'Little Giants' looms large in MSU-Notre Dame lore

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — For Mark Staten, it was like watching one of his children head off for the first day of school or taking the ice in a hockey game — a nervous dad hoping everything goes off without a hitch.

Spartan teammates celebrate with Charlie Gantt (83) after he caught the winning pass for an overtime touchdown as MSU beat Notre Dame in 2010.

That was how he felt standing on the sidelines at Spartan Stadium on September 18, 2010. It was overtime as Michigan State was trailing Notre Dame by three points, facing a fourth-and-14 from the Irish 29 and coach Mark Dantonio had just called for a fake field goal.

“Little Giants,” was the call, and Staten, then the coach of tackles and tight ends and the man in charge of the field goal unit, told Dantonio the play would work.

At least, that’s what he hoped.

“When the head coach says, ‘Is it going to work?’ and you’ve got to answer that, ‘Yeah, coach, it’s going to work,’” Staten recalled this week, “and you’re going, ‘Man, it’s fourth-and-14 and I just told him this play’s going to work, so hopefully it does.’”

That’s when he started feeling like the nervous father, the players running onto the field trying to hold their collective poker face.

Brad Salem, then in his first season as Michigan State running backs coach, asked Staten if they called the play. Staten played it cool.

“He said, ‘Did he call it? … Did he call ‘Little Giants?’” Staten recalled. “And I just go, ‘Yeeeaah.’ He brings that story up to me, and it’s funny because I don’t even remember that part of it.”

The result, of course, is one of the many highlights of the Michigan State-Notre Dame series that will kick off for the 79th time at 8 p.m. Saturday. Punter and holder Aaron Bates took the snap, saw primary target Le’Veon Bell had been thrown to the ground, shuffled to his right to buy time, then hit tight end Charlie Gantt for the winning touchdown.

Madness engulfed Spartan Stadium and sparked Michigan State to an 11-win season that included a Big Ten championship. It was the start of a run of unprecedented success for the Spartans and the hope is Saturday’s game provides the same sort of spark for a team regaining its footing after a difficult 2016.

MSU vs. Notre Dame: View from the other side

Whether another classic is in store is hard to predict, but the series has had its share, the “Little Giants” game being just one of many.

Of course, there’s the Game of the Century in 1966 when No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State played to a 10-10 tie. There was Jeff Smoker to Herb Haygood on fourth down in 2000, the flag planting after an overtime win for the Spartans in South Bend in 2005 and the epic collapse by MSU at home a year later in a driving rainstorm.

“They have been good games, great games,” Dantonio said this week, “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.”

Herb Haygood is off to the races on a 68-yard TD reception for the winning score in the MSU-Notre Dame game in 2000.

The series has had a bit of everything and, for better or worse, it will have to wait until 2026 to be resumed. There’s a chance of a neutral-site meeting sometime before that, but for now, the teams aren’t on each other’s schedule until the home-and-home that is finished in 2027.

That doesn’t mean much for this meeting and the players involved. It’s a big game for both teams – Notre Dame was 4-8 last season and coach Brian Kelly is feeling some heat – and the focus is on getting a win.

However, that doesn’t mean they want to see the series end, either.

“It's just something that you don't like to see fade away,” Notre Dame offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey said. “You want that kind of a game and that kind of an atmosphere and that kind of a tension to continue. It's good for the programs. It's good for the sport. It's just good for you as a player individually, to get to be able to have these kinds of experiences.”

The series hasn’t been short on experiences and while the current rosters haven’t gone through an epic finish, they’re still connected to it.

Michigan State center Brian Allen was with his brother, Jack, on a recruiting trip to East Lansing the night of the “Little Giants” game. He watched as the players celebrated in the locker room, his love for MSU just starting to form.

Detroit News predictions: Michigan State  vs. Notre Dame

Linebacker Byron Bullough was at Spartan Stadium that night, too. His brother, Max, was a freshman linebacker on the field goal unit that pulled off the winning play.

“I remember that play like it was yesterday,” he said.

Is another play in store, one that will be a fitting sendoff for a series full of highlight-reel material?

There’s always that potential when Michigan State and Notre Dame square off, and for what it’s worth, those involved sure hope there’s more opportunity to add to the history.

“Absolutely (I’ll miss it),” Staten said. “I hope they can get it back together sooner than that, and I think things will change, as they always do. And, hopefully, both programs will have success. And maybe it ends up being a pretty cool bowl game.”

Crazy things happen when Spartans and Irish meet

Michigan State and Notre Dame have had their share of big moments in a series that dates back more than 100 years. The Game of the Century in 1966 stands out, but the fantastic finishes have been the series’ identity in recent years. Here’s a look at a few that stand out:

Sept. 23,2000 at Michigan State – Trailing by a point and facing a fourth-and-10 from its 32-yard line in the final two minutes, freshman quarterback Jeff Smoker hit receiver Herb Haygood with a strike that Haygood took 68 yards for a touchdown. Michigan State 27, Notre Dame 21

Sept. 21,2002 at Michigan State – Behind 14-3 entering the fourth quarter, MSU rallied to take the lead with 1:45 to play after a remarkable catch in the back of the end zone by receiver Charles Rogers. But just 30 seconds later, Notre Dame’s Arnaz Battle takes a short pass and goes 60 yards for the go-ahead score. The Irish lock up the win by intercepting Smoker’s desperation heave to end the game. Notre Dame 21, Michigan State 17

Sept. 17,2005 at Notre Dame – Michigan State watched a 21-point lead disappear as the teams headed to overtime. The Spartans held the Irish to a field goal on their possession then won when Jason Teague took an option pitch 19 yards for the touchdown. The Spartans cause a stir afterward when Kaleb Thornhill and Eric Smith plant the MSU flag at midfield of Notre Dame Stadium. Michigan State 44, Notre Dame 41

Sept. 23,2006 at Michigan State – MSU jumped out to a 17-0 lead and was ahead 31-14 at halftime. However, the rain came in the second half and so did the collapse as Notre Dame’s Terrail Lambert intercepted a Drew Stanton pass with 2:53 to play and returned it 27 yards for the winning score. Lambert intercepted Stanton again on the final drive to seal the comeback. Notre Dame 40, Michigan State 37

Sept. 18,2010 at Michigan State – Known simply as the “Little Giants” game, coach Mark Dantonio called for a fake field goal with the Spartans trailing by three in overtime. Punter and holder Aaron Bates calmly moved in the pocket and found a wide-open Charlie Gantt for the winning 29-yard touchdown pass. Michigan State 34, Notre Dame 31