After getting through the tough part of counting down the most heartbreaking and agonizing moments as a Notre Dame fan, we now turn our attention to the happier side of things as we are just three days from kicking off the 2017 season.
Again, this list is comprised of games since 2000 and I’m not going to lie to you, it was a lot easier to compile a list of heartbreaks.
2010: Notre Dame 20, USC 16
This is far from the greatest games in this storied series, but one can’t quantify the weight of the monkey on Notre Dame’s back at this time.
The Irish hadn’t beaten USC since 2001 and with the exception of the 2005 and 2009 matchups, most of USC’s wins were blowouts. The Irish and Trojans were mediocre football teams for much of 2010, but Notre Dame was starting to play their best football as the season drew to a close.
Both teams struggled to gain traction offensively in the rainy conditions, but the Irish were able to build a 13-3 lead in the first half. The Trojans answered in the second half and eventually took a 16-13 lead with under seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Irish took over at their own 23 as the steadiest rain began to fall at The Coliseum. However, Notre Dame was undaunted and behind a steady dose of running back Robert Hughes, the Irish drove the ball down the field in seven plays to take a 20-16 lead on a Hughes touchdown run.
This drive was one of the rare times where Hughes lived up to his billing has a punishing elite running back.
With just over two minutes remaining, USC took over and managed to drive the ball into Notre Dame territory, but an ill-advised pass from Mitch Mustain (Yes, former No. 1 recruit Mitch Mustain), fell in Harrison Smith’s arms and the Irish clinched the win.
It was unfathomable at the beginning of the 2010 season that freshman Tommy Rees would help the Irish break their eight-game losing streak against the Trojans, but despite his physical limitations, this was the first example of Rees’ incredible poise that he demonstrated throughout his Notre Dame career.
Again, there have been better games played between these two stories programs, but USC tortured me for most of my childhood and seeing the Irish pull it out in Los Angeles was so gratifying.
Sidenote, this win was incredibly important to Notre Dame’s bowl hopes. Because of contractual obligations, the Irish could have easily found themselves in the Motor City Bowl against a MAC team, but this win allowed them to clinch a spot in the Sun Bowl where the would dominate Miami.
2004: Notre Dame 17, #9 Tennessee, 13
The 2004 season was up-and-down for the Irish and nothing exemplified that more than their two-game stretch midway through the season.
In the game prior to their Tennessee matchup, the Irish coughed up a 20-7 halftime lead to an inferior Boston College squad at home. The Irish would then bounce back to defeat No. 9 Tennessee in Knoxville.
This game was far from pretty, but the young Notre Dame offense held their own in the first half, while the Irish kept Rick Clausen and the Volunteer offense in-check.
The critical play of the game came in the third quarter when the Irish defense put pressure on Clausen, forcing him to throw an interception to Mike Goolsby who returned it for a touchdown.
Both teams traded field goals, but the Irish were able to hang on and notch the win – the final win of the Ty Willingham era.
Tennessee outgained the Irish 327-216 and the Volunteer defense kept sophomore Brady Quinn at bay, but the Irish showed a toughness and grit that wasn’t always present in the 2000s, especially against a top-10 team in a raucous environment.
2014 Music City Bowl: Notre Dame 31, #22 LSU 28
After the Irish collapsed in the latter half of the 2014 schedule, very few Notre Dame fans were optimistic leading up to the matchup with LSU.
Prior to the game, Brian Kelly announced that after Everett Golson, who went from Heisman contender to liability during the second half of the season, would be benched in favor of Malik Zaire, who would be making his first career start.
Golson and Zaire would both see time behind center, but it was clear that Golson’s had lost the confidence of the coaching staff.
A first-time starter against and SEC defense did not bode well, but Zaire led the Irish to a touchdown on the first drive of the game.
Both teams went back and forth behind their strong running games, but the difference in the game was LSU’s limited passing game. The Irish were susceptible in the secondary, but the Tigers refused to test them consistently.
Was that because the coaching staff didn’t trust quarterback Anthony Jennings, was it a failure in scheme, or was it too much trust in the running game? Who knows, but the Tigers inability to threaten down field kept the Irish in the game.
The game also served as a coming out party for Leonard Fournette. The freshman had a solid season, but he had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and an 89-yard rush from scrimmage for another TD against the Irish. The freshman was a man amongst boys vs. most of the Notre Dame defenders.
Despite Fournette dominating on the ground, the Irish found themselves down just seven in the middle of the third quarter when C.J. Prosise took a reverse 50-yards for the game-tying touchdown.
From that point, both teams traded blows, but neither was able to score for most of the fourth quarter until the Irish got the ball with just a few minutes remaining. Kelly put Golson in at QB and he led the Irish down the field highlighted by a few clutch third down conversions.
Golson put the Irish in position for a game-winning 32-yard field goal, but with the field goal problems the Irish experienced in 2014, it was far from a gimmie.
Zaire was able to get the hold down and Brindza was able to execute the kick to give the Irish the victory.
The end of 2014 was such a nightmare for the Irish and their performance in this bowl game was a testament to Kelly’s ability to get his team focused. This team could have easily not shown up, but they delivered one of their best performances of the season and provided themselves with a springboard heading into 2015.
Sidenote, Nashville should 100% be in the plans as a future Shamrock Series site.
2003: #19 Notre Dame 29, Washington State 26 (OT)
Not many Notre Dame fans would have this game on the list, but it holds a special place in my heart as it was my first game at Notre Dame.
Entering the 2003 season, there was a feeling of optimism surrounding the program that hadn’t been present since the Lou Holtz era.
The Irish went 9-3 in Willingham’s first season in 2002 and with a strong returning corps of players, ND seemed to be on the rise. However, that optimism did not translate to the field as the Irish fell behind 19-0 to the Cougars in the first half.
Notre Dame tallied a field goal before the first half and hit their stride in the second. Carlyle Holiday finally found success through the passing game and Julius Jones was unstoppable on the ground and the Irish came back to take a 23-19 lead.
Notre Dame eventually extended its lead to 26-19 before Washington State forced overtime with a 34-yard touchdown pass with :53 remaining.
In the first overtime period, Nick Setta drilled a 40-yard field goal and after the Irish defense stifled the Cougs’ offense, Wazzu missed their game-tying field goal to give Notre Dame the win.
Little did Irish fans know at that time, but that would turn out to be the peak of the Willingham era. The Irish would be blown out the following week against Michigan and eventually finish the season at 5-7.
Sidenote, Holiday was briefly injured in the second half and Brady Quinn came in to replace him marking Quinn’s first snaps as a Notre Dame QB.
2015: #9 Notre Dame 24, #21 Temple, 20
When Notre Dame first announced a series with Temple, few thought it would be a top-25 matchup, let alone the site for College Gameday, but that is exactly what happened in 2015.
The game was actually moved from 2014 due to ND’s ACC obligations and Arizona State’s refusal to change their schedule. The move was for the betterment of the game as it turned out to be a marquee matchup with the national spotlight as well as the biggest contest in Temple program history.
Temple was 7-0 and the game represented the first time Temple hosted a ranked opponent while the Owls were also ranked. Although Temple was limited offensively, the Owls boasted one of the best defenses in the country and they did their best to corral Notre Dame’s high-powered offense.
The first half of the game was characterized by missed opportunities for the Irish. Notre Dame had a few chances to establish a workable lead, but was undone by stalled drives in Temple territory and two costly red zone interceptions.
The Owls were able to hang around long enough to believe they could win the game.
Despite Notre Dame outgainging Temple 467-295, the opportunistic Temple’s defense did just enough to keep the Irish out of the endzone and the Owls took a 20-17 lead on a 36-yard field goal with 4:45 left.
DeShone Kizer then led the Irish down the field for the second game-winning touchdown drive of his young career. The march was capped by a 17-yard touchdown pass to Philadelphia-native Will Fuller to give the Irish a 24-20 lead with 2:09 remaining.
Temple would get the ball back with one final chance to win the game, but just as he did against USC, cornerback, and fellow Sorin Man, Keivarae Russell made a diving interception to halt the threat and end the game.
Temple played with the belief and emotion of a team that was playing in the biggest game in their school’s history. To indicate how much the Owls left on the field against the Irish, Temple would give up 40 points to a one-win SMU team the following week.
Stay tuned to The Otter Room Thursday for part two of our countdown. As always, if you have any disagreements or commentary, reach out to us on Twitter (@otterroom).