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Things People Forget About Notre Dame Football: Moments of Villainy

Making the heel turn

NCAA Football - Penn State vs Notre Dame - September 9, 2006 Photo by Matthew Mitchell/WireImage

Ladies and gentlemen: your last set of Things People Forget of the offseason is here. It’s been an honor supplying you with random tidbits of Notre Dame Fighting Irish history for the past few months, but after this week a greater calling awaits.

If there is a common wish that all of us share here at OFD, not only for the 2023 season but for Notre Dame in the long term, it is for the program to step into its role as a villain in the college football landscape. Not a truly heinous villain, mind you, but a WWE/pulp-style villain others respect as well as fear - a villain they love to hate.

An example of the villainy we are looking for here: strong-arming the BYU Cougars into transforming last year’s matchup from a road game in Provo, which the Cougars had long coveted and secured in the initial contract, into a de facto Irish home game in Las Vegas. A classic bad guy power move, perfectly summarized by one of cinema’s greatest villains:

In that frame of mind and with the goal of hopefully setting the tone for the upcoming season, let’s look at some other less-remembered moments of villainy from recent Irish history. People forget...

Fake-punting Joe Pa

Notre Dame’s 2006 clash with the Penn State Nittany Lions was billed as a tough ranked-on-ranked test, one that could potentially expose the #4 Irish - who had already looked less than stellar in their opener. That exposure would come, but it had to wait another week because the Irish thoroughly dominated Joe Paterno-led PSU in a 41-17 rout. The villain moment here happened late in the third quarter, with the Irish already holding a 27-3 lead. On fourth down with the ball around midfield and the game nearly in hand, surely you simply punt and pin your opponent’s incompetent offense deep, right? Not if you have a decided schematic advantage on your side.

Showing absolutely no deference for the then-revered Joe Pa, Charlie Weis instead rubbed salt in the wound by running a fake punt, which Travis Thomas carried for 44 yards to set up another Irish touchdown. And it wasn’t over then: the Irish would go for it on fourth down again on their next drive, which ended in a Brady Quinn touchdown pass. Good night, with a glass of warm milk.

A few years after this game took place, Paterno himself was revealed to have facilitated a far more serious and sinister form of villainy than anything that could take place on a football field, which makes this sweeter to look back on in retrospect. Some of the best villains are the ones who also take less-respectable villains down a peg, and though he didn’t know it at the time, Charlie delivered one such moment here.

Notre Dame running backs vs. Lane Stadium

One upside of Notre Dame’s ACC-affiliated era has been getting the Irish to visit Lane Stadium and the Virginia Tech Hokies, a genuinely cool venue and team they had never seen prior. Each time one of these games has happened the visit has been hyped up as especially dangerous due to the hostile crowd in Blacksburg, with broadcasters noting their impressive devotion and game attitude toward matchups with highly-ranked teams. And each team, those hopeful and frenzied fans received a heartbreaking hush from a delightfully smirking, trash-talking Irish running back.

First up, Dexter Williams silencing the crowd with a 97-yard touchdown in 2018:

Kyren Williams followed when the Irish visited in 2021, twice hushing the crowd before getting some parting shots on his way out after a W (some fans might not enjoy the prominence here of Brian Kelly, but the ICON video below was the only one that showed how much fun Williams had running all over Blacksburg).

When Irish backs go marching by Blacksburg, they leave tears in their wake. You love to see it.

Lou Holtz scored 120 points in 2 games against the corpse of the SMU Mustangs

Contrary to the amusing image cultivated in his retirement, Lou Holtz ran an Irish program with some serious edge and there are plenty of aspirationally villainous moments you can point to in his coaching tenure. My favorite - which is also lesser-known - involves my graduate alma mater, SMU.

The Irish played SMU in 1986 and 1989, the years immediately before and after the NCAA’s imposition of the “death penalty” that shut the program down entirely in 1987 and 1988. The 1986 Mustangs, already severely sanctioned by the NCAA and sensing their impending doom, were blown out 61-29 by an Irish team that would go 5-6. In 1989, the no. 1 Irish defeated the Mustangs 59-6 in a game where Holtz actually instructed the Irish to commit several intentional delay of game penalties to slow down their drives and keep things from getting worse.

Why is this a moment of villainy, you might ask? See the description from the AP’s Mike Drago of what the SMU players thought heading out of the tunnel in ‘89:

DALLAS - It was Nov. 11, 1989, and the Southern Methodist players were scared, almost terrified that the time had come to find out the real meaning of the NCAA’s “death penalty.”

There they were, a ragtag bunch of freshman walk-ons preparing to play No. 1 Notre Dame at South Bend, Ind. The scrawny group was the best the Mustangs could muster in their first year back after the program was effectively suspended for two years by the NCAA in the toughest penalty it ever inflicted.

“The challenge,” recalled SMU Coach Tom Rossley, who was Forrest Gregg’s assistant back then, “was to get them to come out of the dressing room.”

The Mustangs made it to the field, and Irish Coach Lou Holtz had his team go easy on them. Notre Dame won by only 53 points, 59-6.

In these wilderness years for the SMU program the Irish haunted them as an angel of death. You know you are truly feared when it is considered mercy that you only score 59 points. Cold-blooded, impersonal, dominating. Just impeccable villainy from Lou at the height of his powers.

This should be the aspiration of Marcus Freeman and co. in 2023: be the team that SMU players and fans dreaded in 1989.