Oct. 7, 2015
By Todd Burlage
Epic last-minute football victories come in a variety of styles and circumstances.
They can be as the favorite or as an underdog. Most often, they happen after an impossible rally or a last-second field goal. Other times, they arrive when you least expect it with a late defensive play or a blocked kick.
The highly-hyped games often become overly-hyped, while the matchups expected to be routine — such as the last minute-comeback win over Virginia a month ago — sometimes become instant classics. Uncertainty defines college football.
With nearly 900 wins all-time, Notre Dame has plenty of photo finishes in its card catalog to choose from. So let’s take a chronological count of the 10 most memorable wins the Irish recorded in the final 60 seconds of a game, no overtime victories allowed.
1935 OHIO STATE
The original “Game of the Century” continues to live up to its title exactly 80 years later.
From great plays, to last-minute heroics, these two college heavyweights provided the 81,018 fans packed inside Ohio Stadium more than their share of thrills. The game created such a buzz that the FBI got involved when 2,000 counterfeit tickets began circulating the grounds.
The Buckeyes controlled the game and built a 13-0 lead through three quarters before the momentum started to turn the way of Notre Dame after it scored back-to-back fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Unfortunately, both extra points were missed, staking Ohio State to a thin 13-12 lead.
The Irish onside kick failed after their second touchdown, leaving running out the clock as the Buckeyes’ only remaining task. Ah, but the fun was only beginning.
Ohio State fumbled near midfield, setting up one last chance for the Irish offense with just more than a minute remaining.
On first down, halfback Andy Pilney became the stuff of Irish legend when he took a short pass and scampered 30 yards to the Buckeyes’ 19-yard line, suffering a leg injury on the play that ended his college career.
Following a first-down drop in the end zone by the Buckeyes on a sure interception, Notre Dame’s William Shakespeare connected on a second-down touchdown pass to Wayne Milner with 32 seconds left in the game for an 18-13 lead that was never threatened.
CBS Radio broadcaster Ted Husing best summed up the afternoon, saying, “I have never been so weak after a game.”
1979 HOUSTON (COTTON BOWL)
Forever known as the “Chicken Soup Game” because of frigid temperatures, heavy winds and a frozen Irish quarterback, Notre Dame trailed 34-12 in the fourth quarter at Austin, Texas.
With quarterback Joe Montana battling the flu and back in the locker room trying to fight off hypothermia, hopes looked bleak for the No. 10 Irish to comeback against the No. 9 Cougars.
“I remember thinking to myself, `Oh, God, we’re in trouble if [Montana] doesn’t come back,'” said Irish linebacker Bob Crable. “And when he came back on the field, things began to happen.”
After bringing his body temperature up with a couple bowls of chicken soup, Montana returned to the field down 22 points with only 7:37 remaining on the clock.
In his last game at Notre Dame, Montana lived up to his nickname “The Comeback Kid,” quickly leading his Irish back to only a 34-28 deficit. Now down only six, the Irish defense gave the ball back to Montana who again drove his team downfield and gave it one last chance from the Cougar eight-yard line.
And on the last play of regulation, Montana hit Kris Haines with a bullet to the front right end-zone cone for the game-tying touchdown.
A Notre Dame penalty forced Irish kicker Joe Unis to retry his extra-point attempt a second time. He made it to secure a 35-34 Notre Dame win — the program’s 600th victory — in one of the greatest comebacks in Irish history, all while cementing Montana as the program’s all-time clutch quarterback.
In a classic game simply defined by “The Block,” Crable made one of the greatest special teams plays in program history when he spoiled a game-winning field-goal attempt to help preserve a 12-10 Notre Dame season-opening win at Michigan Stadium in a battle between two top-10 teams.
Crable eavesdropped on a pre-kick conversation that tipped him off the Michigan center was going to stay low after the snap and on the kick attempt. If the center was staying low, Crable was going high.
On the snap, Crable rushed forward from middle linebacker, lunged up, and used the center’s back as a springboard to lift high in the air and block the 42-yard attempt.
“You run off the field and life is great,” Crable said. “It certainly became a special moment in my life.”
One second remained on the clock after the block, but the game was over.
Michigan led 10-6 at halftime, but the Irish defense held the Wolverines scoreless and to only 94 total yards in the second half. Notre Dame’s scoring came from four field goals by walk-on placekicker Chuck Male.
Interestingly, Crable’s game-winning and creative idea led to the NCAA disallowing the following season the practice of players launching themselves to gain an advantage.
In one of the greatest late-game see-saw affairs on this list, No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 14 Michigan swapped the lead three times in the second half before the smallest and most unlikely of heroes emerged with the game-winning play under the most difficult circumstances.
Pinned at his own 20-yard line with only 40 seconds remaining — all while working against a steady 15 mph wind and trailing 27-26 — Irish head coach Dan Devine benched his starting quarterback and called on confident big-armed freshman, Blair Kiel, to lead the final drive.
A couple of clutch passes — and the help of a fortuitous 32-yard pass interference call — helped Kiel move his team to Michigan’s 34-yard line with only 0:04 remaining on the clock to set up Irish kicker Harry Oliver’s impossible 51-yard field goal attempt for the win.
“I just remember thinking this wind is very strong and half-thinking, `I don’t have a chance at making this thing,'” the late Oliver would recount in a 2004 interview with Irish Sports Report.
Call it luck of the Irish, or a just a well-timed weather break, legend has it the winds calmed just long enough for the 5-11, 185-pound Oliver to boot the kick and clear the crossbar by inches as the clock expired, delivering arguably the most memorable field goal in Notre Dame history for a 29-27 Irish win.
With both teams undefeated and ranked in the top five, this mid-October matchup at Notre Dame Stadium had the feel of a title elimination game for the loser.
Miami, the defending national champion, came into the game ranked No. 1 and holding a 36-game regular-season winning streak, while the Irish were ranked No. 4.
With Notre Dame leading 31-24, Miami scored a touchdown with 45 seconds left to pull within 31-30.
Rather than kick the extra point and likely end the game in a tie, Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson decided to go for the win and try a two-point conversion.
Miami quarterback Steve Walsh looked and threw to his right, only to have his pass knocked down in the corner of the end zone by Irish defensive back Pat Terrell, preserving a one-point win for Notre Dame.
The Irish jumped to No. 2 in the polls the following week and won its final six games to finish undefeated and claim the 1988 National Championship for head coach Lou Holtz.
“When Pat Terrell made that play in that game, it was like everybody made that play for our team,” said Irish back-up quarterback Steve Belles. “When we beat them, it was the biggest win that I was a part of and it goes down in history as the biggest game ever won at Notre Dame Stadium”
1992 PENN STATE
A game that would mark the end of this proud rivalry for 14 years, “The Snow Bowl” remains as memorable for the elements as it does for the ending.
A snow squall had settled over Notre Dame Stadium, making visibility and traction tough for the players.
With the game tied 9-9 after three quarters, Penn State grabbed a 16-9 lead with about four minutes left in the game before Irish quarterback Rick Mirer responded and moved Notre Dame to the Penn State three-yard line, where he faced a do-or-die fourth-and-goal play with 25 seconds left.
Holtz called a play reserved for a two-point conversion, one that had never been used in a game. Solid Penn State pass coverage forced Mirer to check to his last receiving option, running back Jerome Bettis, streaking in the middle of the end zone for the touchdown to pull the Irish within 16-15 with 20 seconds remaining.
Not satisfied with an extra point and a tie, Holtz ad-libbed a two-point conversion call on the sideline. The play didn’t hold up, forcing Mirer to roll right where he found running back Reggie Brooks, who made a spectacular diving catch on the right side of the end zone to secure the 17-16 Irish win on Senior Day.
“It was kind of weird because [Hotz] basically came up with a play on the fly,” said Brooks, who only had two previous career pass receptions. “And we never even thought twice about going out and executing it.”
1993 FLORIDA STATE
Still the last time Notre Dame was featured in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, the second-ranked Irish hosted top-ranked Florida State at Notre Dame Stadium for the fourth installment of the “Game of the Century.”
This one lived up to the hype, though through most of the game that didn’t appear to be the case.
The Irish looked in control with a seemingly comfortable 31-17 lead in the fourth quarter. Florida State responded when quarterback Charlie Ward, the eventual Heisman Trophy winner that season, got a fortuitous bounce off a Notre Dame defender on a 4th-and-20 pass that went for a Seminole touchdown that pulled FSU within 31-24.
After the Irish went three and out, Florida State had one last chance to tie or win. In just three plays, Ward moved the Seminoles to the Notre Dame 14-yard line with three seconds remaining.
On the game’s final play, Ward rolled to his left, looked and threw to the end zone where Notre Dame cornerback Shawn Wooden batted the pass down to preserve the win and move the Irish to No. 1 in the polls the following week.
The celebration was so jubilant after the pass break-up, Wooden had his knee severely injured when a teammate jumped on his back.
“It was kind of a great moment at the time,” recalled Wooden, who can laugh about the moment now. “But it was also one of those times, I was kind of like, `Uh, yeah.'”
In the last of countless classic finishes and wins of the Lou Holtz era, No. 9 Notre Dame fell behind the No. 6 Longhorns 14-3 early in the game and still trailed 24-17 late before an unlikely hero emerged in a stunning 27-24 Irish win at Austin.
Notre Dame freshman kicker Jim Sanson — whose erratic performance in practice earned him the dubious monicker of “Foul Ball” from Holtz — was brought on to break a 24-24 tie and complete a furious Irish comeback on a 39-yard attempt with five seconds left in the game.
Sanson calmly delivered the game-winner in front of a then-record crowd of 83,312 at Texas Memorial Stadium. The Irish scored 10 straight points in the final three minutes of the game.
The biggest play in the rally, outside of Sanson’s field goal, was a 4th-and-goal option play that Irish tailback Autry Denson took six yards over right side for the game-tying touchdown with 2:54 remaining.
After a Notre Dame defensive stand and a 22-yard Texas punt, Irish quarterback Ron Powlus drove the ball 32 yards to set up Sanson’s field goal in what turned out to be the last game between these two proud programs until this 2015 season.
Denson said afterward the steady demeanor of Holtz on the sideline left no doubt among the players that a comeback was coming.
“The courage [Holtz] had under fire, his poise under pressure, it just matriculated down to everybody else,” Denson said. Holtz retired after this season.
While not a stellar season for either program — Notre Dame finished 6-6 and Purdue 5-7 — the courage and heroics displayed by Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind., make this see-saw battle and dramatic Irish comeback impossible to keep off the list.
Trailing 7-0 early, Notre Dame routinely answered with 17 straight points and carried that 10-point lead into the fourth quarter.
Out of nowhere, Purdue answered with two unexpected touchdowns to take a 21-17 lead with less than four minutes to play.
Battling a severe turf-toe injury and splitting time with backup QB Dayne Crist, Clausen was summoned to lead the Irish on its last-hope drive from their own 28-yard line to avoid the upset. Down four points and with the game clock winding down, a field goal wasn’t an option.
Clausen responded on the drive, carrying his team 11 plays and 70 yards to the Purdue two-yard line where he faced a 4th-and-goal win-or-lose play.
With everything on the line, Clausen hit tight end Kyle Rudolph with a bullet pass slightly to his left and just across the goal line for the game winner with 23 seconds remaining. The 24-21 Irish win still features one of the greatest last-minute TD drives in the last 20 years at Notre Dame.
“[Clausen] actually wasn’t supposed to play in the second half,” then Irish head coach Charlie Weis said after the comeback. “We talked at the beginning of the fourth quarter and he said he could go.”
2015 LSU (MUSIC CITY BOWL)
Under the category of “nobody saw this coming,” and in only the second bowl game that makes the list, unranked Notre Dame came into this matchup reeling, disappointed, and left for dead after losing its last four regular-season games.
But calling on the pride of a program, a two-quarterback system, and the leg of a struggling kicker, unranked Notre Dame overcame long odds and a 28-21 third-quarter deficit to defeat No. 22 LSU 31-28 to win the 2015 Music City Bowl on the last play of the game.
With 5:41 remaining and the score tied at 28, the Irish took their final possession at their own 15. In relative ease and precision — only two third-down conversions necessary — the quarterback tandem of freshman starter Malik Zaire and experienced senior Everett Golson moved 71 yards to set up a 32-yard field goal attempt for senior placekicker Kyle Brindza.
Brindza, who had missed six of his previous nine field goal attempts, calmly capped his career with a last-second game winner and the memory of a lifetime.
“To leave a program so historic like this in this kind of fashion is great,” Brindza said immediately afterward. “It’s a blessing for me, but also to be able to help win a game for all my teammates is a bigger blessing.”
This comeback doesn’t stand with some of the classics of yesteryear, but it remains “music” to Irish ears, an important win during the Brian Kelly era, and a start to a fresh list of fantastic photo finishes.