Skip to main content

Notre Dame Football: 5 Most Devastating Upsets in Fighting Irish History

Marshall's upset stung, but these hurt even more.
Audric Estime, Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football

Notre Dame's upset loss to Marshall on Sept. 10 ended a streak of 42 straight wins over unranked opponents.

Notre Dame's 26-21 loss to Marshall on Sept. 10 was shocking. It knocked the Fighting Irish out of the Top 25 and made Marcus Freeman the first head coach in Notre Dame history to lose his first three games.

Was it the most devastating upset in Irish history? I think not. The most heartbreaking ones were those that impacted Notre Dame's national championship hopes. The loss to Marshall stung, but these five hurt even more.

5. Ole Miss 20, Notre Dame 13

Sept. 17, 1977 — Jackson, Miss.

Notre Dame came into Jackson ranked third in the country but committed five turnovers, along with a number of penalties, and had a punt blocked. Nevertheless, the Irish led 13-10 with less than five minutes to play. Then Ole Miss scored 10 straight points for the win in a season where the Rebels finished 5-6. This upset has a silver lining though. Quarterback Joe Montana was put in the next week against Purdue and went on to lead Notre Dame to the national championship.

4. Georgia Tech 3, Notre Dame 3

Nov. 8, 1980  Atlanta

The top-ranked Irish were 7-0 and had not given up a touchdown in three straight games as they headed into a matchup with 1-7 Georgia Tech. Notre Dame did not give up a touchdown in this contest either but committed five turnovers, including three in the fourth quarter, and only converted one third down. If not for a fourth-quarter field goal by Harry Oliver, the Irish would have left Atlanta with a loss.

3. Stanford 36, Notre Dame 31

Oct. 6, 1990  South Bend, Ind.

Notre Dame entered the wacky 1990 season ranked No. 1 and won its first three games. Then Stanford with fullback "Touchdown" Tommy Vardell and receiver Ed McCaffrey came to town. The Irish offense did its job against the 1-3 Cardinal, but the defense could not match up size-wise against Vardell, who scored four touchdowns, and the 6'5" McCaffrey, who caught six passes for 111 yards. Vardell scored with 36 seconds left to give Stanford its first lead of the game and the win. Notre Dame actually regained the top ranking again in November, but a loss to Penn State completely ended the Irish's national title hopes.

2. Purdue 31, Notre Dame 20

Sept. 28, 1974  South Bend, Ind.

The defending national champion Irish were ranked No. 1 and riding a 13-game winning streak. Purdue was 0-1-1 but jumped out to a 21-0 lead in 11 plays thanks in part to a 52-yard touchdown run by Pete Gross and a 21-yard interception return for a score by Bob Mannella. Notre Dame never recovered and trailed by at least 10 points the rest of the game. The loss effectively knocked the Irish out of the national championship picture as they never rose higher than No. 5 for the remainder of the season.

1. Boston College 41, Notre Dame 39

Nov. 20, 1993  Sound Bend, Ind.

Notre Dame had beaten Florida State the week before in a "Game of the Century" matchup and entered its final regular-season contest against 8-2 Boston College poised to play Nebraska in the Orange Bowl for the national title. The Eagles led 38-17 with 11:13 left to play, but the Irish managed to take a 39-38 lead, their first of the game, when Kevin McDougal hit Lake Dawson with a four-yard touchdown with 1:03 remaining. However, Boston College drove down the field and David Gordon kicked a 41-yard field goal, effectively ending Notre Dame's national championship pursuit despite intense lobbying from head coach Lou Holtz.