Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Letdown of the Century

Over the years, many games in many sports have been called — in anticipation, rarely in retrospect — "the game of the century."

The latest, of course, was the LSU–Alabama game earlier this month.

But, even if there is such a game every year for the next 100 years, there will never be another game that will end like the one that was played 45 years ago.

On this day in 1966, such a game was played in East Lansing, Mich., between the undefeated Michigan State Spartans and the also undefeated Notre Dame Fightin' Irish. Notre Dame was ranked #1 in both polls. Defending UPI national champion Michigan State was ranked #2 in both polls.

It was ironic, really, that the teams played each other at all that season. The top two teams in the polls had not faced each other in 20 years, since the 1946 Army–Notre Dame game (which featured three past or future Heisman Trophy winners and, perhaps even more ironically, ended in a 0–0 tie), which made it a rarity to begin with.

But that is only the beginning of the story.

On the original 1966 schedule, which had been released several years earlier, Michigan State had only nine games slated, even though a team was allowed to play as many as 10 regular–season games. Notre Dame, meanwhile, did have10 games scheduled, but one of its opponents, Iowa, dropped the Irish.

Since Michigan State had an open spot, the Spartans agreed to play the Irish, setting the stage for their showdown — even though no one knew at the time that it would be a #1–#2 clash.

In those pre–cable days, NCAA rules and regulations permitted college football teams to play in only one nationally televised and two regionally televised games during the regular season. The postseason was an entirely different matter, but, again, the times were different. There were far fewer bowl games — and no conference championship games.

Notre Dame had already played its nationally televised game, and ABC's executives didn't want to show the game outside the schools' region, but interest was so high elsewhere that they gave in and agreed to show it on a delayed basis to non–regional viewers.

Whether they saw it live or on tape, those viewers witnessed what had to be the letdown of the century.

Looking at the final score from the perspective of 45 years later — 10–10 — I suppose one's initial conclusion would be that it was an edge–of–your–seat, nail–biting finish, an old–fashioned defensive struggle.

To an extent, I suppose that is true. But not entirely.

Michigan State scored all its points in the first half, and Notre Dame managed to cut the deficit to 10–7 by intermission. The Irish then tied the game with a field goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Michigan State had a chance to take the lead on a deep pass, but the receiver outran the pass and had to double back. Notre Dame intercepted the pass, but then missed a field goal that would have given the Irish the lead for the first time.

So far, so good. Then the game of the century became the letdown of the century.

With a little more than a minute remaining in the game, Notre Dame had the ball at its 30 and needed to reach Michigan State's 30 to be in field goal range. Most viewers probably figured the Irish would take a stab at it. In those days, there was no overtime in college football.

But Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian chose not to make the attempt and ran out the clock. It was a controversial decision, to say the least.

"We'd fought hard to come back and tie it up," Parseghian said. "After all that, I didn't want to risk giving it to them cheap. They get reckless, and it could cost them the game. I wasn't going to do a jackass thing like that at this point."

The Irish crushed Southern California the following week but did not accept bowl bids at the time, thus ending the 1966 season at 9–0–1 and clinging to the top ranking. That didn't go over well at all with Alabama fans, whose team had a perfect record. Even after 45 years, it's still a sore point for older Crimson Tide supporters.

Michigan State also finished 9–0–1 and did not play in a bowl but because of conference rules, not school policy.

At that time, the Big Ten did not allow a school to represent it in the Rose Bowl in consecutive years, and Big Ten teams were not allowed to play in any bowl game other than the Rose Bowl so the Spartans stayed home for the holidays.

And the question of who was really the best college football team in 1966 remained unanswered for many college football fans.

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