Sept. 16, 2015
From the record 11 consensus national championships, to the NCAA-best eight wins versus teams ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Poll, to the highest all-time winning percentage in the history of Division I football, the University of Notre Dame is unmatched when it comes to triumph and tradition.
In fact, the Irish program has been so successful and dominant through much of its history, listing games where the Mighty Irish were victims of an upset loss far outnumber the games that Notre Dame pulled an upset win, though there are some notable ones in program history.
Legendary Irish coaches such as Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz – each of whom coached 11 years here and only suffered one losing season in their 33 total years pacing the Notre Dame sideline – rarely even faced an opportunity for an upset win because their teams were always highly ranked and typically prohibitive favorites.
Most, but not all, of the greatest Irish upset wins occurred at an unexpected moment of a season and would go on to serve as a benchmark moment in the program illustrious history.
Following is our countdown of the 10 greatest upset wins by Notre Dame in program history.
10) 1963 (South Bend, Indiana): Notre Dame 17, #7 USC 14
During a difficult era that saw Notre Dame go five straight seasons (1959-63) without a winning record, interim head coach Hugh Devore – who filled a one-year gap between Joe Kuharich’s last season in 1962 and Parseghian’s first campaign in 1964 – started the 1963 campaign with consecutive losses to Wisconsin and Purdue before the Trojans came to town.
USC beat Notre Dame 25-0 the previous season, and with the Irish struggling through their toughest stretch in program history, nothing suggested the reigning national champion and preseason No. 1 team was ripe for an upset.
But Ken Ivan’s 36-yard field goal with 6:28 remaining in the game broke a 14-14 tie and lifted Notre Dame to an improbable win. Following is Chicago Tribune writer David Condon’s account of the game. “Notre Dame’s diamond jubilee football season [its 75th] produced a gem as brilliant as one of Erin’s emeralds on this great day for the Irish. It was a football victory they still may be talking about after the Irish have completed another 75 years of great gridiron history.”
9) 2004 (Knoxville, Tennessee): Notre Dame 17, #9 Tennessee 13
Coming off a heartbreaking 24-23 home loss to Boston College and heading deep into enemy territory, Notre Dame entered this game 5-3 and without much of a chance against a team it had lost four out of five to, including three straight.
But Notre Dame linebacker Brandon Hoyte’s blitzing sack knocked Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge out of the game, and essentially rendered the Volunteers offense useless in the second half, helping the Irish to a surprising comeback win.
“You don’t just hit people to tackle them,” Hoyte said after the game, “you tackle them so they won’t get back up.”
Hoyte’s hit and an Irish defensive score were the two biggest plays of the game. Notre Dame linebacker Mike Goolsby’s 26-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter gave the Irish a 14-10 lead they would never relinquish.
Easily the high point of the 2004 season, the Tennessee game marked the last victory for Tyrone Willingham during his three years as head coach at Notre Dame.
8) 2014 (Nashville, Tennessee): Notre Dame 31, #22 LSU 28
Injuries, defensive struggles and offensive turnovers transformed a promising start to the 2014 season into a disappointing finish. Notre Dame started 6-0 before losing five of its last six regular-season games, setting up a date in the Music City Bowl against one of the best defensive teams in the country.
The Tigers gave up only 17.5 points a game during the regular season and were installed as an 8.5-point favorite. The Irish players and coaches didn’t get the memo.
Notre Dame controlled tempo, time of possession, and the line of scrimmage, racking up 263 rushing yards on 51 carries in the memorable Irish win. A classic game that featured five ties, Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza broke the fifth and final one with a 32-yard field goal as time expired.
By holding a 37:00 to 23:00 advantage in time of possession, Notre Dame essentially beat LSU at its own power game.
“We were disappointed in the way we played, obviously, at the end of the year,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “And our guys wanted the opportunity to finish the season the right way.”
They clearly did.
7) 1971 (Dallas, Texas): #6 Notre Dame 24, #1 Texas 11
Coming off a disappointing loss at USC in the regular-season finale that ruined an unblemished record for Notre Dame and spoiled any realistic hopes of winning a national championship, the Irish entered hostile territory to play in the Cotton Bowl against the mighty Texas Longhorns.
With a 9-1 record, Parseghian’s Irish were no slouch, but still a prohibitive underdog against the reigning national champions and an opponent that was riding a 30-game winning streak.
Seeking payback after a heartbreaking 21-17 loss to the Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl a year earlier, Notre Dame recovered five of nine Texas fumbles and ended the top-ranked Longhorns winning streak in a thorough 13-point victory.
In what remains the most hyped bowl rematch in college football history, all of the scoring in the game came in the first half. All-American quarterback Joe Theismann accounted for the first 18 of the 24 total points as Notre Dame scored all three of its touchdowns in a 10-minute span.
But the key to this game wasn’t the Notre Dame offense, it was the work of the Irish “mirror” defense that flustered the Texas tailbacks and forced the Longhorns wishbone offense into uncertainty and a school-record number of fumbles.
6) 1984 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana): Notre Dame 30, #6 LSU 22
After consecutive losses to Miami(Fla.), Air Force and South Carolina – all at home – Notre Dame (3-4) was reeling when it walked into a rowdy setting at Death Valley to play the high-flying and unbeaten Tigers (5-0-1). “Tiger Bait, Tiger Bait” was the taunting chant spewing from a tunnel of LSU fans that lined the route from the Irish team bus to the locker room. No chance, right?
In a game nationally televised by ABC, Notre Dame coach Gerry Faust and his troops pulled an unlikely upset that sparked a four-game winning streak to finish the regular season. After trailing LSU 7-0 early in the game, Notre Dame answered with a 20-0 scoring run on two rushing touchdowns from Irish tailback Allen Pinkett and two field goals from placekicker John Carney.
A three-yard touchdown run from Mark Brooks and another Carney field goal gave Notre Dame a 30-14 lead that was never seriously threatened.
Pinkett finished the game with 162 rushing yards and one of his fondest memories as an Irish player.
“You could just feel the fervor in our locker room,” Pinkett recalled. “And subsequently, we came out and we put it on LSU. They’re undefeated, they had high expectations, but they ran into a juggernaut that was called the Fighting Irish.”
5) 1909 (Ann Arbor, Michigan): Notre Dame 11, Michigan 3
In a game that illustrates better than any the bitter feelings and rivalry roots between the two winningest programs in college football history, Notre Dame did the unthinkable when Frank “Shorty” Longman – a former Michigan player – coached the Irish to a historical 11-3 road upset over coach Fielding Yost’s unbeatable Wolverines.
The game was the ninth meeting between the two schools, with Michigan shutting out Notre Dame five times and winning each of the first eight games by a combined score of 121-16.
Yost was so furious about losing to Notre Dame, he accused the Irish of using ineligible players, called the game “a scrimmage” and removed Notre Dame from Michigan’s schedule before the 1910 game, a grudge that didn’t end until the border-war series resumed in 1942.
The unlikely upset by little brother over big brother – a victory that propelled the Irish to a 7-0-1 season and earned them the self-appointed title of “Western Champions” – became the advent of a new nickname.
E.A. Batchelor, a sports writer for the Detroit Free Press, submitted a game story after this Notre Dame upset with the headline, “Shorty’ Longman’s Fighting Irishmen Humble the Wolverines to Tune of 11 to 3.”
The nickname stuck.
4) 1913 (West Point, New York): Notre Dame 35, Army 13
In the first of 50 meetings between these two proud programs, Notre Dame wasn’t given much of a chance against the unbeaten Cadets, a program considered the powerhouse of “The East” during this era.
Notre Dame had to find a way to overcome its tremendous size disadvantage and it did so by ambushing Army with an aerial attack the Cadets never saw coming.
Irish quarterback Charles (Gus) Dorais efficiently distributed his passes to receivers Knute Rockne, Joe Pliska and Charles (Sam) Finegan, never targeting the same receiver with consecutive passes, while completing 13 of 17 for 243 yards and three touchdowns.
Notre Dame hit Army with more points in this one game than the Cadets other eight opponents combined to score that entire season. Harry Cross of the New York Times described the upset and Notre Dame’s precise use of the forward pass this way.
“The Army players were hopelessly confused and chagrined before Notre Dame’s great playing. Their old-fashioned, close line-smashing play was no match for the spectacular highly-perfected attack of the Indiana collegians.”
The win helped Notre Dame to a perfect 7-0 record under first-year head coach Jesse Harper and saddled Army with its only defeat of the season.
3) 1982 (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania): Notre Dame 31, #1 Pittsburgh 16
With his unranked Irish listed as a 10-point underdog against the top-ranked Panthers, Faust tried to motivate his team by distributing a sheet to his players before the game of the greatest Notre Dame upset wins in program history.
Led by senior quarterback Dan Marino, Pitt was 7-0 and coming off three consecutive 11-1 campaigns. Meanwhile, Notre Dame was struggling offensively, averaging only 17 points in its five previous contests.
But on the nifty running of Pinkett, a little offensive trickery, and a coaching ploy from Faust, the Irish pulled an impressive come-from-behind upset, easily the greatest win of the five-year Faust era.
Trailing 13-10 after three quarters, Notre Dame erupted for three fourth-quarter touchdowns: a 54-yard flea-flicker from quarterback Blair Kiel to Joe Howard, an electrifying 76-yard run by Pinkett on a draw play, and a seven-yard scoring jaunt again from Pinkett.
Defensively, the bend-but-don’t-break Irish gave up 438 total yards to Pitt, but forced two key fumbles, gave up just one touchdown, and held Marino without a TD pass for the first time in 19 games.
2) 1933 (New York City, New York): Notre Dame 13, Army 12
With only two wins in its eight games, Notre Dame was given no chance at Yankee Stadium against 9-0 Army in the last game of the season for the Irish.
Notre Dame had very little to play for other than pride and a chance to keep control of a rivalry and series they had won four out of five games in, while Army was the frontrunner for a spot in the prestigious Rose Bowl and in contention to be voted as the best team in the country.
First-year Cadets coach Garrison “Gar” Davidson was so amped for this chance to beat Notre Dame and leave the Big Apple with his ticket punched to Pasadena, he said before kickoff, “I’d rather win this game than be Secretary of War!”
Unbeaten and unfazed, the Cadets held a 12-0 lead over the Irish and looked in control with only five minutes left in the game. But a blocked punt by Notre Dame’s Moose Krause set up the first Irish touchdown before Wayne Milner blocked another Army punt with one minute remaining in the game, then recovered it in the end zone to secure Notre Dame an improbable win and a happy ending to an otherwise miserable year.
The 3-5-1 final record in 1933 marked the first time Notre Dame suffered a losing season since it went 1-2 in 1888.
1) 1957 (Norman, Oklahoma): Notre Dame 7, #2 Oklahoma 0
Not only is this considered the greatest upset in Notre Dame lore, most historians believe it’s the greatest upset in college football history.
Oklahoma was coming off back-to-back national titles, playing at home, and riding a 47-game winning streak that stretched back four years to when the Irish beat the Sooners in the 1953 season opener. Notre Dame went into the game as a 19-point underdog. It left as an impossible shutout winner.
The Sooners reached the Notre Dame 13-yard line on their first possession, but the stingy Irish defense stalled the drive. It was the closest Oklahoma would come to scoring all day.
With the game still scoreless and into the fourth quarter, Irish quarterback Bob Williams methodically drove Notre Dame to the Oklahoma three-yard line where his Irish faced a fourth-down play.
Instead of attempting a field goal, Irish head coach Terry Brennan went for it and called a pitch play to tailback Dick Lynch, who went untouched around right end for a touchdown to cap an epic 20-play, 80-yard drive with 3:50 remaining.
The Sooners drove to the Notre Dame 36 with their ensuing possession before an interception in the end zone by Williams, a two-way player, snapped what remains the longest winning streak in college football history and a string of 123 consecutive games in which Oklahoma had avoided a shutout.
“Oklahoma was a fine team and Bud Wilkinson was a fine coach,” Brennan said in retrospect of the Sooners’ legendary streak and head coach. “But he was predictable. They didn’t use anything we weren’t expecting.”
Decades of Notre Dame football have been complete with generations of amazing memories and countless great victories, but when it comes to an epic Irish upset, none beats this Sooner Shocker.