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A Brief History of the Michigan – Notre Dame Rivalry

September 9, 2011








Brady Hoke loves to say that Michigan has three great rivalries that we get to participate in every year – Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State.  The game against “little brother” is obviously a rivalry because of the proximity of the school and the winner gets to rub in it in the face of their neighbor for 365 days.  The bad blood between Michigan and Ohio goes back to 1835, when the two states literally went to war with each other over Toledo.  Today, The Game is one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports. 

But the origin of the Michigan – Notre Dame rivalry is a little less precise.  The “rivalry” goes all the way back to 1887, when students from Michigan actually traveled to South Bend to teach Notre Dame the game of football.  Since then, the teams have played an additional 37 times, with Michigan leading the overall series 22-15-1.  While the MSU and OSU rivalries have both a long history, the feud with Notre Dame s relatively recent.  The two teams have played 27 of the last 33 seasons, and have an identical 13-13-1 record in that time period. 

Beyond the identical records and history, Michigan and Notre Dame will forever be linked as college football royalty.  Michigan is the overall leader in All-Time Wins and Winning Percentage, with the Irish right on their heels in winnng percentage and just behind Texas for 3rd on the All-Time Wins list.  Both schools have won 11 national championships, and each lays claim to the greatest fight song in college football.

On the field, the Michigan and Notre Dame game often comes down to the final play or series.  16 of the 27 contests have been decided by a touchdown or less and most of those games came down to the final seconds.   For a 20 year stretch from 1979 – 1999, the UM-ND game gave college football some of the most memorable games each year, including the following nail biters:

1979 – Michigan has a last second field goal blocked and loses 12-10

1980 – Notre Dame kicks a 51 yard field goal as time expires to win 29-27


1986 – Notre Dame misses a field goal as time expires and loses 24-23

1988 – Michigan’s Mike Gillette misses a 48 yard field goal as time expires and Michigan loses 19-17


1989 – Rocket Ismail returns back to back kickoffs for touchdowns and #1 Notre Dame beats #2 Michigan 24-19


1990 – Notre Dame scores a touchdown in the closing minutes to complete a comeback from 10 down to win 28-24

1991 – Desmond Howard makes “The Catch” on a 4th and 1 call to lead Michigan to a 24-14 win. (My personal memory of this afternoon is eating lunch at Good Time Charley’s while my eyes burned from the tear gas that police had used on South University the night before)


1992  – The only tie in the series – 17-17

1993 – Michigan trailed 27-10 before stopping on Notre Dame on 4th and Goal from the 1 yard line.  They closed the gap to 27-23 but couldn’t recover an onside kick with less than a minute to play and lost. 

1994 – Michigan’s Remy Hamilton kicked a last second field goal to help Michigan to a 26-24 victory


1997 – Michigan’s National Championship defense kept Notre Dame from scoring after 3 turnovers on their own side of the field in the 2nd half, and Michigan won 21-14.

1999 – Michigan scored a late TD to go up 26-22 but Notre Dame drove inside the Michigan 20 yard line before running out of time in their comeback.


During the stretch from 1988 to 1994 Michigan’s average rank coming into the game was 4.7 and Notre Dame’s was 5.5, which only added to the hype each year.  Not surprisingly, this was the height of the rivalry, with 6 of the 7 games decided by 5 points or less. 

But given that Notre Dame has been “Returning to Glory” since 1994, and Michigan has just suffered its worse 3 year stretch ever, the rivalry has certainly lost some of its luster.  While this regularly featured two Top-5 programs in an early season clash, the rivalry has fallen on hard times as of late.  The last time both teams were ranked in the Top 10 for this early season clash was 1994.  And more recently its more likely that one or both teams is unranked coming into the game (like this year). 

Despite the relatively pedestrian teams both schools have fielded the last two seasons, they have managed to provide some incredibly exciting football with Tate Forcier finding Greg Mathews late to beat Notre Dame in 2009, and Denard Robinson shredding Notre Dame in South Bend last year.    

But the truth is, even though Michigan and Notre Dame still believe in this rivalry, it’s a far cry from its heydey in the late 80’s and early 90’s when both teams were preseason national championship contenders.   Despite what their fans will tell you, Notre Dame hasn’t been a legitimate Top 5 program since Lou Holtz left.  And though Michigan has been the more successful program over the last 15 years, we’ve only been ranked in the Top 5 twice since 1994 when heading into the Notre Dame game, and each time we’ve lost.  At one point, this game was viewed as an early season national championship elimination game for both programs.  But it’s been reduced to merely the best matchup of the non-conference slate.

Michigan and Notre Dame are signed on to play each other every year until 2031, so we have some time to right this rivalry and again make it among the marquee games early in the college football season.  

As for this year’s matchup, Mike covered the details pretty nicely in his preview which you should definitely check out.  Notre Dame is a 3.5 favorite according to Vegas, which I suppose they are basing on Notre Dame’s strong finish last year and our collapse, as well as…well, I actually don’t know what else. 

Notre Dame ran up and down the field last week against South Florida, but 5 turnovers cost them the game.  But the fact remains that we looked pretty solid beating WMU, and Notre Dame lost at home to a team they should have beaten.  Plenty of people are arguing that Notre Dame would have won but for the turnovers, but I tend to see that many turnovers as a pattern, not a fluke.  If the ND quarterbacks can’t handle an afternoon game at home against South Florida, how in the world will they stand up to the first ever night game at Michigan Stadium?  Beyond that, Brian Kelly spent all week answering questions about who his quarterback will be and why he yells and swears so much. Not exactly what you want to be focused on during Michigan week. 

I’m not convinced that Notre Dame is the better team than us right now.  They’re defense is suspect, and they appear to far too one-dimensional on offense.  And no matter how good Michael Floyd is, he’s not the one who put up 500+ yards of offense in last year’s game, Denard Robinson is.  They have to prove they can stop Denard before I believe in them.

If this was an afternoon game in South Bend, I’d probably take Notre Dame in a close one, but it would be a toss-up.  But since this will be the first night-game in Michigan Stadium history and Notre Dame is in the midst of a QB controversy, I like Michigan by double digits.  


Michigan 31

Notre Dame 21

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