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30 Defining Moments in Notre Dame Football History, 1987-2011: Through Two Undefeated Teams for a National Title


This is the thirteenth 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.

25. November 26, 1988. Notre Dame Remains Undefeated in Classic No. 1 vs. No. 2 Matchup Against USC

Notre Dame came in to one of the school's classic matchups with USC well rested and ready for victory. After a program changing upset of Miami at home in mid-October, the Irish defeated 5-7 Air Force, 3-8 Navy, and 0-11 Rice before resting for a bye week and waiting for Penn State at home.

However, the Nittany Lions had already lost 4 games and were one of the weaker teams of the entire Paterno era. As such, Notre Dame took home a 21-3 victory to remain undefeated. Meanwhile, the Trojans of Southern California beat UCLA to stay undefeated themselves to set up a season-ending undefeated No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in Los Angeles.

Before this game was even played, both teams had accepted invitations to bowl games: Notre Dame to the Fiesta and USC to the Rose Bowl for winning the Pac-10.

The game is notable not only for the No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle of titans, but also because Notre Dame head coach suspended top players Tony Brooks and Ricky Watters for violation of team rules. Never mind, the Irish still had Tony Rice and Rocket Ismail on offense.

Thanks to the long touchdown run by Rice and a Stan Smagala pick six, the Irish rolled for the victory inside the Coliseum. The game not only brought Notre Dame an undefeated season, but it was the sixth straight victory over USC, then a new series record for either team that would be extended to 11 straight through 1993.

After two somewhat promising but sobering seasons in South Bend, head coach Lou Holtz was on track to become yet another Notre Dame leader to win a national title in his third year under the Dome.

26. January 1, 1989. Irish Win Fiesta Bowl over West Virginia; Clinch 11th National Title

Notre Dame had already been through a magical season for the ages before making the trip out west for the bowl game. Defeats of undefeated Michigan, Miami, and USC plus the rest of the regular season schedule brought a perfect Fighting Irish squad in the Fiesta Bowl.

Awaiting them would be the West Virginia Mountaineers in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. The Mountaineers were 11-0 and led by quarterback Major Harris in an explosive and high-powered offense that was averaging nearly 43 points per game up until that point.

Notre Dame had heard it all year, but there were whispers that the Irish wouldn't be able to contain the fast and athletic Mountaineer offense.

But contain them they did.

In fact it was the West Virginia defense that couldn't contain the Irish offense.

Notre Dame jumped out to an early 16-0 lead and never looked back---stifling Major Harris on the sloppy Sun Devil Stadium turf. On the other side of the ball, Irish quarterback Tony Rice had one of the strongest games of his career, completing 7 passes for 213 yards while adding a team-leading 75 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

When the clock reached zero, the Irish reached the pinnacle of the game and the highest peak of the Top 30 moments since 1987: A national title and a perfect 12-0 season.