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The Greatest Wins in Notre Dame Football History: 1981-1996

I guess the late 1980's and early 1990's were a nice little era?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the Greatest Wins in Notre Dame Football History! Today we see the 1980's get off to a slow start but end with a bang before the Irish begin the slow slide into the Dark Period.

Part 1: 1887-1940

Part 2: 1941-1963

Part 3: 1964-1980



Dome4_medium 23-17 win vs. Michigan

The first night game in Notre Dame Stadium history opened up the second year of the Gerry Faust era. Michigan came in ranked No. 10 while the Irish sat at No. 20 in the polls. With portable lights setting the House That Rock Built aglow it was Notre Dame who found victory. The Irish led 10-0 early after a pair of Michigan turnovers and eventually built a 23-7 lead late in the third quarter. The Wolverines ended up with only 41 rushing yards, their lowest output in 12 years.

Dome4_medium 31-16 win at Pittsburgh

Notre Dame began 1982 at 4-0 but ended up dropping a game to Arizona and tying Oregon in Eugene. Even at 5-1-1 the Irish traveled to Pittsburgh as an unranked team. The Panthers--led by quarterback Dan Marino--were 7-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation. Pittsburgh led 13-10 in the second half but a big 4th quarter gave Notre Dame the upset win. Quarterback Blair Kiel tossed a 54-yard touchdown, Allen Pinkett scored a 76-yard rushing touchdown, and Pinkett again added a shorter touchdown run to get Notre Dame the 31 points.


Dome4_medium 19-18 win vs. Boston College (Liberty Bowl)

It certainly wasn't Notre Dame's finest hour by accepting a bid to the Liberty Bowl in 1983. The Irish had already lost 5 times and were well outside the Top 25 heading into the post-season. However, the team was matched up with 13th ranked Boston College and superstar quarterback Doug Flutie. The eventual Heisman Trophy winner for the following season finished with 287 yards and 3 touchdowns but the Eagles missed on a 2-point conversion after their final touchdown to give Notre Dame the 1-point win. A late 4th down pass by Flutie fell incomplete and Notre Dame picked up its first bowl win under Gerry Faust.


Dome4_medium 30-22 win at LSU

It was year 4 under Gerry Faust and by late October it looked like the wheels were about to fly off the Notre Dame football team. The Irish stood at 3-4 on the season and had lost 3 straight home games leading up to a showdown in Death Valley against No. 6 LSU who had a record of 5-0-1. It was only the second ever trip to LSU and Notre Dame had lost badly there in 1971 under Ara Parseghian.

On the strength of a big game by running back Allen Pinkett (40 carries, 162 yards, 2 TD) the Irish found some of that old magic. Both of Pinkett's touchdowns occurred in the first half but it was a John Carney field goal in addition to a Mark Brooks touchdown in the fourth quarter that put this game away.

Dome4_medium 19-7 win at Southern California

Following the victory over LSU mentioned above the Irish went on to defeat Navy by a single point but absolutely demolish Penn State at home to get to 6-4 on the season. Standing in the way of a Hawaii Bowl invite was the No. 14 USC Trojans who were headed to the Rose Bowl despite a recent loss to UCLA.

In a rainy, muddy, and sloppy game Notre Dame literally and figuratively held on for the win. Despite being out-gained by 104 yards the Irish were winners thanks largely to USC losing 6 fumbles in the wet conditions. Notre Dame fell behind 7-0 but ripped off 19 unanswered points from the late first half on to win the game. USC would go on to beat Ohio State in the Rose Bowl while this win snapped Notre Dame's 18-year losing streak in the Coliseum.


Dome4_medium 37-6 win vs. Alabama

It was year two under new head coach Lou Holtz and in mid-November the Irish were 7-1 and ranked No. 7 in the nation prior to hosting No. 10 Alabama. A year earlier Notre Dame had lost to Alabama for the first time in history and welcomed the Crimson Tide back to South Bend for a big rematch.

On Senior Day the Irish surrendered a pair of field goals in the first half but still led 20-6 going into the break. While still controlling the game a 74-yard Mark Green touchdown and 75-yard Ricky Watters touchdown sealed the deal in the fourth quarter. Neither team would finish 1987 on a high note, though. Notre Dame dropped the final 3 games of the season and Alabama lost the Iron Bowl and Hall of Fame Bowl to close the year.


Dome4_medium 19-17 win vs. Michigan

Notre Dame's last title run began in week one against No. 9 Michigan who were still smarting from a loss in Ann Arbor in 1987 to the Irish. Despite not scoring an offensive touchdown Notre Dame came out victorious against the Wolverines.

Ricky Watters took a punt back for a score while Reggie Ho connected on a pair of field goals to give Notre Dame a 13-0 lead. By the 4th quarter Michigan had scored two touchdowns and led 14-13. Reggie Ho hit two more field goals in the 4th quarter while Michigan's Mike Gillette connected on one as well. Ho's fourth field goal gave the Irish the lead with just 1:13 left. However, UM drove down the field and attempted a 41-yarder for the win with 3 seconds left. The kick fell short and Notre Dame escaped with the win.

Dome4_medium 31-30 win vs. Miami

The famed Catholics vs. Convicts game. Sitting at 5-0 the Irish had moved up to No. 5 in the country while Miami remained No. 1 in the country at 4-0 as the defending National Champions. The Hurricanes were riding a 16-game winning streak as well as a 20-game road winning streak.

This game--easily one of the greatest ever played inside Notre Dame Stadium--was memorable first for a pre-game fight near the tunnel entrance. During the game turnovers really killed Miami as the Irish defense swarmed for all 4 quarters. Lastly, Miami scored late and had a chance to tie with a PAT but decided to go for the 2 points and the win. However, quarterback Steve Walsh's pass was batted down in the corner of the end zone to secure a momentous Irish win.

Dome4_medium 27-10 win at Southern California

The 1988 schedule might have had the perfect balance of any Irish lineup. One top ten team to begin the year then 4 unranked teams. Another top ranked squad followed by 4 unranked teams. To finish the season Notre Dame (who moved to No. 1 in the country a couple weeks earlier) came in at 10-0 while USC had the same record and sat in second place in the country. Yup, another No. 1 vs. No. 2 regular season matchup for Notre Dame.

Many remember this game for Lou Holtz sending leading rusher Tony Brooks and leading receiver Ricky Watters home for being late to dinners and meetings. A 65-yard touchdown run by quarterback Tony Rice got the Irish on the board first and things went well from there. USC fumbled the ball, Notre Dame scored off the turnover and led 14-0 while still in the 1st quarter. The nail in the coffin came just before half when a Rodney Peete pass was picked off by Stan Smagala and taken back for a score. On the play, Peete was blindsided by Irish end Frank Stams and injured his shoulder. The game was never in doubt once Notre Dame went up 20-7.

Dome4_medium 34-21 win vs. West Virginia (Fiesta Bowl)

Notre Dame's 11th and last National Championship was won in the desert of Arizona during the Fiesta Bowl after the regular season. The West Virginia offense--led by quarterback Major Harris--came in averaging almost 43 points per game en route to a 11-0 record. Could the Irish stop such an explosive attack?

The Mountaineers find out they had a tough time stopping the Notre Dame offense. The Irish built a 16-0 lead, eventually battered and bruised Major Harris, and never looked back. Late in the game the score was 34-13 and Notre Dame cruised to a relatively easy victory and the school's last title.


Dome4_medium 24-19 win at Michigan

This was Notre Dame's second to last No. 1 vs. No. 2 regular season matchup and the second such game in 4 contests stretching back to the end of the 1988 regular season. On a rainy Ann Arbor afternoon the Irish ran the ball on 27 consecutive plays in the first half before taking advantage of a Michigan fumble to take a 7-0 lead. Michigan scored before the break but missed their PAT.

It was lift off in the second half as Rocket Ismail took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. After Ned Bolcar injured Michigan quarterback Michael Taylor the young Elvis Grbac later led a touchdown drive to close the gap. However, the Rocket took the ensuing kickoff back for his second touchdown of the game to give Notre Dame a 12-point lead. Grbac would lead another touchdown drive but Michigan would fail to gain the ball back on an onside kick with under 5 minutes to play. Thanks to Rocket Ismail the Irish escaped with a win after gaining just 219 total yards on the afternoon.

Dome4_medium 28-24 win vs. Southern California

USC came to South Bend in the middle of the 1989 season having fallen in their opener but winning their next 5 games to reach the No. 9 ranking nationally. Following a pre-game skirmish between the two rivals Notre Dame found itself trailing 17-7 at the half with the growing consecutive win streak seriously in jeopardy.

Notre Dame scored on its first possession of the half and then picked off USC's Todd Marinovich in the end zone. Early in the final quarter Notre Dame drove 80 yards for another touchdown and its first lead of the game. Anthony Johnson later fumbled and USC took advantage to pull ahead. Tony Rice answered the bell with his own touchdown to grab the lead back and an Irish goal line stand proved to be the nail in USC's coffin.

Dome4_medium 34-23 win at Penn State

Notre Dame entered Happy Valley on November 18, 1989 as the top team in the country (still) and defending National Champions but had lost each of the meetings at Penn State in 1987, 1985, and 1983. The Irish would get the Happy Valley monkey off their back with one of the program's finest rushing performances.

Quarterback Tony Rice totaled 141 yards, Ricky Watters totaled 128 yards, and Rocket Ismail totaled 84 yards. At the end of the game Notre Dame rumbled for 425 yards on 71 carries to defeat the No. 17 ranked Nittany Lions.

Dome4_medium 21-6 win vs. Colorado (Orange Bowl)

Notre Dame's quest for a repeat title were dashed in the 1989 regular season finale against Miami. Thus ended the school-record 23-game winning streak. For the bowl game the Irish were matched up against No. 1 Colorado who were themselves looking for a championship. However, a sloppy first half by the Buffaloes doomed their chances.

Colorado fumbled deep in Irish territory, missed a short field goal, and then were stuffed on three attempts at the Notre Dame 1-yard line. On fourth down the Buffs tried a fake field goal that was snuffed out by Irish. The game moved into the second half a scoreless tie but a pair of ND touchdowns in the third quarter broke the competition open. The Irish defense stifled Colorado the rest of the way and spoiled the Buffaloes National Championship dreams.


Dome4_medium 28-24 win vs. Michigan

Another night game against Michigan with the Irish beginning the season as the No. 1 team and the Wolverines ranked 4th in the country. In Rick Mirer's first game as starting quarterback he was part of a crazy fourth quarter finish that gave the Irish the victory.

Down by 10 to begin the final quarter the home team notched an important touchdown drive. Michael Stonebreaker then picked off a pass in the end zone to get the ball back for ND, only to see Mirer toss his own interception. The Irish defense forced a punt which led to Mirer's game-winning touchdown drive to seal the win.

Dome4_medium 29-20 win vs. Miami

The final installment in the Miami rivalry (until 2010) saw the Fighting Irish get the last laugh. The Hurricanes had ruined Notre Dame's championship quest the prior year and now the Irish looked to do the same to Miami.

On the strength of a school-record 5 field goals from Craig Hentrich and a 94-yard kickoff touchdown by Rocket Ismail, the Irish went toe to toe with the No. 2 ranked team. A total of 315 rushing yards paced the offense with a 21 yard pass from Mirer to Rodney Culver late in the game giving Notre Dame the final 9-point difference.

Dome4_medium 34-29 at Tennessee

Following a stunning loss to Stanford early in the year the Irish crawled their way back in the polls and found themselves atop the AP rankings in the days prior to a visit to Knoxville, Tennessee. The eventual Sugar Bowl winning Volunteers came in ranked No. 9 in the country and gave the Irish one heck of a fight.

A big fourth quarter propelled Notre Dame to the upset win (yes, we were slight underdogs). Hentrich connected on a field goal just inside the final frame and Watters later scampered for a 10-yard score. A couple minutes later Rocket Ismail--who was bottled up all game long--finally broke free on a 44-yard touchdown run. Tennessee would add a touchdown with under 2 minutes to play but it wasn't enough.


Dome4_medium 39-28 win vs. Florida (Sugar Bowl)

After a stellar three-year run against ranked teams the Irish went 1-3 against top foes during the 1991 season. However, the team was deemed strong enough to face No. 3 Florida in the Sugar Bowl, to the derision of many haters around the country. When Florida raced out to a 13-0 lead it looked like Notre Dame was going to prove those haters right.

Yet, a big second half turned the tide for Notre Dame. The Irish outscored Florida 10-0 in the third quarter which led to the famous 3 rushing touchdowns by Jerome Bettis in the fourth quarter. Despite giving up over 500 yards to the Gators it was Notre Dame who ended up hoisting the bowl trophy in New Orleans.


Dome4_medium 17-16 win vs. Penn State

The Snow Bowl on November 14, 1992 is still one of the most memorable home games in Notre Dame history. Penn State put up 10 points in the middle of the 4th quarter to take a 16-9 lead over the Irish. The No. 8 Notre Dame offense had shown flashes of utter dominance in '92 but until late in this game could only muster 3 field goals.

With 4:25 left in the game Notre Dame's fateful last drive began. They moved the ball into a 4th and goal position where Mirer hit Jerome Bettis over the middle. The Irish decided to go for two points and the win. Mirer, flushed out of the pocket, drilled a pass to Reggie Brooks for the win.

Dome4_medium 28-3 win vs. Texas A&M (Cotton Bowl)

Perhaps one of the most underrated wins over the past 30 years for its utter dominance of a strong opponent. Notre Dame just barely missed being in the National Championship conversation thanks to a loss to Stanford but the team found themselves lined up against the Southwest Conference Champions in the Cotton Bowl.

The Irish gained 17 more first downs than the No. 4 ranked Aggies and ended up out-gaining A&M by 274 yards while limiting the opponent to just 165 total yards.


Dome4_medium 27-23 win at Michigan

The typical brutal Holtzian schedules got a bit of a breather in 1993 when a road game in week two against Michigan winded up being the only ranked opponent of the first 9 tilts. Notre Dame raced out to a 24-10 halftime lead and hung on for the win despite only scoring 3 points in the second half. The Wolverines were ranked No. 3 in this game and would go on to uncharacteristically lose 3 games in conference play.

Dome4_medium 31-24 win vs. Florida State

The "Game of the Century" still lives on as many Irish fans' favorite home game in program history. The No. 1 and undefeated FSU Seminoles came to South Bend for only the second time in history to face the No. 2 and also undefeated Fighting Irish.

Florida State scored first but Notre Dame built a 24-7 lead into the 3rd quarter that would prove to be just enough cushion. The Seminoles would add 17 points over the last 20 minutes of the game but a Jeff Burris 11-yard touchdown run with 6:53 left proved to be the game-winner. Quarterback Charlie Ward tried to mount a comeback on the final series but a pass with 3 seconds left was knocked down to preserve the Irish victory.

Dome4_medium 24-21 win vs. Texas A&M (Cotton Bowl)

For the second straight season Notre Dame met Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. A matchup of two Top 10 teams saw the Aggies play much tougher than in '92 and even out-gain the Irish. However, a field goal with just over 2 minutes left gave Notre Dame the win.


Dome4_medium 55-27 win vs. Texas

Following a disappointing 1994 season and a loss to Northwestern to open the 1995 season it had been a while since Notre Dame notched a big win following the early 90's blossoming. That all changed when Notre Dame welcomed Texas to South Bend in mid-September. Defensive coordinator Bob Davie took over the reigns from Lou Holtz--who was out recovering from spinal surgery--in a prior week's blowout win over Vanderbilt and led another strong outing against the 2-0 and 13th ranked Horns. The Irish went over the 500-yard mark while also piling up 55 points in an easy victory.

Dome4_medium 38-10 win vs. Southern California

The Trojans have knocked Notre Dame from National Title contention many times but the Irish were able to return the favor in 1995. Sitting at 6-0 and ranked 5th in the country, the USC program seemed poised for a big run. Then, the Irish led 21-7 at half and scored 17 points in the 4th quarter to roll to an easy win in South Bend.


Dome4_medium 27-24 win at Texas

The last big road win under Lou Holtz saw the No. 9 ranked Irish defeat the No. 6 Longhorns in Austin. Notre Dame led 17-14 at the half but couldn't do much offensively in the second half and fell behind 24-17 as the 4th quarter began to tick away. However, an epic comeback would save the day. After an illegal procedure penalty the Irish went for it on 4th and Goal from the 6-yard line as Autry Denson plowed into the end zone with just under 3 minutes left. Texas then shanked a punt to give Notre Dame decent field position from which they would hit the game-winning field goal as time expired.

Dome4_medium 54-20 win vs. Washington

Our final great win from this era saw Notre Dame absolutely explode offensively against a quality Washington Husky team. The prior year the Irish struggled a little bit in a win in Seattle but not so in 1996. Notre Dame led 26-0 in the first half before UW scored a couple touchdowns in the last 5 minutes before the break. Yet, the Irish attack didn't stop as they scored 3 more touchdowns in the 3rd quarter to solidify the blowout. At the end of the game Notre Dame had racked up an astonishing 650 total yards and 31 first downs.