Late last week Sports Illustrated came out with its list of the just completed college football season’s 25 best games. Notre dame was one of 5 teams that had 3 or more of their games selected for the “best of.” In total the Irish had 3 games selected: the heart breaking loss to Clemson, the heart breaking loss to Stanford (that andrewwinn is not letting you live all over again), and the heart stopping victory over Virginia. Only Michigan State and Oregon had more games selected – each had four games voted to the top 25 games, but this seems like cheating since one of those games was versus one another…or maybe it just explains why that was such a good game.
If there’s been a torment to Irish fandom for a decade plus now, it’s that far too many of Notre Dame’s most memorable “great” games are the ones that end with heartbreak. This doesn’t mean that the Irish lack some impressive victories during this same time period, but sadly, the “iconic” ones are all too frequently ones where the Irish play the role of “heartened adversary who tests the victor’s resolve” rather than “eventual victor.” The Irish were, in Sports Illustrated’s eyes, the loser of 2 of the 5 best games of the season. I can’t say I blame the rankings.
The games that made this list are all ones that I distinctly remember from the season, so they’re at worst on the right path to getting these rankings right. SI’s list though was intended to be an objective look at the games that just about any fan should have enjoyed. I wanted to take a stab at counting down the Irish’s season game from the subjective viewpoint of one ND fan. A game might be great because it was great or because of the narrative it created for the season at large. Let’s get this thing going:
13. Ohio State 44, Notre Dame 28 (Fiesta Bowl) – You can call it sour grapes or whatever else, but the fact is this game felt a lot like a swift kick to the nether regions. It’s not just losing yet another “BCS” (I know this doesn’t strictly exist anymore) game, though that certainly plays into it. It’s not just that it was Notre Dame’s largest loss of the season. Though that matters too. The list of things that sucked about this one stack up in a hurry: Mediocre bowl performance? Check. Losing to Urban Meyer? Check. Floundering on a national stage? Check. But, perhaps the single most aggravating factor of this game was the injury to Jaylon Smith. That was just a little too much to handle. In a year of injuries, it felt like the “Finish Him” blow from a Mortal Kombat game. Ugh. 2016, you started on a pretty crappy note.
12. Notre Dame 19, Boston College 16 – 5 turnovers, allowing 2 fourth quarter TD’s to an atrocious offensive to make everyone sweat it out. It was enough to let the CFP voters migrate ND from an inside position to an outside position. And, the rotted cherry on top – it was BOSTON COLLEGE. Why this team always seems to muck things up for the Irish will never cease to amaze me. This would have been last had Jaylon’s injury not occurred in the Fiesta Bowl.
11. Notre Dame 28, Wake Forest 7 – Honestly, this game was not as bad as folks made it out to be. The result was never truly in question, and it involved both an Andrew Trumbetti interception return for a touchdown (one of my favorite plays of the year) AND the Josh Adams 98 yard touchdown run (my favorite play of the season). It was just an uninspired performance that had a lot of people wondering whether the Irish were getting better at a pivotal point in the season to make a push to make the playoff. That Notre Dame was outgained offensively by Wake Forest is still unforgivable.
10. Notre Dame 62, UMass 27 – I’m sure someone on here’s gonna get all mad that I’m downgrading the first 60 point performance since Lou’s final home game, but it was UMass. I’m sorry, I just can’t put this game any higher on the list. I like points, but this felt hollow.
9. Notre Dame 42, Pitt 30 – Slaying the Pitt demon always has a decent amount of satisfaction. Compared to some other clashes with Pitt, it came relatively easily too. That said, this was an at best “surprisingly decent” Pitt squad who was really in a rebuilding phase, particularly after losing James Conner. They really exceeded expectations throughout the year, but I will not forgive Pitt or Notre Dame’s schedule for making me root for Pitt wins after the fact. On the other side, DeShone Kizer threw for 5 touchdowns, Josh Adams had a great game, and Will Fuller had his last truly remarkable game of his remarkable Notre Dame career. That we’re at #9 and I’m already findings positives is a good thing.
8. Notre Dame 24, Temple 20 – From a theatrical perspective, the Halloween night game was entertaining. From a reality of the season standpoint – it was one of Notre Dame’s 3 best wins. Temple’s emergence as a decent team was a boon for an Irish schedule that had a lot of name brands underperform. A late Will Fuller touchdown never goes out of style. DeShone Kizer continued to be a remarkable play maker. But, this was also the game that foreshadowed some struggles to come. Temple should have been the point at which the Irish got stronger, healthier, and gained momentum having survived the season name-brand clashes. Instead, they went up against a team that seemed hungrier, and for the first time since the first half of the Virginia game, execution felt like a real problem. Maybe it’s unfair given that it was still one of the better wins, but this game leaves a lot of mixed emotions.
7. Notre Dame 41, Navy 24 – Quite simply: Brian Kelly understands how to score on service academies. He’s been pretty good since his arrival at exploiting physical advantages in these types of games. Navy became perhaps the Irish’s best win of the season while being paced by their record breaking quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Reynolds attempted just 4 passes all game, although for the first time in his career he got loose rushing the ball a bit more versus the Irish defense. The perpetual problem with Navy is that since the program was rejuvenated under Paul Johnson, they are a tougher victory than anyone will ever give you credit for. A comfortable win for sure, but the snickering that comes with Irish faithful trying to say “but we beat NAVY” did not go unnoticed.
6. Stanford 38, Notre Dame 36 – Here’s where I’m going to get some disagreement I’m guessing. Hear me out though – With the value of hindsight, this game does not feel like it had all that much significance. Losses always suck anyways, but losses that mean nothing? How high can they be? I get it. It really was a great game. One where an increasingly depleted Irish squad scrapped, clawed, and battled with a Stanford team that was getting better and better as the season went along. Had the score been reversed though, I think the Irish would very likely have wound up in the exact same bowl game as they eventually did. The results for the teams above them just didn’t go their way. A loss. In a game that practically didn’t matter. I just refuse to put it higher.
5. Notre Dame 41, USC 31 – In the wake of the Steve Sarkisian firing and Clay Helton’s takeover, perhaps the USC game didn’t have the same luster as it might otherwise. From a pure talent standpoint, though, USC was probably the most talented squad Notre Dame had to face all season. That the Irish looked faster throughout a highly entertaining game is a tribute to Brian Kelly’s program development. This game ranks as highly as it does though because of its place in the Irish season narrative. Getting past USC meant the Irish’s playoff hopes would still be alive heading into the softest part of their schedule. Losing would all but rule them out. The team responded accordingly and beat their biggest rival. You do that, you’re always a top 5 game of the season.
4. Notre Dame 38, Texas 3 – Is Texas rebuilding under Charlie Strong? Sure. Given all the other injuries, I’m not sure what this game actually meant to the final narrative. The game’s hero was a nearly flawless Malik Zaire. Zaire’s legend was quickly growing, but the early injury to Tarean Folston put a damper on an otherwise dominant, will imposing victory. Given everything else that occurred, you’d almost want to blame the game for being a false prophecy of greatness to come. Folston – out. Zaire – out a week later. And yet, it’s hard not to think back to those early moments and realize what type of will this team was actually about.
3. Notre Dame 30, Georgia Tech 22 – This one makes it above Texas because of what it meant to the season. Two players emerged from this game as a vision of hope for a now 3-0 Irish squad: DeShone Kizer and CJ Prosise. Both played a big part in the dramatic victory over Virginia just a week earlier, but (at the time) Georgia Tech was viewed as a far superior opponent, and now it was more than just a pinch hitting role. Prosise rushed for nearly 200 yards and 3 touchdowns dicing up the Yellow Jacket defense all afternoon. Kizer showed he was more than a one hit wonder. A couple of late touchdowns for the visitors made the final score closer than the game truly was. While Georgia Tech ended up being not even a shell of the team that it was expected to be, at the time this game was played, this victory restored faith for a fan base that was ready to give up on the season despite having yet to lose.
2. Clemson 24, Notre Dame 22 – An epic battle between two teams that ended up being two of the very best in the country this season. It would take until the national championship game to find any team capable of beating Clemson. The Irish entered the game 4-0, but on the road at Death Valley in a monsoon(!) with a still reasonably unproven quarterback appeared to write an easy eulogy for the Irish. Instead, the team thrived. A few two point decisions/plays may leave a mildly bitter taste for some armchair coaches, but it was a great game that just didn’t go the Irish’s way. In what was a weird playoff resume, this loss was still used as a reason to believe in the Irish.
1. Notre Dame 34, Virginia 27 – Scoring a touchdown with 12 seconds left is pretty much always awesome. Yeah, it was Virginia, and ideally it never comes to that. Hey, you want to discount it for that reason, I’m okay. That said, no game more perfectly summed up the 2015 season than this victory. Just a week removed from the brilliance of the Texas game, the Irish had issues finding their stride. Compound the general disorganization with what ended up being a season-ending injury to Malik Zaire and all the optimism that the week before provided evaporated in an instant. Rather than fold or use it as an excuse, Kizer came in and did enough to scrap together a victory after Virginia’s 4th quarter dramatics. It’s easy to forget that Kizer had more completions and touchdowns than Zaire in roughly a quarter and a half of playing time. It wasn’t pretty, but the never say quit features of a final drive that included Kizer converting a 4th and 2 and then the 59 yard touchdown pass to Fuller perfectly defines on all that was great about Team 127.