This week NU and Notre Dame will renew their series, dormant
since The Game That Rocked
College Football in September 1995. The Irish host NU on
Saturday, and Northwestern will possibly host Notre Dame at Ryan Field
on November 3, 2018 (I write of the 2018 game's possibility
because I remain convinced that the Irish will find some way to weasel
out of coming to NU, and I will believe it only when I see the Notre
Dame equipment truck parked on Central Street).
The NU - Notre Dame series is the most important non-conference series
in Northwestern history, but that includes all of NU's history,
stretching back to the first time the teams met, on what is now Deering
Meadow, in 1889.
Really, there is not just one series with Notre Dame. There have been four series with the
stumbling block to starting a fifth series, until recently, was the Evanston
Issue: Notre Dame simply would not agree to a home-and-home with
NU. Either the games were to be staged in South Bend, or NU would
need to find a Chicago location for its side of the rivalry.
Thankfully, Northwestern found its spine after 1995 and remained firm
that any future series with Notre Dame would involve that blue and gold
truck parked on Central Street.
Early Series (1889 - 1903. NU's record: 1-2-1): let's face it-- NU hasn't had the best luck
when confronting the luck of the Irish. Even when NU was at the
height of its power, Notre Dame usually had the Wildcats' number.
Early on, however, NU held its own. The first four games with
Notre Dame took place before the forward pass. NU lost the first
game with the Irish in a sloppy, close game, during which it is rumored
that Northwestern fans shouted, "kill those fighting Irish!" and gave
the team from South Bend their nickname. One paper in Indiana gave this account of the game:
Just so we're clear: the Notre Dame captain lost a row of teeth and had
his jaw fractured, and another Irish player lost part of his face, but
"nobody was badly hurt." NU's 2-0 victory over Notre Dame in 1902
marked the only appearance ever by the Irish at NU's Sheppard Field.
The climactic finale of this series was the 1903 0-0 tie hosted by
Northwestern at Chicago's White Sox Park. NU and Notre Dame would not
face each other again for nearly two decades.
Second Series (1920 - 1948. NU's record: 2-21-1): The Irish and NU played almost every year
during this period. For much of it, NU was terrific, notching
four Big Ten titles (and coming very close to several more), a Rose
Bowl championship, and sniffing two near national championships.
Yet the 'Cats won only twice vs. Notre Dame. The wins were big: a 1935 thriller in South Bend that
ruined Notre Dame's hope for a national title and a 20-0 pounding at
Dyche Stadium in 1940 that sent the campus into a frenzy. Notre
Dame, however, returned the favor in 1936 by ruining Northwestern's
best national title run. It was during this period that the NU - Notre
Dame series was a true rivalry (despite the series record). Because both teams were occasionally in title contention, the
games were national events, and Notre Dame's first trophy series with
another school began in 1930 with NU.
Third Series (1959 - 1976. NU's record: 4-11-0): After the '48 Rose
Bowl season, NU did not face
the Irish for 11 seasons. Under Ara Parseghian, the series
restarted, and Parseghian did what no other NU coach had managed: he
dominated Notre Dame, winning the first four games of the renewed
match. The climax to this series came on October 27, 1962, when #3 NU
hosted Notre Dame at Dyche Stadium and throttled the Irish, 35-6, in
front of nearly 56,000 fans, giving the 'Cats their first #1 ranking
since 1936. Then, of course, Ara switched sides and kept on
winning. By 1976, the series was no longer competitive, and Notre
Dame wasn't thrilled about visiting Dyche Stadium, and the rivalry was
Fourth Series (1992 - 1995. NU's record: 1-3-0): Everyone remembers this one, and for good
reason. It ended with the game that redefined NU football.
The Irish insisted that NU move its home games to Soldier Field for
this series, and NU cowered before the mighty altar and agreed.
But it was on South Bend's sacred soil that NU closed the series by
staging the biggest upset in its history. Both the Enchanted
Lakefront and the Golden Dome haven't been seen quite the same way
so, in a stunning move, the mountain has come to Mohammad, for the
first time in what will be over 40 years. Kudos to Northwestern
for sticking to its guns. "With schools such as Boston College,
California, Syracuse and Vanderbilt visiting Ryan Field. . . combined with the addition of Nebraska to our division in the
Big Ten, there's no better time to be a Wildcat football fan," Jim
Phillips said during the announcement of the Notre Dame series, back in 2011. And
he's right: the schedule is strong. NU is again
in the center of big-time college football, and the need to make the
program strong and balanced is as vital as ever.
There is one seemingly trivial thing to consider this week. NU and Notre Dame had a
rivalry trophy, the Shillelagh, that began in 1930. The details of the trophy can be found here.
This was Notre Dame's first football trophy, with a richer history than
the Irish's trophies with Purdue or USC. It faded from the
rivalry by the 1976 close of the Third Series, and it was never
mentioned during the 1992-1995 series. Where is that
trophy? Of course, it should be in a glass case in Evanston, but its current
whereabouts are unknown.