Welcome back to the Top 75 Losses in Notre Dame History.
The Rating System:
Champion: 10 points max
Bad Loss: 8 points max
Big Stage: 5 points max
Pain: 3 points max
Rivalry: 2 points max
1938, @ Southern California (13-0 L)
This game may be the most underrated loss in terms of scope from this series. For example, this game doesn't usually come up when people discuss the top 5 or 10 matches in the rich history between Notre Dame and Southern California. In this one, the Irish had a chance to lock up the school's fourth National Championship--their first since the death of Rockne--but fell flat on their face on the big stage.
Both teams came in with an excellent defense. The Irish had only surrendered 26 points in 8 games, with 4 of those ending in a shutout of the opponent. The Trojans were nearly as impressive, giving up 62 points in 9 games played. USC had already lost a couple times, but were still formidable with a No. 8 ranking. Meanwhile, Notre Dame was the 5th ranked team when the AP Poll came out 5 weeks earlier and ascended to the No. 1 ranking as an undefeated team after a 19-0 shutout of No. 12 Minnesota--two weeks before meeting USC.
Head coach Elmer Layden was 3-0-1 against USC in his career and would bitterly regret this first loss to the Trojans on the last game of the 1938 season. On this day, the Irish offense was nowhere to be found. With the game scoreless with under a minute left in the first half, an unsuccessful fake punt gave USC the ball on the Notre Dame 37-yard line. That led to Layden's famous post-game quote of "The Notre Dame quarterback is never wrong." With just a few seconds left in the half, USC took advantage of the turnover on downs and tossed a touchdown to take a lead.
In the second half, the offensive woes continued for the Irish and another blunder put the game away. Notre Dame would fumble at their own 35-yard line early in the fourth and USC converted that into a touchdown and the eventual final score of 13-0. Notre Dame would settle for a No. 5 ranking on the season as TCU jumped up into the No. 1 spot and go on to be awarded the National Championship. Layden--who went an impressive 47-13-3 over 7 years--never got this close to a title before or after, and left Notre Dame without a championship.
1993, Boston College (41-39 L)
The highest rated modern loss and the one likely at the top for a lot of readers comes in at No. 4 on this list. Many didn't think the Irish had legit National Title hopes in 1993 after losing four 1st round draft picks and 6 overall picks in the top two rounds of the NFL Draft. That reality seemed likely after Notre Dame scraped by a very poor Northwestern team to start the season. Despite the win, the Irish fell to No. 11 in the polls...but they were just embarking on a long road to a near miracle season.
The team went into Ann Arbor in week two and toppled No. 3 Michigan, shot up the polls, and then faced 7 unranked opponents in a row to match up with Florida State in a classic No. 1 vs. No. 2 "Game of the Century." As many know, the Irish upended the Seminoles in one of the school's greatest wins setting up a regular season finale against No. 17 Boston College, who were riding their own 8-game winning streak.
Notre Dame stopped BC on fourth down to start the game, but on the first Irish drive they had a field goal blocked and the Eagles returned it to the Notre Dame 15-yard line. The defense held and forced a field goal attempt which was good and gave a 3-0 lead to Boston College. Irish quarterback Kevin McDougal fumbled on the next drive and gave the ball right back. Boston College completed several passes and eventually took a 10-0 lead. In the second quarter, the Irish responded with their own touchdown to close the gap. The teams later traded touchdowns, but BC tacked on an additional score with 21 seconds left in the 2nd quarter to take a 24-14 lead into the break.
BC opened up the second half and marched right down for a touchdown to take a 31-14 lead. The Eagles then gained possession on an onside kick but missed a field goal to end the drive. Notre Dame added a field goal of their own, and the game headed to the fourth quarter at 31-17. However, BC quickly scored again and took a commanding 38-17 lead with 11 minutes left. Then, the Irish scored quickly and converted the 2-point conversion. BC fumbled on their next possession and Notre Dame scored again to make the game 38-32 in favor of the visitors. After a punt Notre Dame got the ball back with under 3 minutes and later scored a huge 4th down touchdown to take a 39-38 lead.
With 1:01 left in the game, Boston College quarterback Glenn Foley was nearly picked off but completed a few passes to get the Eagles in field goal range. As time expired, David Gordon nailed the 41-yard field goal to seal the upset. Would the Irish have defeated 11-0 Nebraska in the bowl game had they defeated BC in this game? Most Notre Dame fans would like to think so. However, it would be Florida State who got that chance against the Huskers and won the National Championship while the Irish settled for a bowl win over No. 7 Texas A&M.
1926, @ Carnegie Tech (19-0 L)
There may be no more embarrassing loss in the annals of Fighting Irish football. This 1926 Notre Dame team was on a mission to win the school's second National Championship in three years and had given up only 7 points through 8 games, blanking their last six opponents before this contest. For their part, Carnegie Tech was quietly improving as a program and came into this game with a 6-2 record that included a big win over city rival Pitt and a shutout of West Virginia. Still, Notre Dame had out-scored the Tartans 111-19 over the last four meetings and there was even a rumor that head coach Knute Rockne would not send the 1st team to the Steel City in order to rest his stars for the more important season finale in Los Angeles against newly scheduled Southern California.
However, although the Notre Dame starters made the trip, their head coach did not. Instead, Rockne opted to make the short trek to Chicago to watch the Army-Navy game and entrusted his assistants with defeating Carnegie Tech. What would happen at Forbes Field on this day is still considered one of the biggest upsets in college football history.
The second-team "Shock Troops" started the game for Notre Dame as they often did in those days. The game moved to the second quarter at 0-0 when the best Notre Dame players took the field, only to be stunned by the talent and efficiency of the Tartans. In short order Carnegie scored two touchdowns and took a 13-0 lead into halftime. They added a pair of field goals in the third quarter and held on to win 19-0 and shock the world.
Rockne would return to the team and defeat USC in the finale, but the damage was done. A 9-1 season full of utter dominance, except for one game, fell short of a championship.
1970, @ Southern California (38-28 L)
In 1970 the Fighting Irish began the season at No. 6 and slowly climbed their way to No. 1 by mid-November. However, following a pair of close wins over Georgia Tech and LSU they fell back to No. 2 before visiting L.A. for the regular season finale. USC came into the contest with 4 losses after losing only 3 games over the previous 3 seasons. The Irish were sizable favorites and primed for another major bowl bid with Ara Parseghian's second National Championship within sight.
Following a touchback, Notre Dame breezed down the field for a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead. USC was not deterred and answered with their own touchdown as rain began pounding the Coliseum playing field. The rest of the first quarter belonged completely to the Trojans. They scored on a short run and missed the PAT but quarterback Jimmy Jones threw a 45-yard touchdown pass that bounced off a Notre Dame defender and into the hands of Trojan receiver Sam Dickerson. USC converted the 2-point play and led 21-7. Irish quarterback Joe Theismann threw a 9-yard touchdown to close the gap, but USC tacked on a field goal before halftime to lead 24-14.
The third quarter would be too much to overcome for Notre Dame. The Irish fumbled deep in their own territory and USC recovered. A few players later USC was poised to score, but fumbled the ball into the end zone. It didn't matter as Trojan Pete Adams smothered the ball for 6 points. Less than a minute later on the next Notre Dame drive it was Theismann who was in his own end zone and lost a fumble. USC recovered the ball and led 38-14.
The Irish would continue to move the ball in the second half and score a pair of touchdowns, but they just couldn't overcome the large USC lead. The Trojans would hang on for the upset as Theismann threw for a school record 528 yards, a mark that still stands to this day. However, the two fumbles and Theismann's 4 interceptions were a disappointing black mark for the offense.
This Notre Dame team would go on to defeat No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl and finish No. 2 in the country.
1964, @ Southern California (20-17 L)
The improbable turn around. The original Return to Glory. In Ara Parseghian's first season in South Bend he took a team that was 2-7 the prior year and led the 1964 squad to a 9-0 start. By the first week of November the Irish reached No. 1 in the polls and only one team stayed within 19 points in a single game through those 9 games. USC came in as co-champions of the Pac-10 conference but unranked after losses to Michigan State, Ohio State, and Washington. Giving Notre Dame more confidence was quarterback John Huarte being awarded the Heisman Trophy earlier in the week before leaving for California.
The first half of this game was all Irish. After a field goal to take the lead, Huarte hit Jack Snow for a touchdown pass to push the score to 10-0. Near the end of the second quarter, Notre Dame put together an 11-play drive and capped it off with a 5-yard Bill Wolski touchdown to lead 17-0 at the break.
The second half would turn out to be perhaps the most regrettable in Fighting Irish history. First, USC took the opening kickoff and broke the shutout on a touchdown run by future USC athletic director Mike Garrett. Notre Dame then drove down inside the USC 10-yard line only to lose a fumble on a failed pitch. With the game still 17-7 on the next Irish series Huarte moved the offense into a first and goal situation. Two plays later, fullback Joe Kantor dove across the line for an apparent touchdown. However, the referee threw a penalty flag on left tackle Bob Meeker who had merely missed his block and fallen to the ground. Moved back and stunned by the phantom call, the offense tried to regain momentum but failed on the next two pass plays turning the ball over to USC.
The Trojans then marched 88 yards for a touchdown and cut the lead to 17-13 after a missed PAT. With less than 6 minutes left to play, Notre Dame's offense took the field but were forced to punt. Despite USC sending just 2 players at the punter, the referee called holding on the Irish. Instead of moving the ball to the USC 22-yard line the second punt was returned to the Irish 40-yard line. A handful of plays later and USC faced a 3rd and 10 where defensive end Alan Page got his hands on the quarterback and caused a fumble that Notre Dame would recover. Yet again the officials struck a blow as they ruled the fumble an incomplete pass. On fourth down, USC completed a pass over the middle of the field and converted the point after to take the 20-17 lead.
With just over 1:30 left in the game the Irish offense didn't have enough time to move the ball and set up for a game-tying field goal. The clock hit zero and USC had ruined a National Championship for Notre Dame. The title drought moved to 17 years. Ara Parseghian called the phantom hold on Meeker that ultimately turned the tide "the worst officiating call in the history of college football." For the criteria and ranking system used in this series, the 1964 loss to USC still remains the worst defeat in Notre Dame history.