East Lansing, MI – The play was called "Little Giants" -- and Michigan State used it to steal a victory from Notre Dame in the most audacious way imaginable.
With Dan Conroy lining up for a 46-yard field goal to tie the game in overtime and the play clock running low, holder Aaron Bates took the snap, stood up and waited for Charlie Gantt to come open downfield. The stunning fake worked to perfection, and Gantt's 29-yard touchdown catch gave the Spartans a 34-31 win Saturday night.
"We knew Notre Dame wasn't going to be expecting that," said Bates, who is also Michigan State's punter. "That's the last thing anybody was expecting."
The win gave Michigan State (3-0) a measure of revenge for a heartbreaking 33-30 loss at Notre Dame last season and spoiled Brian Kelly's first road game as Irish coach. Although Kelly's offense looked sharp in the second half, it was Spartans coach Mark Dantonio who stole the show at the end after David Ruffer had given Notre Dame (1-2) the lead with a 33-yard field goal earlier in overtime.
Conroy was facing a significantly longer kick, and Dantonio didn't want to put him under that kind of pressure.
"We always name our trick plays after movies. We keep it fun. ... We actually put it in on Wednesday. It worked every time," Dantonio said. "I made the call, 'Little Giants,' and I said a little prayer."
The play was actually intended to go to Le'Veon Bell, who was covered.
"All throughout the week in practice, I never got the ball once," Gantt said.
And Michigan State barely got the play off in time to avoid being hit with a delay of game flag.
Dayne Crist threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns for the Irish, who must now recover from yet another gut-wrenching defeat. Notre Dame is 1-6 dating to the start of last November, with every one of the losses coming by a touchdown or less.
The Irish lost to Michigan in the last minute last weekend.
"Obviously it's an incredibly tough loss," Crist said. "The guys were battling the entire game. It hurts any time you lose but in this kind of fashion it's pretty devastating."
Notre Dame took a 28-21 lead with 13:20 to play in the fourth quarter when Michael Floyd caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Crist behind two defenders in the back of the end zone. Kirk Cousins tied it by scrambling to his right and finding B.J. Cunningham along the right sideline for a 24-yard touchdown with 7:43 remaining.
Until the final trick play, Michigan State was the more methodical team, content to push Notre Dame off the line of scrimmage and gain yards on the ground. Bell rushed for 114 yards, and Edwin Baker ran for 90.
After a 7-7 tie at halftime, Michigan State began finding more running room. Baker cut to the left through a big hole, then back to the right through the Notre Dame secondary for a 56-yard touchdown run just 40 seconds into the third quarter.
The Irish needed less than two minutes to equalize with their spread offense, going 74 yards in six plays and tying it at 14 on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Crist to Kyle Rudolph.
The teams then traded 11-play touchdown drives. Bell scored on a 16-yard run for Michigan State, and the Irish tied the game again on Crist's 15-yard touchdown pass to Theo Riddick.
The first half was a bit less eventful. Notre Dame opened the scoring in the first quarter on Crist's 7-yard touchdown pass to Floyd. The Irish appeared poised to take control in the second quarter after intercepting Cousins in the end zone, but Floyd fumbled after a catch, giving the Spartans the ball at their own 11. The Irish forced a punt and got the ball back in great field position at the Michigan State 27, but Crist threw an interception on the first play.
After that, the Spartans finally started moving the ball, going 94 yards in seven plays and tying the game on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Cousins to Keshawn Martin with 2:22 left in the half.
"A difficult loss, obviously," Kelly said. "It came down to one play. Michigan State executed the play, and we did not. We had a guy covering who fell down."