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Ohio State vs Notre Dame: The Rivalry That Never Was

Ohio State vs Notre Dame: The Rivarly That Never Was

The Big Ten Conference was formed in 1896, and by 1917 it counted as members every major football power in the upper midwest. All except one - Notre Dame.

Notre Dame began football in 1887 as an independent and it has stayed that way ever since (more or less - see below) despite various attempts to lure them into a conference. But in the early days, before Notre Dame became a brand name in college football, the small private Catholic school in South Bend, Indiana, actually tried to join the Big Ten. Although Notre Dame fit the Big Ten profile geographically, that factor was about the only match with the other conference members, most of whom (Northwestern and Chicago being the exceptions) were large state-operated "land grant" universities. The Big Ten could ignore the "small" and "private" aspects of Notre Dame, as the conference had previously done with Northwestern and the University of Chicago, but many of the key players had a serious problem with the "Catholic" element of that university.

The rift between Notre Dame and the Big Ten dates back to at least 1909. Back then, Notre Dame was a considered a "cupcake". From 1887 to 1908, the Fighting Irish sported an impressive overall record of 89-30-9 (.730 winning percentage), but the vast majority of those victories came against a motley crew of high schools, prep schools, medical schools, dental schools, law schools, future D-III programs, and private clubs such as the Illinois Cycling Club and the South Bend Howard Park Club. Against the relatively powerful Big Ten schools, Notre Dame had a miserable record of 10-23-4, with the Irish being outscored 189 to 518 in those 37 contests.

Led by the legendary Fielding Yost, Michigan was perhaps the most powerful program in the country in first decade of the Twentieth Century. Yost took over the Michigan program in 1901, and during his first eight years on the job his team posted an overall record of 69-5-2 (.921 winning percentage) with four national championships. Yost was ruthless in victory (his teams would "tramp on the injured and hurdle the dead" according to one sportswriter), but petulant in defeat.

In 1909, Notre Dame faced Michigan for the ninth time. The Wolverines had won all of the previous eight games by a combined score of 121 to 16, with Yost notching two of those wins (1902 and 1908). However, Notre Dame pulled off the upset in 1909, besting Michigan by the score of 11 to 3 in Ann Arbor. After the game Yost was the typical sore loser, claiming that the contest was nothing more than an exhibition game, with his team "caring little whether we won or lost."

But Yost obviously cared a lot more than he let on, as he subsequently cancelled the 1910 rematch with Notre Dame, claiming that the Fighting Irish were using ineligible players. Yost then blackballed Notre Dame and refused to play them for the remainder of his tenure at Michigan, which did not end until he finally retired as athletic director in 1941.

Yost was known as a virulent anti-Catholic, and during the 1920's he worked behind the scenes to keep Notre Dame from joining the Big Ten Conference. Under the direction of President Father Walsh, Notre Dame made an informal "goodwill tour" of the Big Ten schools to make its case to join the conference, but the tour hit a roadblock in Ann Arbor where Yost still held his grudge. In the mid-1920's Yost had a massive amount of sway within the conference, and his denigration of Notre Dame's athletics, academics, and religious affiliation was enough to convince the other Big Ten members to steer clear of South Bend. Although Notre Dame would eventually end up forming rivalries with several Big Ten teams (including Michigan after 1941), the football program would remain more-or-less unaligned until the present day.

In 1999, the Big Ten privately approached Notre Dame about joining the conference. Notre Dame's faculty senate overwhelmingly endorsed the idea by a vote of 25 to 4, the main lure being entrance into the Committee for Institutional Cooperation (CIC), which is essentially the academic and research wing of the Big Ten. However, Notre Dame's board of trustees, under severe pressure from prominent boosters and alumni, rejected the faculty's wishes and decided to keep "King Football" independent (and the sole beneficiary of a lucrative NBC television contract) despite the numerous benefits that the academic institution would have received by virtue of CIC membership.

Since 1999 there have been numerous conference expansions and realignments, including the Big Ten adding Nebraska in 2011; Maryland and Rutgers in 2014; and USC and UCLA scheduled to join in 2024. During this period of instability there have been persistent rumors of Notre Dame joining the Big Ten Conference, but the stumbling blocks were the aforementioned NBC contract as well as Notre Dame's desire to retain its numerous non-conference rivals such as Southern Cal (no longer an issue), Stanford, Boston College, and Navy. In 2014 Notre Dame essentially precluded any further entrees to or from the Big Ten by joining the Atlantic Coast Conference as a partial member, playing five ACC football games a year instead of a full conference slate. Unless, of course, the ACC falls apart in the next few years....

Notre Dame Versus the Big Ten

As mentioned above, Notre Dame has long-standing rivalries with several Big Ten programs, notably Michigan (44 games), Purdue (87 games), Michigan State (79 games, 59 with MSU as a Big Ten member), and Northwestern (49 games). For reasons discussed below, Ohio State never developed a rivalry with Notre Dame, despite the proximity of the two schools and the prestige of the two programs. Here's how Notre Dame has fared against the core members of the Big Ten Conference:

Big Ten OpponentNumber of GamesNotre Dame RecordNotre Dame Win %
Purdue Boilermakers8759-26-2.690
Michigan State Spartans7949-29-1.627
Northwestern Wildcats4938-9-2.796
Michigan Wolverines4418-25-1.443
Indiana Hoosiers2923-5-1.810
Iowa Hawkeyes2413-8-3.604
Wisconsin Badgers178-7-2.529
Illinois Fighting Illini1211-0-1.958
Ohio State Buckeyes62-4-0.333
Minnesota Golden Gophers54-0-1.900
Chicago Maroons40-4-0.000
Versus Core Big Ten Teams356226-116-14.654
Notre Dame vs Ohio State (1935)

Ohio State was the last of the "original" Big Ten schools to play Notre Dame. The first meeting between the two programs occurred on November 2, 1935, when Notre Dame was an already established football power (four national championships from 1918 to 1930 under the direction of Knute Rockne) and Ohio State was just beginning to emerge as such.

The 1935 contest was one of the first to be dubbed "The Game of the Century". The Fighting Irish traveled to Columbus with a perfect 5-0-0 record to face the Buckeyes, who sported a perfect 4-0-0 record of their own. A record-setting crowd of 81,018 packed Ohio Stadium to see the clash between national championship contenders.

The Buckeyes got off to a fast start with a 75-yard pick six in the first quarter, and they cruised to a 13-0 halftime lead. After a scoreless third quarter, Notre Dame staged a furious fourth-quarter comeback. The Irish scored a touchdown early in the final quarter to cut Ohio State's lead to 13-6, and then scored another touchdown with just under two minutes left on the clock. The PAT attempt was no good, and the Buckeyes still clung to a 13-12 lead with a chance to run out the clock. However, the Buckeyes fumbled the ball away near midfield and the Fighting Irish recovered. Notre Dame quickly drove down the field for their third touchdown of the quarter and took an 18-13 lead with 32 seconds remaining. The Buckeyes' final desperate drive ended with a quarterback sack as time expired.

Ohio State would rebound after the loss to Notre Dame to finish the 1935 season with a 7-1-0 record and a Big Ten co-championship (with Minnesota). On the other hand, the Irish would suffer a let down after their historic comeback, losing to Northwestern, then tying Army, before beating Southern Cal to finish their campaign with a record of 7-1-1. In an unofficial season-ending UPI poll (the official UPI poll would not begin until 1950), Ohio State was ranked #5 while Notre Dame placed #8. A powerful Minnesota squad (8-0-0) took home the national title that year, but if Ohio State had managed to hold on against Notre Dame the Buckeyes might have earned their first ever national championship in 1935.

Notre Dame vs Ohio State (1936)

The two schools held a rematch in South Bend on October 31, 1936, with the Fighting Irish winning a relatively uneventful contest by the unlikely score of 7 to 2. Notre Dame would end their season at 6-2-1 and ranked #8 in the inaugural AP poll, while Ohio State would finish unranked with a record of 5-3-0.

The fledgling series then took a six-decade hiatus for reasons that remain clouded in mystery. One legend has it that Woody Hayes, who took over Ohio State's program in 1951, refused to play Notre Dame because he did not want the Catholic population of Ohio rooting against the home state school in the rivalry game. That's a nice story, but it doesn't explain the gap between 1936 and 1951, nor why Woody's quaint policy survived another 17 years after his dismissal from Ohio State at the conclusion of the 1978 season.

On the Notre Dame side of the equation, the Irish had already established rivalries with several other Big Ten programs and adding Ohio State to their list was not a priority, especially if it would jeopardize existing rivalries with teams outside of the Midwest such as Southern Cal, Pittsburgh, Army, and Navy. In any event, Notre Dame and Ohio State would not play again until 1995.

Notre Dame vs Ohio State (1995)

John Cooper began his career at Ohio State (1988 to 1994) with a record of 54-26-4 (.667 winning percentage), which alone should have been enough to get himself fired. Add in a record of 1-5-1 against arch rival Michigan and 1-5-0 in bowl games (with no major bowl appearances), and it's easy to see why Cooper's seat was scorching hot as the 1995 season began. However, Cooper was able (very briefly) to salvage his public perception with a resounding 45 to 26 victory over Notre Dame in Columbus on September 30, 1995.

In the game, Buckeye running back (and future Heisman winner) Eddie George rushed 32 times for 207 yards and two touchdowns, and wide receiver (and future Biletnikoff winner) Terry Glenn added 4 receptions for 128 yards and a pair of scores (including an 82-yard touchdown, the 5th-longest passing play in Ohio State history). In all, the offense racked up 533 yards, while the defense forced three turnovers in the rout.

In 1995, Ohio State would win eleven straight games before closing the season with losses to Michigan and Tennessee in the Florida Citrus Bowl; the Buckeyes would finish 11-2-0 and #6 in the final AP poll that year. Notre Dame would not lose another game until falling to Florida State in the Orange Bowl; the Irish ended their season with a 9-3-0 record and a #11 ranking in the AP poll.

Notre Dame vs Ohio State (1996)

Ohio State and Notre Dame finished their brief two-game series the following season with a rematch in South Bend. The Buckeyes once again won that contest handily by the score of 29 to 16. Taking over where Eddie George left off, Buckeye tailback Pepe Pearson rushed 29 times for a career-best 173 yards and two touchdowns, and the defense once again forced three Irish turnovers.

Following a heartbreaking 13-9 loss to Michigan and a thrilling 20-17 victory over previously unbeaten Arizona State in the Rose Bowl, Ohio State finished the 1996 season with a record of 11-1-0 and a #2 ranking in both major polls. Notre Dame ended their 1996 campaign with a record of 8-3-0 (no bowl game) and the #19 ranking in the AP poll.

Notre Dame vs Ohio State (2006 Fiesta Bowl)

The next time that Notre Dame and Ohio State squared off was in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl. Ohio State finished the 2005 regular season with a record of 9-2, with the Buckeyes' only losses coming against eventual national champ Texas (25-22) and eventual #3 Penn State (17-10). Notre Dame also entered the bowl game with a 9-2 record, with losses to Michigan State (44-41) and eventual #2 Southern Cal (34-31).

The game looked to be a clash of opposites, with Ohio State playing sound defense and special teams to supplement a plodding Tresselball offense, and Notre Dame looking to light up the scoreboard under the guidance of first-year head coach Charlie Weis, a certified offensive guru (at least in his own mind). But things didn't quite work out that way. Although Weis claimed that his NFL-style offense had a "decided schematic advantage" over other college teams, the normally conservative Tressel showed him a thing or three about how to exploit an opposing defense. The Buckeye offense, which had averaged only 369.9 yards per game during the regular season, exploded for 617 yards in the Fiesta Bowl, much of it coming on huge scoring plays: a 60-yard TD run by tailback Antonio Pittman; a 68-yard TD run on a reverse by flanker Ted Ginn, Jr.; a 56-yard reception by Ginn; and an 85-yard reception by wide out Santonio Holmes, the third-longest pass play in Ohio State history. Quarterback Troy Smith orchestrated the virtuoso performance with 408 total yards (342 passing, 66 rushing), at that time the third-highest single-game total for a Buckeye player. If not for a pair of fumbles (one in the red zone) and a blocked field goal, Ohio State would have blown out Notre Dame. As it was, the Buckeyes merely won the game comfortably, 34-20.

Based on their BCS bowl victory, Ohio State moved up to #4 in both major polls, while Notre Dame dropped down to #9 in the AP poll and #11 in the coaches poll. The game propelled Troy Smith's 2006 Heisman run and tarnished Charlie Weis's largely self-generated reputation. Although Weis would have another fine season in 2006 (a 10-3 record), his career crashed and burned thereafter, and in his final six seasons as a college head coach (three more at Notre Dame and two-plus at Kansas) he would post a combined record of 22-43 (.338 winning percentage). Weis was fired from Kansas on September 28, 2014 for "lack of on-field progress", and he remains unemployed to this day.

Notre Dame vs. Ohio State (2016 Fiesta Bowl)

The final contest between Ohio State and Notre Dame came in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 2015 season. The Buckeyes entered the game as the #7 team with a record of 11-1, their sole loss coming against eventual Big Ten champ Michigan State, 17-14, on a last-second field goal. The Domers were ranked 8th with a record of 10-2, both losses coming by two points to ranked teams (Clemson, Stanford). Ohio State got out to an early 14-0 first quarter lead with touchdowns by Ezekiel Elliott and Michael Thomas, and the Buckeyes cruised to a 44-28 win. The game marked the final appearance in scarlet and grey for many stars including Elliott (149 yards, 4 TDs), Thomas (7 reception, 72 yards, TD), Braxton Miller, Darron Lee (7 tackles, 2 sacks, forced fumble), and Joey Bosa (4 tackles before an early ejection for a questionable targeting call). After the victory, Ohio State rose to #4 in both final polls while Notre Dame sank to #11 in the AP poll and #12 in the coaches poll.

To recap the abbreviated series, Ohio State leads 4 to 2, outscoring Notre Dame 167 to 95. In the six games, there have been eight touchdowns of 47+ yards (47, 56, 60, 68, 75, 81, 82, 85), seven of them by Ohio State.