ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Aaron Bates threw the pass, Charlie Gantt made the catch, and at that moment, everything seemed to change for Michigan State.
The fake field goal two years ago that beat Notre Dame in overtime has taken on an almost mythical significance for Spartans fans, whose team was considered a middling Big Ten program before that game and joined the conference's elite almost immediately after. The victory over the Irish -- which was followed by coach Mark Dantonio's health scare -- was the beginning of a 22-5 stretch for Michigan State that is still going.
"That play was timing. I've said that before. It was the right time for the situation, the right place," Dantonio said. "It was a quick decision we had to make. I was prepared to make that decision all week long if that situation came into fold."
Fast forward to today, and 20th-ranked Notre Dame (2-0) returns to Spartan Stadium to face 10th-ranked Michigan State. This is the earliest in the season the Spartans (2-0) have been in the AP top 10 since 1979.
The 2010 game between these teams was competitive but fairly uneventful until the stunning finish. The Spartans trailed by three before holder Bates threw that 29-yard touchdown pass to Gantt on the trick play.
Andrew Maxwell, now in his first season as Michigan State's starting quarterback, was a backup then and remembers the gutsy call by Dantonio -- for a play named Little Giants.
"I did know it was called. I didn't realize it at first because I was kind of talking to somebody else," Maxwell said. "I kind of had one earphone on and one off to the side. I hear, 'Little Giants, Little Giants.' I'm like, 'OK, this is going.' "
Michigan State had already won its first two games that season, and the victory over Notre Dame helped the Spartans to an 11-2 record. They went 10-3 last season.
Notre Dame has gone 8-5 each of the last two seasons, although the Irish did rout Michigan State 31-13 last year to gain some measure of revenge.
"I think it starts with, there's a respect for both programs and they know what they're going to expect in this game," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "Nobody has really run away with this, in the sense that they've dominated the other opponent."
The Irish made big news this week by announcing they were joining the Atlantic Coast Conference -- while remaining independent in football.
Amid that backdrop, Notre Dame heads to Michigan State for a traditional Midwestern rivalry game.
"We know what kind of game it's going to be. It's going to be a physical game," Kelly said.
Notre Dame's offensive line had its problems in a 20-17 victory over Purdue last weekend, but backup quarterback Tommy Rees came on late in relief of Evertt Golson and helped the Irish pull through.
Last year it was Michigan State's blocking that struggled. Notre Dame held Le'Veon Bell to 27 yards on seven carries. The Spartans will probably look to establish their running game with more success this time. Bell had 44 carries in a win over Boise State to open this season.
Bell was a freshman when Michigan State played Notre Dame in 2010, and he ran for 114 yards and a touchdown. Shortly after that game, Dantonio was hospitalized because of a mild heart attack, but his trusted staff helped the team through that uncertain period, and the Spartans are now looking like a model of continuity.
With Michigan and Wisconsin both losing early nonconference games, there's talk Michigan State might be the favorite in the Big Ten. Dantonio downplayed that, but he recalled a big victory over the Badgers in 2010 while he was still recovering and away from the team.
"I knew we had a program in place. I knew it wasn't dependent on one person being there, one person not being here. Whether it was a coordinator, the head coach, or the quarterback, we were going to be able to move through things and still be able to deliver in big-time situations," Dantonio said. "That's what I gained from it."