As I conclude this list, I realize that it is a miracle that any Irish fan is still standing. I would put this list up against any other team’s anguish of the last 17 years.
2011: South Florida 23, #16 Notre Dame 20
This is another game that some Irish supporters would have at No. 1. The Bulls finished the season at 5-7, so they were not a great team, but it was more the circumstances surrounding the game that made it a brutal loss and one of the most infamous (and longest) games, for all the wrong reasons, ever played at Notre Dame Stadium.
After finishing the 2010 season strongly with four straight wins, Notre Dame came into the 2011 season with high hopes and they wasted little time getting to work.
With temperatures approaching triple digits at game time, the Irish offense started out as hot as the weather. ND moved the ball down the field with ease on its first possession – the Irish seemed to be living up to the preseason hype right off the bat.
After driving to the goal line, the Irish were faced with a 3rd & Goal from the one. Quarterback Dayne Crist handed the ball off the Jonas Gray and Gray was stopped short of the touchdown, but before his knee hit the ground, Gray was stripped and a USF DB returned the ball 99 yards for a touchdown.
I still remember tangible shock that reverberated throughout the stadium.
From that point, the Irish lost all belief. There were seemingly too many mistakes and turnovers to count – everything that could go wrong did go wrong. USF was leading by simply taking advantage of Notre Dame’s boneheaded errors.
The game was suspended at halftime giving the Irish time to gather themselves and refocus and although ND mounted a comeback behind Tommy Rees, they would come up short.
This game would be remembered for the weather delays and a purple-faced Brian Kelly on the sidelines – not what the Irish had in mind as they kicked off year two of the Brian Kelly regime.
2014: #2 Florida State 31, #5 Notre Dame 27
After starting out the 2014 season 6-0, the Irish faced there biggest test to date as they traveled to Florida State to take on the defending National Champions and reigning Heisman-winner Jameis Winston.
This game also marked just the second time the Irish had played at Florida State with ND downing the Seminoles 34-24 in 2002.
The Irish struck first, but this game would go back-and-forth throughout the 60 minutes of action. Despite the loss, this was the best ND had played in a hostile road environment since their 2012 win at Oklahoma.
The Irish did not trail until FSU scored a touchdown to take a 31-27 lead with 7:39 remaining in the game.
After trading punts, ND would get the ball back with one final attempt to win the game. The Seminoles initially stifled the Irish, forcing ND into a 4th & 18 that was converted on a pass from Everett Golson to Corey Robinson – a play that would have gone into Notre Dame lore if the Irish managed to win the game.
From that point, everyone knows what happened. ND drove the ball inside the FSU five-yard line and scored what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown on a pass to Corey Robinson only to see the officials throw a flag and call offensive pass interference on C.J. Prosise.
The play was a rub route, which is run by every team in short yardage situations by the goal line and this instance was the only time I have ever seen it called. Clemson ran the exact same play to win the National Championship this year.
Sidenote, the official who threw the flag is the same official who called the bogus targeting penalty against Stephon Tuitt in Notre Dame’s game against Pitt a year earlier.
The Irish would go onto lose the game and mostly fell apart for the rest of the season. If the ref doesn’t throw the flag, does ND’s fortunes change for the rest of the season? Most likely.
2015: #13 Stanford 38, #4 Notre Dame 36
In a game that proved the Irish simply did not have a championship defense, the Cardinal beat the Irish on a last-second field goal to thwart Notre Dame’s championship hopes.
Both teams had suspect defenses, but had quality quarterback play which led to a bit of a track meet.
Although he had a costly fumble before halftime, DeShone Kizer was outstanding in the biggest game of his career. The redshirt freshman threw for 234 yards and one touchdown and added 128 yards and a TD on the ground.
The Irish drove up-and-down the field on Stanford, but the Cardinal would tighten up in the red zone and forced ND into three field goal attempts all under 30 yards. ND gave up a drive to Stanford in the last minute, but the game was lost by not converting those red zone opportunities.
Defensively, the Irish were not great, but they managed to keep Christian McCafrey in-check as they held the explosive back to under 100 yards despite Gus Johnson obnoxiously singing his praises throughout the broadcast.
The game came down to the final four minutes of the game.
Kizer led the Irish down the field while overcoming a numerous third and fourth down situations. He capped off the drive with a bootleg touchdown to give the Irish a one-point lead with :30 remaining.
On that play, Kizer appeared to have his knee down before the ball crossed the goal line, which would have given the Irish the ability to run off more clock and not allow the Cardinal to answer.
Instead, aided by a 15-yard face mask penalty, Stanford drove the ball into the Irish territory where they converted a 45-yard field goal as time expired to extinguish Notre Dame’s playoff hopes.
2011: Michigan 35, #24 Notre Dame 31
This is the ultimate example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and this loss was particularly brutal because it came just one week after the South Florida debacle.
The Irish outplayed Michigan throughout the game and led 14-0 early and extended their lead to 24-7 in the fourth quarter.
The Wolverines had no answer for Michael Floyd on the outside and Cierre Wood was getting whatever he wanted on the ground. The only thing keeping Michigan remotely in the game was ND”s turnovers. The Irish would finish with five total turnovers including the ball in inexplicably falling out of Tommy Rees’ hands while the Irish were in Wolverine territory.
This game is often replayed on the Big Ten Network, because quite frankly Michigan hasn’t had many big wins in the ensuing years, and every time I rewatch, I simply cannot believe series of events that led to a Notre Dame defeat.
Everyone remembers the defensive breakdowns late in the fourth quarter, but the game should not have been remotely close.
The Irish gave up 21 unanswered points to Michigan in the fourth quarter, but seemed to escape as Tommy Rees it Theo Reddick over the middle for a 30-yard touchdown with :30 remaining.
The Denard Robinson 16-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with :02 remaining to give UM the lead is the play that goes down in history, but the biggest defensive breakdown was allowing Michigan to complete a 65-yard pass when they had 2nd & 10 on their own 20-yard line with :23 left.
Some of the Notre Dame-Michigan matchups from 2005-2014 were very entertaining. Part of that reason was that rarely did either team have a strong defense and the game took place early in the year before anyone realized that both teams were usually pretty mediocre.
2005: #1 USC 34, #9 Notre Dame 31
This is it. This is the king of all heartbreaks.
I don’t need to go through every detail because for better or worse every Irish fan has this game committed to memory.
That being said, this was the biggest Notre Dame game in the last 24 years (dating back to Florida State 1993). Although Weis turned out to be a bust, you cannot underestimate the energy, attitude, and optimist he brought to the program in his first season.
After an overtime loss to Michigan State at home, the Irish entered the matchup with USC 4-1 and No. 9 in the nation. They also came into this game with a confidence and swagger not seen in South Bend since the Lou Holtz tenure.
USC was as talented as ever, but the Irish were ready to exact some revenge for the abuse they had received from the Trojans since 2002.
As the game unfolded, you could feel the energy of the stadium through the television screen.
Sidenote, people often complain about the lack of a raucous atmosphere at Notre Dame Stadium, and I will concede that it is problem, but I also believe that, with the exception of two Stanford games, there have been very few marquee games at Notre Dame in the last decade and the games like 2005 vs. USC is where those epic atmospheres manifest themselves.
Both teams went back and forth in the first half before Tom Zbikowski returned a punt for a touchdown late in the first half to give the Irish a 21-14 edge going into halftime.
The Trojans tied the game in the third on a 45-yard touchdown run from Reggie Bush before ND retook the lead on a 32-yard field goal from D.J. Fitzpatrick early in the fourth quarter.
After the Irish defense forced USC to punt, Notre Dame had a golden opportunity to take control of the game. Notre Dame had the ball 1st & 10 at the USC 20 after converting a long third down on a screen to Darius Walker. The Irish were owning the time of possession, grinding out first downs, and keeping the explosive USC offense of the bench.
After two short runs, the Irish faced a 3rd & 7. Brady Quinn stepped up in the pocket, but overthrew a wide open Asaph Schwapp in the flat. Would have Schwapp been able to get to the sticks if he caught the ball? Hard to say, but it would have been close and knowing Weis, he would have gone for it in any short fourth down situation.
Instead, D.J. Fitzpatrick pushed the 34-yard field goal attempt well right and the confidence that emanated from the crowd just moments before was replaced by an uneasy mojo.
The Trojans took over and drove down the field to take the lead on a nine-yard Reggie Bush touchdown run. Quinn answered by putting together his own drive with clutch play after to clutch play culminating in a five-yard touchdown run to give Notre Dame a 31-28 lead.
This drive was very similar to Kizer’s drive against Stanford and in both instances legendary drives turn into afterthoughts and both QBs seemed to be short of the endzone on their touchdown run giving their opponents extra seconds that would turn out to be invaluable.
Everyone knows the rest of the story as USC gets the ball back and although the Irish force the Trojans into a 4th & 9 deep in their own territory, Matt Leinart found Dwayne Jarrett with a perfect pass as he streaking down the sideline. Jarrett was finally caught by Amrose Wooden at the ND 11 yard-line.
If you are a masochist and want to rewatch this play, Leinart’s pass simply defies the laws of physics in avoiding Wooden’s hand.
Before this fourth down play, Kirk Herbstreit tells a story that a Notre Dame student came up to him and said “Wow! I can’t believe they did it!” I’m not putting this loss entirely on that guy, but he does not go without blame.
The Bush push play may be the most debated play of this century in college football, but I have one qualm about the play before. Matt Leinart scrambles left and fumbles the ball out of bounds and the clock runs out. Famously, chaos ensues and Notre Dame wins the game briefly.
This was in a time in college football where replays were not universal and Pete Carroll, being the cheating snake that he is, elected to not have replay for this game. So instead of consulting the booth, the officials talked among themselves to organize the situation.
Of course, they make the right call in putting more time on the clock, but the mark of the ball is preposterous. The officials putt the ball at the one-inch yard-line when Leinart clearly fumbled the ball backwards out of bounds. If you look at the replay, the ball goes out of bounds at the two-yard line, if not further back.
So instead of a simple quarterback sneak with :07 remaining from right on the goal line, the Trojans would have been at the two and probably would have elected for a field goal to force overtime.
As you can tell, I am clearly over this game.
People forget this game was forfeited by USC because of the Reggie Bush scandal – shocking I know.
Cutting Room Floor 2.0
As I look back on the list, a few games I could’ve included were 2015 against Clemson and then either Louisville or Northwestern from 2014. I probably should have included Clemson from 2015. The Irish were lucky to still be in the game when they mounted their comeback and he amount of turnovers and dropped balls was staggering.
I clump together the Louisville and Northwestern losses in the same way that I put the 2008 Syracuse defeat alongside the 2009 UConn loss.
Both losses were hard to explain and alluded to greater problems within the program. The Irish finished the 2014 campaign mired in an inescapable funk and the losses to Wildcats and Cardinals exemplified ND’s dysfunction (especially Kelly’s mathematical gaffe vs. Northwestern).
By this time of the year, neither one of those games had the national implications of some of the games listed above, but the Northwestern loss was particularly hard to swallow because if Cam McDaniel doesn’t fumble the ball in the final minute, the Irish could have easily run out the clock.
The Louisville defeat fell nearly all on the special teams and Kyle Brindza’s missed chip shot field goal to force overtime (the miss was partly caused by a faulty hold from Malike Zaire) put the closing touches on what was a nightmarish second half of 2014.
Some of these games were brutal to revisit, but you gotta confront your demons to overcome them, right?
If you guys have any disagreements with any of the games listed above, feel free to tweet at us (@otterroom) to make your case.
As we get closer to the kickoff of regular season, we will commence are best moments of Notre Dame Football this century in the coming days and hopefully this season won’t have any games that will end up on this list in the future.