I wanted to try something this off-season that I don't think has ever been attempted and that is to catalog all of the worst losses in Notre Dame Football history. Today, I'll explain how we decided on the most painful defeats and publish which games just missed the cut.
We're going to use a weighted system revolving around 5 key factors. I'm telling everyone right now this system will devalue many modern games due to Notre Dame's rich history of winning and relative struggles since the mid-1990's. So if you're shocked that a 7-point loss in 2003 isn't on the list and it hurt real bad because you were there just remember your father and grandfather have probably seen dozens of more agonizing and important defeats.
The 5 FACTORS
- Championship Implications (max 10 points)
A loss that had implications on Notre Dame missing out on hardware with national titles, bowl victories, bowl placement, bowl eligibility, or high season-end rankings.
- Bad Loss (max 8 points)
A loss that saw Notre Dame defeated by a bad team, blown out by an opponent, or for varying reasons a game that could've or should've been won but was not.
- Big Stage Defeat (max 5 points)
A loss in a big game with the spotlight on the program.
- Painfulness (max 3 points)
A loss that caused extra stress due to losing in cruel or unusual fashion.
- Rivalry (max 2 points)
A loss that gives bonus points to historical rivals or familiar foes.
Starting with the Jesse Harper era in 1913 we cataloged 95 games that were in the discussion for worst losses but 20 of them didn't make the cut. Here they are from oldest to most recent:
Just Missed the Cut
1914, @ Yale (28-0 L)
Notre Dame was quickly establishing itself as a national power and hadn't lost in 3 years, landing a hallmark upset of Army at West Point the prior year. Yale was already a well established national power and finally relented to Notre Dame's schedule request. A lot of the people actually had Notre Dame favored but Yale did their homework on the Catholics' passing attack and quick ball movement ultimately sending Notre Dame back west with their tails between their legs. The loss snapped Notre Dame's 27-game unbeaten streak.
1940, Iowa (7-0 L)
It was Elmer Layden's final year as head coach and Notre Dame raced out to a 6-0 record. Iowa came to South Bend having lost 4 straight games but the Hawkeyes shutout the Irish.
1943, @ Great Lakes Naval Training Station (19-14 L)
Frank Leahy had taken over Notre Dame two years prior and came into this game only losing 2 out of his first 28 games. His '43 squad went on a tear even after losing eventual Heisman winner Angelo Bertelli to the Naval service after the sixth game. They were 9-0 coming into the season finale against the war-time all-star team of Great Lakes NTS. The Irish were upended but still won the school's first national championship since 1930 thanks to an absurd 7 victories over the final AP Top 13 teams.
1956, @ SMU (19-13 L)
Terry Brennan had put together a couple of top 10 finishes in his first two seasons in South Bend but no one was prepared for what would befall the program in 1956. The Irish opened up on the road at the Cotton Bowl as the No. 3 team in the country. Notre Dame fell to the Mustangs and would go on to lose 7 more contests during the year. SMU finished 1956 at 4-6.
1962, USC (25-0 L)
Notre Dame wasn't very good in 1962 but rallied to win 4 straight games heading into the season finale in Los Angeles against USC. Unfortunately, the Trojans were very good at 9-0 and easily shutout the Irish winning a national championship two days later as awarded by the Associated Press.
1972, Missouri (30-26 L)
Had things turned out differently towards the end of the season this loss might be one of the most shocking in school history. Heck, it still remains one. The Irish stormed out to a 4-0 record and were 35-point favorites against a Missouri team that was 2-3 and coming off a 62-0 dismantling loss at the hands of Nebraska. The Irish would feel the wrath of the Cornhuskers later in their bowl game but gave up over 200 yards rushing to the Tigers in this incredibly disappointing loss.
1983, Air Force (23-22 L)
Gerry Faust had already lost to Air Force the prior year so this loss wasn't as shocking. Still, a Senior Day defeat as the end of a 3-game losing streak (all by less than 5 points) was a real gut-punch. So was the fact that AFA blocked a chip-shot field goal at the end of the game that would have won it for the Irish.
1985, @ Penn State (36-6 L)
It was mid-November and Notre Dame got off to a 1-3 start but rebounded with 4 straight wins heading into a match-up with No. 1 and undefeated Penn State. Any illusions that Faust was keeping his job came crashing down in his worst loss up to that point at Notre Dame.
1987, @ Miami (24-0 L)
Year two under Lou Holtz was going nicely. The Irish had won 8 out of their first 10 games and were ranked No. 10 in the country while heading down to the Orange Bowl to play Miami. It was Holtz' first matchup against the Hurricanes and it wasn't pretty. The No. 2 Canes won easily with a shutout and would go on to win the national championship.
1995, @ Ohio State (45-26 L)
This was a big game at the time, the first match-up between the two schools in nearly 60 years. The Buckeyes came in undefeated and gave the Irish their second loss of the season behind the play of eventual Heisman winning running back Eddie George.
1999, @ Tennessee (38-14 L)
Year three for Bob Davie was a step backwards from year two but the Irish came into this visit to Neyland Stadium riding 4 straight victories. The No. 4 ranked Vols one year removed from a national championship easily defeated Notre Dame and gave Davie his second worst loss as head coach of the Irish.
1999, @ Pittsburgh (37-27 L)
The loss at Tennessee above was followed up by another road loss this time to a 5-loss Pitt team that would go on to finish the season with 6 total losses.
2001, @ Texas A&M (24-3 L)
Before coming to Notre Dame Bob Davie was the defensive coordinator for R.C. Slocum at Texas A&M. Years later Davie could be proud that his Fighting Irish defeated A&M in 2000, but Slocum got his revenge the next year when Notre Dame visited College Station.
2002, NC State (28-6 L)
As amazing as the 2002 season began it ended equally bad. The Irish stood at 10-2 going into the Gator Bowl against Phillip Rivers and NC State. On the strength of 21 second quarter points the Wolfpack raced out to a lead and this game was never close.
2004, @ BYU (20-17 L)
The last year of Tyrone Willingham began with a whimper. The Irish traveled to Provo and lost to a BYU team that would finish the season 5-6 with losses to teams like UNLV and New Mexico.
2005, Michigan State (44-41 L)
The flag plant game. The 10th ranked Irish got off to a hot start under Charlie Weis with wins over Pitt and Michigan but fell at home in overtime to a Michigan State team that would finish the season at 5-6.
2007, Georgia Tech (33-3 L)
The hope of a new season was immediately crushed by the visiting Yellow Jackets. The Irish were held to just 122 total yards and turned the ball over 3 times. This remains the worst season-opening loss in school history.
2009, Navy (23-21 L)
Nothing could go right in this game that started the beginning of the end for Charlie Weis. The Middies couldn't be stopped on the ground and despite 512 yards of offense the Irish couldn't put the ball in the end zone. Notre Dame lost despite a career-high 452 passing yards and school-record 37 completions from quarterback Jimmy Clausen, which pretty much sums up the Weis era.
2010, @ Michigan State (34-31 L)
A controversial and exciting ending with a fake field goal touchdown in overtime brought Notre Dame to its knees and was the second of the three straight losses early in the Brian Kelly era. This was the beginning of the Spartans not collapsing down the stretch though as they would finish 11-2 and become co-champions of the Big Ten.
2013, @ Pittsburgh (28-21 L)
The most recent loss saw Notre Dame out-gain the Panthers by 100 yards but cough up 3 turnovers and lose a second half lead to a team that finished 7-6 on the season.