Looking back: Games with visiting No. 1 teams at Notre Dame Stadium have lived up to the hype

John Fineran and Michael Wanbaugh
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — After years of anticipation, the moment is finally here. Will it be another magical Notre Dame moment under the glow of the Golden Dome?

No. 1 Clemson comes to Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night to battle the No. 4 Irish. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. EST. Even in the era of COVID-19, the matchup proves to be one of the biggest in decades for Notre Dame as it continues its quest to reinsert itself among college football’s perennial elite.

It will also mark the 26th time Notre Dame has played the nation’s top-ranked team and the ninth time it has hosted it. The Irish are 8-16-1 overall and 3-5 at home in those games.

The past four visits to South Bend by No. 1 teams have proven to be classics. In 1988 it was “Catholics vs. Convicts.” In 1993 it was the “Game of the Century.” In 2000 it was the “Sea of Red” and in 2005 it was the “Bush Push.”

What drama will Saturday have in store?

Here’s a look at Notre Dame’s last four home games against No. 1 teams.

Notre Dame’s Pat Terrell celebrates after knocking down a 2-point conversion pass, sealing a 31-30 victory over No. 1 Miami in 1988.

1988No. 4 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Miami, Fla. 30

Coach Jimmy Johnson’s 4-0 Hurricanes were the defending national champions and had a 36-game regular-season winning streak that included 58-7 (1985) and 24-0 (1987) victories over Notre Dame at the Orange Bowl when they came into South Bend on Oct. 15, 1988 to meet Lou Holtz’s Fighting Irish, who were 5-0.

Some enterprising Notre Dame students sold T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Catholics vs. Convicts” to further add fuel to the fire. A fight in the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel ensued after the Hurricanes walked through the Irish players during their final pregame warmups.

Just before sending his team out to play, an agitated Holtz threatened his players with suspension if they did anything to embarrass Notre Dame.

“'I want to see a class operation,’” Holtz recalled years later. “'Now after the game, if Miami wants to fight, fine, we’ll meet them in the alley.’ And I didn’t plan to say this, but it just came out, ‘And if they do, you save Jimmy Johnson’s (butt) for me.’ I didn’t get to say anything else — they went out (of) the locker room.”

Irish safety Pat Terrell, who hailed from Saint Petersburg, Fla., knew several of the Hurricanes and would have a 60-yard interception return for a touchdown in the game, recalled, “I’ve never seen or been in a locker room that fired up. … We just got up, and everybody ran down the steps and hit that ‘Play Like a Champion’ sign and went out and made history.”

The Irish, who benefited from some questionable officiating calls, led 31-24 before Miami scored with 45 seconds remaining and Johnson elected to go for two points and the victory.

Quarterback Steve Walsh dropped back and threw a pass toward running back Leonard Conley in the far corner of the end zone. Terrell knocked the pass down and the Irish — led by quarterback Tony Rice, running back Anthony Johnson, wide receiver Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, nose tackle Chris Zorich and others — would go on to win the last of their 11 national championships, capping the title run by beating No. 3 West Virginia 34-21 in the Fiesta Bowl.

1993No. 2 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Florida State 24

Holtz’s 1993 team was a double-digit underdog for the game played in South Bend on Nov. 13, 1993. It was the fourth time Notre Dame would play in a game billed as “The Game of the Century,” and ESPN’s College GameDay made its first-ever campus visit to add to the buildup for the game, which would draw a 16.0 rating equating to more than 22 million viewers for NBC.

Notre Dame quarterback Kevin McDougal barks out signals against Florida State in 1993. The second-ranked Irish defeated the No. 1 Seminoles, 31-24, in what at the time was dubbed the, “Game of the Century.”

Among the celebrities on hand to watch the chase for the national title were movie director Spike Lee, Notre Dame grad and talk-show host Phil Donahue, and former USC Heisman winner and NBC sideline reporter O.J. Simpson, who seven months later would become the focus of another famous chase.

Coach Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles, seeking their first national title, entered the game on a 16-game winning streak, thanks to their “Fast Break” offense that was averaging 44.3 points and 562 yards a game. The ‘Noles were led by quarterback Charlie Ward, who would later win the Heisman Trophy, running back Warrick Dunn and linebacker Derrick Brooks.

The underdog Irish — led by unsung quarterback Kevin McDougal, running back Lee Becton, triple threat Jeff Burris, offensive guard Aaron Taylor and defensive end Bryant Young — dominated from the start and led 31-17 early in the fourth quarter before Ward rallied the Seminoles.

With three seconds remaining and FSU with the ball at the Irish 14, Ward dropped back and tried to hit Dunn in the end zone, but Irish cornerback Shawn Wooden knocked the pass down and the Irish and their fans went nuts.

“They were pronouncing Knute Rockne’s name wrong, (talking) about how they were going to take our field, pull up the turf after the game, come in here and destroy us,” said Wooden, who suffered a knee injury recovering an onside kick moments earlier and then blew out his knee after a teammate jumped on his back after making the final play.

Notre Dame fans celebrate on the field of Notre Dame Stadium after the Irish upended No. 1 Florida State in the classic 1993 game. 

Alas, the celebration and No. 1 ranking did not last. The following Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish made a memorable comeback from 21 points down early in the fourth quarter to take a 39-38 lead against No. 17 Boston College. But the Eagles’ David Gordon hit a 41-yard field goal as time expired to beat the Irish, 41-39. The Seminoles won their final three games, including 18-16 over No. 2 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, to capture Bowden’s elusive first national title.

2000No. 1 Nebraska 27, No. 23 Notre Dame 24 (OT)

The usual sellout crowd of 80,232 was inside Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 9, 2000, when top-ranked Nebraska paid a visit. But many of them were clad in Nebraska red and cheering for the Cornhuskers against Bob Davie’s Irish, who were coming off a 5-7 campaign.

Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch steps in for the winning touchdown in overtime as Notre Dame's Tony Driver (25) can't stop him Sept. 9, 2000 in South Bend.

Clearly, some of Notre Dame’s long-time ticket holders succumbed to selling their tickets to Nebraska fans and staying home to watch the nationally televised game.

“In 40 years, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Notre Dame’s 1956 Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung.

“When I was on the field before the game, I wish I was color blind,” Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White said. “Disappointing, very disappointing.”

“It was embarrassing for Notre Dame to have to see their stadium in a sea of red,” ESPN’s Lee Corso said.

Notre Dame rallied from a 21-7 deficit with 8:47 left in the third quarter to force overtime on a 100-yard kickoff return by Julius Jones and an 83-yard punt return by Joey Getherall in the fourth quarter and then ran out the clock to try and win in overtime.

Nick Setta kicked a 29-yard field goal on Notre Dame’s opening possession of the extra session, but future Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch ran for his third touchdown of the game, a 7-yarder, to provide the winning margin.

“It’s real hard for any team rated No. 1 to come in here and beat these guys,” Crouch said.

Not so hard, really, when there were perhaps 30,000 Nebraska fans in the stadium, where the visiting team is usually allotted 4,000 seats.

“Somehow, someway, they got in there,” said an appreciative Nebraska coach Frank Solich.

The Irish would finish the regular season with seven straight victories, a 9-2 regular-season finish and the No. 10 ranking while earning a berth in the Fiesta Bowl to play Oregon State. Davie would sign a five-year contract extension from White, but the Beavers would prevail 41-9. Following a 5-6 campaign in 2001, Davie was let go. Solich, meanwhile, would be let go following a 9-3 campaign in 2003 after a 58-19 record in six seasons. Since 2005, he has been the head coach at Ohio.


Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn scores a go-ahead touchdown late in the game against No. 1 USC.

No. 1 USC 34, No. 9 Notre Dame 31

If ever there was a moment Irish fans wish they could freeze in time, it would be this brief sliver during twilight on Oct. 15, 2005: Notre Dame 31, USC 28 with 0:00 showing on the Notre Dame Stadium scoreboard.

With just seconds remaining in the game, Trojans’ Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart had just been stopped short of the goal line, fumbling the ball out of bounds in the process. The stadium clock ticked down to zeros.

First-year Irish coach Charlie Weis victoriously threw his arms in the air. Notre Dame players rushed the field, helmets held high. The student body began spilling over the first-row railing.

In that moment, Notre Dame — mostly mired in mediocrity for the preceding decade — had just toppled No. 1 USC, the defending national champs and considered one of the best teams in college football history.

Instead, officials deemed seven seconds remained on the clock, cleared the field of revelers and gave the Trojans a third down at the 1-yard line. Rather than kick a field goal to tie, USC head coach Pete Carroll had Leinart lineup behind center. The ball was snapped and Leinart attempted to sneak into the end zone. His initial momentum was stopped, but he was able to contort his body into a small gap and fall over the goal line.

Oh yeah, there was running back Reggie Bush helping out by pushing his QB from the backfield.

USC quarterback Matt Leinart (11) scores the winning touchdown against Notre Dame in 2005.

History was changed. USC 34, Notre Dame 31.

“That was the one where you realize you can play with these great teams,” said former Irish quarterback Brady Quinn, who scored on a 5-yard run with 2:02 left to give Notre Dame the lead. “That USC team was one of the greatest teams in college football history. Then you go out and do it, and see how close you were and could have won it. That was eye-opening to us to know that we had the capability to play with anyone if we execute the game plan we had set for us.”

The Irish, who sent the crowd into a tizzy when they busted out of the tunnel in green jerseys, matched the Trojans punch for punch on a picture-perfect Indian Summer day. Perhaps the loudest roar came with 10:23 left in the second quarter when Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski returned a USC punt 60 yards for a touchdown and a 21-14 ND lead.

The game was full of emotional swings — none more dramatic than on USC’s final drive. With the Trojans facing a fourth and 9 from their own 26 with 1:32 left, Notre Dame had a chance to seal the victory. Instead, Leinart floated a pass to DeWayne Jarrett, who hauled it in for a 61-yard gain, setting up the final dramatic moments.

“Losing is losing, there are no moral victories,” Weis said after the game. “What I did tell them was not to hang their heads. That was a slugfest; a street fight. That was a good football game."

Former Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice breaks a run against No. 1 Miami at Notre Dame Stadium in 1988.
Notre Dame running back Lee Becton breaks a run against No. 1 Florida State in 1993.
Dewayne Jarrett of No. 1 USC races down the sideline on a 61-yard reception to set up the winning score against Notre Dame in 2005.