September's Rivalry

IrishEyes' second edition of Throwback Thursday recalls a time when Notre Dame vs. Michigan was must-see TV for college football fans nationwide.

For nearly a decade, the contest marked the unofficial start of college football season.

From 1986 through 1994, Notre Dame and Michigan met in nine consecutive seasons. In eight of those contests, both teams were ranked among the nation's top 15 teams; five games pitted two teams listed among the AP's Top 10; and in seven different seasons during this span, either Michigan or Notre Dame was ranked as one of the Top 3 teams in the nation.

The sole contest that featured an unranked opponent – Notre Dame vs. No. 3 Michigan in 1986, with the reeling Irish entering the Lou Holtz era – might be the best in series lore.

The mid-80s through mid-90s were the halcyon days of the Notre Dame/Michigan rivalry. The game was September's Rivalry for both teams – Michigan awaited its annual late-November war with Ohio State while the Irish had to wait until either mid-October or Thanksgiving Saturday to summarily dispatch of their chief rival, the USC Trojans.

For the rest of the nation, Notre Dame/Michigan was a prelude to the heated action of conference seasons; of SEC teams battling through attrition; of the top-heavy Big 10 attempting to withstand challenges from below; when heavyweights from middling conferences such as Nebraska (then the Big 8) and Florida State (first an Independent, then a member of the ACC) and fans from other programs across the country took four hours out of their regular college football schedule to watch two Midwest juggernauts at war – the game often deciding the January destination of both programs.

When the Irish defeated (or tied) the Wolverines in this nine-year span Notre Dame accumulated a 20-0-1 mark in September while finishing at 62-10-1 in those six years.

In the four seasons in which Michigan won or tied against the Irish, the Wolverines posted 39 total victories.

A look back at an unmatched run of college football classics:

Nine Years of Nail-biters

Seven of the matchups were decided by an aggregate total of 18 points, with only Notre Dame's 1987 win in Ann Arbor, and Michigan's 1991 home win over the Irish resulting in double-digit margins. Both games, incidentally, kicked off the Heisman campaign of the schools' all-purpose superstars: Tim Brown and Desmond Howard.

  • 1986: No. 3 Michigan at unranked Notre Dame – The last three times the Irish took the field (all in November '85) they lost by a combined score of 104-20, but in the process, the program gained direction. In Lou Holtz's first game as Notre Dame's head man, the Irish unveiled a power-I/wishbone attack, never punted, wracked up 455 yards of total offense, and converted on 8 of 12 third down attempts. An apparent late Irish touchdown reception by Joel Williams was deemed out of bounds (which was a bit curious, as Williams was both decidedly in-bounds and never lost control of the football, prompting Holtz to offer: "A Michigan ball boy told us he had both feet in bounds, and Michigan's an honest school, so I believe him," and the Irish were denied and were forced to settle for a field goal, cutting the Wolverine's lead to one midway through the final quarter.

    The game ended when John Carney's 45-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right in the Wolverines 24-23 victory. The unranked Irish entered the following week's AP Poll at No. 20 despite the loss.

  • 1987: No. 16 Notre Dame at No. 9 Michigan – ND shocked Michigan in head coach Bo Schembechler's first-ever home opening loss on the strength of seven turnovers (four interceptions) and touchdowns from freshman tailback Ricky Watters, junior fullback Braxston Banks, and 1987 Heisman Winner Tim Brown, who made a fantastic leaping grab between two Wolverines defenders to open the scoring in a 26-7 rout.
  • 1988: No. 13 Notre Dame kicked off its National Championship season at home, under the lights vs. No. 9 Michigan. The Wolverines held the Irish out of the end zone offensively and limited junior QB Tony Rice to three complete passes for just 40 yards, but the Irish ground game, featuring just six career starts among its offensive linemen, forged for 226 rushing yards; walk-on med student Reggie Ho kicked four field goals and sophomore flanker Ricky Watters returned a punt 81 yards for a score in the 19-17 Irish victory. The game featured an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Irish in pre-game warm-ups and on the Notre Dame faithful for excessive crowd noise. Local product, St. Joseph's (Michigan) High's Mike Gillette missed a 48-yard field goal as time expired.
  • 1989: No. 1 Notre Dame at No. 2 Michigan. The Irish entered the contest with a 13-game winning streak while the Wolverines hadn't lost in their last 10 outings. The game, famous for two kick-return touchdowns by sophomore Rocket Ismail, was an otherwise brutal defensive struggle, with the Irish holding the Wolverines to 94 yards rushing on 34 carries and the Irish attempting just two passes (completing one, a 6-yard scoring pass from Tony Rice to fullback Anthony Johnson). Per usual, the Irish found success on the ground, churning out 213 rushing yards on 54 carries with Rice and Johnson controlling a conservative option attack (just nine total pitches found the hands of Irish tailbacks on the afternoon). The QB/FB duo, along with backup FB Rodney Culver carried the pigskin 45 times for 194 yards in the 24-19 victory.

    Rice finished his career with a 2-0 record over the Wolverines despite completing a total of four passes and engineering a single touchdown drive in the two contests.

  • 1990: No. 1 Notre Dame at No. 4 Michigan – Irish sophomore QB Rick Mirer made his first career start, scored the game's opening touchdown on an option keeper and eventually threw the game-winner with under two minutes remaining to close out a thrilling contest under the lights – the final night game played (to date) at Notre Dame Stadium. In the 54-plus minutes between Mirer's touchdowns, the vaunted Notre Dame front seven sprung a leak, allowing unheralded Wolverines tailback Jon Vaughn to run for 201 yards on 21 carries (with no single carry in excess of 24 yards) and saw junior flanker Desmond Howard score touchdowns of 44-and-25 yards to give the visitors a 24-14 lead entering the fourth quarter.

    But Mirer led the Irish on touchdown drives of 80 and 76 yards in the game's final period and the Irish defense road he heroics of inside linebacker Michael Stonebreaker (18 tackles and a game-saving interception) and backup cornerback Reggie Brooks (the game-ending pick) to victory. Mirer's final completion, an 18-yard strike to sophomore Adrian Jarrell, provided the winning margin at the 1:40 mark.

  • 1991: No. 7 Notre Dame at No. 3 Michigan – ND saw its four-game series winning streak snapped as the Wolverines, led by 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard and a stout defensive front handled the visiting Irish on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Michigan held Notre Dame to 78 yards rushing on 28 carries while piling up 195 yards on the ground, 164 courtesy of tailback Ricky Powers (on 38 rushes). But it was Howard that delivered the game's two decisive blows, a 29-yard end-around touchdown to give the Wolverines a 10-0 advantage and later, a sublime (now famous) 25-yard diving reception on fourth-and-one with 9:02 remaining that provided the game's final score, 24-14.
  • 1992: No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 6 Michigan – The game featured one of the greatest individual runs in program history (pictured in the video below); six turnovers (three interceptions by the Irish defense…three fumbles recovered by the Wolverines); a 100-yard rushing advantage for Notre Dame…offset by a 81-yard passing yardage advantage for Michigan; and, remarkably, a home team that overtly played for the tie with the ball at its own 12-yard line, one timeout, and 1:05 remaining in the contest.

    Prudent? Maybe, but Irish fans and the student body disagreed, as boos cascaded down upon head coach Lou Holtz in the 17-17 final that decided nothing.

  • 1993: No. 11 Notre Dame at No. 3 Michigan – The Irish won seven days prior vs. Northwestern, 27-12, dropped four spots in the AP Poll and limped into Ann Arbor answering questions about the largely anti-Holtz tome "Under the Tarnished Dome."

    Led by senior quarterback Kevin McDougal (making his first road start), the Irish pummeled the Wolverines for the better part of four quarters, taking leads of 17-3 and 24-10 before allowing two fourth-quarter scores (the latter with 0:34 remaining) in a 27-23 upset victory. McDougal finished with 208 yards passing on 12 completions and gained 83 yards rushing including touchdowns of 43 and 11 yards.

  • 1994: No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 6 Michigan – The game neither team deserved to lose. Redshirt freshman Ron Powlus threw two touchdown passes, the latter, an apparent game-winning 7-yard strike to junior receiver-supreme Derrick Mayes with 2:15 remaining. But Wolverines signal-caller Todd Collins was up to the task, driving Michigan 59 yards in five plays, including a deft escape of Irish pass-rusher Bert Berry with just over 10 seconds remaining. Collins spun to shake Berry and hit wide receiver Seth Smith who alertly dove out of bounds at the Irish 35 with seven seconds remaining.

    Michigan kicker Remy Hamilton ruined the home opener of my senior year when he drilled a game-winning 42-yard field goal to give the visitors a 26-24 victory in the last true classic played in this series.

The teams, of course, have knocked heads in other battles, including the 1980 classic ended by the late Harry Oliver's 51-yard field goal in Notre Dame's 29-27 victory.

And though five of the 10 games played since the 1994 thriller have been decided by one score or less (at least according to the official margin of victory), the series has undoubtedly lacked the panache of the Holtz era.

In 1997, a weak Irish team hung in with the eventual National Champion Wolverines before falling 21-14. The following season, Notre Dame upset the defending champs and new quarterback Tom Brady, 36-20 and in 1999, the game again went down to the wire with the Irish literally running out of time deep in Michigan territory after surrendering the game-winning touchdown with 1:38 remaining.

Another two-year hiatus dulled the series' national impact before the Irish, under new head coach Tyrone Willingham, prevailed 25-23 in a slop-fest (7 turnovers) in '02. The Wolverines responded with the series greatest beat down, a shocking 38-0 annihilation of the Irish in '03 and Willingham gained a measure of revenge with a 28-20 win during his final season as an Irish coach.

Charlie Weis is famously 2-2 vs. Michigan, putting his mark on the series in his second career game with a 17-10 victory in Ann Arbor, then losing the next two contests by a combined total of 85-21 including a 47-21 home defeat, a game in which the Irish entered the contest ranked No. 2 in the nation.

2008 saw a terrible Michigan squad fumble away any chance at respectability in Notre Dame's convincing 35-17 dismissal of Rich Rodriguez during his first foray into South Bend as the Wolverine's head man.

No Margin for Error

In the 25 games played since series resumption in 1978 – the Irish hold a 13-11-1 advantage. ND has won 10, lost 9, and tied 1 over the last 20 contests between the two. The Wolverines have won two of the last three…the Irish three of the last five. Ten contests since 1997 have provided five victories for both sides.

It may never rank as the unofficial start of the college football season again, but 2009 Notre Dame/Michigan received a shot-in-the-arm after two impressive victories over two apparently sub par opponents last Saturday (the fact that Western Michigan and Nevada were not considered "slam-dunk" warm-up matches illustrates the recent decline of the series on the national landscape).

But after consecutive matchups played in complete obscurity, Saturday's battle between the Irish and the Wolverines might have regained the focus, at least for four hours, of the college football world.

Note: Below is a collection of my ND/Michigan series highlights, first published in the BGI Blog: "Old School With O'Malley" last September. Highlights include:

  • A scene from Lou Holtz's first Irish pep rally at the Stepan Center on campus and subsequent first TD of the Holtz era
  • Larry Moriarty's 26-yard TD run during the first night game played at Notre Dame Stadium
  • 1988 pre-game crowd noise
  • The all-time greatest game week quote (one which would never be allowed today), courtesy of tailback Tony Brooks prior to the 1990 clash
  • Michael Stonebreaker's game-changing interception in 1990
  • Mirer's game-winning touchdown to Jarrell in ‘90
  • Reggie Brooks in 1992…enough said
  • Powlus to Mayes in ‘94
  • Jarious Jackson play-action in the '98 Irish upset followed by Denson sealing the deal with a fantastic effort
  • Shane Walton breaking up the game-tying two-point conversion attempt
  • Quinn to Shelton in '04 followed by Darius Walker's first (and second) college touchdown
  • Note: The following is my highlight reel of the 1989 clash between #1 Notre Dame and #2 Michigan in Ann Arbor (no other games featured on this reel).

    Finally: YouTube video reaction to the second greatest fight song in college football.


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