ND’s Five Greatest Bowl Games Recalled

When the Fighting Irish meet the Miami Hurricanes on the afternoon of December 31 in the Sun Bowl at El Paso, Texas, it will be the 30th all-time bowl game for Notre Dame.

Which games stand out among ND’s 29 bowl appearances to date?

We’ve selected the following five, though you can make a strong case for some others.

For instance, one can argue that the January 1, 1970 Cotton Bowl was pivotal, because it marked the return of Notre Dame to bowl games after a 45-year absence. The Irish came up just short against the undefeated, top-ranked Texas Longhorns, dropping a hard-fought 21-17 battle.

The following year, a rematch in the 1971 Cotton Bowl, the 9-1 Irish upended the Horns, 24-11, ending their 30-game winning streak and dropping Texas from the top spot in the polls. With the victory, the Irish moved up to a final ranking of #2, behind Nebraska. The Huskers, led by Johnny Rodgers, had defeated Oklahoma in the regular-season finale called by many The Game of The Century.

But we settled on these five, four of which produced national champions and the fifth, a legendary comeback:

1925 Rose Bowl
Notre Dame 27, Stanford 10

The trip made by the Irish to and from their first bowl appearance was unlike anything ever seen in college football….before or since.  The nation was eager to see Knute Rockne’s “Wonder Team” and its amazing backfield, The Four Horsemen.  So the Irish went on a three-week round-trip odyssey, stopping for numerous banquets, events and special masses, for local groups of ND alumni, Catholic “subway alums” and the general public.

In the Rose Bowl, they went up against coaching legend Pop Warner and star back Ernie Nevers. Stanford and Nevers gained plenty of yardage, but ND returned three key turnovers – a fumble, and two interceptions by Elmer Layden – for touchdowns to complete a perfect season.  The 10-0 Irish were awarded ND’s first consensus national championship.

1973 Sugar Bowl
Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23

On New Year’s Eve in New Orleans, when the Sugar Bowl was still played in the Sugar Bowl, Bear Bryant’s No. 1 Crimson Tide came in riding high, with an 11-0 record and their sights set on another national championship. The Irish, also unbeaten, stood in their way, and a record crowd of 85,161 enjoyed a classic.

When the Tide scored on a flea-flicker halfback pass with 9:33 left, it was the game’s fifth lead change. Alabama missed the point-after kick, though, and had just a two-point lead, 23-21.  The Irish marched 79 yards, 30 on a pass from Tom Clements to Dave Casper, and Bob Thomas nailed a short FG for a 24-23 lead.  Alabama was forced to punt, and downed the kick at the Irish 1-yard-line. Clements hurled a daring pass to Robin Weber from his own end zone to seal the victory.

1978 Cotton Bowl
Notre Dame 38, Texas 10

Darrel Royal’s No. 1-ranked, undefeated Longhorns featured Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell and were solid favorites to get past the once-beaten Irisih.  Nobody had been able to stop, or slow down, Campbell and the Horns all season.  That made what happened before 76,701 at at the Cotton Bowl, and millions more on TV, all the more amazing.

The Irish defense, led by Bob Golic, who had 17 tackles and a blocked FG, forced six Texas turnovers, three fumbles and three interceptions – and the Irish scored off five of them.  Notre Dame raced to a 24-3 lead midway through the second quarter, and shut Texas out in the second half.

Campbell had to work mightily for 116 yards on 29 carries, while ND’s Jerome Heavens (101 yards) and Vagas Ferguson (100 yards, 3 TDs) led the way. But it was Golic and his defense mates, Willie Fry, Jim Browner, Steve Heimkreiter, Ken Dike, etc., who won the day – and a national championship for Dan Devine’s Irish.


1979 Cotton Bowl
Notre Dame 35, Houston 34

This one is known as the “Chicken Soup” game.  And while it didn’t result in a national title, it remains one of the greatest Irish victories ever. Amidst a brutal ice storm which swept over Dallas, the Cougars erased an early 12-0 ND lead with 34 straights points, holding a commanding 34-12 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

QB Joe Montana couldn’t shake the chills, and spent halftime receiving intravenous fluids and chicken broth. He returned in the fourth quarter to lead one of the greatest comebacks ever.  First, Tony Belden blocked a punt and Steve Cichy returned it for a touchdown, and Montana hit Vagas Ferguson for a two-point conversion. After a Houston punt, ND drove for another eight points, and it was 34-28.

In the final minutes, the Irish defense held again, stopping Houston on a 4th-and-one and taking over on the Cougar 29.  Five plays later, with time elapsed, Montana’s hit Kris Haines in the near corner of the end zone for a TD. Joe Unis kicked the winning extra-point (twice, after a penalty wiped out the first) and the miracle was completed.

1989 Fiesta Bowl
Notre Dame 34, West Virginia 21

It would be another decade before what we now know as the BCS would pair the nation’s top two teams, but this was a de facto national title game, pairing the last two unbeaten teams of the 1988 season.  The top-ranked Irish had already defeated then No. 1 Miami, in a 31-30 thriller, and whipped No. 2 USC, 27-10, to conclude the regular season 12-0.  The Irish, coached by Lou Holtz, with Barry Alvarez guiding the defense, had things going in every phase of the game, and continued the clean sweep against the  #3 Mountaineers.

The Irish defense – featuring Michael Stonebreaker, Jeff Alm, Frank Stams,  Flash Gordon, Stan Smagala, and others – harassed Mountaineer QB Major Harris all day long.  On offense, Tony Rice distributed the ball to an army of runners and receivers, including Tony Brooks, Mark Green, Braxston Banks, Rodney Culver and Raghib (Rocket) Ismail. Rice’s 29-yard completion to Ismail shortly before half made it 23-3 Irish. It was 34-13 before a last-minute WVU score made the final look more respectable than it really was. A perfect 13-0 season, and another national championship for the Fighting Irish.

Sun Bowl Miscellany

The Sun Bowl has been played annually since January 1, 1935 – the same day both the Orange and Sugar bowls debuted.  The three are exceeded in history by only the Rose Bowl.   So if the Rose is the “grand-daddy of ’em all,” the Sun, Orange and Sugar are at least the “kindly uncles” of the bowl system.

This is ND’s first appearance in the Sun Bowl.  But El Paso played a role in the first Notre Dame bowl trip ever – the historic journey made by Knute Rockne and The Four Horsemen to the Jan. 1, 1925 Rose Bowl.  (For more details, watch for an upcoming feature on the trip on Forever Irish).

The Irish will be looking to even their all-time bowl record at 15-15 with a victory over the Miami Hurricanes.  ND won seven of its first nine bowl appearances, then added another six victories in its next 10 bowls, and sat at 13-6 all-time after winning the 1994 Cotton Bowl, 24-21 over Texas A&M.

Then came the NCAA record nine-game bowl losing streak, broken two years ago with the 49-21 romp in the Hawaii Bowl over the University of Hawaii.

This is the 11th different bowl destination for the Irish (counting the 1984 Aloha Bowl as the same locale as the aforementioned Hawaii Bowl).  Notre Dame has winning all-time records in three bowls: 1-0 in the Rose and Liberty, and 5-2 in the Cotton Bowl (again, lumping Aloha with Hawaii).

Kickoff is set for 2:15 ET on Friday, Dec. 31, with the game televised nationally by CBS.