During his three years at Notre Dame, Tyrone Willingham compiled just a 21-15 record as head coach. His tenure, however, couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start.
With plenty of close calls and nail-biters along the way, Willingham won his first eight games as head man in South Bend. Perhaps the most thrilling came on this day 20 years ago.
In what had been a defensive struggle for most of the day, Michigan State and Notre Dame traded touchdowns in a span of just 30 seconds. The last — a 60-yard touchdown pass from Pat Dillingham to Arnaz Battle — lifted Notre Dame to a thrilling 21-17 win.
Setting the Stage
After a 3-0 start, Notre Dame had gone from unranked to No. 12 in the country as it arrived at Spartan Stadium on Sept. 21, 2002. After a 22-0 victory over reigning ACC champion Maryland to open the year, the Fighting Irish had pulled off hard-fought wins over Purdue and Michigan.
Following a 2-0 start, Michigan State had fallen out of the polls with a 46-22 home loss to California. With less than two minutes to play in East Lansing, the Spartans were on the verge of capturing their most impressive win of the young season.
A Thrilling Finish
For three quarters, Michigan State had failed to score a touchdown. Notre Dame led 14-3, but it didn’t take long for the Spartans to make things interesting.
Less than a minute into the final period, Michigan State finally found the end zone on a 38-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Smoker to Charles Rogers. With less than two minutes to play, Notre Dame was one play from wrapping up the victory but stopping Rogers proved impossible.
On a drive that started from its own 3-yard-line, Michigan State faced 4th-and-11 from the Notre Dame 21-yard-line. With time to throw, Smoker could find no one open. His best chance was looking for one of the nation’s most talented receivers.
Firing one toward the back of the end zone into a sea of Notre Dame defenders, Rogers made a leaping catch and managed to get a foot down before falling out of bounds. With 1:45 to play, Michigan State had its first lead, 17-14.
Needing a field goal to tie and a touchdown to win, it was up to Dillingham. Dillingham didn’t start for the Fighting Irish but was forced into action after an injury to Carlyle Holiday. He needed just 30 seconds to put Notre Dame ahead for good.
After beginning the drive with a completion to tight end Gary Godsey, Dillingham found Battle on a short pass that seemed as if it would net just a modest gain. Slips by two Michigan State defenders and a key downfield block later and Battle was off to the races.
The 60-yard play would ultimately serve as the game-winner. Michigan State would get to throw one toward the end zone on the game’s final snap. Smoker’s pass was intercepted by Notre Dame’s Gerome Sapp.
Prior to the game-winner, both of Notre Dame’s touchdowns came in the first half. Ryan Grant got the scoring started with a 7-yard touchdown run. Holiday found Maurice Stovall for the game’s second touchdown just 11 seconds before halftime.
Rogers finished with 175 yards receiving. His two touchdowns gave him an NCAA record as it marked his 12th straight game with a receiving touchdown.
Notre Dame would start 8-0 and ascend to No. 4 in the country before dropping three of its last five games. Following a Fiesta Bowl loss to Oregon State, Notre Dame finished No. 17 in the polls at 10-3.
Finding ways to lose would be a theme for Michigan State. The Spartans finished the season just 4-8. Perhaps the most heartbreaking loss from that campaign came to Notre Dame. It happened on this day two decades ago.
Mike Ferguson is the managing editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.