Choosing “the best” or “top” bowl games in Notre Dame history is a subjective guess. Each person that has an interest/memory of the events is influenced by the personal impact of those games.
The two main criteria used in choosing 10 of the 34 bowls in which Notre Dame has participated were: 1) significance of the game/victory and 2) the ebb and flow/excitement of the game.
Here are the choices in descending order with the recently-completed Music City Bowl finding its way into the Top 10, not because of the national significance, but rather, the dramatic turnaround and the springboard it provides Notre Dame heading into the 2015 season.
• Music City Bowl (Dec. 30, 2014): Notre Dame 31, LSU 28
The game had no impact on the national scene, and when the match-up was first announced, a collective groan could be heard from the Notre Dame faithful. The Irish were reeling at the conclusion of the regular season, losing four straight in November after threatening at the midway point of the season to be one of four teams in the first-ever FBS playoffs. But injuries led to a defensive collapse, and quarterback Everett Golson’s turnovers contributed to the demise.
The Irish surprised the nation with a ground-oriented, two-quarterback approach, dominating the time of possession against the nation’s top ball-control squad to claim a three-point victory as Kyle Brindza’s 32-yard field-goal attempt sailed through the uprights as time expired.
• Cotton Bowl (Jan. 1, 1994): Notre Dame 24, Texas A&M 21
A personal favorite because of Notre Dame’s bounce-back performance following the devastating last-second home loss to Boston College on the heels of defeating No. 1 Florida State. This game featured a game-winning kick and the underrated amount of talent on the field that day.
Kevin Pendergast booted a 31-yard field goal with 2:22 remaining to give the Irish the winning margin. Neither team led by more than a touchdown. An incredible six first-round draft choices played that day as well as 12 selections in the first three rounds. First-rounders included: No. 7 Bryant Young (DT), No. 16 Aaron Taylor (OL) and No. 27 Jeff Burris (DB) for Notre Dame; No. 8 Sam Adams (DT), No. 12 Aaron Glenn (CB) and No. 25 Greg Hill (RB) for Texas A&M.
• Orange Bowl (Jan. 1, 1975): Notre Dame 13, Alabama 11
The 1974 season was a bit of a letdown following the national championship campaign in ’73 with the upset loss to Purdue early in the season and the collapse in the Los Angeles Coliseum against USC and Anthony Davis in the regular-season finale.
Unbeknownst to most, this would be Ara Parseghian’s final game coaching the Irish, who took a 13-0 lead on the Crimson Tide one year after knocking them off for the national championship. Alabama pulled to within two and had a chance to avenge the devastating loss from the previous season. But Notre Dame cornerback Reggie Barnett sealed the victory with an interception of Richard Todd.
• Rose Bowl (Jan. 1, 1925): Notre Dame 27, Stanford 10
Of course, there’s no one around today to tell us what a great game this was, and quite frankly, the Irish ran away with it by scoring 21 unanswered points midway through the game and led by double-digits most of the way.
But this was Notre Dame’s first and only bowl game for 45 years, and the coaching match-up – Knute Rockne vs. Pop Warner – was storybook. It’s also Notre Dame’s only Rose Bowl-game appearance in its storied history. Solidifying its spot in our top 10 of Notre Dame bowls was the final appearance of the famed Four Horsemen with one of the quartet – Elmer Layden, who eventually became head coach of the Irish – scoring three touchdowns, including 78- and 70-yard interception returns.
• Cotton Bowl (Jan. 1, 1971): Notre Dame 24, Texas 11
The Irish had returned to bowl play a year earlier after a 45-year hiatus and engaged the No. 1-ranked Longhorns in a dandy, only to lose, 21-17, on a one-yard touchdown run by Billy Dale with 1:08 remaining. Notre Dame got a reprieve the following year against No. 1 Texas and took full advantage.
Using a “mirror defense” to offset the Longhorns’ thrashing machine Wishbone attack, the Irish scored 24 first-half points and held Texas scoreless in the second half en route to a 13-point victory, which snapped Texas’ 30-game winning streak. The Irish finished No. 2 in the country behind Nebraska.
• Cotton Bowl (Jan. 1, 1979): Notre Dame 35, Houston 34
In a battle of a couple of fringe top 10 teams, it was the way the game transpired as well as the extreme weather conditions that made this such a classic. It also added greatly to the legend of Joe Montana, who battled flu symptoms with some good ol’ fashioned chicken soup, as the legend goes.
Strong, chilling winds led to 62 of the 69 points being scored by the team defending the north end zone. By the end of the third quarter and midway through the fourth, the Cougars were completely in charge, 34-12. But Tony Belden’s blocked punt was picked up by Steve Cichy and returned for a touchdown. Montana’s two-point conversion toss made it a 14-point game. Montana scored with 4:15 remaining and threw to Kris Haines for two more points and a 34-28 deficit. And then Haines’ eight-yard TD reception as time expired with Joe Unis adding the extra point gave the Irish a one-point victory.
• Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1, 1992): Notre Dame 39, Florida 28
If you thought the Irish were a long-shot last week against LSU, it was nothing like the clash between No. 18 Notre Dame and No. 3 Florida, led by QB Shane Matthews. So one-sided was the match-up that it led to the famous joke: What’s the difference between Notre Dame and Cheerios? Cheerios belong in a bowl.
The 10-1 Gators were decisive favorites against the Irish, who had blown a large lead and lost to Tennessee at home, been manhandled by Penn State in Happy Valley, and had narrowly escaped Hawaii in Honolulu to close out the regular season. The Irish had allowed 112 points in their last three games while Florida was racing through the SEC unscathed.
Trailing 16-7 and out-gained 288-142 in the first half, the Irish and head coach Lou Holtz turned to its patented running game, led by bruiser Jerome Bettis, who rushed for 150 yards on just 16 carries, including three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame out-scored Florida in the second half, 32-12.
• Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 2, 1989): Notre Dame 34, West Virginia 21
Some will tell you that Notre Dame was so dominant during the regular season and so confident that they would follow through with an undefeated season that the national championship tilt with the Mountaineers was a bit anticlimactic. That doesn’t diminish the impact of Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship, its first in 11 seasons.
West Virginia quarterback Major Harris took a shot on the third play of the game and was hampered the rest of the way. Meanwhile, Irish signalcaller Tony Rice made the most of his 11 pass attempts, completing seven for 213 yards, including scoring tosses to Raghib “Rocket” Ismail and Frank Jacobs. The 242-yard rushing attack did the rest. The Irish led by at least 13 points over the final 39:41.
• Cotton Bowl (Jan. 2, 1978): Notre Dame 38, Texas 10
There was never much doubt in this one as the Irish raced to a 24-3 lead, surrendered a late first-half touchdown, and then pitched a 14-0 second-half shutout to dethrone the No. 1-ranked Longhorns. Jerome Heavens and Vagas Ferguson became the first Irish running backs to each crack the 100-yard rushing mark in a bowl game while the defense slowed the Earl Campbell-led Texas attack to just 16 first downs.
In a controversial final AP poll – at least in Alabama land -- No. 5 Notre Dame leapfrogged No. 2 Oklahoma (31-6 losers to No. 6 Arkansas, coached by Lou Holtz), No. 3 Alabama (a 35-6 winner over No. 8 Ohio State) and No. 4 Michigan (a 27-20 loser to No. 13 Washington) to claim its third national title in 12 seasons.
• Sugar Bowl (Dec. 31, 1973): Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23
Two undefeated teams. The first-ever game between Notre Dame and Alabama. Paul “Bear” Bryant vs. Ara Parseghian. A battle for all the marbles in New Orleans.
The lead exchanged hands five times. No lead was greater than seven points, and it was four points or less for 42:20 of the game. Al Hunter returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. Bob Thomas, who had missed an extra point earlier in the game, converted a 19-yard field goal with 4:26 remaining to give the Irish a one-point lead after Alabama’s Bill Davis missed an extra point with 9:33 remaining. Notre Dame sealed the game on a third-down pass from Tom Clements to Robin Weber from inside its own 10-yard line.