Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Cunning Use of Flags | by Pat

One of the storylines that ABC will undoubtedly beat into the ground during Saturday's ND-MSU broadcast is the flow of bulletin board material, both real and imagined, coursing between Notre Dame and Michigan State this week.

The Crime

You remember this from last year's overtime loss to the Spartans. Of course the incident caught MSU some flak, and after Minnesota did the same thing to Michigan the following week, the Big Ten banned this lastest fad in being a sore winner. Chastened, some Spartans began to claim it was payback for the Irish planting their own flag at Spartan Stadium in 2004.

There's a small problem with the payback angle: it never happened. I have scoured the internet for photos, read Spartan message boards, checked postgame summaries from every newspaper...70,027 people were in Spartan Stadium, and no one has a picture of the Irish committing the alleged crime. (I came up with this post-game picture, but no flag is visible.) And keep in mind that in '04, ND was coached by Michigan State alum Ty Willingham. Was Ty going to allow his young protégés to stray from the path of upright and dignified manhood by taunting his alma mater?

Other Spartans went with the blame-the-new-kid routine. Said 2005 Michigan State captain Clifton Ryan:

"It was young guys who did it. I'm not sure what they were thinking; I guess they got caught up in the moment."
Bzzzz. Try again, Clifton. This video of the flag planting (it's at the end, around the 5:20 mark, and it includes a little Boston College-style turf tearing as well) shows that one of the two players who carried the flag out to midfield and planted it was safety Eric Smith, who not only was a senior, but was one of the four Spartan team captains along with Ryan (Ryan, by the way, was also the player who claimed prior to the game that Touchdown Jesus "wasn't all it's cracked up to be.") The other player who carried out the flag with Smith was Kaleb Thornhill, the Spartans' starting middle linebacker.

The Bulletin Board

Either way, ND has shrugged off any notion of using the flag as motivation. Or have they? On Saturday in his post-game presser, Weis had the following to say.
Q. You mentioned State a little bit. Do you use the struggles your team had the past few years with them or is this game all the motivation you need?

COACH WEIS: There's one incident in particular that I'll use as motivation.
But then on Tuesday he clarified that statement and claimed he wasn't talking about the Spartan post-game flag party at midfield.
Q. You alluded after the game on Saturday the flag incident.

COACH WEIS: I did not allude to it. You inferred. I did not allude to it.

Q. Are you planning on using that this week as motivation? Do you have to?

COACH WEIS: Here is what I think we have to do. I think we have to put the flag incident and Michigan behind us because if we sit there, and when you use something like the flag incident, try to use that as your motivation for the game, that lasts for about five minutes once the game starts. Once you start hitting each other in the mouth a few times in the game, that stuff is over with.
So I think that settles that. I'm sure that both teams are under strict orders not to go near any flags if they should win on Saturday. Still, despite everything that is being said to the press, I would certainly hope that each player on the Irish roster takes a nice long look at this before heading out onto the field. The Irish looked flat and somewhat unemotional against Michigan and if that happens again, given the recent history between these two teams, I just don't know what to say.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Meanwhile, the Spartans are also upset at the fact that when they beat Notre Dame last year, the "Megaphone" -- the trophy awarded to the winner of the ND-MSU game -- was not in the Stadium for the coaches and players to claim.
"I think they didn't plan on losing it, so they didn't bring it," Smith said Monday.

Said Stanton: "When they said that they didn't have it because they weren't expecting us to beat them, we were kind of shocked."
Yep, that's it, John L. We had the arrogance to disrespect such a long-standing tradition between our teams, and we did it out of pure hubris? Nevermind the fact that I can't remember a single game when ND paraded around the field with a rivalry game trophy. When MSU won at ND in 2003, I don't recall them bothering to look for the Megaphone or anyone making a stink about it not being in the stadium. Maybe if we had something cool, like Paul Bunyan's Axe, we might, but we don't. ND doesn't care much about trophies that don't say "National Champion" on them. Zibby said as much earlier this week.
Q. Before this week, had you ever heard of the megaphone trophy?

Tom Zbikowski: Yeah, from last year, I don't know. I don't know what type of trophy it is. We play for a megaphone, I guess.
Here's what Heisler had to say back in 2004 about how ND regards rivalry trophies.
Does it require a shillelagh (USC and Purdue), a megaphone (Michigan State) or a crystal bowl (Stanford and Boston College) to make it a rivalry? Those traditional trophies historically have been more fodder for game notes and media guides than post-game, mid-field presentations.
Heisler re-visited those remarks this week, saying that "except for a trophy with Stanford, Notre Dame has never presented a rivalry trophy after a win." And I suspect they haven't bothered to make a big deal out of accepting one, either.

More Bad Mojo

Another tidbit of trash talk from East Lansing. Apparently, MSU coaches, players, and fans are convinced that Charlie Weis publicly dissed them at an alumni gathering over the summer, supposedly vowing that Notre Dame would never again lose to the Spartans. There are no exact quotes for this statement, or location, or a specific date and time, or...well...anything other than hearsay.

Yet, rather than dismiss it as the sort of rumor that pops up all the time on the internet(s), Coach Smith and his boys latched onto it like puppy dogs.
"I think we all heard it, didn't we?" Smith said. "I think we'll probably throw it up. It motivates us as coaches. Does it motivate our kids? Probably not. I think they could probably care less what Charlie's saying."

"I'm going to be careful about what I say this week," Stanton said. "Coach Weis is as competitive as any coach out there and he's proven himself with the offenses that he's been able to conduct, but that's a pretty bold statement to make, that you're never going to lose to a team that's beaten you seven out of the last nine times."
Now, MSU has a fine football tradition against us, and for the life of me I can't figure out why they need to instigate cheap, high school hijinx (especially in the press) to get themselves ready for a game against the Irish. Then again, John-el isn't exactly someone you would call grounded (witness his deranged outburst at the halftime of the OSU game last year, or the fact that he brings a priest on road trips to exorcize evil spirits from the field before the games). He's certainly not cut from the same cloth as previous honorable Spartan coaches like Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty, who won with class against ND. Which brings me to...

The Spartan-Irish Legacy

Crack open a book on Michigan State-Notre Dame and you'll find a sort of shared football history. In the early part of the century, ND helped get MSU, then Michigan Agricultural College, on the map as a football program, and later MSU repaid that debt by continuing to schedule the Irish when other Big Ten programs attempted to boycott ND. There have been terrifically exciting games between the two schools, especially lately. And then there's the Game of the Century, the 1966 10-10 tie, which both teams will be honoring by wearing 40th Anniversary patches on Saturday. It's pretty sad that these two midwestern powerhouses, with a long history of hard-nosed, fight-and-claw-in-the-mud games are being dragged into a war of words by the media and a few petty Spartans.

So here's to a great game on Saturday, where all the silliness -- the flag-planting, the missing megaphones, the specious trash talk -- gets buried under an avalanche of running, blocking, and tackling. Let's play some damned football, finally.