After five consecutive losses, the Irish are looking to turn the tide and win success in the goal posts
By KATIE McVOY
Associate Sports Editor
With just under eight minutes left in the game, with the wounds from the previous season's victory still tender, with the memory of a slip that cost them the game still fresh in their minds, the Irish fell back into a nightmare.
One year ago, during the third game of the season, Notre Dame was facing Michigan State. With eight minutes left the score was tied at 10. Then it happened. Spartan quarterback Ryan Van Dyke connected with Charles Rogers, hoping to convert a third-and-six into a first down. Instead, he won the game and left Notre Dame 0-5 against Michigan State in their last five contests.
"I've never beat Michigan State since I was here," said Shane Walton, who missed the final tackle that allowed Rogers to score, after that game. "It's a blow."
Now, on Saturday, Walton has one final chance to beat Michigan State and leave Notre Dame with the memory of a victory instead of the pain of defeat.
The Embarrassment of defeat
Notre Dame has lost to Michigan State five years in a row. The Irish have not recorded a victory against the Spartans since 1994. Bob Davie faced off against Bobby Williams five times. He lost five times. That's the third-longest Irish losing streak to one team.
"It's ridiculous," said Irish center Jeff Faine. "… It's very frustrating and this team is ready to flip it around."
In 1997 it was a blowout. The No. 17 Spartans defeated the Irish 23-7 in front of a Notre Dame stadium crowd of 80,000. In 1998 it was worse. With the home crowd behind them, the Spartans scored 45 points on the way to a victory against Notre Dame. That was the first year fifth-year seniors such as Walton were at Notre Dame. That was the first time they watched their team lose.
But it didn't get any better. The next three years Notre Dame teams fell one after the other to Michigan State. The Spartans didn't need a Trojan horse. They just walked onto the field and, after four quarters of play, they would have caught the Irish off guard at some point and come home with the victory. It was a 10-point difference in 1999, a six-point difference in 2000 and a mere touchdown in 2001 that separated the victors from the losers. And every time Notre Dame had the same position — the Irish are the enemy.
After last year's loss to Michigan State, Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie stated quite clearly what Michigan State had and what his team lacked — explosiveness.
The Spartans, for the second year in a row, had scored on the big play and the Irish watched as their team fell flat.
In 2001, it was Van Dyke's pass to Rogers. Vontez Duff just couldn't catch the young receiver and Walton was left holding nothing when he made a last-ditch, diving grab for Rogers. Rogers was left holding the football — in the end zone.
"I didn't make the tackle," Duff said after the game. " … It's all about making plays and I just didn't make that play."
Had that been the first time Notre Dame had been burned on a Spartan play, it would have hurt. But the fact that it was the second year in a row was so much worse than that.
During the 2000 loss to Michigan State, it was a different quarterback and a different receiver. But it was almost the same play and exactly the same result.
That time, Jeff Smoker fired the pass to Herb Haygood who ran for the touchdown. Tony Driver had fallen on the Spartan Astroturf. Haygood was never touched.
So when the same slant pattern on the same side gave the Spartans the win again last year, it was like reliving a nightmare.
"It's always in my head that that last play they always seem to catch a slant and go score on it," Irish receiver Omar Jenkins said. "… I couldn't believe that it happened."
"They had a stud running back and a stud quarterback and wide receiver and a tight end," Irish linebacker Courtney Watson said. "We gave up things here and there and shouldn't have been that close. … We're taking that personal now and we're just not going to let that happen."
Something to prove
Now, 12 months, one new coach and a new playing surface later, these two teams will face off once again. And they both have something to prove.
Under the leadership of new head coach Tyrone Willingham, the Irish want to prove to Michigan State that they are a new team. That there is something inexplicable that is part of this program that will make it the first team in six years that will not fall to the Spartans.
Over the summer, Jenkins met some Michigan State fans and they were already talking trash. They were questioning how the Irish defense would contain Rogers. They reminded Jenkins that no one in Notre Dame's program has defeated Michigan State. But Jenkins had a response ready.
"You'll see. Something special's going to come out of this," Jenkins told the Spartans.
For the Irish, they hope that something special is a win. Michigan State has been a thorn in their side long enough. It's time to take control.
"We're all hungry to beat Michigan State," quarterback Carlyle Holiday said. "We haven't beat them in five years. Just to beat them in their home would be so much better for the team."
But Notre Dame isn't the only team with something to prove. Michigan State has its own need to prove itself to the world.
The Spartans are coming off of an embarrassing loss to California. The 15th-ranked Spartans were humbled by the unranked Bears in the devastating 46-22 loss.
"It was very frustrating out there," said Spartans head coach Bobby Williams after the game. "We never showed up. It was very disappointing. Mainly, I'm disappointed in myself and the coaching."
But as early as Saturday, the loss was prompting the Spartans to start over this week and prove to the nation that they can win, starting with a victory against Notre Dame.
"We have to get ready for work on Monday and come out here and get a win against Notre Dame," Rogers said.
The Irish may be ranked No. 12, but they are No. 1 on the Spartan's list — the No. 1 team the Spartans are going to be looking to beat.
"You have to be pumped up," said wide receiver Arnaz Battle. "We're the hunted right now, we're No. 12, we're going to see their best shot."
Taking the field
On Saturday, the Spartans and the Irish will spar once again and the bookies have given the Spartans a two-point advantage.
The Irish will travel to East Lansing to the noise and the yells of Michigan State. They will travel with an alumnus as their coach. But even that may not help.
"I've always been on the other side of the stadium," Willingham said. "So the sounds, the dynamics are totally different. … It's going to be loud. Every movement that we make will be echoed by their cheers or boos or jeers or whatever they decide to throw at us."
Michigan State will be looking to hit Notre Dame, and hit hard. The Spartans will be looking to make the big play one more time.
"We're not going to let it come down to one play," Watson said. "We're not going to let it come down to one drive or one series. We're going to do what we got to do from the beginning of the game and just take care of our business and so it won't have to come down to that."
All Sports Stories for Friday, September 20, 2002