James: Recounting Notre Dame football's wildest games of the last 30 years

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Prepare to be entertained.

Saturday night on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish YouTube channel, one of the craziest Notre Dame football games of the last 30 years will be brought back to life.

Notre Dame’s 1998 home victory over LSU will be the latest NBC broadcast repurposed for the “ND Watch Party” series. Since late March, the Irish have been sharing past games online to help fill the sports void created during the coronavirus pandemic.

The series, which will continue each Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT throughout May, picked a good one to start the month. The 39-36 Irish win includes three defensive touchdowns, four blocked kicks, a kick return touchdown and a late intentional safety that injured ND starting quarterback Jarious Jackson.

Notre Dame beat the Tigers after trailing 34-20 late in the third quarter for the biggest Irish comeback in 12 years. Jackson’s 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Raki Nelson with 1:27 remaining turned out to be the game winner.

Unfortunately, Jackson’s season ended with a partially torn MCL in his right knee suffered on the late safety. On fourth-and-16 from the ND 10 with eight seconds left, head coach Bob Davie opted to have Jackson attempt to run out of the back of the end zone. Instead, LSU linebacker Arnold Miller successfully chased him down and hit him low to finish the safety and injure Jackson.

After Notre Dame announced it would be featuring this game, it inspired me to seek out other wild Irish games in the past 30 years. I wasn’t looking for the famous matchups that are frequently discussed as great games. Instead I wanted to highlight the weird and thrilling wins, the bizarre and heartbreaking losses and maybe even a dissatisfying tie.

There were plenty of options, so this list is far from comprehensive. Odds are every Notre Dame fan has a few other games in mind that they will never forget or wish they could have wiped from their memory.

Let’s revisit some of the good, the bad, the ugly and the Pittsburgh.

The good

• 1999: ND 25, USC 24

Less than a year after the comeback to beat LSU, Davie’s Irish overcame an even larger deficit to beat USC. Notre Dame trailed 24-3 in the third quarter but still managed to complete the program’s largest comeback win since 1979.

Weather aided the Irish comeback with the wind switching directions to be at ND’s back in both the third and fourth quarters and rain coming down in the second half.

“It was remarkable,’’ USC head Paul Hackett said after the game. “Someone elbowed me and said, ‘Now they’ve changed the wind, too.’ That’s what happens when you play at Notre Dame Stadium.’’

ND scored the winning touchdown with 2:40 remaining when tight end Jabari Holloway recovered Jarious Jackson’s fumble in the end zone following an 18-yard run.

• 2015: ND 34, Virginia 27

The good vibes of a season-opening blowout over Texas were dampened the following week when starting quarterback Malik Zaire was knocked out of a tight game at Virginia late in the third quarter with a broken right ankle. But sophomore backup DeShone Kizer saved the day with a 39-yard heave to wide receiver Will Fuller for the game-winning touchdown with 12 seconds remaining.

The moment will always be associated with the image of a dejected Virginia fan slumped over the brick wall separating the fans from the field.

Oddly enough, that touchdown pass wasn’t Kizer’s first at ND. He accomplished that earlier in the game when he shoveled a fake field goal to tight end Durham Smythe.

• 2000: ND 34, Air Force 31 (OT)

Notre Dame’s first-ever overtime victory ended with a nine-yard reverse touchdown run by wide receiver Joey Getherall. The Irish lost their first three overtime attempts including an upset loss to Air Force four years prior.

The game nearly didn’t make it to overtime with Air Force in position for a game-winning, 28-yard field goal attempt. The Irish had already wasted away a 28-10 lead in the fourth quarter and were about to lose the game entirely. Instead, sophomore safety Glenn Earl blocked Air Force’s kick with no time left in regulation.

Getherall may be remembered as the hero with the game-winning touchdown (his third of the game), but Earl allowed it to happen.

• 1995: ND 28, Army 27

ND head coach Lou Holtz admitted it. Army deserved to win.

‘’They out-played us, they out-coached us,” Holtz said. “They did everything in the second half. I can’t recall a second half, at least the last quarter and a half, where one team has dominated us as much as Army did today.’’

Yet Notre Dame survived behind the force of 163-pound cornerback Ivory Covington. Army’s game-winning, two-point conversion attempt was wrecked when Covington stuck 240-pound tight end Ron Leshinski just short of the goal line with 39 seconds left in the game.

The Irish led 21-7, but they struggled to limit Army’s rushing attack, which totaled 365 yards. Covington saved the day when Army attempted to finish a victory over ND in Giants Stadium (East Rutherford, N.J.) with a pass.

The bad

• 2007: Navy 46, ND 44 (3 OT)

Notre Dame’s 43-game winning streak against Navy came to an end on head coach Charlie Weis’ watch. The record came to a halt when ND running back Travis Thomas was stopped in the backfield on a mandatory two-point conversion attempt at the end of the third overtime at home.

Weis’ lack of faith in ND’s field goal operation drew second-guessing. He opted to not allow freshman Brandon Walker a game-winning 41-yard field goal attempt against the wind in the final minute of the fourth quarter with the game tied at 28. Earlier, the Irish failed to convert on a fake field goal while leading 7-0.

ND never punted and still lost. Navy punted twice in the final 2:23 of regulation and still won. The Midshipmen took their first lead, 28-21, in the fourth quarter by returning quarterback Evan Sharpley’s fumble 16 yards for a touchdown.

• 2016: Texas 50, ND 47 (2 OT)

The disastrous 2016 season started off fittingly with a shootout loss at Texas. Head coach Brian Kelly’s decision to stick with defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and indecision at quarterback hamstrung the Irish in the season opener.

Notre Dame fell behind 31-14 in the third quarter with a listless defensive performance and a rotation of Zaire and Kizer at quarterback. It took Kelly sticking with Kizer in the second half to get the Irish back in the game and take a 35-31 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Naturally, the Irish defense caved and allowed another Texas touchdown with 3:29 remaining. But a two-point lead was erased when cornerback Shaun Crawford returned the ensuing blocked extra point for two points for the Irish.

The defense failed once again in the second overtime after ND’s offense could only muster a field goal. Quarterback Tyrone Swoopes dove into the end zone on a six-yard run to end the misery.

• 1991: Tennessee 35, ND 34

The 100th consecutive sellout crowd at Notre Dame Stadium witnessed a crushing defeat launched and landed by a pair of blocked field goals.

With ND leading 31-7 just before halftime, Tennessee’s Floyd Miley returned Craig Hentrich’s blocked field goal 85 yards for a touchdown. It started a furious rally that ended up giving the Volunteers a 35-34 lead.

The Irish put themselves in a position to win the game with a last-second field goal, but Hentrich was in too much pain from a sprained knee suffered in the scramble that followed his blocked kick. That left walk-on Rob Leonard to attempt a 27-yard field goal to win the game. But Leonard’s kick was blocked too. Jeremy Lincoln deflected the ball enough to force it to flutter wide as time expired.

“This is the most difficult loss I’ve ever been associated with,” Holtz said after the game. “It’s the most disappointed I’ve ever been in my life. It’s very difficult to accept.”

• 2011: Michigan 35, ND 31

The Irish found another unbelievable way to lose to Michigan for a third straight year in the final 30 seconds. First, Notre Dame squandered a 24-7 lead. Then quarterback Tommy Rees appeared to rescue the Irish.

Rees put together a four-play, 61-yard touchdown drive in 35 seconds, capped by a 29-yard pass to Theo Riddick, to give ND a 31-28 lead with 30 seconds left.

But Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson responded with an even quicker touchdown drive. In three plays and 28 seconds, the Wolverines finished ND. Robinson’s 16-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Roy Roundtree punctuated another ND nightmare in Michigan Stadium.

The ugly

• 2011: USF 23, ND 20

Mother Nature seemed like she didn’t want Notre Dame’s season to start. Many Irish fans were wishing the same by the time this six-hour marathon ended.

A game that was stopped twice by lightning delays included a benching of quarterback Dayne Crist, a failed comeback attempt by Rees and a visibly angry Kelly.

The Irish fell behind 16-0 before the first delay even happened. The game became more competitive after the first delay, but the Irish couldn’t overcome a litany of mistakes: three interceptions, two lost fumbles, one missed field goal and a handful of dropped passes.

• 2016: N.C. State 10, ND 3

Kelly used the word atrocious to describe Notre Dame’s ability to manage snapping in the middle of Hurricane Matthew. The word could have been applied to any number of things that happened that Saturday in Raleigh, N.C., including N.C. State’s decision to play the game despite the conditions, the weather itself and even Kelly’s game plan.

ND continued to use shotgun snapping and DeShone Kizer attempted 26 passes despite the deluge of rain, which was measured at more than five inches from midnight to 4 p.m. that Saturday, and 40 mph winds.

Neither team handled the weather great with the two teams combining for 10 fumbles and each losing two. Kizer also threw an interception.

The game-winning touchdown came when N.C. State blocked Tyler Newsome’s punt and returned it 16 yards for the deciding score.

• 1992: ND 17, Michigan 17

It could have been worse, but that didn’t stop the Irish home crowd from booing. Notre Dame safety Jeff Burris intercepted Elvis Grbac at the ND 12-yard line with 1:05 remaining to keep the tie intact. The Irish offense didn’t offer much of a threat to try to break the tie in the final minute which led to the unfulfilling finish in a game mired by mistakes.

ND kicker Craig Hentrich tied the game at 17 with a 32-yard field goal with 5:28 left in the game. The opportunity came after linebacker Brian Ratigan intercepted Grbac at the Michigan 20-yard line. But ND’s offense only managed five yards in three plays before the field goal.

All 17 of Michigan’s points came following Irish mishaps. Both touchdowns followed Irish fumbles, and Michigan’s lone field goal came after the Wolverines blocked Hentrich’s 48-yard attempt.

• 1996: ND 14, Vanderbilt 7

Maybe Notre Dame football games weren’t intended to be played on Thursdays. The Irish escaped a sloppy season opener in Nashville with a game only defensive coordinators should enjoy.

ND led 6-0 early in the fourth quarter before Vanderbilt managed a 50-yard touchdown pass on third-and-38. Quarterback Damian Allen threw a prayer to Todd Yoder, who managed to beat Covington in coverage at the goal line. The Commodores only managed 76 yards on all of its other offensive plays.

The Irish, which fumbled seven times and lost four of them, took the lead for good on a three-yard rumble by fullback Marc Edwards, who himself fumbled three times earlier in the game.

The Pittsburgh

• 1999: Pitt 37, ND 27

The finish to the actual game wasn’t nearly as unforgettable as the antics surrounding it. The game ended with nine seconds remaining on the clock as fans rushed the field and tore down the goal posts. The field was cleared for a closing ceremony for the final game in Pitt Stadium that included putting an empty wooden box into the back of a Brinks truck at midfield.

The scene was as befuddling as Notre Dame’s play. The Irish were shockingly outrushed by the Panthers, 158-72, and committed three turnovers (two fumbles and one interception). Pittsburgh all but sealed the game with a two-yard touchdown run by Kevan Barlow with 1:41 remaining following a Jarious Jackson interception.

• 2004: Pitt 41, ND 38

If a questionable pass interference call didn’t wipe out an interception with three minutes left in the game, the Irish may have been able to secure a victory. But plenty happened after that penalty.

Pittsburgh took a 38-35 lead two players later with a Tyler Palko touchdown pass to tight end Erik Gill. Notre Dame hurried down the field and tied the game with a 45-yard field goal by D.J. Fitzpatrick with 1:11 remaining.

That was too much time for head coach Tyrone Willingham to escape defeat. Pitt’s Josh Cummings won the game on a 32-yard field goal with one second left.

• 2008: Pitt 36, ND 33 (4 OT)

Notre Dame couldn’t hold onto its 24-17 lead late in the fourth quarter. A 10-yard touchdown pass from Pat Bostick to Jonathan Baldwin helped tie the game with 2:22 left. Then the Irish eventually fell short in a kicking competition in four overtimes.

In each of the first three overtimes, both Pitt’s Conor Lee and ND’s Brandon Walker successfully made field goals. Walker faltered first and missed a 38-yard attempt to the left in the fourth overtime. Lee ended the back-and-forth with a successful 22-yard try.

• 2012: ND 29, Pitt 26 (3 OT)

Notre Dame’s undefeated regular season was nearly ruined by an underwhelming Pittsburgh team. The Irish overcame two interceptions, a fumble in the end zone, a missed field goal and a missed extra point and also erased a 20-6 fourth quarter lead.

Surviving a scoreless second overtime may have been ND’s biggest fortune. After the Irish failed to score on their possession thanks to a Cierre Wood fumble, Pitt kicker Kevin Harper missed a 33-yard field goal. Luckily for the Irish, the officials didn’t notice cornerback Bennett Jackson and wide receiver Chris Brown were both on the field for the missed field goal and illegally wearing the same jersey number (2).

The Irish successfully ended the game in the third overtime when quarterback Everett Golson responded to a Pitt field goal with a one-yard touchdown run.

Quarterback Jarious Jackson led Notre Dame’s comeback victory over LSU in 1998, but he was injured on a late safety.
Notre Dame punter Tyler Newsome had this punt blocked and returned for a touchdown in the Irish 10-3 loss at N.C. State in 2016.

Notre Dame will continue to stream NBC broadcasts of old Irish football games Saturdays on YouTube at 7:30 p.m. EDT throughout May. The watch parties can be found on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish channel:

These are the five games scheduled for this month.

May 2: 1998 vs. LSU

May 9: 1999 vs. USC

May 16: 2018 vs. Michigan

May 23: 2000 vs. Purdue

May 30: 2004 vs. Michigan