When it Counts

IrishEyes examines three decades of decisive/game-ending field goals for the Notre Dame football program.

Quick, name your favorite clutch Irish kicker.

If you're older than 40, you likely answered "Harry Oliver."

Age 30 to 40? The name Reggie Ho probably passed your lips (even though Craig Hentrich was the era's best).

Born after 1985, but no longer college age? I can guess Nick Setta. And if you're still in school, well I doubt anyone but Setta or D.J. Fitzpatrick even crossed your mind.


Because we only remember the kicks that count. The last-minute, last-second variety that only help to decide a game, but inevitably seem to shape a season and stick with us for months, years, and decades.

And if you're a Notre Dame fan, it seems the bulk of such kicks have brought mostly heartache over the last three decades. They've certainly ruined more Saturday evenings than you care to remember.

Such kicks are why too few readers answered "John Carney" when posed the question above. Carney, the program record-holder for field goals made in a season and career; the record-holder for percentage made in a season and a career; and Carney, the Still Active NFL kicker, ranks as the best kicking product in team history.

But when two of three potential game winners sail wide left in your senior season, well…not everyone remembers the good times.

If you're a long-suffering Irish fan, a football program whose kickers donned shirts in the late-90s that read: Irish Kickers: We Hate You Too… then you probably don't remember quite as many of the field goals that rang true for your beloved team.

That's where I come in...

The 80s: Harry O and Ho are perfect while Johnston, and Carney (finally) connect

Final kicks helped the Irish defeat Michigan (twice), Miami, and USC in the 1980s…sign me up.

  • 1980: Harry Oliver, whose previous long field goal was 38 yards – in a JV game – hit the most dramatic kick in team history, an unlikely 51-yard boot into a 15 mph wind (though as legend has it, the wind died down just prior to the snap), to beat the 14th-ranked Michigan Wolverines. Oliver later hit a 47-yard field goal late in the contest to preserve a 3-3 tie vs. Georgia Tech. The tie was a "win" for Tech, but Oliver avoided a crippling loss and a chance to face-off with Georgia in the de facto national championship Sugar Bowl game in January.
  • 1981: No game-winning kicks for either the Irish or their opponents.

  • 1982: Mike Johnston drilled a 32-yarder to knock off No. 17 Miami in South Bend, 16-14 (incidentally, the first game I remember more than just bits and pieces). One week later, Arizona upset the No. 9 Irish with a 49-yard boot at the final gun by Max Zendejas.

    1982 continued its soccer-themed arc the following week in Oregon as Johnston struck again, this time from 35 yards out to tie the score with 11 seconds remaining. The Irish were 4-1-1 at this stage of the season with kicks deciding half of the season's six outcomes.

  • 1983: Johnston's potential game-winning, 31-yard field goal is blocked in the season-finale in South Bend, a 23-22 loss to Air Force – the Falcons second of four consecutive vs. Gerry Faust's Irish.
  • 1984: Missouri kicker Brad Burditt missed his first field goal inside of 40 yards in his college career when his 39-yard potential game-winner fell short in South Bend to preserve a 16-14 Irish victory. John Carney drilled a 44-yard field goal with 14 seconds remaining to cap an 11-point come from behind win vs. a sub-.500 Navy team.
  • 1985: No technical game-ending field goals, though LSU blocked three Carney field goals in a 10-7 home finale loss for the Irish (consider that one for the bad guys' tally).
  • 1986: The Year of the Kicker: Carney missed badly on a 45-yarder in the final seconds of what would have been a monumental upset of the No. 3 Wolverines. Four weeks later, Pittsburgh connected on a go-ahead field goal with 1:25 remaining and Carney's potential game-winner from 38 yards sailed wide in the final moments.

    Carney received a chance at redemption and capitalized with a 19-yard game-winner over USC to cap off an 18-point comeback and end a frustrating season on a high note.

  • 1987: No game-winning kicks for either the Irish or their opponents.
  • 1988: Walk-on medical student Reggie Ho drilled four field goals, the final a 26-yard game-winner with 1:13 remaining to give the No. 13 Irish a season-opening win over No. 9 Michigan in South Bend. Wolverines All-America kicker and nearby St. Joseph, Michigan product Mike Gillette's 49-yard offering at the gun tailed right at the final gun.
  • 1989: No game-winning kicks for either the Irish or their opponents.
  • 80s Final Tally: Irish kickers connected on five game-winning field goals (with an additional two game-tying kicks). Irish opponents missed two potential game winners while just one game-winning field goal rang true (1983) against the Irish.

    ND kickers missed three potential game winners – two of which occurred in a four-week span in 1986 – the other was blocked. In total, 9 of 14 potential game-winning kicks went the way of the Irish.

Click here for Part II and a review of the 90s through 2009.

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