have cost them the game. I wasn't going to do a jackass thing like that at this point."

Thus ended a game that had been slowly built up for five long weeks into the biggest collegiate spectacle in 20 years. The last game to create such pre-kickoff frenzy was between Notre Dame and Army in 1946 at Yankee Stadium. That battle of the century was as full of as many fluky things as this one. It ended in an unsatisfactory 0-0 tie, with both teams claiming No. 1, and left thousands bewildered by the fact that such folklore characters as Johnny Lujack, Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard had not performed the one remarkable deed that would have decided it.

So when the 1966 season is over, who will deserve to be No. 1? Duffy Daugherty thought Michigan State should be 1 and Notre Dame only I A. He then said he would even accept a "co-championship," thinking of the Spartans' lesser voting power in the polls. "Last year," he said, "we won on the field and lost at the polls." The reference was to Alabama capturing the AP award after the bowl games and slipping into a tie with the Spartans in the Football Writers' postbowl voting. Ara Parseghian, obviously, believed the Irish could outpoll Michigan State and everyone else, or he would not have been so willing to settle for a tie. Alabama's best chances lie ahead. So do Nebraska's. Both teams could wind up undefeated and, should one beat the other in a bowl game, the winner would have an 11-0 record to glisten against the 9-0-1 of Notre Dame and Michigan State, neither of whose schedules was that much fiercer than Alabama's or Nebraska's. Finally, there is mounting dissatisfaction with Notre Dame's policy of shunning bowls while at the same time gunning for a national championship, and with the irritating Big Ten rule that forbids a team from going to the Rose Bowl two years in a row. So long as Notre Dame and the Big Ten teams keep these policies, they perhaps deserve to be out-polled by an Alabama—as punishment.

Last week's game was decided a dozen punishing times, it seemed, the two national powers heaping heroics onto boners, and vice versa—as Michigan State surged to a 10-0 lead and Notre Dame struggled back to the indecisive tie that was earned but unapplauded.

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