Oct. 14, 2015
By Todd Burlage
When it comes to defining the term “Game of the Century,” no golden rules apply. The lists and countdowns of these classic matchups are as numerous as the games.
A Game of the Century can come out of nowhere, when you least expect it, or one can happen when the stakes are the highest and a winner-take-all game exceeds its anticipatory hype.
The criteria to be considered for a Game of the Century is typically three-fold: A meeting between the two top-ranked teams: This one-two matchup happened only 31 times during the entire 20th century, a dynamic that naturally fuels the event when national title implications and public interest are at their highest.
Competition between the greatest players in the country: Not surprisingly, future Heisman Trophy winners have been involved in many of these memorable contests, as have countless elite players who enjoyed the best games of their careers.
An unexpected outcome and/or a dramatic finish: These are probably the most common themes and decisive qualification for Game of the Century consideration.
Based on the three above factors — coupled with a national and passionate fan base, and the polarizing nature of its football program — no college team in the country is listed in more Games of the Century than Notre Dame.
Let’s check them out.
OHIO STATE (Nov. 2, 1935)
In a match-up that many football historians still consider the true Game of the Century from the 1900s, Notre Dame wasn’t given much of a chance in Columbus against a mighty Buckeye team and its 81,000 closest friends inside Ohio Stadium.
With the Great Depression sapping much life out of the U.S. and University economies, Notre Dame scheduled this home-and-home series with Ohio State to help generate needed revenue by bringing a top-tier regional opponent to South Bend in 1936. But first, the Irish would have to pay its dues with a trip to Columbus in 1935 to face a powerhouse team, an unruly fan base, and even an ornery city official.
Upon arrival in Columbus, Notre Dame head coach Elmer Layden was given the Key to the City by Mayor Henry Worley. “This will get you in, but it might not get you out,” Worley joked to Layden during the presentation.
Anticipation was so high for this matchup, Ohio State officials said they would’ve sold 200,000 tickets if they could’ve found a place to put the folks.
In an effort to avoid venomous Buckeye fans and limit distractions for his players during practice the day before the game, Layden took his team to a secluded seminary outside of Columbus city limits.
“We went by buses, and when we got there, and when we got off, there must have been 15,000 people there,” recalled Notre Dame halfback Andy Pilney. “That’s how big a secret we had. And of course, they were yelling, `Catholics, go home!’ It didn’t shock me, but it kind of made me feel tense and tight.”
The nervousness carried into Saturday and throughout most of the game, with Ohio State holding a 13-0 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
During an era when double-digit comebacks were unheard of, Notre Dame made its miracle off an inspired offense and a couple of quick touchdowns to pull within 13-12 late in the game. With barely a minute left and Ohio State holding ball possession and every advantage, the Irish got a break, and a turnover, off a Buckeye fumble at midfield.
With the clock running down and the Irish still left for dead, consecutive long and timely runs by Pilney set up a game-winning 19-yard touchdown pass from Notre Dame’s Bill Shakespeare to Wayne Milner with 32 seconds left. The pass play secured an 18-13 victory in what remains one of the best comebacks and memorable games in Irish history, almost exactly 80 years ago to today’s date.
The win improved Notre Dame to 6-0 that season and saddled the Buckeyes with their only loss of the year. But as so often happens to any team after a big win, the Irish suffered a letdown the following week and lost at home to a 2-3 Northwestern team, finishing the season under Layden with a solid 7-1-1 record.
ARMY (Nov. 9, 1946)
In terms of meeting the three above criteria for Game of the Century consideration, none fits the profile better than this legendary matchup between these two powerhouse programs of the era.
So how exactly could you spice up a late-season game between the two top-ranked teams in the country — both loaded with so much star power that they included three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners in Army fullback Doc Blanchard (1945), Army halfback Glenn Davis (1946) and Notre Dame quarterback Johnny Lujack (1947) — you play the game at Yankee Stadium, of course.
These two teams had been playing in The House that Ruth Built for years, but never in a marquee matchup such as this one.
Top-ranked Army entered on a 25-game winning streak over four years that included consecutive shutouts the previous two seasons over Notre Dame by a combined score of 107-0. But with World War II over, the second-ranked Irish had many of their war veterans back on campus and in standard issue football gear for what was expected to be an offensive showdown.
With so much pomp, circumstance and fear of failure, the opposing coaches took a conservative offensive approach to avoid mistakes, somewhat surprising since both teams were averaging more than 30 points a game. Their coaching strategies worked, arguably to a fault.
Notre Dame and Army essentially had only one legit chance apiece to score in this defensive battle. Notre Dame was stopped at Army’s four-yard line in the second quarter, and as a two-way player, Lujack made a touchdown saving tackle as a defensive back in the third quarter to preserve the 0-0 final score.
As an indication into how the defenses dominated, seven linemen were nominated for Defensive Lineman of the Week honors in a weekly Associated Press honor given back in the day.
Both teams finished the season undefeated but Army’s long winning streak was snapped, and the Associated Press awarded Notre Dame the 1946 national championship, the first of two consecutive titles and four overall for the Irish under head coach Frank Leahy.
Army finished runner-up in the final AP Poll, providing even more validation to this being considered the first-ever Game of the Century.
Michigan State (Nov. 19, 1966)
“Tie one for the Gipper,” is how Sport’s Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins described this epic and very important game that ended in a 10-10 tie almost exactly 20 years to the day from the 0-0 Irish draw against Army in New York. Ironically, this Notre Dame/Michigan State game was the first time since the Notre Dame/Army matchup that the national media attached a Game of the Century tag to a college football outcome.
In a strategy decision that turned out brilliant, but will forever live in controversy and debate, Irish head coach Ara Parseghian decided to play for a tie and run out the clock on his final drive rather than going for the win.
With two undefeated teams playing in front of a then-stadium record crowd of 80,011 in East Lansing, Michigan, the Spartans — that swapped No. 1 and No. 2 rankings with Notre Dame in the two primary polls — jumped to a quick 10-0 lead against the Irish.
Notre Dame responded with a touchdown drive in the second quarter to pull within 10-7 at halftime before tying the game 10-10 on the first play of the fourth quarter with a field goal.
After exchanging scoreless possessions, Notre Dame took the ball back at its own 30-yard line with 1:10 remaining in the fourth quarter, needing about 40 yards to reach game-winning field goal range. But in a sloppy offensive game marked by great defense, a second-string quarterback for Notre Dame, four pass interceptions and 25 incomplete passes, Parseghian chose to run out the clock, take the tie, and escape with a comeback wash.
“I didn’t want to risk giving it to [MSU] on the cheap,” Parseghian said in support of his conservative last-possession game plan. “They get reckless and it could cost them the game.”
Notre Dame crushed Rose Bowl bound USC 51-0 in Los Angeles the next week to complete an unbeaten 9-0-1 season and secure the first of two national championships for Parseghian, validating his strategy, but still creating fodder from some national media that renamed his team the “Tying Irish” instead of the “Fighting Irish.”
Michigan State also finished 9-0-1 that season but finished second in the polls behind Notre Dame.
Sporting News named the 1966 Irish as the 13th best team of the 20th Century and the Spartans as No. 11.
Florida State (Nov. 13, 1993)
In a classic that still remains the last time Notre Dame was featured in a one-two regular-season game, the second-ranked Irish (10-0) hosted top-ranked Florida State (9-0) at Notre Dame Stadium.
After losing nine players to the NFL from the 1992 team, Notre Dame wasn’t expected to compete for a national title this particular year. But when an early-season upset of No. 3 Michigan put the Irish in contention conversation, hope and hype were high against a Seminole team that had rolled through its first nine opponents; it’s closest win coming in a 28-10 beating of in-state-rival and third-ranked Miami.
With Notre Dame holding a seemingly comfortable 31-17 lead in the fourth quarter, this game showed few signs of reaching Game of the Century status until FSU quarterback Charlie Ward — the eventual Heisman Trophy winner that season — threw a touchdown strike that brought his Seminoles to within 31-24. Ward’s touchdown pass went 20 yards after a fortuitous tipped pass on a fourth-down play.
The Irish went three and out in their ensuing possession, setting Ward up with seconds left and one last chance to tie or win. In just three plays, Ward moved FSU to the Notre Dame 14-yard line with three seconds remaining.
On the game’s final play, Ward looked and threw left into the end zone where Notre Dame cornerback Shawn Wooden batted the pass down to preserve the Notre Dame win and move the Irish to No. 1 in the polls the following week.
The celebration was intense and hopes were high for another Notre Dame national championship, until history cruelly repeated itself in the same fashion as it did after the Ohio State win in 1935 when the Irish were stunned at home on a last-second field goal by Boston College the week after beating FSU.
Notre Dame’s upset loss allowed the Seminoles to leapfrog Notre Dame in the polls. FSU later defeated Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to secure its first-ever national title.
The No. 4 Irish rebounded and ended their season with a 24-21 defeat of No. 7 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, leaving some doubt and debate to whether Notre Dame was more worthy of the championship based on identical one-loss seasons with FSU and its Game of the Century victory over the eventual champions.
USC (Oct. 15, 2005)
A game that didn’t end the way Notre Dame wanted it to — and one that doesn’t yet unanimously rate on the all-time lists as a 21st Game of the Century — however, anyone that witnessed the “Bush Push” at Notre Dame Stadium knows this draining and amazing game belongs on the list.
This matchup between the No. 1 Trojans and the No. 9 Irish brought heavy hype because it pitted two fierce rivals in a game that carried mid-season national title implications. USC came to Notre Dame Stadium as the No. 1 team in the country, the defending national champions and the bullies on the block with three consecutive wins over Notre Dame, each by 31 points.
The Irish came into this game building some program momentum under first-year head coach Charlie Weis. Notre Dame had already won four road games this season, including an unexpected 17-10 upset over No. 3 Michigan, but riding a three-game losing streak at home.
With ESPN in town fueling the pre-game hoopla with its College GameDay — a pre-game program that ironically began in 1993 at Notre Dame with the Florida State Game of the Century — the USC matchup was billed with limitless attention and enthusiasm. More than 30 million households tuned in, making it the highest-rated college football game on television in almost a decade.
In a motivational tactic, Weis pulled the Dan Devine trick from the “Green Jersey Game” in 1977 by having his team warm up in their traditional blue jerseys only to come down the tunnel wearing green for the game.
An epic battle that featured four ties and four lead changes, Notre Dame took a 24-21 lead well into the fourth quarter before things got interesting.
With about five minutes left in the game, USC tailback and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush capped an 80-yard drive with a nine-yard touchdown run to put the Trojans up 28-24.
Irish quarterback Brady Quinn responded with a scoring march and a five-yard touchdown run to give Notre Dame a 31-28 lead with just over two minutes left in the game.
Down four points and facing a fourth-and-nine on its ensuing possession, USC turned the field and its fortunes when quarterback Matt Leinart hit Dwayne Jarrett with a 61-yard pass play from its own 26 to the Irish 13.
Five plays later, USC scored arguably the most famous touchdown in college history when Bush ended a scrum at the goal line by shoving Leinart into the end zone for a one-yard game-winning touchdown.
Both teams won the remainder of their regular season games, but each lost their BCS bowl appearances.
Top-ranked USC was upset by Texas in a national championship Rose Bowl game, and Notre Dame lost to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
A Game of the Century is hard to see coming; it’s what makes football fun. And if Notre Dame continues this positive trend under head coach Brian Kelly, expect one coming soon to a stadium nearest you.