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A Brief History of the Michigan – Notre Dame Rivalry (Revised)

September 21, 2012

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 winning 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 last 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 in 2010.  And then there was that whole 3 touchdowns in the last 90 seconds thing that happened last year, that culminated with this:


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.

And now with the new Notre Dame deal with the ACC, its likely that the annual contract between the two schools through 2031 will probably be modified in some way.  Considering how great the last 3 games have been, that may be disappointing as a fan.  The good news is that for at least one week, the Michigan Notre Dame game has regained some its luster, with Notre Dame sporting a 3-0 record and Top 10 ranking, and Michigan coming off of a Sugar Bowl Championship season.  Perhaps the rivalry will return to its glory years before Michigan and Notre Dame take some time off.  

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2012 10:17 PM

    I don’t think the rivalry’s lost any of its glory. Even when both teams came in winless and deflated in 2007 it was a battle to see who could salvage their season (which Michigan did, getting to within one Henne shoulder and Hart ankle of winning the Big Ten). It’s always guaranteed to be the game of the week, and most of the time has been a spectacular game, especially the last few years. I doubted last year and then it out-wowed them all. I want to doubt this year since ND’s defense seems legit and our lines are not–plus it’s gonna be in the rain in the tall grass–but then, it’s Michigan-Notre Dame. Don’t say it’s lost its luster when half the nation still tunes in to watch it. It’s still one of the biggest games of the first quarter of the season every year, and that’s with both teams trending up.

    • September 24, 2012 2:37 PM

      Seth, you’re old enough to remember when UM/ND was MUST see TV though. In the late 80’s/early 90’s, both teams were regularly ranked in the Top 2 or 3 preseason. I think the game is still exciting, but it is no longer the marquee game of the preseason every year as it once was. The games recently have been great, but you’ve never felt like you were watching two national championship contenders go at it.

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