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30 Defining Moments in Notre Dame Football History, 1987-2011: Downing Michigan and Catholics vs. Convicts


This is the fourteenth 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.

27. September 10, 1988. Notre Dame Upsets Michigan on Wolverine Missed Field Goal to Open the Season

Remember Irish kicker Reggie Ho? This was the game where Ho made a name for himself and carved out a small section of Notre Dame lore.

The Irish opened the '88 season at home against hated rival Michigan. Notre Dame was ranked No. 13 while the Wolverines came to South Bend ranked at No. 9---and the game was at night.

History doesn't often remember it, but Notre Dame had a very hard time moving the ball in this game. The Irish entered the season with a ton of question marks all over the field and not many could have expected this was the beginning of an undefeated season. In fact, the offense played so poorly that they never scored a touchdown against Michigan in this season opener, and were likely outplayed overall.

What is remembered however are a series of last second field goal attempts, a punt return, and crowd noise.

Yes, this was the game in which Notre Dame was given a penalty for excessive crowd noise. That actually happened in a real division-1 college football game.

Sophomore Ricky Watters had struggled catching the ball on punt returns early in his career (and would fumble again in this game), but his 81-yard score on special teams would be the lone Irish touchdown of the night.

The game was a tight back-and-forth battle with little scoring. With under 6 minutes to play, Michigan kicker Mike Gillette nailed a 49-yard field goal to give the Wolverines a 1-point lead.

Then up stepped Reggie Ho and his famous quick and quirky soccer kick. Ho had already nailed 3 field goals up to this point, and with 1:13 left in the game, he connected on a 26-yard chip shot to give Notre Dame a 19-17 lead.

The game appeared over but Michigan quickly drove down the field and set up for a game-winning field goal from 48 yards out. Gillette had hit from one yard further only minutes earlier, but this time he just narrowly missed.

It was the fitting ending to the season opener for a Notre Dame team was would go on to catch a lot of breaks on their way to a charmed national championship run.

28. October 15, 1988. Irish Topple No. 1 Miami in Famous Catholics vs. Convicts Game

Following the season opening win over Michigan, the Irish shot up to No. 8 in the polls and prepared for what would be four games against unranked opponents. Notre Dame soundly defeated a decent Michigan State team 20-3, blew out Purdue 52-7, and did the same to Stanford 42-14. In week five, the Irish traveled on the road to the astro-turf of Pitt Stadium, and escaped with a much-too-close 30-20 victory.

This set up one of the greatest regular season clashes in college football history as the Miami Hurricanes, in the middle of their 'Da U' dominance, came walking into Notre Dame Stadium with their own undefeated record and No. 1 ranking.

Seizing the opportunity, a Notre Dame student took advantage of Miami's...ahem...bad boy image, and Notre Dame's much cleaner image by making tee-shirts with "Catholics vs. Convicts" printed on them. They sold like hot cakes and a legend was born.

Notre Dame was certainly respected with their No. 4 ranking, but not many gave the Irish a chance to beat the mighty Hurricanes as Miami were the defending national champions, came in riding a 17-game winning streak, and an absurd 36-game regular season winning streak that stretched all the way back to the second week of the 1985 season. The Canes also rode a 4-game winning streak against Notre Dame and had shutout the Irish at the Orange Bowl less than 11 months earlier.

The pre-game was intense and a brawl famously broke out in the tunnel as Miami exited the field after warm-ups. That led to one of Lou Holtz' best pre-game speeches he'd ever deliver at Notre Dame.

Of course a game like this wouldn't have been without some controversy. Towards the end of the fourth quarter Miami faced a 4th and 7 situation deep in Notre Dame while trailing by a touchdown. Hurricane quarterback Steve Walsh connected with running back Cleveland Gary who picked up the first down and nearly scored before fumbling the ball at the goal line. Gary was down, but the refs ruled it a fumble and the Irish recovered and took possession.

However, for as controversial as that call would be the Irish would fumble the ball themselves three plays later and Miami got the ball right back, ultimately scoring a touchdown with seconds left---a touchdown that almost certainly would have been ruled an incompletion nowadays as the ball shot out of the player arms as he rolled over.

Down 31-30, head coach Jimmy Johnson decided to go for two saying, "We always play to win." However, the Walsh pass into the end zone was knocked down by Pat Terrell and the Irish preserved the upset victory.

Surprisingly, Notre Dame didn't move to No. 1 in the polls following the game but following a win over Navy in the last week of October the Sons of Our Lady finally returned to the top of the country---a position they would not relinquish for the rest of the season.

In a survey conducted by the University of Notre Dame in 2005, this victory over Miami in 1988 was voted as the greatest victory in Notre Dame Stadium history, and by a wide margin. It would be a bitter loss for Miami---who turned the ball over an incredible 7 times---but would go on to win the rest of their games and finish 2nd in the polls, so close to back-to-back national titles.

For Notre Dame, this win filled the team with copious amounts of confidence and swagger. Two and a half months later the program would be raising up their 11th national title after a Fiesta Bowl victory over West Virginia.