Quit Dogging It

In a two-part column, we examine the Irish football program in an underdog role and discuss the need for a "Notre Dame Moment," in what has been a frustrating first season for head coach Brian Kelly.

College football media, especially those of the television and radio ilk, have adopted the term "Signature Win" to describe a coach's, program's or team's upset victory on a given Saturday.

Not surprisingly, the term generally overstates the game's actual importance.

Though not all signature in their variety, college football upsets, both technical and perceived, admittedly follow a vague set of criteria. Fans of struggling programs or coaches are quick to anoint any win over a Top 25 opponent as such. Top 15? Time to storm the field.

But a true Signature Win is rare. As a Notre Dame fan and/or beat writer for the last three decades I can think of several such contests that could fit the bill from the Lou Holtz era – or I can at least argue in each's favor.

Miami 1988 and Florida State 1993 are inarguable. Both were landmark victories, either shocking (the former), or highly satisfying in the wake of national disbelief (the latter). Holtz had others up for debate, of course, including two #1 vs. #2 victories vs. top rivals USC ('88) and Michigan ('89). He had a few near misses of the Signature Win variety as well; at least two in 1986 with the inarguable near-miss a 24-19 November loss to undefeated and eventual national champion Penn State.

(One key to the technical definition of a "Signature Win": When the nation's Vice President attends a game in South Bend as did George Bush of the aforementioned '86 battle vs. the Nittany Lions, its automatically deemed worthy of the moniker).

While a few satisfying upsets have occurred since, the Notre Dame football program hasn't registered a bona fide Signature Win since Holtz's aforementioned upset over No. 1-ranked and formerly untouchable Florida State, in Game 10 of the 1993 season (described in Part II of this column).

Less than a handful of college football climate-changing opportunities have presented since – the epic 2005 loss to USC and the Bush Push qualifies – but that's the ancillary result of a program rarely present in the nation's Top 10 over a 14-season span.

You'll know it when you see it...

Brian Kelly's 2010 season has not, and will not offer the opportunity for a Signature Win. His first-season schedule has proven strong, though more so for its weekly consistency rather than the presence of any college football heavyweight in the mix (if you'd argue Stanford, you're reading the wrong column).

Kelly does, however, have a chance at his first "Notre Dame Moment" this Saturday vs. No. 14 Utah. Yes, the occasion, the weekend, and the impact of the potential upset were lessened greatly by the Utes humbling loss to Mountain West-monster TCU last Saturday.

But we live currently in a relative world as Irish fans and followers: Utah has one loss in November; Notre Dame hasn't beaten a ranked team since early in Charlie Weis' second season (2006), the program is reeling physically, emotionally, mentally...nationally.

Brian Kelly needs a win. The second-highest ranked team Notre Dame will face this season is coming to town with the Irish in the midst of a two-game losing skid…to Navy and Tulsa, no less. (Speaking of present day relativity, can you believe Tulsa is the greater of those two evils?)

Admittedly, a standard upset win (Utah is favored by six points in South Bend) over what could be a disheartened Mountain West team shouldn't count as a Notre Dame Moment, not for long-time fans.

But considering the circumstances outlined above; considering the Senior Day sidebar and the continuous disappointments of said senior class; considering a first-year coach dragged through the ringer earlier in his tenure than any in recent memory, and considering further the growing apathy and disbelief of the team's fan base and student body – both still in shock over the program's most recent defeat – I think Saturday's must-win matchup vs. the nation's No. 14 ranked team might quality...especially considering the modern-day Irish appear incapable of playing a contest to anything but a heart-wrenching finish.

(The season finale at eight-season foil USC would also qualify as a potential Notre Dame Moment, but that's a column for another week.)

The Irish student body curiously stormed the field on Senior Day 1997 when a10-point favorite Notre Dame squad beat No. 22 West Virginia 21-14. It was the first Notre Dame game I covered in my professional writing career and I immediately wondered what was becoming of the program and its fan base in what was then Bob Davie's first season (incidentally, I'm still wondering).

In no way am I advocating a similar reaction for a potential upset win over one-loss Utah…but for once, in what has now been a great, great while, it'd be nice to consider the possibility as the final gun sounds nonetheless.

Signature Win, Notre Dame Moment, or Technical Upset?

The section below and the ensuing column to follow chronicle the last 25 years of Notre Dame's efforts in an underdog role.

Weigh-in with your opinion on each contest discussed here and in Part IIon the IrishEyes' subscriber message board, The Football Forum.

Charlie Weis ('05-'09) – Record as an underdog: 6-19

The Weis era was highlighted by three upset wins in his first three opportunities: the lyrical boast "What thou the odds be great or small" briefly took on a new meaning prior to a stunning fall from grace.

Signature Wins: None. The closest, of course, a 34-31 loss to No. 1 defending national champion USC in October 2005.

Notre Dame Moments: Arguably none, though possibly the 2005 upset at then-No.3 Michigan or the stunning win by the winless Irish vs. three-touchdown favorite UCLA in 2007.

Notable Upset Wins:Weis scored three upsets in his first three opportunities; then just 3 more over his next 22 contests vs. favored foes:

  • at No. 23 Pittsburgh (2005 Season Opener/First game as head coach): The 42-21 whipping of the Panthers (who were favored by a field goal) in Heinz Field was arguably the best (winning) performance of the Weis Era. My vote, however, goes to one of two contests below.
  • at No. 3 Michigan (2005 Week Two): A 17-10 road rivalry win by the No. 20 ranked Irish. Easily the best win on paper (the Irish were 8-point underdogs) of Weis' five years at the helm.
  • at No. 22 Purdue (2005 Week Five): The No. 13 Irish were a field goal underdog in West Lafayette. Final score: Notre Dame 49 Purdue 28. The contest marked the unofficial (national) breakout performance by junior wide receiver Jeff Samardzija.

Remarkably…that's it. At Purdue, Year One, marked the final upset win over a ranked team in the Weis era. Weis' Irish scored three other upsets, one of epic proportions, though the point spread reflected the futility of the Irish more so than the power of the opponent when 0-5 Notre Dame prevailed 20-6 over 21.5-point favorite UCLA in Los Angeles (October 2007). It's the biggest upset win by the program since at least 1964 (Notre Dame has rarely been such a heavy underdog).

Weis' Irish also took out two-win Stanford as five-point underdogs (season finale 2007) and (eventual) three-win Michigan as one-point dogs (Week Two 2008).

After prevailing in three consecutive underdog roles in 2005, Weis' Irish lost 9 straight (beginning with USC 2005 and ending with UCLA 2007); then later lost 7 straight as an underdog to conclude his Irish tenure.

Click here for Part II of Quit Dogging It and a review of Notre Dame in an underdog role under Tyrone Willingham, Bob Davie and Lou Holtz (including video links to Holtz's greatest moments as Irish head coach).

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories