The Notre Dame Game
and Its Significance for NU
This week NU and Notre Dame will finish their most recent
series of games with each other, and will not meet again, save for fate
possibly bringing them together-- for the first time-- in a postseason
game sometime in the future.
When the Irish take the field in Evanston, it will signify a couple of
important things; interestingly, neither has anything to do with NU's
success this season, which now rests on a game in Iowa in two weeks.
The first important thing is attendance in Evanston. The Notre Dame
game is not only sold out, it is possibly the first home game in
Northwestern's history for which the school sold no individual tickets. This is previously unimaginable. The sellout is also Northwestern's fourth at home in a row, a first for the university.
The Wildcats did have four sold out games in Dyche during 1948, NU's
Rose Bowl season, but those games were not in a row (a non-sold out
home game vs. Syracuse was sandwiched in the middle). The attendance
success this year is a milestone.
The second note of importance is that this game is being held in
Evanston at all, considering Notre Dame's previous insistence that NU
move any home games to Chicago. Bravo to Northwestern for standing up
to college football's darling, pampered prince and insisting that NU
plays NU's game at NU. And so, the Irish will come to the stadium
formerly known as Dyche for the first time in a generation, not to
return for at least another generation.
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 five series with the
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
Fifth Series (2014 - 2018. Two games, NU is 1-0 so far): At worst, NU
will finish this series with a .500 record, better by far than the
other series with the Irish. The schools held off playing for nearly
two decades because of the Evanston issue. The teams eventually
agreed to one home-and-home pair of games. NU opened the new series by
visiting South Bend and snatching a stunning overtime win in a cold,
thrilling night game. The 'Cats are ready to write the last chapter to
this rivalry-- for now-- on Saturday, on Central Street.