Notre Dame Football: A History of the Irish in the Big House

Matt Smith@MattSmithCFBCorrespondent IIISeptember 4, 2013

University of Michigan's Steve Breaston (15) takes a hard hit from several  Notre Dame defenders at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan on September 10, 2005.  Notre Dame won the game 17-10. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Saturday night's Notre Dame-Michigan game at fabled Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor marks the beginning of an end of an era.

For 29 of the past 35 seasons, the Irish and Wolverines have tussled on the gridiron. They'll do Saturday night and next year in South Bend, but after the clock strikes zero on Sept. 6, 2014, the rivalry will end, for awhile at least.

With its move to the ACC, Notre Dame will play five games each season against ACC foes beginning in 2014. With Navy, Stanford and USC needing to be annual opponents, the Irish decided prior to last year's game that there would simply not be enough room on their schedule to play Michigan.

While anyone age 40 or under sees the Irish and Wolverines as historic rivals, the teams have met only 40 times. 15 of those battles have come at the stadium nestled on the edge of the Michigan campus at the corner of Stadium and Main, known simply as "The Big House".

The Big House was initially quite hospitable to its visitors from northern Indiana.

Notre Dame's first trip to Michigan Stadium came 70 years ago with the Irish ranked No. 1 behind eventual Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli. The Wolverines were ranked No. 2, but were overwhelmed by Frank Leahy's team, 35-12.

The rivalry lied dormant in the post-war era (although Mark May and Skip Bayless think otherwise), as the teams would not meet again until 1978. After Michigan began the renewal with a 28-14 upset win over Joe Montana and the Irish in South Bend, Notre Dame returned the favor with a 12-10 win over No. 6 Michigan in 1979.

The 1980s saw the Irish change coaches twice, first in 1981 when Gerry Faust took over a Notre Dame team that had played for the national title a year earlier. It entered the Michigan game ranked No. 1, but the Wolverines handed the Irish the first of many blowout losses in Faust's failed tenure, a 25-7 rout. 

Four years later, Faust's final season before being fired, Michigan again upset the Irish, 20-12, as Notre Dame failed to score a touchdown for the second time in three trips to Ann Arbor.

After Faust's dismissal, Notre Dame turned to Lou Holtz to restore the program to its glory days. In addition to winning a national title and nearly missing two others, Holtz won three of four games at Michigan Stadium during his 11-year stay in South Bend. 

A 26-7 rout in 1987 put the Irish back on the national radar, propelling them to an eight-win season for the first time since 1980.

If there is a signature moment for Notre Dame fans at the Big House, it came in 1989. The teams were again ranked No. 1 and No. 2, with Michigan seeking revenge for a missed field goal a year earlier that cost it a win in South Bend. Raghib "Rocket" Ismail made sure that didn't happen, as he returned not one, but two kickoff returns for touchdowns in a 24-19 Notre Dame win.

After losing four straight in the series, Michigan "went for it all" in 1991, using a diving touchdown reception from Desmond Howard on a fourth-down play (that's a young Les Miles at 0:55) to help defeat the Irish for the first time in five years, 24-14. Holtz's final game in Michigan Stadium was another upset, as the 11th-ranked Irish stunned No. 3 Michigan, 27-23, en route to an 11-1 season in 1993.

Since Holtz's departure, Michigan Stadium has been nothing short of a house of horrors for Notre Dame. It has won just once in seven visits, an ugly 17-10 win in 2005. That victory was sandwiched by 38-0 losses in 2003 and 2007, tied for the Irish's worst losses in the history of the series.

Michigan's only national title since 1948 came in 1997, but a Notre Dame team that finished 7-5 had a golden opportunity to prevent that from ever coming to fruition. Three different times Notre Dame had possession deep in Michigan territory trailing 21-14 in the fourth quarter, but the Irish failed to score on all three.

1999 was equally as heartbreaking, as a controversial unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Notre Dame's Bobby Brown forced the Irish to kick off from the 20-yard line after taking a 22-19 lead late in the final quarter. Michigan used good field possession to regain the lead, as Anthony Thomas scored on another disputed call to provide the winning points in a 26-22 Wolverines victory.

Then, of course, there are the 2009 and 2011 games. As much as they may have tried, Irish fans have struggled to rid themselves of the memories from the team's two most recent appearances in the Big House.

Those two games bookended a three-year stretch where Notre Dame led with 30 seconds in each game, but lost all three. In 2009, Tate Forcier capped a game-winning drive with an 8-yard touchdown to Greg Matthews. Two years later, it was Denard Robinson finding Roy Roundtree for the winning points with just seconds remaining after Notre Dame had taken the lead less than a minute earlier.

Heading into Saturday night's primetime showdown, Notre Dame stands just 6-9 in Michigan Stadium. Regardless of whether it is 6-10 or 7-9 after the game, one thing is for certain. Whichever it is, it will remain the team's record there for the foreseeable future.

That's a sad reality for fans of the two teams.

Despite the recent failures, most Notre Dame fans will tell you this is a game they hate to see end.

Just over a year from now, it will be all gone.

Tradition often gives way to progress, never more so than in college football, where in recent years the almighty dollar has taken from us such yearly staples as Texas-Texas A&M, Pittsburgh-West Virginia and Colorado-Nebraska. 53 weeks from now, you can add Michigan-Notre Dame to that list.

As you're watching Saturday night, just the sixth night game in the history of the rivalry, be sure to reflect on the thrill of victories and the agony of defeats that have taken place in so many classic games when the Irish and Wolverines have gotten together at the Big House.

There have been plenty of indelible moments between the two teams at Notre Dame Stadium as well.

We'll just save those for next September. 


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