Nov. 11, 2015
By Todd Burlage
Drama, buildup, suspense, elation, despair — there’s nothing in all college or professional football that carries such a range of excitement and emotion as a goal line stand.
These memorable moments change games; they break hearts; they rile crowds; they inspire players; they save seasons.
Nothing else in sports can stand next to the goal line stand, and Notre Dame has executed plenty of great ones through the decades.
All-time lists and top-ten rankings are always subjective, but using the criteria of impact, timing and outcome, here is our countdown of best Notre Dame goal line stands, all of which hold their place among the Great Moments in Notre Dame Football History.
No. 10: USC, Oct. 21, 1995
On the strong arm of quarterback Kyle Wachholtz and the Velcro hands of wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, undefeated USC entered the game ranked No. 5 in the country and still holding high hopes for a potential national championship run.
No. 17 Notre Dame, a two-loss team, built a 21-7 lead when USC faced 1st-and-goal at the Irish two with 15 seconds left in the first half.
Three straight pass attempts in the end zone from Wachholtz to Johnson fell incomplete, in part because of terrific coverage from Irish cornerbacks Shawn Wooden and Allen Rossum.
On fourth down, Notre Dame defensive end Renaldo Wynn and linebacker Kinnon Tatum swarmed on and brought down USC running back Rodney Sermons well short of the end zone after a short reception.
This goal line stand helped spark a big second half for the Irish, which rolled to a 38-10 win that preserved a 13-game unbeaten streak over the Trojans, and sent the frenzied Irish faithful storming from their seats to celebrate on the rain-soaked field at Notre Dame Stadium.
The defensive stand and win helped to send Notre Dame to a New Years Day Orange Bowl appearance against Florida State.
No. 9: Army, Nov. 10, 1928
Facing an Army team that entered this classic rivalry as winners of its previous 11 games — including an 18-0 victory over Notre Dame a year earlier that became the only loss of the 1927 season for the Irish — head coach Knute Rockne implored his team in the locker room after a scoreless first half to “win one for the Gipper.”
George Gipp, a 1920 Notre Dame all-American running back who died that same year, had become a legendary figure in Irish lore and Rockne was calling on “Gipp’s” memory to rally his troops.
Notre Dame scored the go-ahead touchdown to make the score 12-6 with 2:30 remaining in the game before Army battled back and found itself first-and-goal at the Irish 10 in the closing minute.
A five-yard penalty and two incomplete passes had the Cadets facing 3rd-and-goal at the Irish 15. Army quarterback Dick Hutchinson completed an 11-yard pass on the next play to reach the Notre Dame four.
A play later on fourth down, Hutchinson plunged forward on a quarterback keeper but fell one foot short of the goal line to secure the six-point Notre Dame win as time expired.
Without this goal line stand, it’s doubtful the “win one for the Gipper” story would’ve ever been shared, let alone celebrated.
No. 8: Stanford, Jan. 1, 1925
In what became the first and only bowl game during the initial 38 years of Notre Dame football, this Rose Bowl battle in Pasadena, California for the national title still stands among the best wins in Irish program history.
Notre Dame built a seemingly comfortable 20-3 lead over Stanford before the Indians (the program’s nickname at the time) regained momentum after pulling to within 20-10 behind Hall-of-Fame running back Ernie Nevers.
Still trailing by 10 points early in the fourth quarter, Stanford intercepted a Notre Dame pass deep in Irish territory to set up a 1st-and-goal at the six.
One of the biggest and strongest running backs of the era, the 200-pound Nevers pushed the ball to the one-yard line to set up a 4th-and-goal try. Nevers was given the ball again but was stopped eight inches short of the end zone on a play that changed momentum and helped Notre Dame secure a 27-10 win.
Had Stanford scored on this drive, the Irish still would’ve led, but only by three. Instead, the goal line stand sparked a victory that secured the first consensus national title in Notre Dame history and helped immortalize the Four Horsemen, even though Nevers’ 114 rushing yards in the game out-gained all four of those four legendary Irish backs combined.
For a variety of reasons — mainly the academic calendar — 45 years passed between this Rose Bowl win and the next bowl appearance for the Irish when head coach Ara Parseghian took his team to the 1970 Cotton Bowl.
No. 7: Oklahoma, Sept. 29, 1962
Muddling through the toughest stretch in Notre Dame program history, the struggling Irish were coming off a 12-18 record the previous three years under head coach Joe Kuharich when they opened the 1962 season against Oklahoma, leaving the Irish a prohibitive underdog in this road matchup against the mighty Sooners.
With Notre Dame leading 13-7 midway through the fourth quarter, Oklahoma methodically moved downfield toward a potential game-winning touchdown, using 13 plays to set up a first-and-goal from the Irish three.
Notre Dame tackles Bob Lehmann, Frank Budka and Jim Kelly held the Sooners powerful running game to just two yards on the first three plays of the goal-to-go series, setting up a fourth-and-everything from the one-yard line.
In what turned out to be a risky play call, Oklahoma fumbled a pitchout at the 12-yard line where Frank Minik fell on the ball for Notre Dame to secure the six-point upset win.
The goal line stand and the unlikely Irish victory was expected to breathe some new life into the Notre Dame program, but four consecutive losses to follow this game and a 5-5 finish in the 1962 season marked the end of the Kuharich coaching era.
No. 6: Penn State, Nov. 14, 1992
In a legendary game still placed among the best and most dramatic victories in Notre Dame history, “The Snow Bowl” remains as memorable for the inclement weather as it does for the final outcome.
Blanketed in white from a snow squall parked over Notre Dame Stadium most of the game, the No. 8 Irish held a slim 9-6 lead over No. 22 Penn State with only about 10 minutes left in the game when the Nittany Lions had a first-and-goal at the Irish one.
On first down, Penn State tailback Richie Anderson tried to leap over the scrum pile and into the end zone but was met head-on by safety Jeff Burris for no gain. After a two-yard loss on second down and an incomplete pass on third-down, the Nittany Lions were forced to settle for a short field goal to tie instead of taking a four-point lead with a touchdown.
Holding Penn State to three points instead of seven with this goal line stand proved critical because the Nittany Lions added a touchdown to go up 16-9 before Notre Dame answered with a scoring pass from quarterback Rick Mirer to Jerome Bettis, followed by a two-point conversion completion from Mirer to tailback Reggie Brooks with 20 seconds left in the game to secure a 17-16 win for the Irish.
No. 5: Colorado, Jan. 1, 1990
In an Orange Bowl matchup in Miami that unexpectedly turned into a defensive battle between two of the best offensive teams in the country, top-ranked Colorado (11-0) worked its way to a 1st-and-goal on the Irish one-yard line late in a scoreless first half.
With no points on the board and the game clock winding down to halftime, Colorado halfback Eric Bieniemy tried to dive over the top of the Irish defense and into the end zone but was met squarely and dropped promptly by Notre Dame safety D’Juan Francisco for no gain.
Buffaloes quarterback Darian Hagan was subsequently stopped cold for no gain on a second-down keeper. And on third down, Irish defensive lineman Troy Ridgley forced an errant pitch that bounced out of bounds at the Irish three.
Colorado set up for a field goal on fourth down, but instead called a fake kick with holder Jeff Campbell trying to take the snap and run it in. But the Irish defense again held when Ridgley brought Campbell down just short of the end zone.
Notre Dame parlayed this goal line stand into a balanced second half, a 21-6 victory, a 12-1 record, and a No. 2 ranking in the final Associated Press Poll behind national champion Miami.
No. 4: Washington, Oct. 3, 2009
In a series of plays and a defensive stop that many would consider the highlight of a difficult final season for head coach Charlie Weis, Washington was leading 24-22 and on the verge of a two-score lead with a first-and-goal at Notre Dame’s one-yard line.
On first down, Washington halfback Chris Polk lost one yard on a stop by Irish tackle Ethan Johnson. A second-down pass by Huskies quarterback Jake Locker fell incomplete and Locker was held for no gain on a third-down keeper that forced a field goal attempt. The kick was good, but the points were taken off the board and Washington was back on the offensive from the Irish one after Notre Dame was called for a rare roughing-the-snapper penalty.
Similarly to the previous goal line stand that forced the first field goal attempt, Polk was stuffed for no gain on first down. Notre Dame then benefitted from a false start penalty on second down that pushed the ball back to the six.
Irish safeties Harrison Smith and Kyle McCarthy stopped a five-yard pass completion at the one-yard line on second down, before nose tackle Ian Williams and linebacker Toryan Smith again snuffed Locker at the goal line on third down to force a field-goal that put Washington up 27-22 instead of up 31-22.
The “double” goal line stand helped Notre Dame respond and take a brief 30-27 lead before needing a comeback of its own to claim a 37-30 overtime win, much to the delight of its home crowd.
3: Boston College, Nov. 7, 1998
Playing at home and trailing 31-26 with 1:07 remaining in the game, Boston College drove from its own 23 to a first-and-goal at the Irish four.
The Eagles featured tailback Mike Cloud, who ranked second in the country in rushing at 153.4 yards per game, and an offensive line loaded with future National Football League standouts.
On first down, Cloud reached the Irish two with a two-yard gain before Notre Dame linebacker Bobby Howard brought him down. On second down, Howard again stopped Cloud, this time after a one-yard gain at the Notre Dame one.
Cloud was again stopped short of the goal line on third down, this time on a great play by Irish linebacker Jimmy Friday that forced Boston College to call its final timeout with 11 seconds left in the game.
Facing a fourth-down just inches from pay dirt and an Eagles’ win, Irish safety Deke Cooper was told by his coaches to disregard any potential pass play and focus only on stopping the run. Following his strategy orders, Cooper shot through the middle of the offensive line and dropped Cloud for a two-yard loss to secure the five-point Notre Dame win.
The dramatic goal line stand capped a sixth straight victory for Notre Dame in what became an eight-game winning streak that season, tying the longest in the previous 19 years.
2: Stanford, Oct. 13, 2012
Trying to remain undefeated and on track to what ended up a run to the national championship game, the 5-0 and No. 7 Irish built a quick 20-13 overtime lead over the No. 17 Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium.
A quick-hitting 13-yard run by Stanford tailback Stepfan Taylor gave Stanford a first down at the Irish four, making a second overtime appear imminent. Taylor gained three more yards on his first- and second-down carries to take Stanford to the Irish one for its third-down play.
The Cardinal expectedly went with Taylor again but nose guard Louis Nix III and linebacker Carlo Calabrese blew the play up for little or no gain, setting up fourth down.
Just inches from the game-tying score and a second overtime, Stanford went to Taylor again, but this time, Irish cornerback Bennett Jackson came clean from around the edge to slow Taylor and allow Calabrese and others to stuff the play for no gain and end the game.
This goal line stand became a signature moment during a 12-0 regular season for Notre Dame. Had the Irish had won the national title this season, this stop would have become the most famous goal line series in program history.
1: SMU, Dec. 3, 1949
In the regular-season finale at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Notre Dame was leading SMU 27-20 with about five minutes remaining in the game and the Irish trying to hold on for both the win and a fourth national title under head coach Frank Leahy.
With backup SMU quarterback Kyle Rote subbing for all-American starter Doak Walker, the unranked Mustangs were overmatched, a four-touchdown underdog, and the last hurdle standing between Notre Dame and its third national title in four seasons.
With the clock ticking down, Rote — who rushed for 115 yards and scored all three of SMU’s touchdowns — calmly drove his team from its own 21 to a first-and-goal at the Notre Dame five. Things stalled out from there.
A one-yard loss on first down, followed by an incomplete pass on second down, and then a two-yard run by Rote on third down, set up a fourth-and-goal from the four.
In one of the few mistakes Rote made the entire game, his fourth-down pass attempt was intercepted at the goal line by Jerry Groom to secure the seven-point Irish win.
Because of the high stakes and the amazing goal line stand, Leahy later called this the most exciting game he coached in — understandably so, since the win capped a four-year run in which the Irish finished 36-0-2 under Leahy’s watch, and set the true gold standard for the program.