This is the third post of a weekly series that will take us up to the 2012 season. In each post, we will recount two defining moments from the last 25 seasons in Notre Dame football history, starting in the present and working back to 1987, when the Irish went 8 and 4 under 2nd-year head coach Lou Holtz before heading into their last undefeated season in 1988, their eleventh and last national championship.
The occasion for this series is the 125th anniversary of the Notre Dame football program in 2012. The last 25 years, on which we will focus, have seen Notre Dame rise with dominance to the top of the football world and plunge to what many have called irrelevance, to the losingest four-year period in school history from 2007-2010 and to a time when Notre Dame is struggling to regain its identity, cast its roots again in the fundamentals of the game, in true talent and depth and excellence, and learn how to win consistently week after week, season after season.
And while we look forward, hoping, even with confidence, that the Irish under Coach Brian Kelly are indeed on that arduous path back towards sustained success, we look back now over some of those moments that have defined Notre Dame football over the past 25 years.
5. October 15, 2005. #1 USC Defeats #9 Notre Dame with the "Bush-Push"
While this particular moment no longer exists in the NCAA history books (USC was forced to vacate their 2005 season), Notre Dame fans – nay, all college football fans – are likely to never forget this titanic clash in what many have called the new "Game of the Century."
The game featured Heisman Winner (then non-winner) Reggie Bush hurdling over Ambrose Wooden for a 36 yard touchdown run, a momentum shifting 59 yard punt return from Tom Zbikowski, key defensive plays from Keith Rivers and Chinedum Ndukwe and Brady Quinn diving for a 5 yard TD run that put the Irish up 31-28 with just over 2 minutes remaining in the game.
After an incomplete pass, a sack and short pass play the Trojans faced a 4th and 9 situation on their own 26 yard line when Matt Leinart threw a short fade pass to a single covered Dwayne Jarrett (SERIOUSLY? HOW IS JARRETT SINGLE COVERED?) who took the ball all the way down to the Notre Dame 13 yard line. Then two Bush rushes brought the Trojans to the 2 yard line. The following video picks up the game from that moment.
The "down it" signal from Pete Carroll was a decoy, Leinart didn’t make it on the initial run but was able to roll in thanks to the momentum provided by his running back from behind. Hundreds of fans that were ready to charge the field stood stunned around Notre Dame Stadium.
There are no words that can adequately describe what the Notre Dame faithful felt that night, but it’s probably somewhere between "bewilderment" and "melancholy" and frankly though it is a feeling we feel on a semi-regular basis (I’m looking at you Denard Robinson), there are times where it makes us feel alive. That or maybe we’re all just masochists now.
If ever such a gut wrenching loss can be a moral victory, this was it for Notre Dame as the belief among fans that they had legitimately beaten one of the all time best teams in college football history stuck with the fans for a long time. It was also a financial victory for Charlie Weis who was awarded a 10 year extension worth $30-40 million.
Though all technical records of this game no longer exists, I think we can all agree that this is one of the defining moments of Notre Dame football in the last 25 years.
6. September 23, 2006 and October 21, 2006. Last Second Comebacks Against MSU and UCLA
The Irish entered 2006 as the #2 team in the country with many experts picking them to play #1 Ohio State in the National Championship Game (in a ’05 Fiesta Bowl rematch) at the end of the season. Brady Quinn was the national golden boy flashing his million dollar smile on virtually every magazine cover in the country and was heavily favored to win the Heisman. But a 47-21 beat down from then #13 Michigan quickly erased those hopes and the Irish plummeted from #2/#3 to #13/#14 the very next week as they headed to East Lansing on the 40th anniversary of "The Game of the Century"
There was much pre-game hype surrounding this game which included the bitter taste that MSU left in the mouths of the Irish the previous year with the flag planting incident and reports about how Charlie Weis told alumni that he would never lose to Michigan State as a head coach again.
On a windy and rainy September night the Spartans jumped on the Irish early and often taking a 17-0 lead after one quarter and 31-14 going into the locker rooms. The Irish looked like they were still reeling from last week’s defeat with Zbikowski fumbling a punt return and Quinn throwing pick sixes in consecutive weeks. But the Irish roared back in the second half, opening with a 62 yard TD pass to John Carlson and taking advantage of MSU’s miscues throughout the latter two quarters. The game also marked a coming out party (and frankly, only party) for CB Terrail Lambert who returned a Drew Stanton interception for the go-ahead TD to put ND up 40-37 and then sealed the win with another interception off the back of a Spartan receiver.
After the game, in which the Irish outscored the Spartans 19-0 in the 4th quarter, the world was gifted with one of the greatest radio rants of all time. You know which one I’m talking about, so without further adieu, here it is, Mike Valenti’s post game rant:
4 weeks later Notre Dame played host to UCLA. The fall break and bye week layover looked to have an effect on the Irish as they looked sluggish all game and Quinn’s timing was off with his receivers after a near flawless opening drive in the first quarter. The game was largely a back and forth punt affair in the second half as each team put up only three points until the final drive of the game. With 1:02 left on the clock and the ball on their own 20 yard line following a touchback, the Irish BCS hopes were on the shoulders of Brady Quinn whose Heisman hopes seemed to be fading on this October afternoon. Watch the final drive unfold here:
UCLA coach Karl Dorrell made the mistake of only rushing three or four and gave Quinn time to apply his surgical precision and of course it would be Jeff Samardzija who would make the all important touchdown catch. As a student in the stands at the time, I can't tell you how much joy and, more than joy, relief there was in the stadium after this comeback. "I LOVE TRAILING TO AN UNRANKED OPPONENT ALL GAME!" My roommate sarcastically yelled during the push-up celebration, little did he know that the "unranked opponent" he referred to would go on and ruin USC's national championship hopes in the last game of the season.
Both the '05 and '06 season ended in disappointing blowouts at a BCS Bowl, and we all know that the years that followed were the most futile years in Notre Dame football history. But I will always remember these first two Weis years with fondness for it was during this time I personally got to know and fall in love with Notre Dame, both in last second loss and victory.