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30 Defining Moments in Notre Dame Football History, 1987-2011: The 1994 Collapse & The End of the Holtz Era


This is the seventh 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.

This week we'll feature the older moment first in order to tell the story in a more fitting way.

Defining Moments

14. January 2, 1995. Notre Dame Shocks Many with 2-4-1 Finish to the 1994 Season

Few could have predicted the sudden collapse of the 1994 season, but there had been some warning signs at the time. Recruiting had tailed off ever so slightly since the early 90's and this was the first senior class not to be brought in by Lou Holtz' main recruiter (more on this in a few weeks) who accompanied him from the University of Minnesota.

The offense also sputtered and took a step back from the efficient '93 squad and although redshirt freshman phenom Ron Powlus played well given his inexperience, the team could not adjust properly to the more pass-first offense installed by Holtz.

The defense---while still strong---showed cracks late in the 1993 season as well and it carried over. Despite limiting opponents to just 17.9 points on the season overall, the Irish gave up an average of 28.5 points (including 41 points in the upset loss to Boston College) over the last four games in 1993. The 1994 defense gave up 23.3 points per game on the season, but just 26.1 over the final 7 games. However, the 1993 the offense was good enough to carry the team when needed, in 1994 the offense was not.

The season started out well enough with a thrashing of a poor Northwestern team at Solider Field 42-15, but that was followed up with a devastating 2-point home loss on a last-second field goal to a good but not great Michigan squad who was ranked No. 6 at the time. Notre Dame would sweep the next three games heading into October, but the streak certainly didn't inspire a ton of confidence with a 1-point win over a mediocre Michigan State team, and comfortable multi-score victories (but not blowouts) against poor Purdue and Stanford teams.

The Irish were 4-1 and still ranked No. 8 in the country heading to Boston College, but then the collapse began.

The Eagles handed Notre Dame a 19-point loss---the second worst loss under Holtz from late 1991 through 1996---and Boston College only finished the season with 7 total wins.

The Irish tried to rebound at home against a tough BYU team, but dropped that one by a touchdown and plummeted all the way out of the rankings. The sting set in as the first back-to-back losses befell Notre Dame since defeats to highly ranked Tennessee and Penn State in late 1991.

A blowout of Navy after a bye week helped ease the pain, but a talented (eventually 10-1-1) Florida State team exacted revenge on the Irish for the prior year's only Seminole loss---although they DID win the national title that year remember---in a close 7-point victory in Orlando.

Notre Dame returned home and beat Air Force by 12 points (surrendering 30 points in the process) and ended the regular season with a tie against a good but not great Southern California team at the L.A. Coliseum. To make matters worse, the Fiesta Bowl extended an invitation to 6-4-1 Notre Dame following the regular season and Irish duly accepted.

Notre Dame was matched up against 10-1 Colorado led by Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam, and although the Irish kept Salaam in check, quarterback Kordell Stewart went wild as the Buffaloes raced out to a 31-3 lead, ultimately winning 41-24 and handing the Irish their most losses in one season since Holtz' first year in South Bend. The Irish coach stated after the game:

"I think this is the best performance I have ever seen of another football team against a team that I have coached."

It was the beginning of the end for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. The amount of losses were embarrassing, his coaching and handling of quarterback Ron Powlus within the offense began to face intense criticism, and the pressure of keeping the Irish on an elite level began to weigh heavily on the coach.

13. Late 1996. Lou Holtz Retires and Bob Davie Hired as Head Coach at Notre Dame

Lou Holtz would go on to coach two more seasons at Notre Dame following the collapse in 1994 and although the Irish only lost 6 games over those final two years, there was the feeling that things weren't the same. There were whispers that the game had passed Holtz by, and that he'd never be able to lead Notre Dame to a national championship again.

The start to the 1995 season clearly didn't help matters.

The Irish opened as 28-point favorites at home against Northwestern, but fell to the eventual Big Ten champions 17-15. Notre Dame would take care of business throughout the rest of the regular season notching wins against 10-win Texas, 9-win USC, and 8-win Air Force---with the only exception being a deflating road loss to Ohio State 45-26 in which the Irish lead at halftime and coughed up three turnovers over the final two quarters.

At 9-2 Notre Dame accepted a bid to the Orange Bowl to play Florida State for the third straight season. In the rubber match, the Seminoles erased a 26-14 deficit in the 4th quarter with 17 unanswered points and a 5-point victory.

A 9-3 season was an improvement over 1994, but many expected Notre Dame to be a title contender and it didn't come to fruition.

1996 started out a little better, but barely scraping past a 2-win Vanderbilt and a blowout of a 3-win Purdue didn't move the needle. A close hard fought win over Texas down in Austin raised everyone's spirits, but a home loss to Ohio State brought everyone back down to earth.

There were wins over 9-win Washington and 9-win Navy thrown in there, but the rest of the season proved Notre Dame was still good, but falling from the ranks of the elites. An overtime loss to Air Force---in which the Falcons out-rushed the Irish by 237 yards---was another shocker. And despite a joyful 62-0 thrashing of a poor Rutgers team in what would turn out to be Holtz' last home game, the team headed out west and dropped another overtime game---this time to a 6-win USC team that forced 4 fumbles and ended their no-win streak against Notre Dame stretching back to 1982.

Holtz actually announced he was stepping down as head coach at Notre Dame three days before the team played Rutgers, but the team's loss at USC meant the coach wouldn't be sent off right as they elected not to go to a bowl game. So ended the illustrious career of a coach who finished just five wins behind Knute Rockne's school-record of 105.

The two main choices to succeed Holtz were Northwestern coach Gary Barnett and the team's current defensive coordinator Bob Davie. In early December, the university announced that Davie would be the next coach in South Bend.

Why Holtz left Notre Dame remains largely a mystery to this day. Many people believe he was forced out by school who wished to see him not break Rockne's record. Others believed the school couldn't handle Holtz' ego and power, and wished to bring in a younger coach more acclimated to the evolving offenses of the day.

The truth is probably much closer to what has occurred to every Notre Dame coach who stays in South Bend for a long time: The pressure to win, the expectations, the struggle to do things the right way---it just eats away at the human psyche.

With Holtz leaving it wasn't just a coach leaving, but the end of an era for Notre Dame. The program is trying to get back to the point where those 1995 and '96 seasons are once again termed as disappointments, but they would represent a high water mark for the Irish in current times.

16 years later, the legacy of Lou Holtz and the last national title in school history looms larger than ever.