It’s March, it was 75 degrees this Saturday and the sun is reliably out, at least here in Texas - South Bend may have a while to go, although the weather app’s forecasts are somewhat promising. The point is, it’s springtime. It’s the time of year when we are reminded of the ever-flowing springs of hope, and the possibility that even the darkest times will pass.
In a tribute to this fun and invigorating season, we’re going to explore the uplifting wins of the last decade. This is not a “Best Wins of the Kelly Era” article; that has been done a thousand times. Only a couple games here might make that list. What I’m going to focus on here are wins by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish that restored hope when things were looking bleak and made us believe things could get better. If these games were movies, they’d be Cinderella Man or Chef, not The Godfather or Citizen Kane. Sometimes, you don’t need the classics; sometimes you just need to pop in a good rom-com, family flick or feel-good sports drama. That’s what we’re going for. Let’s dive in:
2010 Utah Utes
It’s hard to think of a darker time for Notre Dame than the week leading up to this game. The campus was reeling from the tragic death of student videographer Declan Sullivan. Within the football program, questions swirled about whether Brian Kelly would make it out of his first year with the team 4-5 and coming off a stunning loss to the Tulsa Shockers, of which Kelly’s decision-making was the proximate cause.
Against that backdrop, the Irish took the field on Senior Day against #14 Utah. Fans feared the Irish wouldn’t even come to play, with an ugly loss the likely outcome. So it was a genuine and heartwarming surprise when the Irish not only showed up, but throttled the unsuspecting Utes, smothering their vaunted spread offense and scoring four unanswered touchdowns to win 28-3.
This game was on Senior Day. The seniors in this game endured 2007-10, possibly the worst four-year stretch in Notre Dame’s history. This was a wonderful send-off for the guys who made that hellish journey. Check out Josh’s Throwback Thursday article from last year where he linked to a highlight video, appropriately set to the theme from Rudy, capturing the game and the postgame celebration. It’s a great reminder of the power sports can have to lift up a community in hard times.
2010 Miami Hurricanes*
The 2010 redemption arc that began with the Utah game culminated in a glorious 33-17 New Year’s Eve thrashing of Randy Shannon’s last Hurricanes squad. It was hard to believe this was the same team that struggled so mightily for most of the regular season. The Miami defense had no answer for Michael Floyd, who made an joke of the ‘Canes secondary, while Harrison Smith picked off three passes in the first half.
Yes, this only brought the Irish record to 8-5; yes, it was the Sun Bowl; yes, Miami didn’t get off the bus. At the same time, the Irish only had one bowl win in the 21st century prior to this one, against Hawaii in 2008. This dismantling of a far more impressive opponent was a signal things were getting better. The fact that it came against the sometime rival most associated with the Irish’s last championship was a callback to those better times, and gave us hope that the Irish might get there again.
*People will ask why I didn’t put the 2010 USC Trojans game here. I didn’t for two reasons: 1) it gets enough attention; and 2) its significance and its place in the program’s trajectory elevates it to the “best wins” category. Here’s the link to the highlights (complete with inspirational Remember The Titans music) if you want to taste those memberberries.
We’ll talk a lot about Michigan State on this list, so much that I’m starting to wonder if Notre Dame started a decades-long rivalry with them solely to create opportunities for redemptive wins. In 2011, the Irish were 0-2 after a pair of horrific losses to the South Florida Bulls and Michigan Wolverines. Constantly shooting themselves in the foot and careening out of control, Notre Dame looked like a sitting duck when 15th-ranked Sparty arrived in South Bend.
The Irish, however, found their footing and handily defeated the Spartans. The late George Atkinson III set the tone when he lit the field on fire and left the entire MSU football team sitting in the ashes on a kickoff return touchdown. The Irish rolled 31-13, restoring a measure of confidence and avenging the “Little Giants” debacle of the year prior. While the season didn’t go as planned, this game was a sign that this Irish team was at least ready for a fight.
2013 Michigan State Spartans
Two years after that 2011 victory, the Irish were a shaky 2-1 when Michigan State came to town, having followed a heartbreaking defeat at Michigan with an uninspiring near-loss against the Purdue Boilermakers. Whatever was left of the 2012 season’s air of invincibility was dissipating rapidly, and the Irish desperately needed a win over the ever-dangerous Spartans to rebuild momentum. In the end, the superiority of the Irish on the edge (the athletic advantage of the Irish receivers forced the Spartans to commit one pass-interference penalty after another to prevent big plays) and a stout defensive effort carried the day in a hard-fought 17-13 win.
One unique thing about this game was the way it aged like a fine wine over the course of the season, as Sparty went on to finish 13-1, winning the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. Their loss to the Irish was the only thing preventing Mark Dantonio’s squad from playing for the national championship. In a year where the Irish had no realistic shot at title contention, it was nice to be able to ruin it for someone else. That’s the kind of pettiness that truly great rivalries are made of.
2014 LSU Tigers
I don’t think much more needs to be said about the disaster that was the back half of 2014. A postseason date with Leonard Fournette and LSU seemed like a sadistic punishment, as Irish fans didn’t even know which quarterback would be taking the field. But then, neither did the Tigers, and the combined efforts of Everett Golson and Malik Zaire confused the Tigers’ defense, while CJ Prosise provided big-play heroics that served as his audition tape to become a running back the following season.
In a nice redemptive moment, Golson, who had taken no shortage of often-deserved heat for his role in the team’s regular-season unraveling, was able to bear down and lead a perfect final drive. Kyle Brindza then boomed one last field goal through the uprights as time expired, and the Irish won 31-28.
This game is probably the best example I can recall of an ostensibly minor bowl game having a profound impact. Notre Dame took the extra practices afforded by the bowl game to make crucial changes, especially on offense, and test those changes against a quality opponent. Those changes carried into the next season, and a team that had been reeling from one hideous defeat to another suddenly had reason for optimism.
2015 Virginia Cavaliers
It’s hard to overstate the dread that took hold in the second half of this game. A brutal ankle injury to Zaire, who had been spectacular to start the year, forced an inexperienced DeShone Kizer into the game. With the Irish offense out of sorts, UVA took a one-point lead late in the fourth quarter. As bewildering time management allowed the clock to tick down under 20 seconds with the Irish still out of field-goal range, despair mounted. Ghosts of 2014 came flooding back; this year was supposed to be different, but here we were, about to drop yet another winnable game.
Then the clouds parted. The music swelled. Kizer, dancing around the backfield looking for options, reared back and delivered a 39-yard dime to Will Fuller, who made the catch in stride and trotted across the goal line. Final score: Irish 34, Hoos 27. One UVA casualty.
This one is hard to beat for the sheer relief provided by its last-second heroics. While things would be uncertain from this point on, the Irish would live to play another week; the hope of better days was still alive. What’s more, we knew we had a quarterback in Kizer who wasn’t afraid of big moments, of which there would be plenty on the road the Irish planned to take.
2017 Michigan State Spartans
The Irish travelled to East Lansing in 2017 at 2-1, with the loss coming at home to the ascendant Georgia Bulldogs. Fans were hopeful the team had turned the corner after a disastrous 2016, but also remembered that that team’s slide into ignominy had begun with a pair of high-profile primetime defeats - one of which was to the Spartans.
This time, however, the Irish delivered. Brandon Wimbush, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams led a powerful running attack while the new-look defense forced turnover after turnover. The best of these came via the ever-awesome Shaun Crawford, who snuck up behind L.J. Scott like the spectacular golden mongoose he is and swatted the ball out of the Spartan running back’s hands on the goal line, then recovered it in the end zone. The Irish then effectively sealed the game with a touchdown drive, taking a 28-7 lead into halftime and winning 38-18.
In a romantic comedy, that play would be the point in the movie where the slacker hero does something noble or sacrificial and the girl realizes he has changed. The Irish were playing with fire, stripping the ball and jumping routes, running the ball effectively, and generally doing everything they had been unable or unwilling to do the previous season. It was beautiful to watch.
2017 LSU Tigers
With the rosy view Irish fans now take of 2017, it’s easy to forget it felt pretty disappointing at the end of the regular season. The Irish were 9-3, having ranked as high as #3 in November. Poor quarterback play and a slowdown of the running game gave fans reason to worry as the Irish prepared for a Citrus Bowl clash with LSU. Both of those trends did manifest themselves in the game, which was a defensive battle throughout and saw the ineffective Brandon Wimbush replaced by Ian Book. Book didn’t set the world on fire, but when the Irish needed a play late in the game, he found Miles Boykin, whose spectacular one-handed catch and subsequent run gave the Irish their most significant bowl win of the century in epic fashion.
The only appropriate way to accurately capture Boykin’s heroism on this play was to give it the Titanic soundtrack treatment; thankfully, someone did. In the space of one play, Boykin elevated himself from a marginal contributor to the guy everyone couldn’t stop talking about (which he validated with a dominant senior season and an NFL draft selection) and turned a season that at 9-4 would have felt like a massive letdown into a 10-3 building block.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this sappy trip down memory lane (and that it makes up for my depressing last one). Let us know which of these games was your favorite!
Which was your favorite feel-good game?
This poll is closed
2011 Michigan State
2013 Michigan State
2017 Michigan State