We might be a little late to the party with some of the “best of the decade” content, but with a little free time today, I decided to try and bust out a list of the top 10 games of the decade for Notre Dame. The list itself I started a week ago during a conversation with Greg, but today I finally had time to start typing it out. Spoiler alert: the list got long, so I broke it down into two parts.
Before running through the list, I’ll give you some insight into my thought process for this very scientific poll. I considered all of the following:
- The game’s impact on that season
- The game’s impact outside of the season it occurred
- Significance outside of just wins/losses
- How good of an actual game it was
Honorable Mention: 2018 Michigan, Notre Dame Wins 24-17
I debated with Greg over including this one in the top 10, but ultimately have it right outside the top 10 for a couple of reasons. First off, I expected Notre Dame to win this game, so I didn’t look at it as any kind of upset. Secondly, Michigan turned out to be pretty bad in 2018. They got their doors blown off by Ohio State and Florida to end the year.
The game itself was a great gameplan by Kelly and the departed Chip Long in terms of maximizing Brandon Wimbush’s legs against an elite defense, and it set the table for an undefeated run through the regular season last year, but at the end of the day, it came in just outside the top 10.
10. 2017 Citrus Bowl, Notre Dame Wins 21-17
Notre Dame ended its 2017 regular season on a sour note with a blowout loss to Miami to start November and followed that up by blowing a fourth-quarter lead to lose pretty comfortably to Stanford. They started the month firmly in the playoff debate and ended it with three losses. Then they got pared with LSU in the Citrus Bowl. Another loss looked like it was in the cards for the Irish.
We all know how this one ended with Ian Book coming off the bench and throwing one of the all-time great touchdown passes in program history. This game made the list for that and because it gave Notre Dame a 10-win season on the heels of the disastrous 2016 campaign and propelled the Irish into an off-seaosn that was followed up by a 12-0 regular season. This game had some lasting effects throughout the off-season.
It was in this game we got our first indicator that Ian Book might be the best quarterback on the roster, and we saw the emergence of Miles Boykin. It was a hell of a way to start the new year in 2018.
9. 2010 USC, Notre Dame Snaps USC’s Winning Streak
Brian Kelly’s first season in South Bend was tumultuous, to say the least. They entered Thanksgiving weekend bowl eligible after that looked like it would be in doubt earlier in the year, but had a chance for another achievement in an otherwise lost season. The Trojans had beaten Notre Dame nine straight times, with most of the contests not even being close. It wasn’t pretty, but Notre Dame snapped their streak with a 20-16 victory that improved the Irish to 7-5 on the season.
In terms of impact, the difference of 6-6 versus 7-5 at that time wouldn’t have made much of a difference other than maybe impacting Notre Dmae’s bowl destination. Beating USC in his first season in South Bend, however, was huge for Brian Kelly. Neither Charlie Weis nor Tyrone Willingham ever beat USC, so Kelly did something his predecessors couldn’t in his first year.
The win was a sign of things to come for Kelly and USC. Notre Dame finished this decade 7-3 against USC. They were 1-9 against them the decade before.
8. 2010 Utah, The Game That Saved Brian Kelly?
Brian Kelly didn’t start his first year at Notre Dame well on or off the field. The Irish got blown out by Navy in the Meadowlands and then lost to Tulsa in the infamous “Get Used To It” game. The worst loss of the season, however, occurred off the field with the tragic death of videographer Declan Sullivan the week of the Tulsa game.
The season, and perhaps Kelly’s Irish career, was careening out of control early. On the field, it looked like they wouldn’t even make a bowl game in 2010. Notre Dame entered November 4-5, needing to win two of three against #15 Utah, Army, and a USC team that had beaten the Irish nine straight times – we talked about that one already.
Needless to say, things looked bleak for Brian Kelly in year one. I listed this game in the top 10 because I think it gets overlooked for how it turned around that season, and maybe Kelly’s career with Notre Dame. Notre Dame blew out the #14 ranked Utes 28-3 for their first win over a ranked team since 2006 and students rushed the field after an emotional few weeks. Notre Dame didn’t lose again in 2010.
Now imagine for a second Notre Dame loses that game. They enter the Colosseum 5-6 at best, needing a win just to be bowl eligible. How differently might that game have been with the added pressure for a team that had an emotional rollercoaster?
Oh, and on a side note, Touchdown Tommy Rees led the Irish to victory in this one with three touchdown passes as a true freshman.
7. 2017 USC, Notre Dame Blows Out USC
Let’s switch gears to a happier note – Notre Dame’s absolute beat down of USC in 2017. Most forget that the Trojans came to South Bend ranked higher (11th) than the Irish (13th). They wouldn’t stay ranked higher much longer after Notre Dame blew their doors off. The game started with a turnover from Sam Darnold on the first drive of the game and ended with Notre Dame’s largest margin of victory over the Trojans in over 50 years.
Brandon Wimbush gave us all a glimpse of his ability as a passer with two early touchdowns to Kevin Stepherson (oh what could have been) and Equanimeous St. Brown. Josh Adams took over from there with 191 yards on the ground and three touchdowns.
This game didn’t have much of a greater meaning for Notre Dame. A few weeks later, Notre Dame itself got blown out in Miami, but this game is firmly in my list of top 10 games of the decade because it was an absolute throttling of a good USC team that finished the year 11-3. After all the blowouts that USC delivered to Notre Dame over the years – including 2014 – this game was cathartic for Notre Dame fans.
6. 2015 Clemson, Notre Dame Almost Tames the Tigers
Not every game on this list is one that the Irish won with this being the first to make the cut. This game was one of the few big game clashes the Irish were in during the 2010s that lived up to the hype. College Gameday was on hand for Notre Dame’s first visit to Death Valley since 1977. Both teams entered the game undefeated with playoff aspirations while the Irish brought in the higher ranking – #6 to Clemson’s #11.
The game itself looked like it would be another example of Notre Dame laying an egg on a national stage. Clemson took a 21-3 lead into the fourth quarter before the Irish came storming back. Notre Dame scored three third-quarter touchdowns, but some fell just short of completing the comeback when Deshone Kizer was stopped well short of the endzone on a 2-point conversion attempt with 0:06 seconds remaining.
This game could have been one of the defining moments of the decade for Notre Dame had it not been for four turnovers or a slew of dropped passes in a rain-soaked game. Notre Dame stayed in the playoff hunt for a few more weeks despite the loss while Clemson ended up playing losing to Alabama in an epic National Championship game.
Had the Irish pulled off the comeback, this probably would have been the top game in this countdown regardless of how the rest of the 2015 season had played out.
I’ll try to keep the top 5 portion of the countdown under 1,300 words but no promises.