Opening Game Memories

The first of our "Throwback Thursday" features offers a look at both opening week and home-opener memories.

Season openers have historically been kind to the Irish, though your favorite beat writer has attended each of the squad's four opening-game losses over the last 23 seasons (relax, my record's 17-4 in opening games).

But first game home contests are special, and Notre Dame home openers can be placed into three categories, at least over the last three decades:

  1. Games against Michigan
  2. Games not against Michigan, and...
  3. "Whoops...can we try that again?" (1995, 2007)

And that's it. Since it's my favorite subject we'll cover Wolverine home openers first.

The Irish have opened a season against the Wolverines on seven occasions since Gerry Faust took the reigns of the program in 1981 and hold a 5-2 advantage in those contests, including a 4-1 mark in South Bend.

Four of the five South Bend season-openers against UM serve as rivalry classics:

  • 1982: The first night game at Notre Dame Stadium and fullback Larry Moriarty helped deliver a victory for the good folks at Musco Light and Irish fans everywhere with 116 rushing yards and a 24-touchdown in Notre Dame's 23-17 victory.
  • 1986: Lou Holtz's first game as a Notre Dame coach resulted in 455 yards of total offense, 0 punts, and a new era of Irish football (on the heels of an era of something faintly resembling football) … but ultimately in a heartbreaking loss as well when 2008 Pro Bowl kicker John Carney missed a 45-yard field goal (badly) wide left. The previously unranked Irish moved into the Top 20 (at No. 20) as a result of their play in defeat to the third-ranked Wolverines.
  • 1988: The 13th-ranked Irish defeated No. 9 Michigan 19-17 with four Reggie Ho field goals and a punt return score (and ensuing end zone bow) by sophomore flanker Ricky Watters.
  • 1990: Trailing No. 4 Michigan 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, Irish sophomore QB Rick Mirer caps a comeback in his first collegiate start with an 18-yard pass to sophomore flanker Adrian Jarrell. Sophomore cornerback Reggie Brooks intercepted an Elvis Grbac pass on the next possession to preserve the win for the top-ranked Irish.
  • 1998: The fifth-ranked, defending champion Wolverines are ambushed in South Bend as Bob Davie's 22nd-ranked Irish deliver (what is now) the third-largest margin of victory over the Wolverines since the series resumed in 1978, 36-20 despite the presence of future NFL Hall of Famer and first-time Wolverines starter Tom Brady at quarterback.

Over the last three decades, the Irish have opened a season at The Stadium (against a team other than Michigan) in just 10 different years and are 8-2 in that span.

  • 1980: In Dan Devine's last season the No. 11 Irish drilled No. 9 Purdue 31-10 and won their next six games before losing the nation's No. 1 ranking in a 3-3 tie at Georgia Tech.
  • 1991: The No. 7 Irish, playing under the weight of a new NBC television contract for the first time, rode Demetrius Dubose, 578 yards from scrimmage, and Irv Smith's will to score despite about 800 pounds of excess baggage, to a 49-27 victory over quarterback Trent Green and the Indiana Hoosiers.
  • 1993: No. 7 Notre Dame dispatched Northwestern 27-12, dropped four spots in the polls, then bullied No. 3 Michigan in Ann Arbor…as well as its next eight opponents en route to a (short-lived) No. 1 ranking in late-November.
  • 1995: The first entry in the "Whoops" category with unranked Northwestern taking on the ninth-ranked Irish. The Wildcats impossible 17-15 opening victory in South Bend caused the Irish to plummet to No. 25 in the polls; Northwestern's campus (and team) to apparently celebrate for eight days as the future Co-Big 10 Champs lost 30-28 to Miami (Ohio) the following Saturday; and resulted in a long road back toward respectability for Holtz's last potentially dominant team (ND finished as the nation's best, but not-quite-there, 9-3 squad with a loss at No. 7 Ohio State and to No. 8 Florida State in the Orange Bowl).
  • 1997: The Stadium's Rededication Game was also a portent of things to come as the No. 11 Irish offense (and Stadium plumbing) performed at an unacceptable level in the 17-13 snoozer (victory) over Georgia Tech.
  • 1999: No. 18 Notre Dame 48, Kansas 13 in the Eddie Robinson Classic (played in South Bend). Before Kansas was Kansas. Which reminds me, is Kansas still Kansas?
  • 2000: 93 degrees and the unranked Irish defeated No. 23 Texas A&M 24-10. The unimpressive opener belied a solid Irish squad that would lose just twice in the regular season including the following week's overtime heartbreaker to No. 1 Nebraska.
  • 2003: No. 19 Notre Dame trailed 19-3 in the second half, then staged a furious comeback to take out a game Washington State team, 29-26 in overtime. The '03 Irish would have to wait more than a month to resemble an organized football team again, dropping their next three contests (and six of the next seven) en route to a 5-7 season.
  • 2007: If Northwestern '95 registers as a "whoops" Georgia Tech '07 probably deserves something along the lines of "Yeeeeash." (Translation: Nothing like getting ‘pantsed' in front of 80,000 disgusted Irish fans).
  • 2008: Served as both a near -"Whoops" and "Yeeeash" as the Irish won 21-13 vs. one of the nation's worst teams, San Diego State.

So what does all this mean? I have no idea, but I do know that:

  • Since Ara Parseghian took over the program in 1964, the Irish are 13-3-1 vs. ranked teams in season-opening games (with losses to No. 9 Pittsburgh in 1976; No. 3 Michigan in 1986; and No. 5 Nebraska in 2001 while tying UM in ‘92)
  • From 1965 (Parseghian's second season) through 1999 (Davie's third year), the Irish opened a season ranked in the A.P Poll in 34 of 35 years (only Holtz's '86 squad began a season unranked in that span, though the team joined the Top 20 after the season-opening loss against Michigan).
  • Since 1999, six of the nine Notre Dame teams to take the field began the season unranked. The three ranked squads (2000, 2001, and 2006) each lost at some point in September and combined for a 6-6 mark in the season's opening month (Weis' 2006 team was 4-1).
  • Weis holds a 3-1 mark in season openers but the Irish have outscored Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, and San Diego State just 80-77 in those four contests.

Season-opening records by decade:

1900 to 1919 (19-0-1); 1920s (10-0); 1930s (8-1-1); 1940s (9-0-1); 1950s (8-1-1) 1960s (9-1); 1970s (9-1); 1980s (7-3); 1990s (9-1); The 2000s (6-3).

This decade has offered a mixed bag of good times and bad, as nine Irish players and/or teams have set opening game records for the storied program:

Rushing TD: 3 by Rashon Powers-Neal at Pittsburgh in ‘05; Pass Attempts: 47 by Brady Quinn at BYU in ‘04; Pass Completions: Quinn with 26 at BYU; Points by a Kicker: Nick Setta 17 vs. Maryland in ‘02; Field Goals: 5 by Setta vs. Maryland to tie Craig Hentrich's mark in the 1990 win over Miami; Interceptions: 3 by Shane Walton in '02 vs. Maryland; Tackles: 18 by Courtney Watson in '01 at Nebraska; Points Allowed (Team): 33 vs. Georgia Tech in '07; Points Allowed (Quarter): 17 at Nebraska in '01; Points Allowed: (Half): 27 at Nebraska '01.

Finally, relevant to Saturday's contest, the Irish are 8-6 when allowing between 20-29 points in home openers…and 32-0 when topping the 40-point plateau offensively.

Note: Below is a collection of my home opener (though not all season-opener) highlights, first published in the BGI Blog: "Old School With O'Malley" last September,

Patience: There's a reason none of the highlights on the video above include Michigan…


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