Nov. 15, 2012
By Lou Somogyi -
This Oct. 27, a 7-0 Notre Dame football squad entered the cauldron at Oklahoma as an 11-point underdog.
In other words, they had the Sooners right where they wanted them.
Although Notre Dame’s overall winning tradition in college football is second to none, it also has established a reputation as perhaps the greatest underdog program in the country.
Part of it is because Notre Dame ranks first all time in football victories over No. 1 teams in the Associated Press poll (eight) — and that doesn’t even include snapping Oklahoma’s NCAA record 47-game winning streak in 1957 when the Sooners were ranked No. 2 and were a three-touchdown favorite. Nor does it include upsetting Alabama in the 1975 Orange Bowl (13-11) when the Crimson Tide was No. 1 in the UPI poll.
The first epic upset in Notre Dame annals was an 11-3 victory at Michigan in 1909, followed by the 35-13 win at Army in 1913.
There were several more after that, most notably the 18-13 victory at Ohio State in 1935, which was voted the greatest college football game in the first 100 years of football (1869-1969).
Because Notre Dame became such a powerhouse under head coach Frank Leahy (1941-43, 1946-53), the Irish really couldn’t “upset” anyone, and the same held true under Ara Parseghian (1964-74) during the regular season.
The mother of all what-tho’-the-odds upsets took place in the aforementioned ‘57 game at Oklahoma.
What made it particularly stunning is the Irish had lost 34-6 the week before to Michigan State, while Oklahoma romped to a 39-14 win at Missouri. Thus the Sooners made the cover of Sports Illustrated as “unbeatable.
The 7-0 Notre Dame victory that day helped begin a “secret sauce” formula for upsets that continued at Norman 55 years later:
1) The Irish are required to struggle the previous week (or weeks), casting a specter of doubt upon them as paper tigers ripe to be mauled.
2) The vaunted Irish opponent must whip its foe(s) badly in prior weeks, providing them a look of supremacy.
3) The regular-season game preferably should be on the road, although we made exceptions in a few cases since 1980.
1980: Notre Dame at Alabama
Notre Dame A Week Earlier: Against a 1-7 Georgia Tech team, No. 1 Notre Dame needed a late field goal by Harry Oliver to salvage a 3-3 tie. It dropped to No. 6.
Alabama A Week Earlier: In quest of a third straight national title, the Crimson Tide pounded rival LSU, 28-7. No way would head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant go 0-4 against Notre Dame.
Outcome: A sensational defensive effort led the Irish to a 7-0 upset at Legion Field in Birmingham. The lone touchdown drive was four yards, with Phil Carter scoring the touchdown.
1982: Notre Dame at Pittsburgh
Notre Dame A Week Earlier: The unranked Irish had to battle for four quarters before beating Navy, 27-10, after being fortunate to tie a weak Oregon team (13-13) and losing at home to Arizona (16-13).
Pittsburgh A Week Earlier: The No. 1 Panthers, with quarterback Dan Marino, had just pounded Louisville, 63-14, and were double-digit favorites against the Irish.
Outcome: Notre Dame exploded with a 21-point fourth-quarter for a 31-16 victory, highlighted by a 54-yard flea flicker from quarterback Blair Kiel to wideout Joe Howard and a 76-yard scamper by freshman running back Allen Pinkett.
1984: Notre Dame at LSU
Notre Dame A Week Earlier: The Irish lost their third straight home game, 36-32 to South Carolina, to drop to 3-4. Notre Dame awaited certain annihilation at “Death Valley” versus No. 6 LSU, which would ultimately win the SEC.
LSU A Week Earlier: The Tigers improved to 5-0-1 with an impressive 36-10 romp at Kentucky.
Outcome: LSU took a quick 7-0 lead — and then the Irish outscored them 30-7 the rest of the way before another Tigers score in the closing seconds made the final, 30-22. Notre Dame head coach Gerry Faust became the Sports Illustrated cover story that week.
1988: Notre Dame vs. Miami
Notre Dame A Week Earlier: Battling throughout the game, the Irish needed a late touchdown to win at Pittsburgh, 30-20. Now it had to face No. 1 Miami, which had a 36-game regular season winning streak and had outscored Notre Dame, 133-20, in its previous four meetings.
Miami A Week Earlier: Not only did the Hurricanes destroy Missouri, 55-0, but they also had an extra week to prepare for the Irish.
Outcome: The 31-30 victory over Miami is considered the greatest home game in Notre Dame annals and propelled the Irish to the 1988 national title.
1993: Notre Dame at Michigan
Notre Dame A Week Earlier: The Irish trailed lowly Northwestern, 12-7, in the second half and had to rally for a 27-12 win. It dropped them from No. 7 to No. 11 in the polls.
Michigan A Week Earlier: The No. 3 Wolverines pummeled Washington State, 41-14, and were installed as nine-point favorites over the wounded Irish.
Outcome: Quarterback Kevin McDougal ran for a 43-yard touchdown on the first series en route to a 24-10 lead at halftime, and the Irish held on for a 27-23 triumph to move all the way from No. 11 to No. 4.
1993: Notre Dame vs. Florida State
Notre Dame A Week Earlier: Notre Dame trailed Navy, 24-17, at halftime in a sloppy game before rallying in the second half.
Florida State A Week Earlier: The No. 1 Seminoles with Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward won, 49-20, at Maryland, the seventh time in nine games they had scored at least 40 points. Florida State was installed as a touchdown favorite at Notre Dame.
Outcome: The Irish built a 24-7 advantage and hung on for a 31-24 conquest to move to No. 1.
1997: Notre Dame at LSU
Notre Dame A Week Earlier: The sputtering 4-5 Irish were inches short of losing to Navy after a controversial measurement in a 21-17 win at home.
LSU A Week Earlier: After already beating No. 1 Florida, the Tigers recorded a 27-0 shutout of Alabama — in Tuscaloosa, no less.
Outcome: For the only time in its history, Notre Dame played a game where it committed neither a turnover nor a penalty in the 24-6 win. It was 24-0 after three quarters, and demoralized “Death Valley” was half empty by the end of the third quarter.
2002: Notre Dame at Florida State
Notre Dame A Week Earlier: Although No. 6 Notre Dame was still unbeaten at 7-0, it kept winning with “smoke and mirrors,” barely getting by at Air Force (21-14) a week after surviving Pittsburgh (14-6).
Florida State A Week Earlier: The Seminoles had a bye, were 84-5 in their last 89 home games and were installed as a double-digit favorite.
Outcome: Notre Dame scored on its first play from scrimmage, a 65-yard pass from Carlyle Holiday to Arnaz Battle, and had a 34-10 fourth-quarter lead en route to its 34-24 upset.
2004: Notre Dame vs. Michigan
Notre Dame A Week Earlier: The Irish opened the season with a devastating, 20-17, loss at BYU with no rushing attack minus injured Ryan Grant.
Michigan A Week Earlier: The Wolverines buried Miami (Ohio), 43-10, and were heavy favorites against an Irish team it destroyed 38-0 the previous year.
Outcome: The Irish trailed, 9-0, at halftime, but after freshman running back Darius Walker was inserted for the first time, his 115 yards rushing sparked a 28-20 come-from-behind victory.
2004: Notre Dame at Tennessee
Notre Dame A Week Earlier: The Irish actually had a bye, but lost at home to Boston College the prior Saturday, 24-23, to fall to 4-3.
Tennessee A Week Earlier: The No. 9 Volunteers were one of the nation’s hottest teams, winning four straight — on the road against Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina, and at home versus Alabama.
Outcome: Mike Goolsby’s interception return for a touchdown in the second half propelled the Irish to a 17-13 upset in Knoxville.
2012: Notre Dame at Oklahoma
Notre Dame A Week Earlier: The Irish had to rally from a 14-7 halftime deficit to eke out a 17-14 home win against BYU — one week after a dramatic goal-line stand to upend Stanford in overtime (20-13).
Oklahoma A Week Earlier: The No. 8 Sooners had been obliterating everything in their path the previous three weeks, including a 63-21 win against rival Texas and a 52-7 destruction of Kansas. They were installed as a double-digit favorite and were 79-4 at home under head coach Bob Stoops.
Outcome: The Sooners’ 44.7 scoring average per game was cooled while Notre Dame’s physical, methodical and efficient approach produced 17 unanswered fourth-quarter points in a 30-13 conquest.
Moral of the story: When Notre Dame appears most certain it will lose … oftentimes that’s when it wakes up some echoes.