Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio smiled slightly when asked if he had considered that Saturday might be his last time coaching against Notre Dame.
“I did give that a little thought,” he said at his Tuesday news conference, then raised his right arm and pointed. “Don’t count me out, though. Don’t count me out. Is it 2022? Is that it?”
No, coach. The Spartans and the Irish aren’t scheduled to play again until a home-and-home in 2026-27, the longest series hiatus since 1921-48. Dantonio lifted his eyebrows.
“Well, yeah, you might have to count me out,” he laughed. “I’d be 70.”
Dantonio’s first time facing Notre Dame as a head coach came in his debut season at Michigan State, a 31-14 road win in 2007. His most recent? A 36-28 road win last year. But the series has in no way been one-sided during Dantonio’s tenure, with the Spartans and the Irish knotted at four wins each, as shown below.
|2007||Michigan State 31, Notre Dame 14|
|2008||Michigan State 23, Notre Dame 7|
|2009||Notre Dame 33, Michigan State 30|
|2010||Michigan State 34, Notre Dame 31|
|2011||Notre Dame 31, Michigan State 13|
|2012||Notre Dame 20, Michigan State 3|
|2013||Notre Dame 17, Michigan State 13|
|2016||Michigan State 36, Notre Dame 28|
During his news conference, Dantonio reminisced about his younger days spent watching Notre Dame on a weekly basis, as it was one of a select few teams to consistently appear on the three channels his TV showed. He brought up the legendary 1966 showdown between Michigan State and Notre Dame, the lone tie in 78 games between the two programs. He rattled off the four years he faced Notre Dame as a Spartans assistant, all wins from 1997-2000.
“They have been good games, great games,” Dantonio said of the series. “And they are always going to be packed houses, and they are always going to be nationally televised, and there’s always going to be a little something that goes with that game.”
On his players, all of whom will face Notre Dame for the final time as players on Saturday at Spartan Stadium, Dantonio said he won’t try to impress any sense of finality upon this game.
“This is just another game in that regard,” he said. “This is the next challenge. There are going to be other big challenges that they are going to be able to look forward to throughout their football careers playing here, and that’s the kind of place Michigan State is. That’s the kind of place Notre Dame is. You’re always going to have a big game, the next big game. There’s no finality in that.”
The finality aspect rings true. Win or loss, Michigan State will play at least nine more games this season. But to these players, is this just another game? No way.
Chicago’s Big Ten team
Brian Allen remembers the traffic heading west toward Chicago almost as much as he remembers the Notre Dame games that preceded them. The bumper-to-bumper madness made returning home to the suburbs in Hinsdale, Ill., a nightmare.
“Being from the Chicagoland area, you think people are Illinois or Northwestern fans, but it’s really more of a Notre Dame territory there,” he said. “Growing up, everyone always goes to Notre Dame games.”
Allen said his “first real college football experience” came at a Notre Dame game, but not at Notre Dame Stadium. On an unofficial visit to Michigan State, he saw the “Little Giants” game in which a fake field goal won the game for the Spartans. He still remembers the date: Sept. 18, 2010.
Allen never received a Notre Dame offer, but he’s done just fine as the second of three brothers (along with Jack and Matt) to play for Michigan State. He’ll be going against several friends on Saturday, including Notre Dame linebacker Jimmy Thompson, a former teammate.
“I can’t speak for everybody but [it’s] different for me,” Allen said. “Just something you mark on your calendar, a huge game that you look forward to every year. And having it be an 8 o’clock game, I’ve been here for four years and this’ll be my third night game in Spartan Stadium, maybe my fourth.
“Opportunities like this don’t come around very often, and just having it be a team like Notre Dame puts an extra emphasis on it.”
In every game Michigan State plays, some Spartans will go up against friends and even family. Outside of Big Ten play, that might never be as prominent a theme as against Notre Dame.
Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke and Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush roomed together at Elite 11, a camp for the nation’s top prep quarterbacks. They still keep in touch, and both have stood out with their feet this year. Wimbush has averaged more than 100 rushing yards per game, and Lewerke leads the Spartans in rushing yards.
Brothers Andrew and David Dowell, now Michigan State players, attended St. Edward (Lakewood, Ohio), a Catholic institution to which Notre Dame was a “connecting school,” as Andrew put it. There they teamed up with Irish cornerback Shaun Crawford, a close friend to both. They haven’t kept to themselves in the lead-up to the game.
“We definitely talk trash,” Andrew said. “[Shaun] had a really good game last week, so it’ll be cool. He’ll be out there at corner and we’ll see each other and stuff like that.”
Andrew has been planning his Saturday so that he will peak at 8 p.m. ET, around kickoff. He’ll sleep in and likely try to nap later. But it might be tough to quell the excitement long enough to rest.
“The whole atmosphere of the Notre Dame game, it’s electric, and you can feel it in practice,” he said. “Everybody amplifies their practice and their attitude toward practice and their energy in practice because of the big game that we have coming up this weekend.”
After brothers Max and Riley have come and gone, Byron Bullough will be the last of the Bulloughs to wear the green and white — at least in this generation.
Who knows what will happen a few years down the road? After all, their grandfather, Hank, and father, Shane, both played for Michigan State, as well as two uncles. The ties are almost as strong with Notre Dame. His grandfather and uncle on his mother’s side, both named Jim Morse, played for the Irish.
“Growing up I was definitely a Notre Dame fan,” Bullough said, “but once I decided to come here, I guess it’s just another team, another team that Michigan State has to play, another team that Michigan State has to beat.”
So maybe it is just another game. At least, it might’ve been until Monday, when Bullough learned he had been chosen as a captain for the game. The opponent might be just another one for Bullough, but the atmosphere won’t be: a rivalry game at night on national television (FOX).
If Michigan State can grab the win, Bullough said, it would propel the Spartans back into the national spotlight. But regardless of the outcome, the opportunity will be special for him.
“It’s my first time being a team captain,” he said. “Notre Dame game, primetime game under the lights. It’s special. It’ll be a special moment.
“It’s definitely a dream come true.”