Yesterday we started our countdown of the top 10 games of the decade for Notre Dame, and it quickly became apparent that two parts would be needed because I started to ramble. I promised to try to keep this one to less than 1,300 words as well, but sadly I must let you know I have failed you. We’re checking in just over that mark as we run down the top five games of the decade for Notre Dame football.
5. 2014 @ Florida State, Notre Dame Gets Win Stolen By ACC Refs
One of the big themes of the decade for Notre Dame is the lack of big road wins against ranked teams. Well, the Irish have one less than they should because the ACC referees stole one from them in Tallahassee in 2014. Notre Dame went to Florida to face the undefeated, defending national champions and for nearly 60 minutes, the Irish were the better team. Notre Dame took an early lead and then held it into the fourth quarter before the Seminoles took their first lead of the game midway through the fourth quarter.
Everett Golson and the Irish responded with what should have been the defining moment of Golson’s Notre Dame career. You know how that drive ended – with a touchdown pass to Corey Robinson that should have been Robinson’s third of the game. But alas, the ACC officiating crew called one of the worst offensive pass interference penalties in recent years. CJ Prosise executed a textbook rub play but was still flagged. Then there was the terrible interception where the FSU defender was clearly out of bounds. Thanks, ACC refs.
A lot of the games on this countdown had greater meaning, in a positive way, for the season they occurred. This one had the opposite effect. Notre Dame’s season cratered after this, but imagine what might have been had that flag never been thrown. Notre Dame would have been 7-0 and probably ranked in the top 3 after upsetting #2 on the road.
Oh, what could have been. Still, this was one of the greatest games of the decade even if it ended in heartbreak.
4. 2012 @USC, Notre Dame Punches Its Ticket To South Beach
Ok, back to a positive. Notre Dame entered its season-ending matchup with USC with every to lose while the Trojans entered the game with nothing to gain. The #1 ranked Irish needed a win to secure their spot in the BCS Championship game. USC brought a 7-4 record into the game and was starting a backup quarterback.
Like most games in 2012, the game was a slough for the Irish offense. Everett Golson marched the Irish offense up and down the field, but couldn’t punch the ball in the endzone. Notre Dame settled for field goals of 19, 27, 29, 33, and 52 yards from Kyle Brindza who also missed a 34-yard chip shot as well. This game could have – and probably should have – been a blowout of USC. It wasn’t, but that’s part of what made it a great game.
Notre Dame had a few big goal-line stands in 2012, and one of the biggest came against the Trojans. With USC down nine points with 3:45 left in the game, they faced a 1st and goal from the 1-yard line and a chance to get back in the game. After two failed quarterback sneaks, USC changed gears and handed it to a running back. Stuffed again. On 4th and 1, USC tried a pass. Stopped again. Game over. Pack your bags for South Beach.
3. 2014 Michigan, Remeber the Six
This game had no greater meaning to the 2014 season or the program in general. It was just a good, old-fashion beat down of Michigan inside of Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame had never shut out Michigan in the history of the series between the two until 2014, amazingly engineered by the worst defensive coordinator the Irish employed this decade, Brian Vangorder.
Notre Dame’s defense was suffocating, forcing four Michigan turnovers – all from quarterback Devin Gardner. The final turnover came with 0:07 seconds remaining and resulted in a touchdown that was ultimately nullified by a BS roughing the passer penalty. Max Redfield was flagged for hitting Gardner the way every quarterback gets hit on almost every long interception return robbing Notre Dame fans of the game ending on a Pick-6 that should have made the final score 37-0.
2. 2012 @Oklahoma, Manti Gets His Heisman Moment
While the lack of big wins on the road was a common theme of the decade for Notre Dame, the biggest outlier of the last ten years occurred in Norman, Oklahoma, in 2012 when the Irish marched into Memorial Stadium and knocked around the 8th ranked Sooners. The game was a bit of a see-saw battle until the 4th quarter when Notre Dame opened up the game in the final five minutes of the game.
Notre Dame entered the 4th quarter in Norman with a 13-6 lead, but the Sooners tied the game with 9:10 to go. From that point on, Notre Dame outscored Oklahoma 17-0. Golson scored a 1-yard touchdown with 5:05 to go for a 20-13 lead in setting up Manti Te’o for his Heisman moment – the play that sealed his invite to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
Facing a 1st and 10 from the 41-yard line, Landry Jones dropped back to pass only to have the battle tipped at the line. Te’o saw the ball floating in the air and made the best interception of his Notre Dame career on a diving, sprawling play. Te’o had zero interceptions in his first three years but had seven in 2012, and none were bigger than his pick that night.
This was the game that convinced everyone the Irish were for real and were going to be in the driver’s seat for an undefeated season and trip to the BCS Championship. Up to this point in the season, everyone had been pointing to the road trip to Norman as the game that would prove whether or not the Irish were for real. Well, they were for real. Just no where near real enough for Alabama.
1. 2012 Stanford, A Goal Line Stand for the Ages
While the Oklahoma game was the game that proved to everyone outside of Notre Dame that the Irish were indeed for real in 2012, the Stanford game is when every Notre Dame fan realized “wait a minute, we got something special here”.
Like the USC game, this game probably could have been a much more comfortable win for Notre Dame is the Irish were more sound on offense. Everett Golson lost three fumbles including one that was returned for a touchdown before ultimately leaving the game with an injury with the Irish down 13-10. That’s when Touchdown Tommy Rees came off the bench to lead Notre Dame to the game tying field with 0:20 remaining to force overtime.
In OT we saw a glimpse of quintessential Rees with a perfectly placed swing pass to Theo Riddick on 3rd and 8 to set up his touchdown pass to TJ Jones. Golson would not have been able to make the pass that Rees made on that play. Then we we treated to the best ending of any Notre Dame game od the decade and perhaps longer.
It looked like Stanford was going to tie the game and force double overtime after they set themselves up with a 1st and goal from the 4-yard line. That’s when Notre Dame’s defense rose to the occasion. After stopping Stefan Taylor at the 1-yard line on 2nd and goal, the Irish stuffed him on back to back carries to end the game. Stanforf fans still swear Taylor was in the endzone on both 3rd and 4th downs, but he wasn’t. Notre Dame’s defense stuffed him both times to win the game and propel Notre Dame on its run to the title game.
This was the game of the decade for Notre Dame because of all it did for the way it ended and for what it meant for that 2012 season. Manti Te’o celebrating after the game ended is one of the lasting images of the decade for the Irish as well.
Hopefully the next decade brings some more road wins and less instances of referees robbing the Irish of some well deserved celebrations.