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Championship Road Runs Through South Bend

Oct. 21, 2017

By John Heisler

Winning a college football national championship in many a season has meant winning a game in Notre Dame Stadium-whether that team has been the Fighting Irish or someone else.

On eight occasions since the opening of Notre Dame Stadium in 1930, the Irish have finished atop the Associated Press’ final poll and claimed a consensus national crown. And eight other AP champions had an assignment in South Bend against Notre Dame in the same year they won the title.

Those eight Notre Dame championships teams naturally enjoyed great success at home. In fact, they were perfect at 37-0 on a combined basis.

Here’s a look at how each of those teams did at Notre Dame Stadium:

Season Home Record Wins over Ranked Opponents
1943 3-0
1946 4-0 #16 USC (26-6)
1947 4-0 #9 Army (27-7)
1949 4-0 #4 Tulane (46-7) and #17 USC (32-0)
1966 5-0 #24 Purdue (26-14)
1973 5-0 #6 USC (23-14)
1977 5-0 #5 USC (49-19)
1988 7-0 #9 Michigan (19-17) and #1 Miami (31-30)
37-0 9-0

Defense proved a hallmark of those championship Notre Dame teams. In those 37 games at Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish allowed an average of only 7.4 points. The first five title teams (1943, 1946, 1947, 1949 and 1966) together permitted only 4.25 points per opponent in their combined 20 home dates.

Twelve of the 37 victories came via the shutout route and 23 involved the opponent scoring seven points or less.

The average score of those nine games against rated teams? A 31.0-12.7 Notre Dame triumph. Six of those nine victories came over top-10 teams, three versus squads rated in the top five.

Here’s a more detailed look at the biggest of those victories that played out at Notre Dame Stadium:

–1946: #2 Notre Dame 26, #16 USC 6

With Notre Dame head coach Frank Leahy confined to his home due to complications from the flu, line coach Moose Krause led the Irish. Halfback Coy McGee ran 77 yards for the first Irish points, then quarterback George Ratterman connected with freshman tight end Leon Hart for a second score. After a Trojan touchdown early in the second half, Floyd Simmons ran 49 yards to the USC 11 and McGee scored a few plays later. A 35-yard Notre Dame punt return by Pete Ashbaugh to the Trojan 25 set up the final Irish points. Gerry Cowhig notched the touchdown on his first carry of the contest.

–1947: #1 Notre Dame 27, #9 Army 7

A record Notre Dame Stadium crowd of 59,171 saw the Irish ground attack account for 361 rushing yards despite a Notre Dame aerial attack that ranked second nationally. Terry Brennan set the tone on the opening kickoff by returning it 95 yards for a score 18 seconds into the contest. After an Army punt, the Irish drove 80 yards on 13 plays, with Brennan running six times for 29 of those yards and adding his second TD less than nine minutes into the game. Bob Livingstone capped a 47-yard third-period march to make it 20-0. Army’s only points early in the final quarter ended a streak of 19 consecutive periods in which Notre Dame opponents had not scored. The Irish rebounded by going 80 yards on the ground in 11 plays, with Larry Coutre’s 11-yard run finishing the scoring.

–1949: #1 Notre Dame 46, #4 Tulane 7

Tulane scored its only points on a 76-yard pass play to start the second half, but otherwise this game belonged to Notre Dame. Larry Coutre scored three rushing touchdowns (from 14, 81 and two yards) in the first 10 minutes, and a 38-yard scoring pass from Bob Williams to Frank Spaniel made it 27-0 for the home team before the first period was over. Williams’ TD throw to Leon Hart made it 33-0 at halftime. The Irish responded to Tulane’s score when Spaniel’s 11-yard run reached the end zone. Bill Barrett’s 59-yard run in the final period closed the Notre Dame scoring. Tulane finished with minus-23 rushing yards. Williams completed eight of his 11 throws, two for scores, for Notre Dame.

–1949: #1 Notre Dame 32, #17 USC 0

A chilled crowd at Notre Dame Stadium watched as the Irish extended their streak to 37 games without defeat by handing USC its worst loss in the history of the series. Bob Williams’ 40-yard pass to Leon Hart opened the scoring late in the opening period. A John Petitbon interception turned into a 43-yard TD play and a 13-0 Irish edge after the first 15 minutes. Emil Sitko’s four-yard scoring run in the second period followed a fumbled punt by the Trojans. The early moments of the third period featured a 12-play, 60-yard Irish drive that ended in a two-yard Frank Spaniel run. Bill Barrett’s short rush finished the scoring in the final period. USC’s loudest threat came on a 39-yard pass completion to the Notre Dame 15, but the Irish held on downs. Notre Dame outrushed the visitors 316-17.

–1966: Sept. 24: #6 Notre Dame 26, #24 Purdue 14

Quarterback Terry Hanratty and end Jim Seymour made their varsity debuts for Notre Dame and what a combination that turned out to be-good for 13 connections for 276 yards and three touchdowns. (Seymour held the Notre Dame single-game mark for catches for 39 seasons and still holds the single-game record for receiving yards.) Seymour’s single-game yardage total at the time qualified as the second-largest total in college football history. The game began with two big plays-first a 94-yard return of a Rocky Bleier fumble by Purdue’s Leroy Keyes, followed by a 97-yard kickoff return by Nick Eddy. The longest Hanratty-Seymour connection went for 84 yards, and a late forced fumble by Alan Page on Boiler quarterback Bob Griese set up the last of the three Hanratty-Seymour TD plays.

–1973: #8 Notre Dame 23, #6 USC 14

Eric Penick’s 85-yard burst on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter keyed Notre Dame’s triumph that ended the Trojans’ 23-game unbeaten string. The victory in Notre Dame Stadium was the pivotal victory in Notre Dame’s 1973 national championship season. The Irish held USC’s Anthony Davis to 55 rushing yards, got field goals from Bob Thomas in each of the first three periods – then watched Penick deliver the deciding blow. Luther Bradley keyed the Irish pass defense with a pair of interceptions, Notre Dame outrushed the Trojans 316-68 and the Irish held the ball for 39:36 to easily win the time-of-possession battle.

–1977: #11 Notre Dame 49, #5 USC 19

This game became as well known in Notre Dame history as much for the Irish switch to green jerseys as the final score. Dan Devine’s squad warmed up in traditional blue jerseys, switched to green right before kickoff and then dominated USC in a win that catapulted the Irish toward the national title. Joe Montana completed 13 of 24 throws for 167 yards and two TDs-with tight end Ken MacAfee catching eight passes for 97 yards and those two scores. Notre Dame converted 14 of 19 third-down plays, compared to three of 14 for the Trojans. Ted Burgmeier had an interception, threw for a two-point conversion on a fumbled snap and scored on a 21-yard run as the holder on a fake field-goal attempt. Bob Golic blocked a USC punt and Jay Case ran it in.

–1988: #13 Notre Dame 19, #9 Michigan 17

Irish walk-on kicker Reggie Ho tied a Notre Dame record with four field goals, the last from 26 yards with 1:13 remaining to claim the game. Michigan had gone ahead on a 49-yard field goal by Mike Gillette, only to surrender Notre Dame’s game-winning 71-yard drive. Gillette’s 48-yard attempt as time expired missed. Ricky Watters returned a punt 81 yards for a score to open the scoring for Notre Dame less than five minutes into the contest. Michigan claimed a 14-13 third-period lead after a Michael Taylor two-yard scoring run, but Notre Dame prevailed in great part due to its 226 rushing yards, 68 by captain Mark Green, as the Irish completed only three passes.

–1988: #2 Notre Dame 31, #1 Miami 30

Despite giving up a record 424 passing yards to Miami’s Steve Walsh, the Notre Dame defense forced seven turnovers to help the fourth-ranked Irish end the top-rated Hurricanes’ 36-game regular-season winning streak. Miami also came into the game having won 20 straight road games and 16 games overall. The Hurricanes had not lost in an opponent’s stadium since traveling to Michigan in 1984. Irish safety Pat Terrell made the deciding play, batting down a two-point conversion pass attempt by Walsh with 45 seconds to play

National Champs That Played Through South Bend:

Eight teams that eventually won the AP national title had to play in Notre Dame Stadium on their way to that designation. Here are some details on those contests:

–1937: Nov. 6: #3 Pittsburgh 21, #12 Notre Dame 6

Pittsburgh’s dominating rushing attack paved the way for another Panther victory over a ranked opponent. Fullback Marshall Goldberg ran 26 times for 110 yards, while halfback Harold Stebbins carried 26 times for 92 more rushing yards. The Panthers finished with a 255-30 edge in rushing yardage and a 328-97 total yards edge. Notre Dame managed only three first downs, one each by rush, pass and penalty. The visitors from Pittsburgh ran 70 plays compared to only 31 for Notre Dame.

–1956: Oct. 27: #2 Oklahoma 40, Notre Dame 0

The visiting Sooners notched their first win over Notre Dame, handing the Irish their only shutout loss in 48 games and accounting for the fifth-worst loss in Irish history. Oklahoma drove 68 yards for a score after the opening kickoff, and the Sooners benefited from a blocked punt deep in Irish territory plus interception returns for TDs by Tommy McDonald and Clendon Thomas. In the year that Paul Hornung won the Heisman Trophy, the Irish star played only a minor role due to injury.

–1967: Oct. 14: #1 USC 24, #5 Notre Dame 7

The Irish actually led this game 7-0 at halftime on Terry Hanratty’s second-period three-yard scoring run-but Notre Dame could not survive seven interceptions by the Trojans-four of those by USC’s Adrian Young. Trojan quarterback Steve Sogge threw three first-half interceptions of his own, but the visitors rebounded behind 38 rushing carries by O.J. Simpson for 150 yards and three TDs-including a 35-yard third-period dash that made it 14-7 for the Trojans.

–1976: Sept. 11: #9 Pittsburgh 31, #11 Notre Dame 10

The Panthers handed Notre Dame its first season-opening defeat in 13 seasons, as Tony Dorsett ran for 181 yards and pushed his career rushing total against the Irish to 754 yards. Notre Dame’s opening TD drive put the Irish ahead, but Dorsett responded with a 61-yard gain on his first carry. Jerome Heavens ran for 93 yards for the Irish, who finished with 290 yards.

–1982: Nov. 13: #5 Penn State 24, #13 Notre Dame 14

Todd Blackledge completed only 11 of his 27 passes (for 189 yards), but it was his 48-yard connection with Curt Warner in the final period that brought the Nittany Lions from behind. Warner added 145 rushing yards, while Notre Dame’s Allen Pinkett gave the Irish a lead with his 93-yard kickoff return. Notre Dame quarterback Blair Kiel suffered a shoulder injury the previous week against Pittsburgh, threw one early pass against Penn State and exited for the rest of the night in favor of Ken Karcher. Pinkett added 70 rushing yards of his own, while Penn State’s Kenny Jackson caught six balls for 114 yards.

–1986: Nov. 15: #3 Penn State 24, Notre Dame 19

Notre Dame put up 27 first downs and finished with 418 total yards, but the Irish ended barely short of the end zone in their upset bid. The home team took over on its own 20 with 2:29 left, and Steve Beuerlein completed five straight passes to give the Irish a first down at the Penn State six. But Tim Brown was dropped for a loss, Beuerlein was sacked and the Notre Dame signal-caller then threw incomplete to tight end Joel Williams. Beuerlein completed a fourth-down pass to Mark Green short of the end zone.

–1993: Nov. 13: #2 Notre Dame 31, #1 Florida State 24

Notre Dame rolled to a 21-7 halftime lead, then held on down the stretch until Shawn Wooden knocked down a Charlie Ward pass attempt as time ran out to ensure the 31-24 triumph over unbeaten Florida State. The Irish victory ended the longest winning streak in the country at 16 (Notre Dame also had won 16 straight coming in), with the Seminoles having lost only once to a team outside the state of Florida since 1989. Notre Dame rushed for 239 yards and scored four rushing touchdowns, two more than Florida State had allowed in its first nine games combined. Lee Becton ran for 122 yards, Adrian Jarrell ran for a 32-yard TD, Jeff Burris scored twice and John Covington made the cover of Sporting News with a key interception.

–2003: Oct. 18: #5 USC 45, Notre Dame 14

Matt Leinart completed an amazing 26 of his 34 throws for 351 yards and four touchdowns as USC rolled up 551 total yards. Reggie Bush added 89 rushing yards and a score, wide receiver Kerry Colbert contributed eight catches for 120 yards and a TD while Mike Williams had nine catches of his own for 112 yards and a TD. Julius Jones ran for 84 yards and a TD for Notre Dane, tight end Anthony Fasano scored on a two-yard completion, while freshman quarterback Brady Quinn ended up 15 of 34 throwing for 168 yards.

Yet another consensus national champion, Michigan State in 1965, also played in Notre Dame Stadium in that season (Nov. 20: #1 Michigan State 12, #4 Notre Dame 3).

The NCAA lists all the teams that received any sort of national championship recognition over the years, and that compendium also includes these teams that played at Notre Dame in their title seasons:

–1931: Pittsburgh and USC

–1933: USC

–1937: Pittsburgh

–1939: USC

–1960: Iowa

–1979: USC

–1988: Miami

–1990: Miami

–2005: USC

Of those teams, Irish victories came in 1931 (25-12 over a Pittsburgh team that finished 8-1), 1988 (31-30 over Miami) and 1990 (29-20 over second-rated Miami).

Notre Dame actually was the consensus national title winner in 1988, yet the Hurricanes still were selected by the Berryman (QPRS) rating service. In 1990, Colorado at 11-1-1 claimed the AP crown, Georgia Tech won the United Press International title and Miami finished first according to the New York Times, Sagarin and several others.