It was one of those old-time games, the kind where you felt like applauding when a runner made it all the way to the line of scrimmage without having his headgear pressed into the size of a peanut. Most of Notre Dame's runners did not get that far—ever—and Michigan State, a team that still knows how to play defense in a season of high scoring and exploding offenses, turned South Bend into just another little Indiana town last week.
Everything was perfect for one of those classic games that would be remembered until the golden dome was turned into a discotheque, which is to say forever. The day was cold and breezy but clear—good football weather—and 60,000 people had paid from $3 to $100 for a ticket to get into the cream-brick stadium that Knute Rockne's success had built. The dome glistened, old Notre Dame ghosts were felt lurking about and the bands blared. But the game was no classic at all. It was, rather, 17 punts, five interceptions, five fumbles and a total of 29 rushing plays that went for either minus yardage or no gain, and Michigan State's defense won it by the unfashionable score of 12-3.
Michigan State would take it, though. The victory gave the Spartans of Coach Duffy Daugherty a perfect record of 10-0. It proved that even under Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame can still be beaten in South Bend. It evened the count for a 34-7 loss to the Irish last year. It all but insured Michigan State of the mythical national championships awarded by the two wire services (AP, sensibly, will collect its ballots after the bowl games this year). And it sent the Big Ten champions to the Rose Bowl with a spotless record. But, more than anything else, it proved again that a skilled, vicious defense is still the most reliable thing in college football.
Here was Notre Dame at home with the incentive of playing the No. 1-rated team. In itself, that is some barrier for a visitor. Also, Notre Dame had a strong club of its own—one that featured talented ballcarriers with plenty of size and agile linemen—good enough to have beaten seven teams and been rated No. 4. So all Michigan State did was hold Nick Eddy and Bill Wolski, two of the so-called "modern Four Horsemen," to minus yardage and Notre Dame's entire rushing effort to minus 12 yards for the afternoon. No one could remember when that had happened before, but everyone was certain it was pre-Gus Dorais. Meanwhile, back on the scoreboard, the Spartans came from behind for the sixth time to make it seem as if Daugherty, whose reputation as a speaker had eclipsed his stature as a coach, knew what X's and O's meant, after all.
Michigan State's defense was so quick and sound that Notre Dame, even though it benefited from three big breaks in the first half—getting the ball on State's 19- 25- and 18-yard lines—could dredge up only a 3-0 lead on Ken Ivan's 32-yard field goal. Notre Dame's defense performed admirably, too, but when the offense could not move it had to crack. Late in the third quarter it did. Michigan State took over on Notre Dame's 39 after a punt, and in six plays it had the touchdown that, for all purposes, settled the whole thing. "Clinton Jones slept soundly Friday night for the first time all season, so we really weren't worried," said Quarterback Steve Juday.
Clinton Jones, a junior halfback who is built like Cassius Clay and flies like Gemini IV, got the drive going when he ripped through guard for 21 yards. (He gained 117 yards in all Saturday.) The next four plays saw Jones and the other halfback, Dwight Lee, alternate on gouges down to the three. Now came a play called "full house right half at eight power," and Jones followed what appeared to be the entire population of East Lansing into the end zone. Later in the fourth quarter Michigan State got an insurance touchdown on a 19-yard pass from Juday to Lee, but that one wasn't really needed—it was only to improve a statistic. Through 10 games the Spartans outscored their opponents 103-7 in the final quarter. "You might say we were a second-half team," said Daugherty.
No team gets through a 10-game schedule unbeaten without wringing destiny's neck a few times. Michigan State was no exception. Early in the season the Spartans had a splendid chance to lose to Illinois. They trailed 12-9 late in the third quarter when Illinois' Jim Grabowski broke loose for what looked like a touchdown that would have put the game out of reach. But near midfield Defensive Back Jim Summers dived at him from behind, barely tripped him up, and the drive stalled. Game saved. Against Purdue it appeared again that State had lost for sure. Trailing 10-8 and with time almost gone, Juday passed incomplete on third down at the Purdue 22. But what should have been a desperate situation with fourth and eight suddenly was not. An injudicious Purdue lineman roughed Juday, and the Spartans found themselves with a first down on the 12. They promptly scored. Second game saved.
Next, State lolled around against Indiana until it was behind, 13-10, with the fourth quarter moving along nicely. Then the explosion. Juday hit End Gene Washington with a 43-yard touchdown pass, and that was that.
Last Saturday Notre Dame had two splendid chances to succeed where the others before them had failed. Like this: Tom Longo made a diving interception of a Juday pass at the Michigan State 25. You had to think Notre Dame could score on the Viet Cong from only 25 yards out. But on the first play Quarterback Bill Zloch tried a pass, and Spartan Linebacker Charles Thornhill intercepted it. A few minutes later Notre Dame recovered a Juday fumble on the State 18. Well, this time, for sure, you thought, and it's 10-0. But what happened? Zloch threw the ball into the end zone and Don Japinga took it in stride as if he were the intended receiver. "We knew we could play 'em loose," said Japinga, "because Zloch floats the ball, you can get to it even if you're beat."
Notre Dame kept trying to throw in situations like these because of Michigan State's quick, big (in places), mobile and aggressive 5-3 defense, which refused to yield any outside running room. When the Irish ran to the right they were met by Bubba Smith, who is 6 feet 7 and weighs 270. When they ran left, they met Bob Viney, who is only 6 feet and 214 but just as effective. And when the Irish turned inside they met Linebackers Ron Goovert, Buddy Owens and Thorn-hill, and a rover named George Webster, who is 6 feet 4, weighs 218 and has the pros in love with him. They met Michigan State players from South Carolina (three of them), Texas (three of them), from Virginia, Pennsylvania and, even, from Michigan. It is a defensive team that forced nearly all of its opponents to the air, whether they had a passer or not. Notre Dame was not the first to wind up with minus yardage rushing. Michigan lost 51 on the ground, and Ohio State, of all teams, was minus 22.