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Sunday Brunch: Irish and the Heismen

Sept. 23, 2017

By John Heisler

When Notre Dame senior flanker Tim Brown went back to field a Michigan State punt late in the opening period in the 1987 Irish home opener at Notre Dame Stadium, the home fans didn’t immediately spring to their feet.

After all, for all the plays he had made as a receiver, rusher (after Lou Holtz switched him to that flanker position in 1986 so Brown could touch the ball more often) and kickoff returns, he remained somewhat of a newcomer to the punt return assignment.

In fact, he had returned only six punts in his Notre Dame career to that point-the second of those in the 1986 finale at USC, a 56-yarder that set up John Carney’s winning field goal.

But, what Brown did in the course of returning number seven changed the course of his season–and his legacy.

With less than three minutes remaining in the first period, Michigan State punted the ball on fourth and 17 from its own 30.

The official play by play says that Brown “cuts right and breaks away from two tackles and breaks back toward the middle, completing a 71-yard TD play behind final block from (Rod) West.”

That made it a 12-0 lead for Notre Dame.

Less than two minutes later, after three Spartan plays netted minus-seven yards, Brown dropped by to field yet another Michigan State punt.

This time the play by play said Brown “cut left and avoided three tacklers and sidesteps (punter Greg) Montgomery (later a third-round NFL Draft pick) at the MSU 20 for a 66-yard touchdown.”

The season may have been only two weeks old, but Brown’s effort in prime time on ESPN made him the leader in the clubhouse in the Heisman Trophy derby. He held onto that lead all the way until he won the award in December, becoming Notre Dame’s record seventh winner.

Ironically, Brown later said he initially was so winded from the first long return that he was gulping oxygen on the sideline and suggested to the Irish coaches they send someone else back to field that second punt. But Brown somehow ended up on the field-and he made history. It would be 16 seasons later in 2003 before a player (Antonio Perkins of Oklahoma with three against UCLA) would return more punts for scores in a single game.

Brown enjoyed other Notre Dame Stadium success-a career-high eight receptions in 1986 against Penn State as well as 176 receiving yards against SMU the previous Saturday.

Here’s a version of some memorable Notre Dame Stadium moments for Notre Dame’s other six Heisman winners:

–Angelo Bertelli (he won the Heisman in 1943): 10 consecutive completions and four TD passes in a 27-0 win over Stanford in 1942 (14 of 20 passing overall for 233 yards)

–John Lujack (1947): Three TD passes against Pittsburgh in a 33-0 win in 1946

–Leon Hart (1949): Caught an early 40-yard TD pass from Bob Williams, then shifted to fullback in a 32-0 win over USC in 1949

–John Lattner (1953): 98 rushing yards in Notre Dame’s 1952 win over Oklahoma that snapped the 13-game win streak of the Sooners and their Heisman winner of that year, Billy Vessels

–Paul Hornung (1956): A 28-yard field goal in the final three minutes to win the 1955 Iowa game 17-14-while also running for 34 yards, throwing for 108, kicking two PATS and playing every down on defense

–John Huarte (1964): 21 completions on 37 pass attempts for 300 yards and one TD against Stanford in 1964, including eight completions to Jack Snow, in a 28-6 Irish victory

All of them enjoyed great team success at Notre Dame Stadium. Hart led the way with a perfect 16-0 home mark over his four seasons. Lujack’s Irish squads went 11-0 at Notre Dame Stadium, Bertelli was 10-2 (including games after he was drafted into the Marines), Lattner 9-2-2, Hornung 10-4-and Huarte was 5-0 in the only season he played a major role, 1964. Brown’s Irish teams ended up 5-1 as a sophomore in Gerry Faust’s final season in 1985 and then 5-0 in 1987 in Lou Holtz’s second season.

But Notre Dame’s seven winners aren’t the only Heisman winners to grace the Notre Dame Stadium turf.


Billy Vessels, Pete Dawkins, Joe Bellino and Ernie Davis.

Roger Staubach, Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson and Steve Owens.

Tony Dorsett, Charles White, George Rogers and Marcus Allen.

Charlie Ward, Eric Crouch, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.

Those names sound familiar?

All of those standout collegiate football players won the Heisman Trophy and played in Notre Dame Stadium at some point during their careers.

Sixteen visiting players who claimed the Heisman played in South Bend-either in the year they won the award or some other season during their college careers.

Nine of those players came to Notre Dame Stadium in the same year they eventually won the Heisman. Here’s how they fared (five of those nine helped their teams win at Notre Dame Stadium and those are identified with an asterisk):

–Billy Vessels, Oklahoma (he won the Heisman in 1952): Vessels carried 17 times for 195 yards, scored on runs of 62 and 47 yards and on a 27-yard scoring reception. But that wasn’t enough as the 10th-ranked Irish defeated the fourth-rated Sooners 27-21 to end Oklahoma’s 13-game win streak.

–*Pete Dawkins, Army (1958): Dawkins rushed 17 times for 75 yards and caught three passes for 58 yards, scoring one touchdown in third-ranked Army’s 14-2 win over the fourth-rated Irish. Dawkins also scored a TD the previous year in 12th-ranked Notre dame’s 23-21 victory over the 10th-rated Cadets in Philadelphia.

–Ernie Davis, Syracuse (1961): Davis ran for 95 yards on 18 rushing attempts, but Notre Dame managed a 17-15 triumph over the 10th-rated Orange on a 31-yard Joe Perkowski field goal after the final gun.

–*Roger Staubach, Navy (1963): Staubach as a junior completed nine of 15 throws for 91 yards and two TDs, as the fourth-rated Middies defeated Notre Dame 35-14 (something Navy would not accomplish again until 2007). The year before as a sophomore in 1962, Staubach completed five of 10 passes for 57 yards and ran for one TD in Notre Dame’s 20-12 win in Philadelphia. The year after he won the Heisman, Staubach completed 19 of 36 passes for 155 yards and rushed 18 times for 36 yards in 1964 in second-ranked Notre Dame’s 40-0 win in Philadelphia.

–Mike Garrett, USC (1965): The seventh-rated Irish limited Garrett to 43 rushing yards on 16 carries (after Garrett came in averaging 170 yards per game) in Notre Dame’s 28-7 triumph. In 1964 as a junior, Garrett accounted for 79 yards on 21 attempts in USC’s 20-17 win in Los Angeles over the unbeaten Irish. As a sophomore in 1963 at Notre Dame Stadium, Garrett rushed seven times for 43 yards, caught a 12-yard TD pass and intercepted a pass as the Irish upset the seventh-ranked Trojans 17-14.

–*Tony Dorsett, Pittsburgh (1976): Dorsett rushed for 181 yards on 21 carries and scored twice as Pittsburgh, on its way to the national title, defeated 11th-ranked Notre Dame 31-10. As a junior in 1975, Dorsett ran for 303 yards (most in history against Notre Dame) on 23 carries as the Panthers defeated ninth-ranked Notre Dame 34-20 in Pittsburgh. As a sophomore in 1974 at Notre Dame Stadium, Dorsett rushed for 61 yards on 22 carries in fifth-ranked Notre Dame’s 14-10 win over Pitt. As a freshman in 1973, Dorsett rushed for 209 yards on 29 attempts in Pittsburgh as the fifth-rated Irish defeated 20th-ranked Pittsburgh 31-10. Dorsett’s 754 rushing yards (96 attempts) qualify as the opponent individual career record against Notre Dame.

–*Charles White, USC (1979): White rushed for 261 yards on 44 carries and scored four TDs as the fourth-rated Trojans defeated the ninth-ranked Irish 42-23. As a junior in 1978, White carried 37 times for 205 yards as third-rated USC knocked off the eight-rated Irish 27-25. As a sophomore in 1977 at Notre Dame Stadium, White rushed 25 times for 135 yards in Notre Dame’s 49-19 victory. As a freshman in 1976 in Los Angeles, White carried 14 times for 47 yards as third-rated USC defeated 13th-ranked Notre Dame 17-13.

–*Marcus Allen, USC (1981): Allen carried 33 times for 147 yards and one TD as fifth-rated USC defeated the Irish 14-7. He didn’t play against Notre Dame in 1980 due to injury. As a sophomore in 1979 Allen rushed five times for 30 yards in the Trojans’ 42-23 victory.

–Charlie Ward, Florida State (1993): Ward completed 31 of 50 passes for 297 yards and three TDs, but second-rated and unbeaten Notre Dame prevailed 31-24 over the unbeaten and top-ranked Seminoles.

Seven other Heisman winners played in Notre Dame Stadium the year before they won the award (team winners identified with an asterisk), with one of those, Matt Leinart, playing in South Bend both the year before and the year after winning:

–*Joe Bellino, Navy (he won the Heisman in 1960): Bellino rushed 11 times for 28 yards and caught four passes for 44 yards at Notre Dame Stadium as a junior in 1959. He also rushed for 113 yards against the Irish in 1960 in Philadelphia and scored twice versus Notre Dame in 1958 in Baltimore.

–*O.J. Simpson, USC (1968): Simpson ran for 150 yards (38 carries) in 1967 in South Bend. A year later in Los Angeles he was held to 55 yards (21 carries) in a 21-21 tie between USC and the Irish.

–Steve Owens, Oklahoma (1969): Owens led the Sooners with 66 rushing yards (17 attempts) in Notre Dame’s season-opening win in 1968.

–George Rogers, South Carolina (1980): Rogers gained 113 yards (30 carries), but Notre Dame came from behind in 1979 to win 18-17 in South Bend.

–*Eric Crouch, Nebraska (2001): Crouch ran seven yards for the winning overtime TD in 2000 in South Bend as the Huskers prevailed 27-24. He finished with 80 rushing yards and three rushing TDs while completing seven of 15 throws for 103 yards.

–Carson Palmer, USC (2002): Palmer threw for 230 yards (19 of 30 passing) and two TDs in South Bend in 2001 in Notre Dame’ 27-16 win. In 2000 in Los Angeles he was 17 of 35 passing for 251 and two TDs, plus a rushing TD. In 2002 in Los Angeles he was 32 of 46 for 425 yards (most in a single game versus Notre Dame) and four TDs.

–*Matt Leinart, USC (2004): In 2003 at Notre Dame Stadium, Leinart completed 26 of 34 throws for 351 yards and four TDs in USC’s 45-14 win. In 2005 in South Bend, he connected on 17 of 32 for 301 yards and rushed for the game-winning score with three seconds left in the Trojans’ 34-31 win. In 2004 in Los Angeles, Leinart hit 24 of 34 throws for 400 yards and five TDs. His nine career TD passes are an individual record versus Notre Dame.

At some point, 15 other Heisman winners have met the Irish away from Notre Dame Stadium–most recently Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston in 2014 in Tallahassee after winning the award in 2013.

Winston became the eighth reigning Heisman winner to face Notre Dame and the first since 2004 winner Leinart met the Irish in 2005 in the “Bush push” game. Notre Dame is 3-4-1 against reigning Heisman Trophy winners, 2-2-1 against reigning Heisman Trophy winners the year after they won the award and 1-2 when facing the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in a bowl game immediately following their award.

Heisman Trophy winners to face Notre Dame are Nile Kinnick (Iowa), Doc Blanchard (Army), Glenn Davis (Army), Vessels (Oklahoma), Dawkins (Army), Bellino (Penn State), Davis (Syracuse), Staubach (Navy), Garrett (USC), Simpson (USC), Owens (Oklahoma), Johnny Rodgers (Nebraska), Dorsett (Pittsburgh), Earl Campbell (Texas), White (USC), Rogers (South Carolina), Allen (USC), Herschel Walker (Georgia), Doug Flutie (Boston College), Vinny Testaverde (Miami, Fla.), Desmond Howard (Michigan), Ward (Florida State), Rashaan Salaam (Colorado), Eddie George (Ohio State), Charles Woodson (Michigan), Crouch (Nebraska), Palmer (USC), Leinart, Reggie Bush (USC), Troy Smith (Ohio State) and Winston.

Heisman Trophy winners to face Notre Dame the year after claiming the trophy are Blanchard (1945 recipient), Walker (1948), Staubach (1964) and Leinart (2004). The Irish defeated Walker’s Mustangs in 1949 and Staubach’s Midshipmen in 1964 and tied Blanchard’s Cadets in 1946 and lost to Leinart’s Trojans in 2005.

Heisman Trophy winners to face Notre Dame in a bowl game immediately after their win are Rodgers (1973 Orange Bowl), Campbell (1978 Cotton Bowl) and Salaam (1995 Fiesta Bowl), with the Irish downing Campbell’s Longhorns to win the 1977 national championship but falling short against both Rodgers’ Huskers and Salaam’s Buffaloes.

Check out the all-time Notre Dame football record book.

The Irish opponent individual records for most rushing yards in a game (303) and career (754)?

The opponent mark for most passing yards in a game (425)?

The opponent career record for touchdown passes (nine)?

The Notre Dame single-game (27.4) and season bests (18.09) for average passing yards per completion?

The Irish mark for best career winning percentage (.932) by a quarterback?

The Notre Dame high for career combined punt and kickoff returns for TDs (six)?

Still the single-season Irish mark for all-purpose yards (1,937)?

They’re all held by Heisman Trophy winners.

Wonder who will be next to be added to that list?