SOUTH BEND – This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Midwest rival’s most memorable game.
Funny that it ended in a tie.
Back in 1966 #1 Notre Dame and #2 Michigan State played to a 10-10 tie in one of the first contests billed as “The Game of the Century.” The Irish rallied back from a ten-point deficit against Bubba Smith and the Spartans then controversially ran out the clock while on offense.
Fast forward five decades and the two teams renew their rivalry after three years this weekend in South Bend. Once again both teams are ranked in the Top 25 and their contest could have a big impact on bowl games or even a shot at the national championship.
Just like 50 years ago, Brian Kelly expects an aggressive 12th-ranked Michigan State team to lineup against his group on Saturday at 7 PM at Notre Dame Stadium along with a little something extra.
“I think that they have very good schemes, you know. So this isn’t some Neanderthal, let’s hit you in the mouth football team,” said Kelly. “This is a team that went to the playoffs, and, you know, beat Oregon and beat good football teams that do other things.
“I think you’re underselling them to say it’s a physical football team. We have to do other things well.”
Yet Kelly doesn’t want to underestimate how the prospects of a smash mouth game could have an effect on his team. Following a start against two unranked opponents the coach is expecting his team’s intensity to pick up with the successful Spartans in town.
“When you tell a football player we’re going to test you mentally and physically and this is going to be a physical contest, they bull up, you know, because they’re football players,” said Kelly. “So I think the natural reaction is anytime they’re tested about a physical contest, they want to — come on, let’s bring it on. And I think Michigan State has proven to be a winning football program, and they do it by being physical.
“Our guys are going to have to back that up.”
EVANSTON – A year ago they were the upstart team ready to surprise the Big Ten over the course of the next three months.
Now Northwestern is on the complete opposite end – one of the conference’s early disappointments after a forgettable start to 2016. A defeat to a MAC opponent (Western Michigan) and a FCS squad (Illinois State) have the Wildcats at 0-2 with the harder part of their schedule approaching.
So how is this team that won ten games last year dealing with two difficult losses to start this campaign?
“Shutting out the noise coming from the outside,” said quarterback Clayton Thorson when asked how the team is staying positive. “There’s a lot of negative things that are always being said when you lose.”
Pat Fitzgerald was one of those after the team lost to the Redbirds Saturday at Ryan Field. The head coach was direct following the contest about why he believes the team has struggled in the first two contests.
“We have a bunch of guys trying not to make mistakes instead of trying to make plays,” said Fitzgerald of his team on Saturday. “When you overthink things like we are right now for whatever reason, you’re not good, you’re inconsistent.”
On offense that is especially the case as they gained just 277 total yards in the loss to the Cardinals in which they didn’t get a point on the board till the fourth quarter. Thorson echoed similar sentiments to his coach when asked about what it will take to start a turnaround this week against Duke (7 PM, BTN) in the Wildcats’ third-straight home game to start the season.
“It kinda starts with trusting each other and believing in each other-and we do,” said Thorson, who has 387 yards and a touchdown throw in the first two games. “There is a sense of urgency, of course, but there is a sense of urgency every week though. So it’s nothing new.
“This has happened to program in the past and we have to respond to it.”
Running back Justin Jackson’s return to the lineup is still unknown as the team prepares for the Blue Devils. He left the Illinois State game with a lower leg injury in the fourth quarter after eleven carries for 39 yards.
ILLINOIS: MAC Attack Back in the State
CHAMPAIGN – One of the main reasons that Northwestern is off to a bad start is because of the team that will be the opponent for Lovie Smith’s third game at Illinois.
Back in Week 1 Western Michigan left Evanston with a one-point victory over the Wildcats in their first of two wins to start the season.
Now P.J. Fleck brings the Broncos about two-and-a-half hours farther south into the State of Illinois to face the Illini-and don’t think Smith hasn’t seen what they’ve already done against a fellow Big Ten opponent.
“I saw them running that system [against Northwestern],” said Smith of the Broncos’ offense. “Part of their system, of course, there’s option involved. They have excellent running backs. They have great skill at the wide receiver position. When you have all that you can end up having 70 points on the board any given Saturday so it’ll be a big challenge for our defense.”
That’s what they did last week – literally. Western Michigan put up 70 points against NC Central at home last week in a 49-point victory following the win in Evanston. Illinois didn’t have much luck with another team from the same state last Saturday as North Carolina put up 48 points in handing Smith his first loss as the Illini coach.
While the defense had its struggles it was penalties that really hurt the Illini as they were whistled for 13 penalties that cost them 99 yards.
“We didn’t play well enough this past Saturday to win, simple as that,” said Smith of the loss to the Tar Heels. “We had a perfect stage to take a step, maybe a little bit quicker than we were ready to take but we will learn from this video. We already have things we have to improve. We’ll get back on this situation and be able to handle it a lot better.
“We get that opportunity right away.”
NIU: More Bad Luck for Hare
DEKALB – There have been a few memorable signal callers that have donned the Huskies’ uniform over the past decade and Drew Hare is apart of that group.
But no one has endured worse luck that the current Northern Illinois quarterback. The latest injury may put an end to his career in DeKalb.
Hare will be out for an “extended period of time” according to head coach Rod Carey after suffering ankle and knee injuries against South Florida in a 48-17 loss last Saturday in Tampa.
“The one thing I’ll say is that my heart is absolutely broken for Drew on this thing,” said Carey. “Don’t get me wrong on this. It’s not like I’m not unfeeling in any way shape or form. He and I have been in a ton of conversations. He is one of the best quarterbacks that has ever played here and you can’t deny that. People may have different opinions about that but I think he’s one of four that has won a conference championship.
“I’m not a big numbers guy, but I’m told he’s pretty high up on the number’s stuff and leadership wise and being around him. I’ve been fortunate enough in my time here to be around Chandler [Harnish], Jordan [Lynch], and Drew. Leadership wise all three of those are top leaders that I’ve ever been around so my heart is broken for him for that aspect.”
Just like the 2015 season when Hare was lost for the last five games with an Achilles injury it will be up to backup Ryan Graham to take over when the Huskies host San Diego State in their home opener Saturday (2:30 PM, CBS Sports Network). Last year he completed 53.9 percent of his passes for 691 yards and six touchdowns compared to three interceptions though he missed the regular season finale with his own injury.
Graham returned for the Poinsettia Bowl but was just 7-of-21 for 38 yards in a 55-7 loss to Boise State. Filling in for Hare last week the sophomore was 9-of-15 for 65 yards and a touchdown. Carey also said that senior Anthony Maddie, who last played in 2014, could also figure into the quarterback mix.
“Maddie’s played football around here. Ryan has won games around here, so we have two seasoned quarterbacks at this time,” said Carey. “Certainly feel good about Ryan’s development, how that has gone and continues to progress.”