Many of you probably remember my series from spring Reliving Past Tournaments: Tom Izzo’s Top Wins. Given the lack of football this fall, I will be hitting the gridiron history each week taking a look back at all the wins we enjoyed under former head coach Mark Dantonio’s 13-season tenure. Each week of the regular season (until football officially returns), I will go through and select what I think was that corresponding week’s “best win” out of 13 seasons worth of them and recap the action. I will be pausing the series as the start date for the 2020 Big Ten season approaches, however.
Just like for week two, there was not much out there to compete with the obvious winner of this week. There was 2007’s win over Pitt, while 2015’s win over Air Force, and 2018’s win over Indiana were nice and all, but the game that won for week three put Mark Dantonio’s Spartans on the college football map. You have all seen the play I am talking about countless times by now on highlight reels. The 2010 Michigan State Spartans hosted the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in this week’s selection and emerged victorious in overtime on a stunning trick play you surely all know the name of by now a decade later!
Notre Dame at Michigan State
September 18, 2010
Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI
MSU 34-ND 31
(Watching the highlights reminds me how much I miss that MSC smokestack)
This game was off to a slow start in terms of scoring. Notre Dame started on offense and managed a 19-yard drive on eight plays before punting. The Spartans responded with a three-and-out after gaining just seven yards of their own. Notre Dame responded with another clunker of a drive for just 22 yards and one first down before punting on the next set of downs. Michigan State picked up a first down finally on its first play of the drive with a 19-yard pass by Kirk Cousins to Keshawn Martin. However, three incomplete passes to Mark Dell resulted in another punt.
The Irish finally struck gold on their next possession. On a nine-play drive that took just 2:24 off the clock, Notre Dame marched 80 yards down the field. Dayne Crist completed passes of 12, 17, 17, 18, and finally seven-yards, assisted along the way by a personal foul penalty by MSU that moved the ball from the Spartans’ 15-yard-line to the seven. The extra point was good and it was a 7-0 ND lead.
The Spartans responded with a 16-play, 72-yard drive of their own, eating up 8:18 off the clock and rolling over into the second quarter. The highlight plays of this drive included a 16-yard run by Le’Veon Bell and a 17-yard pass to Martin. After the first down pass to Martin set MSU up on Notre Dame’s nine-yard-line, however, disaster struck. Larry Caper managed just one yard on a first down rush and Cousins threw an incomplete pass to Charlie Gantt setting up third-and-goal. Cousins proceeds to throw a pick to the Irish’s Zeke Motta in the end zone for a touchback.
After the interception in the end zone by Cousins, Notre Dame started its drive from its own 20-yard-line. The Irish managed 69 yards on the ensuing 13-play drive. Notre Dame’s second play of the drive was a 12-yard run by Armando Allen Jr., while a 15-yard strike to Theo Riddick and 16-yard strike to Michael Floyd rounded out the top plays. However, MSU’s defense struck pay dirt when an 11-yard pass to Floyd was then fumbled at the MSU 11-yard-line and MSU recovered.
Unfortunately, the Spartans failed to take advantage and punted after a three-and-out. The Irish were generous, though, as Johnny Adams picked off Crist’s pass on the first play of Notre Dame’s drive at MSU’s six-yard-line.
Michigan State responded to the pick play by Adams with a 94-yard drive of its own. Edwin Baker ripped off a 10-yard run to start the series, assisted by a Notre Dame 15-yard penalty to gain 25 yards. The next play Cousins throws a 27-yard pass to B.J. Cunningham for 27-yards and the ball is already at the Notre Dame 42-yard-line. Bell then ran for back-to-back 16-yard runs to set MSU up at the Notre Dame 10-yard-line before finally being tackled for just a four-yard gain. The Spartans called for a timeout after Bell was stuffed at the line on second down, but come out and Cousins threw a six yard pass to Martin for the touchdown! The game is tied up at 7-7 after Dan Conroy made the extra point.
With just 2:22 left in the half after MSU’s touchdown, not much happened afterwards before heading into the locker room. Notre Dame managed a three-and-out on its ensuing possession, while MSU responded with an eight-play, 25-yard drive before punting from the Irish’s 44-yard-line. Cousins did throw a 14-yard pass to Martin on the opening play, and Bell managed a 12-yard gain on fourth-and-one from ND’s 46-yard-line not long after to keep the drive alive. However, MSU punted on fourth-and-20 from Notre Dame’s 44-yard-line. Notre Dame kneeled it on their first play as there was just five seconds left in the half.
The Spartans started the second half on offense, and did not mess around coming out of the locker room. Cousins threw an 18-yard pass to B.J. Cunningham on the opening play and Edwin Baker proceeded to take it 56 yards for the touchdown the very next play. Conroy nailed the extra point and suddenly it is MSU 14-ND 7.
Unfortunately, MSU’s defense fell short on its opening series of the half. Notre Dame marched 75 yards in six plays for the touchdown. The Irish did get a scare as the eight-yard pass to Armando Allen Jr. on the third play of the drive was fumbled, but Allen managed to recover it. Riddick proceeded to catch back-to-back passes for 18 and then 24 yards for first and goal at MSU’s 10-yard-line before Kyle Rudolph caught the 10-yard touchdown pass to tie it up.
Michigan State answered with an 11-play drive of its own that methodically marched 73 yards for the touchdown. Martin caught an eight-yard pass, Cunningham a 12-yard pass, and then Cousins, Baker, and Bell rushed it most of the rest of the way, minus a four-yard pass to Cunningham at one point. Bell ripped off 16 yards for the touchdown to cap the drive with just 5:51 left in the third quarter and a 21-14 lead for MSU.
Unfortunately the Irish responded with a touchdown drive of their own. Notre Dame marched 77 yards over an 11-play drive while eating 4:22 off the clock to tie it up at 21 apiece. The Spartans ran the clock out on the third quarter with their next drive, but were forced to punt on a three-and-out after failing to convert for a first down.
The Irish struck gold with their opening possession in the fourth quarter. ND marched 52 yards on just five plays to take the lead. Back-to-back big throws of 17 yards to Allen and 24 yards to Floyd put it in the end zone for the Irish, and the score tipped to the Irish, 28-21. MSU made a quick strike with a 21-yard pass to Martin on its opening play, but then stalled out and was forced to punt on the next series. The defense held and forced a three-and-out by Notre Dame, however.
Michigan State did not wait around on offense. Cousins threw a five-yard pass to Brian Linthicum, then Notre Dame committed a 15-yard pass interference penalty on second down. Baker proceeded to pick up 14 yards, but Cousins was then sacked for a two-yard loss. No setback for the Spartans as Cousins threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Cunningham on the next play. MSU ties it up at 28-all.
Notre Dame proceeded to fumble on the next drive while trying to convert on fourth-and-one from its own 44-yard-line. However, MSU managed just two yards and had to punt as well. Did the Irish manage anything next? Well, unfortunately Notre Dame picked up two first downs on its next drive, but were forced to punt from the ND 42-yard-line.
The Spartans picked up five yards on a pass to Martin and 12-yards on a pass to Gant on their first two plays. Then Cousins was sacked for an eight-yard loss and MSU got pushed back another 10-yards on a holding penalty. Now facing second down with 28 yards to go, the Spartans call timeout with 1:10 left in the game. State draws a holding penalty on the next play, and Notre Dame calls timeout with only 1:00 left. Bell rushed for two yards, ND timeout, and MSU is penalized for an illegal forward pass on third-and-26. Aaron Bates is called on to punt from the MSU 10-yard-line. Notre Dame rushes for six yards and then lets the clock run out in the process. It is heading to overtime tied up at 28!
The Irish manage to pick up nine yards on their drive in overtime, but fail to convert for the first down and opt for the field goal. David Ruffer strikes home and Notre Dame pulls ahead 31-28.
On the Spartans’ possession in overtime, Baker loses two yards on the opening play. Cousins recovers the yardage and then some on a seven-yard keeper to setup third-and-five. Seemingly disaster strikes, though, as Cousins is sacked for a nine-yard loss by Darius Fleming. No big deal, MSU fans can rest assured the Spartans are likely to respond with a field goal of their own to force double-overtime when kicking it from the ND 29-yard-line. Get ready for another overtime period of football Spartans fans! But wait, the placeholder, Michigan State’s punter and former high school quarterback Aaron Bates immediately stands up with the ball! It can’t be! Do my eyes deceive me? IT IS A FAKE! OH MY GOD CHARLIE GANT IS WIDE OPEN DOWN THE FIELD! BATES THROWS IT AND THE PASS IS COMPLETE! GANT RUNS IT INTO THE END ZONE! SPARTANS WIN! SPARTANS WIN!!!!!!!!!!
So the play wasn’t named “The Annexation of Puerto Rico,” but frankly the Ice Box has nothing on this when it comes to “Little Giants” folks. Maybe the play clock expired before the snap, but with all the horrid luck MSU has had with referees in clutch moments over the decades, who cares. That is a victory for MSU, folks!
Looking back on it, this game put Michigan State on the map in the Mark Dantonio era. The 2007 and 2008 seasons were marked improvements for the Spartans before a mild regression in 2009. But 2010 was the year the flag was planted and notice given to the Big Ten the Spartans were past the dark days of the Bobby Williams and John L. Smith eras.
With the benefit of hindsight this trick play was the quintessential moment that signaled that golden era of Michigan State football under Coach Dantonio. MSU would go on to its first Big Ten title since 1990, first 10-win season since 1999, first of six under Dantonio mind you, and if I am being honest, the simple fact is that making making Brian Kelly sad is one of the greatest joys to be had in life (the stupid car thief of CMU). Though all of that was not apparent to Spartan fans in the moment. Following the game, Coach Dantonio suffered a minor heart attack and went to Sparrow Hospital emergency room that evening. He made a full recovery per reports, but missed a few of MSU’s games as a result. Luckily, he returned to the sideline and had an incredible run to follow that all started with the trick play at the end of this game.